Compromises/The Luxury of Conversation


Of indoor entertainments, the truest and most human is conversation.—Mark Pattison.

In an age when everybody is writing Reminiscences, and when nothing is left untold, we hear a great deal about the wit and brilliancy of former days and former conversations. Elderly gentlemen, conscious of an ever increasing dulness in life, would fain have us believe that its more vivacious characteristics vanished with their youth, and can never be tempted to return. Mournful prophecies anent the gradual decay of social gifts assail us on every side. Mr. Justin McCarthy, recalling with a sigh the group of semi-distinguished men who were wont to grace George Eliot's Sunday afternoons, can "only hope that the art of talking is not destined to die out with the art of letter-writing." Mr. George W. E. Russell entertains similar misgivings. He found his ideal talker in Mr. Matthew Arnold, "a man of the world without being frivolous, and a man of letters without being pedantic;" and he considers this admirable combination as necessary as it is rare. American chroniclers point back to a little gleaming band of Northern lights, and assure us sadly that if we never heard these men in their prime, we must live and die uncheered by wit or wisdom. We are born in a barren day.

But conversation, the luxury of conversation, as De Quincey happily phrases it, does not depend upon one or two able talkers. It is not, and never has been, a question of stars, but of a good stock company. Neither can it decay like the art—or the habit—of letter-writing. The conditions are totally different. Letters form a by-path of literature, a charming, but occasional, retreat for people of cultivated leisure. Conversation in its happiest development is a link, equally exquisite and adequate, between mind and mind, a system by which men approach one another with sympathy and enjoyment, a field for the finest amenities of civilization, for the keenest and most intelligent display of social activity. It is also our solace, our inspiration, and our most rational pleasure. It is a duty we owe to one another; it is our common debt to humanity. "God has given us tongues," writes Heine, "wherewith we may say pleasant things to our neighbours." To refuse a service so light, so sweet, so fruitful, is to be unworthy of the inheritance of the ages.

It is claimed again, by critics disposed to be pessimistic, that our modern development of "specialism" is prejudicial to good conversation. A man devoted to one subject can seldom talk well upon any other. Unless his companions share his tastes and his knowledge, he must—a sad alternative—either lecture or be still. There are people endowed with such a laudable thirst for information that they relish lectures,—professional and gratuitous. They enjoy themselves most when they are being instructed. They are eager to form an audience. Such were the men and women who experienced constant disappointment because Mr. Browning, a specialist of high standing, declined to discuss his specialty. No side-lights upon "Sordello" could be extracted from him. We realize how far the spirit of the lecture had intruded upon the spirit of conversation forty years ago, when Mr. Bagehot admitted that, with good modern talkers, "the effect seems to be produced by that which is stated, and not by the manner in which it is stated,"—a reversal of ancient rules. We are aware of its still further encroachment when we see a little book by M. Charles Rozan, characteristically christened "Petites Ignorances de la Conversation," and find it full of odds and ends of information, of phrases, allusions, quotations, facts,—all the minute details which are presumably embodied in the talk of educated men. The world to-day devoutly believes that everything can be taught and learned. When we have been shown how a thing is done, we can of course do it. There are even little manuals composed with serious simplicity, the object of which is to enable us to meet specialists on their own grounds; to discuss art with artists, literature with authors, politics with politicians, science with scientists,—the last, surely, a dangerous experiment. "Conversation," I read in one of these enchanting primers, "cannot be entirely learned from books,"—a generous admission in a day given over to the worship of print.

But in good truth, the contagious ardour, the urbane freedom of the spoken word lift it immeasurably from the regions of pen and ink. Those "shy revelations of affinity," which now and then open to the reader sweet vistas of familiarity and friendship, are frequent, alluring, persuasive, in well-ordered speech. It is not what we learn in conversation that enriches us. It is the elation that comes of swift contact with tingling currents of thought. It is the opening of our mental pores, and the stimulus of marshaling our ideas in words, of setting them forth as gallantly and as graciously as we can. "A language long employed by a delicate and critical society," says Mr. Bagehot, "is a treasure of dexterous felicities;" and the recognition of these felicities, the grading of terms, the enlarging of a narrow and stupid vocabulary make the charm of civilized social contact. Discussion without asperity, sympathy without fusion, gayety unracked by too abundant jests, mental ease in approaching one another,—these are the things which give a pleasant smoothness to the rough edge of life.

So much has been said about good talkers,—brilliant soloists for the most part,—and so little about good talk! So much has been said about good listeners, and so little about the interchange of thought! "Silent people never spoil company," remarked Lord Chesterfield; but even this negative praise was probably due to the type of silence with which he was best acquainted,—a habit of sparing speech, not the muffled stillness of genuine and hopeless incapacity. A man who listens because he has nothing to say can hardly be a source of inspiration. The only listening that counts is that of the talker who alternately absorbs and expresses ideas. Sainte-Beuve says of Fontenelle that, while he had neither tears nor laughter, he smiled at wit, never interrupted, was never excited, nor ever in a hurry to speak. These are endearing traits. They embody much of the art of conversation. But they are as remote from unadorned silence as from unconsidered loquacity.

The same distinction may be drawn between the amenity which forbids bickering, and the flabbiness which has neither principles to uphold, nor arguments with which to uphold them. Hazlitt's counsel, "You should prefer the opinion of the company to your own," is good in the main, but it can easily be pushed too far. Proffered by a man who bristled with opinions which he never wearied of defending, it is perhaps more interesting than persuasive. If everybody floated with the tide of talk, placidity would soon end in stagnation. It is the strong backward stroke which stirs the ripples, and gives animation and variety. "Unison is a quality altogether obnoxious in conversation," said Montaigne, who was at least as tolerant as Hazlitt was combative, but who dearly loved stout words from honest men. Dr. Johnson, we know, was of a similar way of thinking. He scorned polite tepidity; he hated chatter; he loved that unfeeling logic which drives mercilessly to its goal. No man knew better than he the unconvincing nature of argument. He had too often thrust his friends from the fortress of sound reason which they were not strong enough to hold. But his talk, for all its aggressiveness, and for all its tendency to negation, was real talk; not—as with Coleridge—a monologue, nor—as with Macaulay—a lecture. He did not infringe upon other people's conversational freeholds, and he was not, be it always remembered, anecdotal. The man who lived upon "potted stories" inspired him with righteous antipathy.

Perhaps the saddest proof of intellectual inertia, of our failure to meet one another with ease and understanding, is the tendency to replace conversation by story-telling. It is no uncommon thing to hear a man praised as a good talker, when he is really a good raconteur. People will speak complacently of a "brilliant dinner," at which strings of anecdotes, disconnected and illegitimate, have usurped the field, to the total exclusion of ideas. After an entertainment of this order—like a feast of buns and barley sugar—we retire with mental indigestion for a fortnight. That it should be relished betrays the crudeness of social conditions. "Of all the bores," writes De Quincey with unwonted ill-temper, "whom man in his folly hesitates to hang, and Heaven in its mysterious wisdom suffers to propagate his species, the most insufferable is the teller of good stories." This is a hard saying. The story, like its second cousin the lie, has a sphere of usefulness. It is a help in moments of emergency, and it serves admirably to illustrate a text. But it is not, and never can be, a substitute for conversation. People equipped with reason, sentiment, and a vocabulary should have something to talk about, some common ground on which they can meet, and penetrate into one another's minds. The exquisite pleasure of interchanging ideas, of awakening to suggestions, of finding sympathy and companionship, is as remote from the languid amusement yielded by story-telling as a good play is remote from the bald diversion of the music hall.

Something to talk about appears to be the first consideration. The choice of a topic, or rather the possession of a topic which will bear analysis and support enthusiasm, is essential to the enjoyment of conversation. We cannot go far along a stony track. Diderot observed that whenever he was in the company of men and women who were reading Richardson's books, either privately or aloud, the talk was sure to be animated and interesting. Some secret springs of emotion were let loose by this great master of sentiment. Our ancestors allowed themselves a wider field of discussion than we are now in the habit of conceding; but after all, as Stevenson reminds us, "it is not over the virtues of a curate-and-tea-party novel that people are abashed into high resolutions." We may not covet Socratic discourses at the dinner table, but neither can we long sustain what has been sadly and significantly called "the burden of conversation" on the lines adopted by William the Fourth, who, when he felt the absolute necessity of saying something, asked the Duke of Devonshire where he meant to be buried.

The most perfect and pitiful pictures of intercourse stripped bare of interest have been given us in Miss Austen's novels. Reading them, we grow sick at heart to think what depths of experience they reflect, what hours of ennui lie back of every page. The conversation of the ladies after Mrs. John Dashwood's dinner must stand forever as a perfect example of sustained stupidity, of that almost miraculous dulness which can be achieved only by "want of sense, want of elegance, want of spirits, and want of temper." Equal to it in its way is the brief description of Lady Middleton's first call upon the Dashwoods.

"Conversation was not lacking, for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old. By this means there was one subject always to be recurred to by the ladies in case of extremity, for they had to enquire his name and age, admire his beauty, and ask him questions which his mother answered for him, while he hung about her and held down his head, to the great surprise of her ladyship, who wondered at his being so shy before company, as he could make noise enough at home. On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case, it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course everybody differed, and everybody was astonished at the opinion of the others."

How real it is! How many of us have lived through similar half-hours, veiling with decent melancholy the impetuous protest of our souls!

Charles Greville is responsible for the rather unusual statement that a dinner at which all the guests are fools is apt to be as agreeable as a dinner at which all the guests are clever men. The fools, he says, are tolerably sure to be gay, and the clever men are perfectly sure to be heavy. How far the gayety of fools is an engaging trait it might be difficult to decide (there is a text which throws some doubt upon the subject), but Greville appears to have suffered a good deal from the ponderous society of the learned. We are struck in the first place by the very serious topics which made the table-talk of his day. Do people now discuss primogeniture in ancient Rome over their fish and game? It sounds almost as onerous as the Socratic discourses. Then again it was his special hardship to listen to the dissertations of Macaulay, and he resented this infliction with all the ardour of a vain and accomplished man. "Macaulay's astonishing knowledge is every moment exhibited," he writes in his Memoirs, "but he is not agreeable. He has none of the graces of conversation, none of the exquisite tact and refinement which are the result of a felicitous intuition, or of a long acquaintance with good society. … His information is more than society requires."

The last line is a master-stroke of criticism. It embodies all that goes before and all that follows,—for Greville airs his grievance at length,—and it is admirably illustrated in his account of that famous evening at Holland House, when Lady Holland, in captious mood, rebelled against a course of instruction. Somebody having chanced to mention Sir Thomas Munro, the hostess rashly admitted that she had never heard of him, whereupon Macaulay "explained all he had said, done, written, or thought, and vindicated his claim to the title of a great man, till Lady Holland, getting bored, said she had had enough of Sir Thomas, and would hear no more. This might have dashed and silenced an ordinary talker; but to Macaulay it was no more than replacing a book upon the shelf, and he was just as ready as ever to open on any other topic." The Fathers of the Church were next discussed (it was not a frivolous company), and Macaulay at once called to mind a sermon of Saint Chrysostom's in praise of the Bishop of Antioch. "He proceeded to give us the substance of this sermon till Lady Holland got tired of the Fathers, and put her extinguisher on Chrysostom as she had done on Munro. Then with a sort of derision, and as if to have the pleasure of puzzling Macaulay, she turned to him and said: 'Pray what was the origin of a doll? When were dolls first mentioned in history?' Macaulay, however, was just as much up in dolls as in the Fathers, and instantly replied that the Roman children had their dolls, which they offered to Venus when they grew older. He quoted Persius,—

'Veneri donatae a virgine puppae,'

and I have not the least doubt that if he had been allowed to proceed, he would have told us who was the Chenevix of ancient Rome, and the name of the first baby that ever handled a doll."

This was indeed more information than society required. It is not surprising that Sydney Smith, perhaps the most charming talker of his day, was quickly silenced by such an avalanche of words, and sat mute and limp in the historian's company. Upon one occasion Greville went to visit the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood, and found Macaulay among the guests. "It was wonderful how quiet the house seemed after he had gone," comments the diarist grimly, "and it was not less agreeable."

That a rude invasion of the field is fatal to the enjoyment of intercourse we know from the sentiment of revolt expressed on every side. How little the people who heard Mme. de Staël's brilliant conversation appear to have relished the privilege! Mackintosh admitted that she was agreeable in a tête-à-tête, but too much for a general assembly. Heine hated her, as a hurricane in petticoats. "She hears but little, and never the truth, because she is always talking." Byron, who felt a genuine admiration for her cleverness, and was grateful for her steadfast friendship, confessed ruefully that she overwhelmed him with words, buried him beneath glittering snow and nonsense. The art of being amusing in a lovable way was not hers; yet this is essentially the art which lifted French conversation to its highest level, which made it famous three hundred years ago, and which has preserved it ever since as a rational and engaging occupation. A page of history lies revealed and elucidated in Saint-Simon's little sentence anent Mme. de Maintenon's fashion of speech. "Her language was gentle, exact, well chosen, and naturally eloquent and brief."

No wonder she reigned long. Eloquent and brief! What a magnificent "blend"! How persuasive the "well-chosen" words, immaculately free from harsh emphasis and the feminine fault of iteration! Who would not be influenced by a woman who talked always well, and never too much; who, knowing the value of flattery, administered it with tact and moderation; and who shrank instinctively from the exaggerated terms which destroy balance and invite defeat? From the reign of Louis the Fourteenth to the Revolution, conversation was cultivated in France with intelligent assiduity. Its place in the fabric of civilization was clearly understood. No time was begrudged to its development, no labour was spared to its perfecting. Mr. Henry James is of the opinion that it flowered brilliantly in the middle of the eighteenth century. "This was surely," he says, "in France at least, the age of good society, the period when the right people made haste to be born in time. The sixty years that preceded the Revolution were the golden age of fireside talk, and of those amenities that are due to the presence of women in whom the social art is both instinctive and acquired. The women of that period were, above all, good company. The fact is attested in a thousand documents. Chenonceaux offered a perfect setting to free conversation; and infinite joyous discourse must have mingled with the liquid murmur of the Cher."

"Joyous discourse" is a beguiling phrase. It carries with it the echo of laughter long since silenced,—light laughter following the light words, so swiftly spoken, yet so surely placed. The time was coming fast when this smooth graciousness of speech would inspire singular mistrust, and when Rousseau—ardently embracing nature—would write of the "fine and delicate irony called politeness, which gives so much ease and pliability to the intercourse of civilized man, enabling him to assume the appearance of every virtue without the reality of one." Later on, illusions being dispelled, the painful discovery was made that the absence of politeness does not necessarily imply the presence of virtue, and that taciturnity may be wholly disassociated with the truth. We owe to one another all the wit and good humour we can command; and nothing so clears our mental vistas as sympathetic and intelligent conversation. It can never languish in an age like ours, teeming with new interests widely shared, and with new wonders widely known. We must talk, because we have so much to talk about; and we ought to talk well, because our inspirations are of a noble order. Each new discovery made by science, each fresh emotion awakened by contemporaneous history, each successive pleasure yielded by literature or by art is a spur to rational speech. These things are our common heritage, and we share them in common, through the medium of the aptly spoken word.