Saturday, December 09, 2017

`An Unrehearsed Intellectual Adventure'

In The Idler #34, published on this date, Dec. 9, in 1758, Dr. Johnson tells us “the qualities requisite to conversation are very exactly represented by a bowl of punch.” The rest of the essay amounts to an ingeniously elaborated metaphor:

“Punch, says this profound investigator, is a liquor compounded of spirit and acid juices, sugar and water. The spirit, volatile and fiery, is the proper emblem of vivacity and wit; the acidity of the lemon will very aptly figure pungency of raillery, and acrimony of censure; sugar is the natural representative of luscious adulation and gentle complaisance; and water is the proper hieroglyphick of easy prattle, innocent and tasteless.”

Often Johnson’s essays read like sermons – wise but culpatory, though he seldom sequesters himself from the guilty. But this Idler is different. He makes his moral points wittily, noting that good conversation succeeds by “tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat.” That, of course, is precisely what he is doing in his essay. Swift described conversation as a “useful and innocent pleasure.” And yet, how seldom it is. Talk in a social setting is likelier to be complaining, pontificating or inane verbal gestures – more like near-beer or Mad Dog 20/20 than punch. Increasingly, conversations turn into ad hominem ego-fests, the opposite of what Michael Oakeshott prescribed in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962). For him, conversation was the model for living a civilized life: “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Recently I reread Timothy Steele’s 1983 interview with J.V. Cunningham, whom he describes like this:

“He is no more given to wasting words in conversation than to wasting them in poems, and when he says something one feels in the utterance a weight of care and reflection. At the same time, his speech and personality possess a quiet sympathy which makes him an engaging as well as an enlightening conversationalist.”

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