Fragments on Conversation

When was the last time you had a real conversation, one where you felt engaged and where the person you were talking to felt the same and together you developed each other’s ideas so that you ended some distance from where you began? David Hare puts the question more succinctly, “Have you ever been present at a panel on which one person’s perceptions built on another’s?”

Two recent books have considered the waning art of conversation. Stephen Miller writes in Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, “This is the age of the screed, the rant, the tirade, the jeremiad, the diatribe, the venom-fueled, white-hot harangue.” Well, it’s not that bad, of course, but at times it seems close.

Miller quotes Rebecca West who remarked, “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” Miller’s book is largely a historical account of the nature of conversation over the centuries and the way in which we are rapidly evolving into a culture of non-conversation. He cites Cicero’s desire that it “be gentle and without a trace of intransigence; it should also be witty” and Montaigne who found the pleasure of good conversation, “… the most delightful activity in our lives.”

Theodore Zeldin continues in this vein in his book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. For him, “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards….That’s where I find the excitement. It’s like a spark that two minds create.”

It’s the meeting of two minds that creates conversation at it’s best. It happens so rarely but when it does, you know it in a flash. In Approaching Eye Level, Vivian Gornick writes , “Nothing makes me feel more alive, and in the world, than the sound of my own mind working in the presence of one that’s responsive.” Have you had such an experience lately?

Gornick continues, “Good conversation is dependent on a simple but mysterious fit of mind and spirit that cannot be achieved, it just occurs. It’s not a matter of mutual interests or class concerns or commonly held ideals, it’s a matter of temperament; the thing that makes someone respond instinctively...In the presence of shared temperament conversation almost never loses its free, unguarded flow. In its absence one is always walking on eggshells. Shared temperament is analogous to the way a set of gears works. The idea is not complicated but the mesh must be perfect.

The process is also not unlike the one described by Lyn Schwartz in Rough Strife: “She thought about Michelangelo’s statues that they had seen years ago in Florence in the first excitement of their love, figures hidden in the block of stone, uncovered only by the artist’s chipping away the excess, the superficial blur, till smooth and spare, the idea shape was revealed. She and Ivan were hammer and chisel to each other.”

Scott Renfrow, a social psychologist, has wondered: “What is the source of the ineffable “chemistry” that some couples enjoy? The question is both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because of its richness and complexity; frustrating because it has defied simple answers. Indeed, precisely why members of some couples get along better than do others has, for the most part, remained cloaked in mystery.”

For years, I have been mulling over this issue. What conditions are necessary to bring it about? It can’t be planned. It can’t be looked for. It is not well understood. We do not know if certain individuals are more likely than others to have this experience, or if certain types of personalities are more disposed than others to match up this way, and we have no clue about the kind of situations where it is most likely to occur. But if, as Gornick says, the experience is "analogous to the way a set of gears works," perhaps we will eventually come to understand it. However, whatever we might one day come to learn about this "minor miracle" will in no way affect the thrill that is to be had when it occurs.