Saturday, June 03, 2006

Conversation: A Declining Art?

In the Introduction to his Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller decries the rise of “conversation avoidance mechanisms,” by which he means such devices as iPods and video games. I picture his grandchildren rolling their eyes as he tells them, “Don’t bring any of those conversation avoidance mechanisms to my house!” Such an intentional, perverse misunderstanding of the reasons people use—and like—such devices served to make me skeptical of Miller’s credibility from the start, which is not how you want to start reading a book.

For more than two-thirds of its 300 pages, however, Conversation is great fun, a digressive, anecdotal history of the role of conversation in Western society. Miller begins in ancient times, with the Bible (which is nearly devoid of actual conversation), then the Greeks and, in particular, Plato’s Symposium, which tells of a drunken conversation after a dinner party gets out of hand: “There was noise everywhere, and all order was abandoned; everyone was forced to drink vast amounts of wine.” I’ve been to a fair number of parties like that, but none has produced any conversation as odd and fascinating as the one recorded in the Symposium. Socrates seems to be a necessary catalyst. As Miller says,
Socrates is an unsettling conversationalist. . . . Alcibiades describes his mixed feelings about Socrates: “Often I’ve felt I’d be glad to see him removed from the human race; but if this did happen, I know well I’d be much more upset. I just don’t know how to deal with this person.”
You simply never knew where a conversation with Socrates might end up. In that regard, Plato’s reconstructions of his dialogues frequently resemble late-night dorm-room conversations, with vastly more rigor, and without that one evangelical Christian kid who always ruined everything.

The discussion of Greek conversation is really just a prelude to the heart of the book—and Miller’s area of expertise—the eighteenth century, “the age of conversation.” It’s the era of the Paris salon and of the coffeehouse in Britain. It’s the time of Dr. Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, and William Hazlitt. For the intellectual men of London, coffeehouses were second homes, offices, and debating halls, and Miller gives a good sense of their place and their ambience. A French visitor to London writes,
Some coffee houses are a resort for . . . scholars and for wits; others are the resort of dandies or of politicians, or again of professional newsmongers; and many others are temples of Venus.

As that suggests, coffee wasn’t the point of the coffeehouse, of course, just as in coffeehouses today. The men were there to talk, hash out ideas, and engage with the thinkers of the age—and often, it seems, to complain about them to one another. Of the poet Thomas Gray, Horace Walpole says,
He is the worst company in the world—from a melancholy turn, from living reclusively, and from a little too much dignity, he never converses easily—all his words are measured, and chosen, and formed into sentences; his writings are admirable; he himself is not agreeable.”
And Johnson agrees,
Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.

It’s hard not to assume that most coffeehouse conversations were, like most bar conversations today, full of blowhards spouting ill-informed opinions. But there was clearly greatness there, too, at least on occasion. As Johnson, no fan of fools, told Boswell, “For spending three pence in a coffee house, you may be for hours in very good company.” On a good day, the company must have been impressive, from Hazlitt, with whom, it seems, everyone eventually quarreled (“Hazlitt suffered for his lack of politeness. He once said: ‘I want to know why everybody has such a dislike of me.’”) to Thomas De Quincey, of whom Jane Welsh Carlyle said, “What one would give to have him in a box, and take him out to talk!”

Throughout this section, Conversation is a truly wonderful book. Miller isn’t trying very hard to make an argument; he simply wants to plunge us into the intellectual and social life of the eighteenth century, and he does so with the texture, color, and goofy detail available only to someone who’s read deeply and widely in the period. We learn that John Adams described the life of Benjamin Franklin as “a Scene of constant dissipation,” and that Boswell, to cure a hangover, went to the King’s Arms Coffee House and ate “a basin of gravy soup, and a basin of pease soup.” Conversation is exactly the sort of writing that made me start this blog; without the blog, I would at some point have been unable to avoid reading aloud to friends the argument of an anti-coffee pamphleteer, who wrote that
The excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee . . . [has] so eunuched our husbands, and crippled our more kind gallants, that they are become as impotent as age.

But then Miller enters the twentieth century and begins to attempt to put forth an argument rather than just retailing anecdotes, and the book goes off the rails. As this post is already too long, I’ll explain more tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. The jewish sadar reminds the members of their faith of the importance of conversation. It is in my opinion one of that faiths most admirable institutions. The book TRUST by Frank Fukuyama would have been much more on point had Francis incorporated the history of conversation, without this his book at keasyt to me reads as if somethig is missing.