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Conversation

Talking is a pleasure in itself. Someone who can talk about anything has a distinct virtue, as does someone who can talk to anyone. But most talk is not between people; it is between roles. Perhaps on a long trip on an elevator you will hear how talk has a life of its own. Two people start talking; one gets off, someone else gets on; the talker says to the newcomer what he would have said to the other talker; and so on until, like a living thing, the form of the session of talk has survived the replacement of each of its parts.

Of course, we are all in the elevator: we must all get off at some stop, and can but hope that our places will be taken. But the places we leave metaphorically are changed by having been ours; the places we leave when we step out are the same places we stepped into.

Most talking is like this. Most of what is said—even between people who know each other well—has only token use, is said only to have said something. The rest belongs to the relation, not the participants. You say something to your child, and it is what any parent would say to any child; to your wife, to your husband, and it is just what each would say to the other; to your friend, it is what friends say to friends; to your acquaintance, it is how decent people talk to each other; to a stranger, it is what anyone would say under the circumstances.

This sounds wearying; but in truth most people expect nothing else. We take it for wearying because those who cannot stand it, complain. Their expectation is to be able to speak with those they are close to as person to person, without rule or model; or at least—if rule is necessary to smooth close joints—to spare conventions with acquaintances or strangers, to speak man to man.

This speaking as oneself, beyond or before roles, they call conversation. The name is curiously solid. The world friend has been attenuated; but we do not, for example, pretend that we can have conversations with authority: your boss can say to you, "I want you to think of me as your friend"; but not "I want you to think of this as a conversation." And though the Internet has "conversation" for its epithet, a particular online exchange must be remarkable to receive the name.

There are things that cannot be conversed about and people who cannot have conversations. There can be conversations about politics or religion only between indifferent people: political or religious convictions, as far as they are commitments, do not recess. Likewise, you cannot have conversations about personal commitments equal to these public ones: you cannot have a conversation about your family or your vocation, because there you are not independent, and therefore not conversational.

If to converse is to speak as yourself, why not center conversation there? But the most personal topics are the least individual: the more personal a detail, the most resistlessly it sorts you. Tell your pains, hear your kind; tell your pleasures, hear your disease. There is room for the individual only after abstraction, in the faculties esthetic, philosophical, and—especially—critical. Consequential as they are in commitment, they are harmless in conversation, like composite explosive. Later you can fit the detonator and announce yourself to the world. Here, for now, your thoughts are free, rapid, and sure as the thoughts of angels.