“The greatest achievement of human society and one of its rarest pleasures is conversation,” aid Jacque Barzun, an historian who taught at Columbia University when I was there.
Today, who believes such a statement to be true?
Is conversation today the greatest achievement of human society? Fat chance, as they used to say.
Over the holidays, my wife and I went to a small party at a friend’s house. We are very close to the family. One son is becoming a State Dept. intern in Croatia next year. I was eager to heart him out.
Instead, a mother and her daughter arrived late and the daughter, in her twenties, was eager to hold the floor. The daughter began by saying that she has a sister who moved from South Carolina to somewhere in North Carolina, and then she began a rambling dissertation about a railway line being developed here in N.C. where my wife and I live. One line was based in Durham, and it was going to run to the airport, but someone contradicted this, saying that it stopped short of the airport, and the daughter went on anyway. Then she began to talk about some housing program in the state, and there was nothing in what she said that was worth knowing. Clearly, she felt no mercy for her listeners.
Remember, as a member of the group, I did not want to stir up conflict; I only wanted to stir up interest. In any case, everyone was glassy-eyed when the daughter finished. It was clear we were dealing with a mind of dead sediment and what was needed was an energetic fish to suddenly stir up a momentary disturbance. Alas, there wasn’t one. The sediment soon just settled back to what it was, entirely dead.
In the car after we left, I was nettled. My wife said to me, “Look -- they were simply ordinary people talking about ordinary things. They have a right to do that.’ I countered by saying, “Fine. But I retain the right not to listen to them,” and quoted Walter Bagehot, the great 19th century critic who said that “ordinary people use what brains they have, but it usually doesn’t amount to much.”
There was another disheartening incident.
We recently hosted a small gathering where the women talked a lot about retail stores closing, women’s outfits, etc. To my relief, I found a man whose nephew who was studying in Estonia. He was studying at a university the name of which his uncle couldn’t recall. I told him that Putin was creating trouble in the Baltic States and Finland. According to news reports, NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic countries, which I had devoutly opposed, had put Putin in a position where he felt he had to strike back and take Georgia and Ukraine. In any case, Putin wants to erode western support for the Baltic States who are under NATO’s protection.
My guest replied that Putin always causes trouble, and I waited, but that was the end of that. I sincerely wanted to learn more about his nephew’s studies, but he had nothing to add.
One woman suddenly announced she was going to reread all of John LeCarre’s books. I asked which of them was her favorite. Her face went blank. She knew The Spy Who came in from the Cold, but couldn’t remember any of the titles of the rest. After that, we had to listen to an endless discussion about whether or not it was good to use boiling water as opposed to warm water when you make tea. The decision was that boiling water acts to make the tea bitter so it’s better to use warm.
All of this was tittle-tattle. Such speakers don’t edit. They cannot determine the important from the subordinate, and they lack balance and taste. Nor so they have the talent to expand on their topics.
These people there were honest, good natured, hard-working, but intellectually toothless. No one learned anything from what was said; no one was stimulated or excited or made eager to learn more. The speakers were all satisfied with doing the dead-man’s float.
That’s our society today. Being with such people is intolerable because they are so boring. There was no continuous narrative, no interesting sequence of events or unexpected knowledge. There was no direction, no follow through, any point to it all. There is no much to learn about – think of the Roman Empire, or the Greeks or the Renaissance or the Romantics, but learning about them requires a lot of reading and study. Not only do we have to read, we must remember what we’ve read, reread it, memorize it, or otherwise, reading is simply a diversion, a waste of time.
Yet these days I go to social occasions with a sense of dread. Why do people get together except for the purpose of exchanging perceptions, concepts, history, abstractions, great works of thought and art, and other unchanging knowledge? Of course, there is always the warmth of the huddled herd, but I want to learn things from listening to a group. I don’t want to parade or flourish or grandstand or dominate. I simply want to listen in order to learn about things I don’t know in an effort to educate myself. I want to hear of people’s risks and adventures and their triumphant struggles as they share their lives.
Andover the holiday weekend, I had a reprieve. My wife went to a place after Christmas, only to find that the hosts were playing some sort of board game that consisted of ramming a piece of wood into other pierces of wood. It was very noisy, and my heart sank the minute I went in and sat down.
But as I was sitting there another man and his wife came in. She worked in Moscow for the State Department’s Bureau if Intelligence and Research. She knew her facts, and I suspected she worked for the CIA. Her husband was a former Foreign Service officer involved in arms control plus he had done a tour of duty in Pakistan. One host came in to try and urge us to play the board game, but the woman and her husband demurred. Instead, we talked about President Reagan’s build up of U.S. Navy shipping (in all its hyperbole,) the dire Soviet-U.S. tensions including the Soviet’s burning their documents in their London residence because they feared that war was imminent in 1982. (I think.) We discussed the Jerry Whitworth case, in which Whitworth, for money, provided intimate details of the movements of our attack submarines and the panic that this had caused in the U.S. intelligence community. We went for two hours. Every time the host interrupted, the husband would put up his hand, demurring, explaining that we were having a conversation.
What a wonderful stimulating, splendid evening!
But the dismal truth is that very few people can carry on a conversation.
A good conversation is a chance to share knowledge of life, of predicaments, crises, and interesting books and events. It stimulates, it doesn’t deaden. It welcomes and broadens, it doesn’t narrow. We old timers have had a lot happen to us, and its fun to share stories and episodes with others who have also led a rich life. But more and more we never run into people ho have been shot at, wounded, been bitter combat, jumped out of an airplane multiple times, endured death threats and other incidents that make life interesting. Pat has lived through a vast array of hazards, and in many cases barely escaped with his skin. But in any case, one talks not to boast or out-point someone else, but to have the pleasure of sharing memories of past experience. We look for people who are “many-sided” because we can still learn a lot from them.
But what audience today can bear to listen to anything but a chance remark? Every group I attend is very impatient with its members. I never begin any story that is longer than a brief paragraph. If I do, I instantly detect skepticism for anything longer, so I stay silent.
Such is life.