Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Lost Art of Conversation

The only other person I know who has read Boswell’s Life of Johnson (or at least part of it) once characterized that great biography as a celebration of the art of conversation. He and I and a third friend used to get together, as did Samuel Johnson and his friends, to eat and to talk. We didn’t rise to the level of the discussions of the great lexicographer and his illustrious companions, but we covered almost as many topics, and those lunchtime talks brought me intellectual nourishment to a degree that I haven’t enjoyed in recent months.

In my latest encounters with London’s Literary Club, I’ve enjoyed listening in on Johnson’s circle as they discussed these subjects – among many others!
  • Gloominess as lack of faith
  • The uncertainty of profit for an author
  • Preparation for communion
  • Lack of total certainty of God's favor
  • Original sin and redemption
  • Appearance of ancient Egyptians
  • Wealth and happiness
  • Memory
  • A housebreaker's fear
  • Gardens
  • Alfred the Great
  • Usefulness in retirement
  • Death of friends
  • Borrowing and debt
  • Fondness vs kindness
  • Beauty and utility
  • Kings and revolution
  • Right employment of wealth
  • Keeping a journal
  • Keeping a financial record of expenses
  • Talking to children
  • Public hangings
  • Parentheses
  • Foreigners
  • Fondness for cats
  • Travel books vs travel
  • War
  • Appropriate subjects for painting
  • Oratory
  • The origin of language
  • New houses near Bedlam
  • Self-defense
  • The burial service
  • Book reviews
  • Irreligious people
  • Freedom of speech
  • Virgil vs Homer
  • Richard Baxter
  • Method acting
  • Drama and comedy
They even have conversations about conversation. One eminent legalist is criticized for his dull conversation. In ten years, says Johnson, he has never said anything “striking.” So here is one goal in the lost art of conversation: say something striking. How is such a thing done? One can’t simply find a striking statement and then look for a chance to insert it.

Fortunately, Dr. Johnson provides a recipe. A good conversationalist must first have knowledge to provide material for conversation. To this he must add fluency of speech. Then he must have an imagination “to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen.” The fourth necessity is presence of mind, which I take to be a form of attention for opportunities and readiness to contribute from one’s storehouse of knowledge and imagination.

Now all those attributes and skills I can imagine developing and practicing. But the final ingredient brings me to a standstill: resolution. Have a view and state it with conviction. The first problem is that I’m not very resolute. I used to speak my mind without apologies. But over the years I’ve found so often that I was wrong or that I made someone angry or that I looked foolish or that I didn’t like the adamant rebuttal I received, that my resolution has dried up. Even if I could water it and nurture it back to life, we live in an age that looks down on resolution. Resolution appears intolerant (it isn’t, actually), so the self-refuting era of toleration must not tolerate it.

Samuel Johnson didn’t live entirely without this problem. Of course people sometimes took offense at his pronouncements. But he had a solution. He once told a man who remarked on his “candour” (a veiled notification of having been offended), “I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest.” Alas, Boswell doesn’t tell us if Johnson’s attempt to mollify worked.

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