“Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter, not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation.”
No, I’m wrong. That’s Michael Oakeshott on “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” a 1959 essay collected in Rationalism in Politics (1962). The word “conversation,” debased into feel-good meaninglessness, is reclaimed by Oakeshottt to mean “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” It’s what people do. It’s tradition unfolding, “the flow of speculation,” unplanned, decentralized, spontaneous, rudderless, anarchic in appearance but not in day-to-day experience. It’s not a rant, sermon or cold-blooded exchange of facts. After brute survival, it’s the essential human act, and it makes some people uncomfortable. Oakeshott continues:
“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages.”
I reread Oakeshott’s essay the same day I read Cynthia Haven’s post about Notting Hill Editions, a new English publishing venture “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” Their catalog is mostly impressive, and Cynthia highlights two of my favorites, writers I’ve been touting for years – Zbigniew Herbert of Poland and Hubert Butler of Ireland. Like all good good essayists, they are non-aligned and idiosyncratic, and can be readily absorbed into Oakeshott’s metaphor of human conversation. Since Montaigne we’ve known that essays are attempts, trials at least as tentative and experimental as good converation. There’s no script and no party line. As in blogging, it’s just you and the tradition. Included in Still Life with Bridle, the Herbert collection reprinted by Notting Hill Editions, is “The Price of Art,” which closes like this:
“It is we who are poor, very poor. A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul.
“The old masters – all of them without exception –could repeat after Racine, `We work to please the public.’ Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.
“Let such naïveté be praised.”