The Magazine

The Talking Cure

What it means about what we say.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Yet as early as the 1750s, the conversible world had come under attack: From novelists such as Henry Fielding, who lampooned the culture of politeness as a culture of pretentiousness and hypocrisy, and from poets such as Thomas Gray, the author of the most popular poem of the century, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," really a hymn to glum solitude. The Romantic poets of the 19th century turned these proclivities into full-blown (and sometimes half-baked) philosophies. Thus, to oversimplify somewhat, whereas the great figures of 18th-century literature generally held that enlightenment was found mainly through debate and discussion within the perimeters of reason and civility, the Romantics--of whom Jean-Jacques Rousseau, alas, was the primogenitor--believed just the opposite.

William Wordsworth's massive poem "The Prelude," to take the greatest instance, taught that true enlightenment would only be found in nature and the simplicity of rural life. The Age of Conversation was dead.

Miller devotes much of the book to the interpretation of literary works, and it is reasonable to wonder how accurately novels and poems reflect historical data about a subject as elusive as conversation. But there's no good alternative to this method, and some of the writers Miller analyzes (I think particularly of the section on Virginia Woolf) lead him to insights about the nature of conversation itself.

Then, too, there is the inevitable difficulty in defining conversation. What is it? Miller is right to insist that the defining component of genuine conversation is that it has no stated purpose. Michael Oakeshott is quoted as saying that conversation "has no determined course, we do not ask what it is 'for'"; it is "an unrehearsed intellectual adventure." That purposelessness probably has a lot to do with why, as Miller's discussion suggests, Americans have never been brilliant conversationalists. From Benjamin Franklin's essay "How to Please in Conversation" to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, Americans are too prone to think of aims and advantages to enjoy conversation for its own sake--although, if I may be permitted to indulge in a little regional conceit, I think this is less true of southerners.

Miller concludes with three chapters on the sorry state of conversation in postwar America; and although, to his credit, he eschews cultural pessimism, the evidence is undeniably grim. Quite apart from all the distractions of modernity, technological and otherwise, conversation has been dealt successive blows by the philosophies of self-absorption. The notion that personal liberation is the highest good, as radical subjectivists from Michel Foucault to Norman Mailer have held it to be, poisons conversation: For conversation removed from the possibility of disagreement becomes mere talk, and not very interesting talk.

Nor is it a stretch to suppose, as Miller does, that the modern habit of responding to critical remarks with insincere acquiescence--"I hear where you're coming from," "Thank you for sharing that"--has its roots in the coun ter cultural nonphilosophies of the 1960s.

The great value in Miller's book is the number of questions it raises. One wonders, for example, whether some of the unfettered rage so evident in our political life isn't in some measure related to our failure to practice the art of conversation. You don't call a man a traitor if he's across the table from you. Yet many political writers, especially, though not exclusively, bloggers, now seem incapable of considering the possibility that those with whom they disagree are anything but traitors or imbeciles. Is it simply a matter of not talking to people often enough?

The book's merits are many, its flaws (an unreliable index, the author's fondness for the word "imply" and its cognates) few and minor. Stephen Miller wishes we thought about conversation as much as we thought about sex, and has said in an interview that he wants people to think about their "conversational life" more than they do. He succeeded with me.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.