Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Art of Conversation

[The following essay was first published in the online language journal The Vocabula Review, edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Then in 2004, my essay was included in the anthology Vocabula Bound: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities, published by Marion Street Press (re-published 2008, as a Kindle edition). Reading my essay recently, I realize the ideal, unreal quality of it. I especially realize how far short I fall in living up to my own standards, regarding thoughtful conversation (witness the unbridled goofiness and nonsense in my words to others on Facebook). I suppose, then, this little manifesto is intended, as I mention below, to be only a candle that glows "softly in the back of the mind."]

I speak, therefore I am, even when my words echo silently in the cavern of consciousness. But when you speak, do I grant you the equal measure of existence? Our relations to one another are necessarily strung on the filament of language. I wonder: do we realize how fragile this thread of communal existence is? How a lack of conscious maintenance causes that cord to continually fray? This essay is about our speaking and about our listening. It is about the art of conversation.

There are various ways of defining conversation. For my purpose, I will approach it from five directions: idle talk, casual speech, verbal tyranny, data exchange, genuine dialogue.

Idle talk functions to fill up the vacuum-pockets of boredom, and in this respect, it usually flows freely, undisciplined by conscious rules of engagement. Actually, "flows" is an inaccurate term to describe this movement of words; "ricochets" is better. The initial utterance of an idle topic is like a bullet sent thoughtlessly toward a vague target, sparking random associations among the speakers until momentum fails and the topic falls impotently to a ground of indifference. Such banal "conversations" preclude a meeting of minds. We become babblers, with no one really listening to anyone else. Although the din of speech may swell to a cacophony of reportage, we are left unenriched by the experience. Worse, gossip is prone to occur in this dead-zone of unbridled chitchat. If it is only human to extemporize on the foolishness or misfortune of others, it is still a human failing that should be struggled against. Idle talk is a waste of consciousness and a waste of time. It makes of life something shallow and trivial, instead of deep and significant. It is not real conversation. It is, rather, the withering of the flower of humanness, which is language.

Casual speech is a less offensive sibling of idle talk; therefore, we may be more lenient in our appraisal. It bears the family resemblance of informality but differs from idle talk in one important respect: it is not the venting of stale fumes from unreflecting minds; rather, it represents an act of surreptitious appreciation. The themes of casual speech may, like idle talk, remain on a trivial, even coarse, plane, but these themes are substantially irrelevant to the nonverbal reason for the conversation — the oblique probing of another psyche. Indeed, this casual give-and-take is a process of valuation. Ezra Pound's "Tame Cat"1 is illustrative of this:

"It rests me to be among beautiful women.
Why should one always lie about such matters?
I repeat:
It rests me to converse with beautiful women
Even though we talk nothing but nonsense,

The purring of the invisible antennae
Is both stimulating and delightful."

Verbal tyranny is a pronounced form of anti-conversation. Here, genuine dialogue is not simply the victim of entropy and deflation, effected passively by idle chatter. No, here the ramparts are stormed in a zealous crusading for a singular point of view and a consequent seizure of available time for the righteous campaign. A definite topic will be brought up, but it will not be brokered in the idea market of free and equal discourse. It is here to make a point: that the topic holder must be heard and heard exhaustively. This person is not interested in hearing another point of view. His is the only worthy one. And this is verbal tyranny. Verbal oppression. The rules of respectful engagement have been dispensed with in a fury of monomaniacal theme-staking and point-making. Verbal tyranny is most on exhibit when the discussion is about religion, politics, or some topic equally incendiary. As the tyrant conquers more and more conversational territory, the other, far from being persuaded, is likely to formulate a plan of escape from the insatiable Torquemada or intransigent Stalin. It is incumbent on those with strong convictions (not a sin, in itself) to restrain a militant certitude so that understanding becomes possible. If you are overwhelmed with enthusiasm for your belief or opinion, take a moment to reflect on how psychologically suspect and statistically capricious it is that you, and not the other, are privileged with unshakable truth.

Interruption is a particularly noxious gas in the arsenal of verbal tyranny. How many times have you attempted to proffer a topic of supposed interest, only to have it asphyxiated as soon as it begins to leave your lips? You've certainly had no time to complete your thought, and you stand there dumbfounded and helpless as your subject expires in the ego-charged air.

Data exchange is a necessary but unremarkable type of conversation. It's a neutral category, consisting in the mere relay of information. The routines of the workplace function through its operation, and this exchange of messages is about getting things done, not about conversing. There is little to praise or vilify about data exchange, other than to lament its use as a substitute when there is opportunity for more meaningful conversation. Its incursion into home life may become habitual and unconscious to the point that the family milieu comes to resemble the operation of a computer. Merely processing "bits," a computer does not reflect on their quality. Yes, there is practical messaging to be done and news to share, but like idle talk, data exchange can lead to a dulling of the ear, where no datum has more significance than another. We are then liable to pass one another by on this word-stream of colloquial mediocrity. Vigilance is required for maintaining — through heightened and deepened speech acts — the realness, the rooted-in-presentness of each family member.

Genuine dialogue is a living, moving complex of matter and energy. Words are the cells that build the tissue of our talking, while awareness is the catalytic spark. As in a potent alchemy, our conversations should be crucibles for making something. They should be conspiratorial efforts to make time real — to mutually re-cognize (bring afresh to mind) the uncanniness of existence. Thus, it is crucial that our syntax be supple, our vocabulary conditioned for acts of creation. How wearisome and irksome it is listening to opinions expressed without flair or wit (a sign of awareness). Presence of mind amid the clamor of external stimuli is how I would describe awareness, but achieving and maintaining it are not easy assignments. We lack the mystical talent and control of an Indian rishi, so we must look for a shortcut. I submit a counterintuitive course: humility. Turning away from self and toward the other, the humble person might paradoxically become a vessel for a special type of awareness in which a real conversation may catalyze.

John Keats spoke of "negative capability" — an imaginative sympathy — and it gave him a profound insight into the nature of his subject. With the semantic tension quivering between the two poles, "negative" and "capability," I will borrow Keats's phrase and blend it into my suggestion for dialogical humility. The concept can then be understood as a becoming aware of oneself through verbal transaction with another. Through the "force" of humility, attention will be directed outward and focused on the one who is speaking. Such a focus will empower an identification, therefore a mirroring back onto self-consciousness. With awareness comes a "deceleration" of time, allowing unusual moments of shared presence.

A viable colloquy grows out of respectfulness and fair play, two elements in the practice of humility. To converse in this manner means that you acknowledge in principle your interlocutor as being on an equal ideational footing. If you cannot abstractly submit to this condition, and at least play along, then you should not join the conversation. Otherwise, your contribution will actually be usurpation, which is the manner of a tyrant.

If our purpose is to consider conversations as artworks, it would be proper to have a working definition of art. Broadly construed, it is the organized expression of inspired thoughts and feelings. The art of conversation, therefore, involves an organum for structuring an aroused theme. What would be the main precept of such an organum? To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, our words should encompass and retrieve the whole of our thought, instead of proceeding verbatim from their spontaneous, haphazard mental occurrence (but this whole-of-our-thought must reach an appropriate terminus: Coleridge was prolix in his own conversing, apparently something of a verbal tyrant). Our sentences should be holistic, not pointillistic, and with practice, a talent for this kind of speaking will emerge, resulting in natural expressions endowed with composure. Of course, the creation of such verbal art will require the devotion of more than one to the project. In genuine discourse, reciprocal dynamics generate a feedback loop of existential grounding and edification. This collaborative effort, like an improvised performance of music, moves rhythmically toward a coda and then fades into the province of memory.

Some other principles of engagement that go into the making of a good conversationalist are as follows:

1. Be relatively certain that the topic you wish to broach is one that the other person would be interested in.

2. Listen closely, calmly, and thoughtfully to what the other person has to say before responding. You might consider briefly restating the other person's idea in your own words to show that you have really understood what was said before attacking or embellishing.

3. Be alert to the fair-play requirement that the discussion time must be equally divided. Flooding the sound-space with an excess of one's own opinions and interests is to be crass and boorish.

4. Keep the original topic in mind. This suggestion is important for respecting the person who began the conversation, but it is a flexible one. After all, a stimulating conversation is one in which a leavening takes place — a lifting into higher levels of consideration, an infusion of vivifying subthemes.

5. Avoid the stultifying effect of clichés. They rob your speech of vigor and authenticity. Let these threadbare hand-me-downs decompose completely from your closet of phrases. The best method for invigorating one's vocabulary and broadening one's conversational range is to read books (preferably, well-written, provocative ones).

6. If you are unable to abide by principles 1 through 5, then please resist the urge to speak. Use this new quiet time to try and understand why you are so conversationally challenged and uncharitable.

Although these principles are important, they are not intended as rigid procedures. Imagine the folly of trying to converse while constantly accessing a mental list of rules. Speech would be a halting, disjointed affair. Rather, these criteria are offered as candles to glow softly in the back of the mind.

With the foregoing in place, the question may then occur: what is the substance of an edifying conversation? What should we talk about? I have dealt harshly with idle talk, equivocally with casual speech, proscriptively with verbal tyranny, and indifferently with data exchange. Is the subject matter that arises from these usual categories necessarily inferior? Must all real conversations be about deep things like art, literature, philosophy, and science? I don't think so. Whether the topic is sports, shopping, entertainment, or even the weather, the manner of conversing will, I propose, "consecrate" the subject of a dialogue, leading to the possibility of communion and a heightening of a sense of actuality.

In conclusion, the art of conversation is the art of being human. It is the art of valuing and verbally embracing another. Language is haunted with a fragrance of transcendence. We can speak (therefore think) the infinite and the eternal. Our words are acts of spirituality that sprinkle a residue of mystery on a seemingly mundane earth. Converse with genuineness in the attempt to uncover something sacred not only in your correspondent but in yourself.



1. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, A New Directions Paperbook (New York, 1957), p. 37.

Vocabula Review

1 comment:

  1. Finally, I had a chance to read this one.

    "Our words are acts of spirituality that sprinkle a residue of mystery on a seemingly mundane earth. Converse with genuineness in the attempt to uncover something sacred not only in your correspondent but in yourself."

    This echoes with the ethos of some of my favorite writers. To name a thing is, traditionally, to bless it. To participate in such a conversation is to enter into it as if it were a sacred banquet. There are some treasured friends with whom I have experienced this, where words approach communion.