The Activity of Conversation

When I was a child and went to visit relatives with my parents, I thought how fortunate I was to be a child because I could go off to play in the room of my relative’s child, and use his toys as well as the ones I had brought with me, while the adults spent their time in the living room just talking. I was not aware of the activity of conversation and what were its rewards. That had to wait until I was slightly older when I would sit on the stoop outside my apartment building and go over what my friends and I had seen on television or what we knew about girls. It is worth pondering conversation as an essential human activity and how it is structured. I will leave to others, such as Roland Wulbert, the question of how we are able to exchange utterances so that they add up to something meaningful.

The first thing to not about conversation is that it is unalienated, just like work you care about or land with which you identify, or rights that are essential to being human. Conversation includes what you can’t help saying as well as the lies you choose to tell. We tell our enemies as well as our friends what we really think, whether in outbursts to get things off our chest or to proclaim our beliefs or to tell people off. Why, otherwise, are we so forthcoming, having to curb ourselves when we do not want to reveal ourselves? Conversation is an expression of the self that tells what people really think or think about. You can trust what people say in that what they say always reveals something about themselves. Donald Trump reveals his feelings about immigrants however his defenders try to turn his policies into matters of principled differences about what to do with a refugee crisis.

Think of the conversation that Eliza Doolittle has with Henry Higgins’ mother and his mother’s friends when they are first introduced. Eliza has learned how to enunciate, but what is it that she talks about? She is at ease in talking about the murder of a relative who she did not believe died from too much gin but as a result of foul play. That is because Eliza brings to the table her superior knowledge, her insight into the character of her relatives, that allows her do draw that conclusion. She takes pride in her deduction and so trots it out to show that she is capable and confident and so not, as these people do not know her to be, merely a flower girl, although that is very much what the content of her talk makes her sound like. Freddy prefers another interpretation of her conversation that puts her in a less course light. She is engaging in “the new small talk”, which is a fad whereby people deliberately sound as if they are from a less well mannered class than they actually are. Eliza wants to know if she has said something wrong and he reassures her that she has in fact been delightful. So conversation is both a matter of custom and an expression of what it is you have to say, and Shaw’s point is that the cultured classes have very little to talk about while the poor are eloquent in their observations of life, as that class is represented by Eliza and her father, he having the makings of a great public speaker. What Eliza learns additionally so that she can maintain her pose at the elegant ball is to make idle chit chat or remain silent so no one can penetrate your mystery. She then raises herself to an even higher level of conversation by being able to argue with Higgins on his own level, to be as penetrating in her comments as he is, and therefore so much better than most members of his social class.

Conversation being unalienated leads, whether people intend it or not, to conversation being revelatory, in that people come to speak of themselves as a topic even if they resist the urge to do so. That is what allows John Le Carre’s characters to turn one another around. Smiley finds just the right time to announce to Karla that he knows about the condition of his daughter so that Karla no longer feels it is a simple betrayal but rather a marshalling of his higher interests and therefore, to his own mind, now somewhat respectable even though on previous occasions he had been willing to return home to the Soviet Union to face death rather than betray his country, bringing with him the pocket lighter that Anne had given Smiley, which showed that Karla, at that point, had made better use of his information and what to bring forward and what not to than had Smiley.  In this light, Shakespeare’s soliloquies are not just asides to get information across to the audience. They are internal dialogues whereby people inspect their own motives as if from the outside. Both Hamlet and Richard III do this, Hamlet to explain himself in terms of Renaissance themes having to do with the status of mankind rather than in terms of his immediate situation, which he does allude to when he speaks of what is rotten in Denmark. Richard III gathers up his grievances to inspire him to put into action his deceitful plan.

George Eliot, however, does give into the idea that people can commingle with one another through conversation rather than just understand themselves. People somehow speak the same language in that they share interests as well as a plane of conversation which is different from most of the people about them. Dorothea, in “Middlemarch”, is drawn to Casaubon, however aware she is of his poor manners and his age, his infirmities clear to everyone else, partly, perhaps, out of her naivete about the sexual side of marriage, but because his conversation sets him out as a person concerned with lofty matters, even if not political ones, which will further the conversation about religion beyond the platitudes of doctrine or being a cooperative and friendly spirit, such as is seen in the clergymen who are available in the town. One wonders, however, why she does not interest herself in Lydgate, who shares her concerns for the poor and for social justice, or for the artist who later gains her affections. Women grow fond of the chatter associated with their courtiers. As another of Dorothea’s suitors states, her opinions are her own, which is also the case with Emma Woodhouse, who is made attractive to Knightly by just that fact, whatever the limitations of her judgment.

Conversation is an activity that is also stratified in that there are appropriate topics and locutions used in each of the social classes, though perhaps Shaw had not made enough of this when he made Higgins a linguist rather than a social scientist, though perhaps Shaw was just out to spare the feelings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, his fellow Fabian Socialists. It would have been easy to put the grim Webbs, the model social science people of his time, to comic use, given their proclivity to host dinner parties at which they did not serve much food.

People, in fact, converse as they do within their social classes because conversation is based on interests and equipment, both on the richness of language skills and on the sophistication of what is known in that class about the world. So poor people comment about their boyfriends and the soap operas they watch while working class people comment about sports or their spouses, trying to forget what they have done as employees during the course of the day to give them the leisure time not to think about work. Middle class people comment on the movies or, maybe, plays that they have seen, as well as about child rearing habits, while well educated people talk about what is not to be talked about at the dinner table: politics and religion and make use of what they have learned from school to make some sense of those topics. Liberal New Yorkers, at the moment, are obsessed with talking about Trump.

It is interesting that Jane Austen’s characters do not directly address politics, though they are aware of the impact of reform farmers and naval men enriched by prize money. One can conclude that discussing politics directly was not regarded as fitting and that the gentry Austen portrays were ill equipped to enter into the discussion of the liberal and conservative points of view that political thinkers and journalists by the time of Regency England had already elaborated. Jane Austen had herself attended the then famous impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal, and she was certainly gifted enough to fashion political conversations, but Jane kept her fidelity to describe only what she actually observed about life and so one can presume that political topics did not arise among the rural gentry. No making them mouthpieces for causes that they did not understand. Some of the characters in “Middlemarch” do talk about scholarship and art and that is because they are interested in them, but most do not which is why literary souls, like Dorothea and Casaubon, are drawn to one another. Daniel Deronda and his friends talk politics and of other sophisticated topics, but most of George Eliot’s characters, such as those in “Silas Marner” and “Adam Bede”, do not, because they are simpler folk and so perhaps more “authentic” for being that.

There is also a dramatic structure to conversations. They proceed in time and have an arc to them. They can be unfolding or revealing or disputatious. Jane Austen was the master at setting up conversations which had established forms but where each took up a life of its own, unfolding into something the characters who entered into them would not know was happening. Famously, Darcy makes a marriage proposal to Elizabeth that just goes all wrong and turns out to be what we might generally call a break up conversation, which is what happens when lovers announce, perhaps not expecting to, that they never want to see one another again. Darcy is angry at the fact that he has fallen for a girl so much beneath him and so frames the term of his proposal in the form of a contract: what will be expected of each party. What he proposes is not at all outrageous, not so different from what might occur these days with a prenuptial agreement. Any sensible girl might agree, aware of the different stations in life of the two partners and so knowing that some compromises are required, just as Charlotte made compromises when she married Mr. Collins. But Elizabeth is not that sort of girl. She is not flattered by the fact that Darcy has fallen in love with her in spite of himself. She is a romantic who requires uncontested and uncompromised love, a marriage of two minds with no impediments, Jane Austen having read her Shakespeare carefully. And so she is angry in turn and not only turns him down but also makes clear, as perhaps she had not meant to do, that she wants nothing more to do with him, and he, offended by this rejection of what he had thought a generous offer, is insulted and decides not to displeasure her with any further attention that would, by the way, bring a great deal of hurt to himself.

After the whole Wickham incident, which Elizabeth discovers was brought to right or at least to a respectable conclusion, the offending couple exiled to a remote military base, not to be heard of again, perhaps to spare the reader the need to consider Wickham’s future infidelities, Darcy has another conversation with Elizabeth, which has the shape of a make up conversation but in fact is a second marriage proposal because Jane Austen is so good at combining things in dramatic fashion so that the tale does not go on as long as would, let us say, a Dickens novel. Darcy takes the first step by apologizing for his previous behavior and daring to raise a question which might have seemed settled. This alone is a manly thing to do, a way to approach Elizabeth as a penitent rather than as a creature of grandeur, even as his previous conversation with her had been condescending although also a confession of weakness. She immediately remarks that her own words had been unnecessarily harsh and so she can now take his declaration of love on its face, not as the statement of an angry man, though he is still that and will no doubt continue to be one. (It may be, in this respect, that I am preferring Laurence Oliver’s interpretation of the role to that of Colin Firth, who doesn’t ever seem all that angry at all.) The two conversations balance one another off and, as is true in all Jane Austen novels, the characters reveal their free will by how they shape their conversations.

There is an existential quality to conversation which makes it the bedrock of human experience and so it is quite right to say that other animals, even if sentient and capable of feeling pain and other emotions, are not quite on the same level as humans because of their failure to use speech, however much they may signal or grunt to one another or do so many things that are short of speech. Sartre sets up “No Exit” as a play where Hell is people engaged in a never ending round of recrimination and withering analysis. But the primary insight of the play is that people go on talking in Hell, and so long as they do that, they continue to be human, however excoriating the experience may be.