Saturday, June 03, 2006

Conversation: A Declining Art?, Part Two

Part one, which is full of praise for the first two-thirds of the book, is here.

In the last third of Conversation: A Declining Art , Stephen Miller attempts to track what he perceives as the decline of conversation in twentieth-century America. He begins with a flat and fairly perfunctory consideration of the laconic hero in twentieth-century American literature and film. But while he points to Hemingway and John Wayne in order to demonstrate that the strong, silent type was the American ideal in this period, he ignores substantial contrary evidence, everything from screwball comedies to the golden age of radio to Dorothy Parker.

He uses evidence selectively like that throughout the closing chapters. The worst is when Miller attempts to blame the most recent downturn in the quality and place of conversation in American life on fifties and sixties counterculture. He considers Easy Rider at length, then spends more time than anyone ought to spend these days on Norman Mailer. His critique boils down to this: neither privileging visceral experience nor doing drugs makes for good conversation. That’s not news (Garry Wills, for one, manages a much more interesting and nuanced critique of those aspects of sixties youth culture, in passing, in Nixon Agonistes), and by using that as the crux of his argument Miller takes ignores the fact that the late sixties were also a time of contentious private and public discussions about how society should be structured. Serious conversations, in groups large and small, were central to that reconsideration.

Then we get pages and pages on possibly the most over-analyzed subject since Madonna, talk shows, and suddenly we’re back to “conversation avoidance mechanisms.” I’ll spare you the details; as I said before, anyone who willfully misrepresents the purpose of an iPod as a barrier to conversation has no authority to speak on the subject.

But once Miller gets to the present, the details are less important. The real reason his arguments about conversation’s decline fail is that he's writing about our era, and I think he’s flat-out wrong. I live in a world of great conversation. No, I don’t want to talk to strangers on planes, or on the L (though I'm a shameless eavesdropper), and I don’t spend time chatting with strangers in coffeehouses or bars. But within my circle of friends and family, conversation is the basis of our relationship. When my friends get together, we talk. We cook and talk, we eat dinner and talk, we have drinks and talk. We tell stories, discuss work and family life, talk politics. When we go to baseball games—or when we watch the playoffs at my house throughout October—we analyze the game, gossip about the players, and chat. Even when we watch a TV show, it’s frequently a group event, and we talk and talk about the show afterwards. I don’t think we’re that unusual.

One of my favorite adult memories is of a night in January of 2005 when my parents were in town and we invited half a dozen friends to dinner. Dinner turned into an hours-long conversation, running well past bedtime, about our perplexity over George Bush’s reelection. My parents brought a downstate, rural perspective; most of their neighbors had voted for Bush. My friends and I came at the question as residents of the city that had given Kerry his largest plurality. The conversation was impassioned, serious, and interesting. It was a real attempt, by all of us, to understand something we feared was inexplicable. I think we all experienced the exhilaration that Hazlitt describes following a good talk, “feelings lighter and more ethereal than I have at any other time.”

And, while there are plenty of times when I am an awkward conversationalist, I have friends whose conversational facility, with everyone and in every situation, regularly amazes me. This description by Hazlitt of his friend, painter James Northcote, could easily apply to my friend Becky:
He lends his ear to an observation as if you have brought him a piece of news and enters into it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested himself personally. . . . His thoughts bubble up and sparkle like heads on old wine. The fund of anecdote, the collection of curious particulars, is enough to set up any common retailer of jests that dines out every day; but these are not strung together like a row of galley-slaves, but are always introduced to illustrate some argument or bring out some fine distinction of character.
I greatly admire, deeply envy, and hopelessly aspire to her talents as a conversationalist. And I have many other friends like her.

Maybe Miller doesn’t have such friends. Maybe he’s stuck in an academic environment, where talk, as in the novels of Barbara Pym or Ivy Compton-Burnett, can be more combat than conversation. Maybe he is paying too much attention to young people and teenagers—as, it seems, do many cultural commentators—forgetting that, while they’re certainly different from us adults, they’ll also soon, as adults, be different from what they are now. They might turn out to be able to have good conversations, even with a curmudgeon like Miller.

I’m not saying the state of conversation in America is perfect, but just as the golden age was never that golden, the fallen present is certainly brighter than Miller makes it out to be. If he’s ever in town, I’ll gladly introduce him to people who, I hope, will make him see my side. I’ll gladly make the martinis and sit back and listen.

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