Monday, December 30, 2013

`The Game Is Not So Hopeless After All'

In my experience, the two principal default subjects of conversation, among men in particular, are sports and politics, which perhaps constitute one subject after all. A distant third is money, followed by automobiles, movies and television, and (ill) health and (incompetent) medicine. For these reasons, I find it easier to converse with women, all else being equal, than men. Except for a few movies, none of these subjects is inherently interesting, and only the most gifted conversationalists could make them so. My oldest son, a very bright, funny guy, fell far from the tree and follows football, but tactfully keeps it to himself in my company. 

Along with the limited conversational palette, there’s a problem of tone or manner. Many associate an exchange of ideas with combat or, more to the point, street thuggery. Retorts invariably are ad hominem. The faintest familiarity with the internet confirms this. On Christmas, a reader took issue with some niggling sentiment I had expressed, and suggested I perform the anatomically impossible. There’s nothing new about this. In their Journal for June 8, 1863, the Goncourt Brothers, writing in the first-person singular, report: 

“Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s, my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: `I am better than you are,’ every literary argument to this: `I have more taste than you,’ every argument about art to this: `I have better eyes than you,’ every argument about music to this: `I have a finer ear than you.’” 

For these reasons and more, reading the letters collected in A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961 (University of Nebraska Press, 2013) is a pleasure and a relief. The poet and novelist were friends for sixty years, until Justice’s death in 2004 (Stern died this year), and relied on each other for sometimes harsh criticism, but the friendship flourished. Mutual trust and respect, and the knowledge that each was an acute reader and gifted writer, permitted the fondness and literary reliance to grow deeper with time. Both were unusually fortunate in their choice of friends. William Logan writes in his foreword:
“To find one person who has an intuitive and complete understanding of your work makes a writer feel that the game is not so hopeless after all.” 

1 comment:

R.T. said...

You point to "ill) health and (incompetent) medicine" as topics of conversation, but they appear further down in your list.

Trust me when I tell you that the topic defaults shift over time. As people get order, the defaults change. Unfortunately, most of my contemporaries now talk mostly about health and medicine. How sad! It is if they have forgotten about sports and politics. Well, perhaps forgetting about politics as a topic is actually therapeutic. And perhaps that would improve health. Hey, it's a thought.