Samuel Johnson once explained to James Boswell his mind on conversation:
“There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials; in the second place, there must be a command of words; in the third place, there must be imagination, to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen in; and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and a resolution that is not to be overcome by failures; this last is an essential requisite; for want of it many people do not excel in conversation.”
As much as we cannot want to intellectualize all subjects, we do find a need to challenge our friends, acquaintances, and even ourselves. We are social animals, and the need for interaction demands the need for conversation. “Never is there more a need for reasonable conversation than in today’s society, wherever people live.” Do you know where this quote comes from? It’s familiar, isn’t it? It comes from no one famous, in fact, because I just wrote it. Yet we have all heard something like it spoken or written somewhere. And, it cannot be more wrong.
Today is no more important, and likely less so, than the dark days of WWII; the blighted years of politically and socially banned books (pick your favorite century); 1,200 years of Catholic Inquisition combating “heresy”; or all of history’s oppression of women (no less objectionable to what is found today in India or throughout the Muslim Middle East and Africa). There has been, historically, a distinct lack of social conversation available to people where it could affect change. Much of the “good” conversation reserved itself inside senatorial houses, philosopher’s academies, monarchical courts, and those private chambers of the social elite.
Since the advent of the printing press, and, later, the establishment of largely parliamentary and democratic societies, people worked at making conversation a vital structure of society’s machinery. When governments failed, too often, at debate and compromise,at least the educated people demonstrated ample enthusiasm to conversation’s benefits.
In Parisian parlors of the 17th and 18th centuries, conversation came into its own. A whole coterie of parlor groups met, sometimes in secret, to discuss issues of the day, including politics, male-female relationships, sex (without the potty talk), and art of all kinds. For a time, most of those who met were women (of high means). The French were known already for their manners, their dress, their codes of honor (among both sexes). The women, it has been argue (“The Age of Conversation” by Benedetta Craveri) took it upon themselves to improve society (and their own positions within) by improving the manners and conversation of the French males. Success for women and society, on that smallish level, was great. Many of these parlor members kept diaries, and recorded conversations after a night of talk. Some have been published, but either have not been translated into English, or wallow away somewhere in a long-since out-of-print copy on a library shelf.
Over in England, in the middle half of the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson had elevated conversation to somewhat of an art form. He had become famous for his “Dictionary of the English Language” (1755), and for writing twice-weekly essays under the title “The Rambler.” What Johnson might have lacked in oratorical compromise, he made up for in breadth of subjects he was willing and able to discuss. He particularly liked questions of liberty, and argued vehemently against changing one’s religion. Regardless of subject matter, Johnson demanded people bring knowledge to a conversation. Force of character and demonstrative positioning meant nothing if an argument did not come with humanist logic.
Today’s high-speed media environment could learn a lot from Dr. Johnson. The term “news cycle” has helped to fracture any attempt at sustained speech, or conversation. Sure, we have political and social talk shows, but too often they flounder in the sea of entertainment channels. And the American mind suffers from this lack.
While “The Simpsons,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “American Idol” achieve high viewer ratings — that turn advertising into gold dust — can we say they do something for conversation? Perhaps. And what is the difference between those entertainment programs and “60 Minutes” newsmagazine to initiate conversation? Any tense, psycho-political drama brings up important issues. An amateur-hour program can induce people to talk about what vocal art is … and is not. Exploring hot news topics or celebrity gossip can engage social discussion or reminiscences. But do any of these actually make discussion rather than seem to make discussion? Of course, we must not leave out the emergence of TWITTER and FACEBOOK. Conversation? Yes … but make it quick, because I’m stepping off the train.
If one looks at blogs, we find 4-5 sentence “posts” that often quote other sources (some spurious), or else link to an article written by—surprise!—a professional with a byline at a national newspaper or magazine. These posts are likely followed by shorter comments. Both resemble a nature that is difficult to define as conversation. Repetitive banter may more aptly describe their character. Nevertheless, one can argue, people are “connecting” where recently they were merely sitting in front of the television.
If there is yet conversation among us, and I think there is, it should get into the daily diet of all thinking people. I’m suggesting that people, if they are not doing so, get into the habit of talking about subjects that come to their minds, and not necessarily those in the news. Subjects that excite you, trouble you, irritate you (always a classic), or subjects you know little about but want to try to understand them through conversation with family, a lover, friends, colleagues.
I have my own suggestions: What thing of beauty have you seen today? How can you talk about that as art? Engagement with society is not a spectator sport, but something, I think, is of intrinsic importance to our individual lives.