Friday, October 30, 2015

`Skilled at Table Talk'

I’ve read and found interesting the table talk of Dr. Johnson, William Cowper, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sydney Smith, Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and Adolf Hitler (ed. H.R. Trevor-Roper, Oxford University Press, 1988). It’s an entertaining and minor literary genre, like limericks and clerihews, and defined by the OED as “the conversation of famous people or of intellectual circles, esp. as reproduced in literary form.” Unlike novels or poems, it’s a form exclusively dependent on the speaker’s other accomplishments. No one would bother to record your table talk, or mine, or, say, Joan Didion’s. A sizeable share of Boswell’s Life of Johnson qualifies as table talk, and Boswell defends its use in his first chapter:

“Of one thing I am certain, that, considering how highly the small portion which we have of the table-talk, and other anecdotes of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more I am justified in preserving rather too many of Johnson’s sayings, than too few.”

Boswell need not have justified his generous transcriptions of Johnson’s conversation. A great man’s table talk is intrinsically absorbing and worthy of preservation. Even Goethe is almost interesting when conversing with Eckermann. Leave it to the late William F. Buckley to know the one-word synonym for a person gifted at table talk: deipnosophist. I found it in Buckley: The Right Word (ed. Samuel S. Vaughan, Random House, 1996). Vaughan includes a letter from a reader who thanks Buckley for his “ongoing flirtation with abstruse English words,” but wonders why he has never used deipnosophist. “How do you explain this lapse?” the reader asks, and Buckley replies: “The word defines someone `skilled at table talk.’ It is used rarely for the obviously reasons.” Meaning, presumably, that good table talk is a sparse commodity, which is certainly true, though Buckley is off a notch with his definition. Deipnosophist is rooted in the Greek words for “dinner” and “a master of his craft, clever or wise man” (as in the original meaning of sophist), but does refer specifically to a gifted chef or trencherman. Here is the OED definition:

“A master of the art of dining: taken from the title of the [fifteen-volume] Greek work of Athenæus, in which a number of learned men are represented as dining together and discussing subjects which range from the dishes before them to literary criticism and miscellaneous topics of every description.”

The most recent recorded usage dates from 1866. In “Swinburne’s Tragedies,” James Russell Lowell writes: “The eye is the only note-book of the true poet; but a patchwork of second-hand memories is a laborious futility, hard to write and harder to read, with about as much nature in it as a dialogue of the Deipnosophists.” Who knew Lowell was a comedian?

[Also in Buckley: The Right Word, from the obituary he wrote for Vladimir Nabokov, published in the July 22, 1977 issue of National Review, recounting one of his annual get-togethers with the novelist: “He describes with a fluent synoptic virtuosity the literary scene, the political scene, inflation, bad French, cupiditous publishers, the exciting breakthrough in his son’s operatic career, and what am I working on now?” Elsewhere in the book, Buckley refers to Nabokov’s “philological radiance.”]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

There is no question that Nabokov is brilliant -a true virtuoso with words and literary forms. And I know that, in these quarters, the opinion I now offer may be unwelcome. However, I cannot help thinking that Nabokov's theme is not his story but his own virtuosity, which is to say, I suppose, I find him self-regarding and, therefore, dissatisfying. The purpose of words is to convey meaning and, ultimately, in human affairs, the most important thing is what we want to say rather than how we say it. Nabokov always seems to be polishing his fingernails on his lapel fro me. Given that WHAT we want to say in this vale of tears may be very difficult this till leaves scope for excellent prose which is, then, measured by how well we say it. The words must always be striving to communicate the precise meaning without being fuzzy, or overblown. If this discipline is followed with one eye on that prize only, great prose emerges.