Monday, January 18, 2016

The Art of Conversation

What was it Antonio Machado once said? "To have dialog, first ask ... then listen." That's all  well and good, but depending on who you're conversing with, you may end up listening quite a bit, while sharing precious little of your own experience. No, the same irregularity and exchange—musical, natural, and harmonious—that animates other aspects of life is also present when social intercourse is at its best.

I’m thinking of those times when conversation flows like the shifting configurations of a surf rather than the thunderous drone of a waterfall. Friends talk, listen, change the subject, crack a joke, inquire, and assert, spurred on by the energy of conviviality. Small groups of interlocutors form and disperse again as individuals head back to the bar or the buffet, only to form again in new constellations guided by an unspoken but widely shared aesthetic of variegated mingling.

You may step away from a conversation to grab a snack from the sideboard, fully intending to return, only to be caught up in a new coagulation of small talk. Anyone who proudly holds to the lofty ground—"I don't make small talk"—is not going to have much fun, because small talk is the foyer where we hang our coats, looking for the doors into a deeper exchange of thoughts and experiences. 

Playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers struggle to render such conversations convincingly. When they fail, we refer to the dialogue as stilted. When they succeed, we feel that a curtain has been lifted on the beating heart of life.

But the dialogue that appears in works of art is often antagonistic, or at any rate serves little purpose beyond the interactions it vivifies. It’s there to move the story along. People still read Shakespeare just for the music of the language, of course, but Chekhov is far better are rendering conversation authentically. I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Acadia not long ago, in which the dialog left me deeply impressed. 

I read a  book recently called, simply, Conversation. It consisted largely of references to what famous people have said about conversation and about the conversational habits of people they knew. You can probably guess who figured prominently: Samuel Johnson, De Toqueville, Thoreau, Henry James. 

What? No Goethe? No Diderot? The book is less a history than a miscellany, of course, because most great conversations are private, and the art of conversation doesn’t develop from generation to generation with the passage of time. Each conversation begins the world anew, once again alive and fresh—unburdened by history.

The book’s subtitle is “A History of a Declining Art,” to which the rejoinder would be—that depends on who you’re talking to! As the Egyptian aphorist Ptahhotep wrote some 4,500 years ago: “Good conversation is rarer than an emerald, yet we can hear it from a slave girl at the millstone.” 

I would love to have listened in on the conversations that took place between E. M. Cioran and Gabriel Marcel as they walked home through the streets of Paris after attending the theater together. Why? because they seem so different temperamentally. In his works Marcel limned the foundations of hope, the mystery of being, and the critical importance of "availability," while Cioran's habitual attitude toward life can be judged from the titles of his books: The Trouble with Being Born, The Temptation to Exist, The Fall into Time. And here’s another tantalizing bit: Joseph Brodsky once remarked that Roberto Calasso was the only man in Europe whose conversation was totally worthwhile. (Or was it the other way around?)

We invited some family and friends over to celebrate Hilary's retirement the other day. There was no way to know how well our guests would mingle, but the flow of conversation was lively and sustained. A few coincidences also fed the mix. Brian used to sit in occasionally (twenty years ago) with Don and Sherry's band; Jane is tutoring Somali students at the school where Michel used to work; my cousin Pat went to high school in Silver City, New Mexico, back in the late 1960s, when Dana was a Vista employee there. Brian, who's a marketing executive, arranged with my brother-in-law, David, who's a teacher, to speak to his class. Thus strangers soon became friends, and a frigid winter afternoon became a warm and human one.

Travel talk never hurt a party, and it was fun to hear about Jeff and Fran's recent trip to St. Lucia, and Brian and Marnie's fifteen-day excursion to Morocco and Andalusia. "At the medina in Fez, you choose the chicken you want, they take it away, pluck, butcher, and wrap the bird, and return it to you, ready to cook, in fifteen minutes."

Earlier in the day I had been working on a slide show for a talk I'll be giving soon on the National Parks, and I enjoyed sharing a few words of advice with Maggie, who's trying to decide between the Grand Canyon and the Northwest Coast for a spring trip. She also told me about a more harrowing trip: a Turkish friend of hers signed a petition for peace and found herself suddenly out of a job, wanted for treason, forced to flee.

Jane told me a little about how her new book is doing, Don and I made some plans for working together on the packaging design for Sherry's Kickstarter funded CD. Becca told me about her mother's tribulations getting her ailing computer back up to speed. Jeff told me about a new website called Agate that he thought I might be interested in. 

Rick was excited about a photographer he discovered a while back who was covering the water-quality story in Flint, Michigan—and still is. Greg is revising his book about anti-gravity to reflect the latest lab results (though from what he told me, it seems the relevant experiments haven't actually been conducted yet). 

Mary told me about a novel she's reading, Day After Night, about the Palestinian refugee crisis just after WWII, and Michel told me a little about a plan he has for a new system of musical notation focusing less on pitch and more on color.   

I fielded a few questions myself about life at home, now that Hilary is here every day. Short answer: "Nice!" Slightly longer answer: "We often go out, either singly or together, so the days do have a different flavor, but all the same, nice!"

I'm no Chekhov, and this brief litany of subjects has precious little of that conversational buzz that arose from every corner of the house during the gathering. That's one of my favorite sounds.

This morning, the rooms are still full of flowers. There are a few bottles of unopened champagne on the kitchen counter, quite a bit of middle Eastern food from Marina Greek deli in the fridge, and a palpable residual warmth left behind by all of the beautiful people who stopped by the celebrate Hilary's retirement yesterday. 

Yes, conversation is an art, and it seems to be alive and well, at least in this small corner of the universe.   

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