In 1928, Max Beerbohm distilled all that I know about the conversations conducted on most social occasions:
“I stood talking to this lady about the weather, inwardly hoping that she was thinking how kind it was of me to talk down to her level, and that she was not guessing that I would have liked very much to dazzle her if I had known how.”
Not all but most conversation has what some call a “subtext.” Our words are veneer; our meaning, the heartwood (“inwardly hoping”). This is not news to our better novelists (see Ivy Compton-Burnett). To switch metaphors in the Beerbohmian fashion, conversation is choreography with both partners attempting to lead. Beerbohm is recalling a conversation from 1896 on the occasion of his first meeting with Andrew Lang, at the home of Edmund Gosse. Some would be offended by Beerbohm’s “cynicism.” The rest of us acknowledge his discernment, especially as he expresses it so succinctly. His two clauses address most of our conversational gambits, especially those between the sexes: 1.) Praise sought for condescending to speak with another person in the first place. 2.) Hope that our conversational partner is sufficiently “dazzled.”
Beerbohm’s observation is incidental, nearly a throw-away line in his essay. He hasn’t yet even met Lang (1844-1912), a prolific writer whose substantial reputation during his lifetime has evaporated. I know him only as the author of twenty-five collections of fairy tales I didn’t read as a child. I became friends in 1975 with a couple who had a five-year-old daughter. She loved the books. They bought the Dover paperback reprints, and when visiting I would read the stories to her. This was my first adult experience of spending time with a young child, years before I had kids of my own. I liked it.
Beerbohm’s portrait of Lang – as usual, when dealing with a sufficiently complex or conflicted character, one adapted to Beerbohm’s elastic sense of irony – is both clinical and amusing. The essayist reflexively includes himself in any sardonic summation while making a larger point – in this case, about the relationship between critics and writers:
“[V]ery few critics get on well with creators. There is, no doubt, a point at which criticism does merge into creation, and it is always hard to say just where this point is—to determine whether this or that piece of fine criticism may or may not truly be called creative. But to this point, assuredly, Lang was never near. With all his gifts, he had of imagination not one spark. Fancy and wit he had in his earlier work; and grace he never lost; but for the rest he had only an immense quantity of that ‘cleverness’ which to the creative artist is of all qualities the most repellent. And this cleverness, which was always at the disposal of the classics, was never used in service of any great contemporary writer.”
One of the chief appeals of Beerbohm’s work is the seeming casualness of it. Mediocre writers start snorting and stomping on the ground before unloading their precious insight. Beerbohm casually whispers before moving along. Without comment, he reproduces Lang’s lisp when quoting him. Beerbohm was congenitally incapable of formulating Grand Truths. Humans are much too silly for that. Beerbohm can’t quite bring himself to damn Lang. He is too human for that; too sad and pathetic. As usual, Beerbohm is good at conclusions: “A terrible thing, Time, nevertheless.”