A History of a Declining Art

by Stephen Miller

Yale, 368 pp., $27.50

Conversation just isn't that important anymore. The activity of speaking face to face with friends and family for extended periods has been, it sometimes seems, outlawed. Families dine in front of televisions; teenagers "text" friends in the same room; and our restaurants and pubs, places formerly thought to foster conversation, now throb with "music" so loud as to force people to shout.

Nobody, certainly nobody in our cities, can engage in conversation for more than 10 or 15 minutes without a cellular phone blurting out some idiotic melody, with the inevitable result that one of the conversation's participants is pulled away for some, no doubt significant, reason. There are PDAs, laptops, and BlackBerrys to keep us disengaged from those around us; and there are the ever-mutating codes of political correctness to discourage us from uttering more than banalities lest we scandalize the enlightened.

Conversation has been written about many times over the last three centuries, but just now, awash as we are in what Stephen Miller calls "conversational avoidance devices," the subject seems refreshingly relevant. Miller's essay, as he calls it, begins with the ancients' views on conversation. Initially I wondered why Miller had felt it necessary to begin with the ancient world (Job, Plato's Symposium, Cicero's On Duties), but Cicero, it seems, was the first to deal with the vital question about conversation, namely the connection between the habits of cultivated conversation and the stability of the state. It was that relationship--the relationship, in other words, between talking together and living peaceably together--that animated a remarkable number of the 18th century's boldest intellects.

Readers whose interests lie outside 18th-century writing may be surprised to discover just how large the subject of conversation loomed in the minds of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and especially David Hume; but for them, as also for the saner thinkers of the French Enlightenment, polite conversation represented one of the few societal conventions keeping civilization from degenerating into disunion and civil war--as, quite literally, England had in the 1640s and '50s.

There had, of course, been conversation before and during the English civil wars; but polite conversation, which is to say conversation shaped and defined by a complex code of manners, was largely an invention of the 18th century. The Earl of Shaftesbury outraged the ecclesiastical establishment by proposing, in an originally anonymous collection of writings called Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), that modern society should be governed, not by the recondite principles of religion, but by the ideals of politeness. The chief of those ideals was that of cultivated conversation: Free-flowing, good natured, cultured, aimless but reasonable conversation.

Throughout the latter 17th and early 18th centuries, roughly speaking the age of the later Stuarts, coffeehouses sprouted throughout the cities of England, Scotland, and Wales. These were places where the art of polite conversation was practiced and judged with great sophistication by the burgeoning middle classes. Almost every major 18th-century writer, from Alexander Pope to James Boswell, wrote extensively about their own skills in conversation, and especially the skills, or shortcomings, of others. Principal among the spirits of the "conversible world," as it was known, was a writer Miller rightly takes more seriously than is customary in modern scholarship, Joseph Addison, whose hebdomadal essays in The Spectator (1711-12) did more than any other publication to promote the virtues of conversation.

Addison wrote at a time when general elections in Britain made elections of our own day seem cheerful by comparison; indeed, many thought civil war was inevitable. Miller reckons that, by modeling in beautifully direct prose the good humor and civility of polite conversations, and by making the goings-on of the conversible world seem so attractive, The Spectator helped to lower the temperature of the British polity. While a variety of extremist and obscurantist ideologies goaded the nation towards violence, the presence of a civilized and intellectually vibrant conversible world seemed to offer something better--a national and cultural life defined by reciprocity instead of aggression and bombast, good humor instead of excessive gravity, moderation instead of fanaticism.

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.

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