Monday, March 20

Are We Having a Conversation Yet? An Art Form Evolves


What is there to talk about?

The question should be taken literally. We can talk about the weather — which means just making casual contact, assuring each other that we are temperate in nature and not about to erupt in torrential outbursts. We can talk about politics — if we can assume certain shared convictions that will prevent other kinds of storms and disruptions. We can talk about family — if we can assume that we take that kind of a personal interest in each other.

But whatever we choose, there's a certain amount of risk involved, a tentative guess made about what should be shared and what should not, what would please the other and what would not. La Rochefoucauld said, "We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those who find us boring." That is only the beginning.

Conversation is one of those acts that require subtle forms of social imagination: an ability to listen and interpret and imagine, an attentiveness to someone whose perspective is always essentially different, a responsiveness that both makes oneself known and allows the other to feel known — or else does none of this, but just keeps up appearances. It may be, then, one of the most fundamental political and social acts, indispensable to negotiating allegiances, establishing common ground, clearing tangled paths. Conversation may reflect not just the state of our selves, but the state of society.

O.K. But listen to "talk" radio, with its combative recruitment of allies; or "talk" shows in which guests are promoting themselves or their products and hosts are prepared with leading questions; or "talk" news shows in which conversation becomes a form of shouting. Look at our isolating iPods, at text messaging with its prepackaged formulas, or instant messaging with its iconic smilies, so necessary to make sure the telegraphic prose is not misunderstood. CUL8R.

This state of affairs helped inspire Stephen Miller's new book, "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art" (Yale, $27.50). Mr. Miller, who is a contributing editor to The Wilson Quarterly, finds countertrends, as well — Internet communities that lead to new forms of conversation, diverse gatherings in which disagreements become an expected aspect of conversation. But, he writes, the "forces sapping conversation seem stronger than the forces nourishing it." So Mr. Miller, in response, is recounting another kind of conversation that has taken place over the centuries, one whose subject is conversation itself.

Cicero gave advice about conversation (It ought "to be gentle and without a trace of intransigence; it should also be witty"). Montaigne hailed its pleasures ("I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives"). Henry Fielding praised it ("This grand Business of our Lives, the Foundation of every Thing, either useful or pleasant"). Adam Smith prescribed it (calling it one of "the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity").

There were also those who opposed it, or at least strongly declared other preferences. Rousseau sneered at the chatter in French salons. Wordsworth preferred nature and solitude. The writers of Romanticism shifted the emphasis, preferring to share feelings and perceptions rather than honor conversation for its own sake. Conversation became confessional — which in many ways, it still is. "Modern writers," Mr. Miller suggests, "tend to dwell on the emotional rewards that come from conversation."

In fact, in Mr. Miller's account, the United States may have played an important role in the evolution of the mode of non-conversation now developing. During the 19th century many European writers scorned American conversation, perhaps too much, Mr. Miller suggests, accusing it of excessive focus on money and commerce. There may have also been an American suspicion of conversation altogether: Thoreau couldn't be bothered with it, and Melville was wary.

Mr. Miller points out that in the 20th century, literary figures were also admired for being laconic. Was this an extension of early Romantic early suspicions? A democratic rebellion against the artifice and artfulness of 18th-century conversation? Did it even lead, perhaps, to the self-absorbed focus on self-fulfillment and self-expression that have, in Mr. Miller's view, extended from the years of the counterculture into the present?

Like a well-mannered host, Mr. Miller presents some hypotheses, but also leads the conversation along. For him, the powers and possibilities of conversation were most clearly revealed in the 18th century. Samuel Johnson praised the two key journals of the age, The Spectator and The Tattler; they were being published at a time, he said, "when two parties, loud, restless, and violent, each with plausible declarations, and each perhaps without any distinct termination of its views, were agitating the nation."

The journals, Johnson said, "adjusted" conversation with their "propriety and politeness." That character also helped define London coffeehouses, in which political debate and conversation between varied classes took place. Andrew Marvell wrote: "It is wine and strong drinks make tumults increase/ Choc'late, tea, and coffee are liquors of peace."

But Hume may be the patron saint of conversation here, for though he noted that politeness "runs often into affectation and foppery, disguise and insincerity," he also saw a necessary connection between politeness and freedom. Hume suggested that politeness was not, in fact, "natural to the human mind," but "presumption and arrogance" were. Society depends on artifice. Conversation is an art.

As Mr. Miller suggests, American conversation now prides itself on angry authenticity or on being kind and "nonjudgmental"; it is meant to be "natural" and full of "self-expression." This does not make for great conversation or a vital political life.

Hume, in contrast, welcomed the necessary artifice of manners, through which, he argued, "a mutual deference is affected; contempt of others disguised; authority concealed; attention given to each in his turn; and an easy stream of conversation maintained, without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness for victory, and without any airs of superiority."

It is an ideal worth talking about.