Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'An Interesting Self to Express'

Here’s a thought experiment, one rooted in immediate experience, nothing theoretical. Think over your last twenty-four hours. Recall all of the people with whom you had a conversation, anything exceeding “Good morning!” with spouses, parents, children, other relatives, neighbors, friends, co-workers, strangers. Factor in telephone calls, emails, texts. Now, how many of those exchanges were interesting? How many did you only reluctantly conclude? How many do you wish could have been longer? How many will you wish to resume if the opportunity presents itself? How many will you avoid? How many do you regret? Now, the tougher question: In how many of those conversations were you the duller partner, or at least as dull as the other?

None of us shines all the time. Mundane pleasantries have their place. Each morning, walking across campus to my office in the dark, I greet custodians, faculty, students, strangers. That represents a minimal gesture of courtesy and respect. Civility can soothe an unhappy sensibility or at least not exacerbate the unhappiness. I enjoy the small opportunities for wit presented to us throughout the day. What a pleasure to make another person laugh, if only politely. Some days what I remember best since waking that morning is someone’s wisecrack, joke or pun, cherished all the more because utterly gratuitous.

True conversations, the rich, stimulating sort, are rarer. Michael Oakeshott puts it like this in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962): “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.” In other words, conversation is more like dance than debate. It works best when one’s partner is limber, energetic and conversant with all the moves. In an interview I discovered on Monday, the late Sir Roger Scruton says:

“Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes a self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn't done that is just embarrassing.”

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