Conversation: A history of a declining art, by Stephen Miller

Say goodbye to the joys of talk
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The Independent Culture

In chapter three of his charming (and alarming) history of conversation, Stephen Miller debates "Three Factors Affecting Conversation": religion, commerce, women. David Hume (who wrote of "the conversible world") and Dr Johnson concurred that the religious enthusiast was the enemy of conversation. We need no historical precedent to assure ourselves that the conversation of commercial men is infantile, savage and intolerable, being devoted to boasts, lies and enumerations. And who could disagree with Hume (again) who wrote that, "Mixt companies without the fair-sex, are the most insipid entertainment in the world, and destitute of gaiety and politeness, as much as of sense and reason. Nothing can keep them from excessive dulness but hard drinking; a remedy worse than the disease."

Since Miller describes his book as an informal and anecdotal "essay", I feel justified in responding with my own experience that the best conversation through my life has been with women; particularly with those women whom I have known intimately, that intimacy being perhaps defined as a continuing conversation. But I also know that I have been exceptionally lucky, and that (if they can be believed) the majority of people never live with their partners in the "conversible world". They speak of arrangements, appointments, obligations; they chat, gossip, make plans and solve problems; sometimes, one will recite fears and defeats while the other listens. But conversation, which Miller cites the philosopher Michael Oakeshott as saying "distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilised man from the barbarian", is seldom one of their joys.

A great joy it is; perhaps the greatest and certainly the most enduring. Miller's history, as elegantly affable as the conversationalists he admires, reminds us that we are starved of it. We now watch a debased parody of conversation on television; we listen to an artifically corralled version on radio; the brutish posturings of our political discourse support Deborah Tannen's assertion that "Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention". Generally, we use language to fight or to nuzzle, and most of the time we could do perfectly well without it.

Even in places where we might expect conversation to retain its status as one of the humane arts, we would find ourselves confounded. The picture of the academy as a Platonic grove of civil, and civilised, discourse is a myth. Miller's own experience is that "academics tend to be more dogmatic than other professional people", as Joseph Epstein observed that in academic life "there is no real conversation; just various people awaiting their own turn to hold forth". Hume had complained about learning, starved of conversation, being "shut up in Colleges" so that "Philosophy went to Wrack by this moping recluse Method of Study and became as chimerical in her Conclusions as she was unintelligible in her Stile and Manner of delivery".

The apparent free discourse of the "communications age" is equally chimerical; internet chat, text messaging, email and blogging have all too often, Miller suggests, become methods of avoiding conversation. The virtual salon is really a series of consecutive sopaboxes where absurd disputes arise, conducted without sense or elegance. The invitation I once received in Ireland, on which my hostess had announced herself At Home and had written "Conversation, 4.00 to 7.00", would be unthinkable now, and probably terrifying.

Miller reminds us what we have lost and, in passing, of the understanding shared by Hume, Boswell and Johnson, among others, that "Scotch people" had little place in the conversible world. Perhaps the answer is a return to the salon, currently under revival by, in Oxford, John Lloyd's QI Club; in Cambridge, by the illusory demimondaine and (in reality, the grande verticale) Rowan Pelling, and, in Bath, by the philosopher Julian Baggini and the writer and publisher Katharine Reeve.

It is a promising start; but let us hope they turn out nothing like the American salon referred to, in some dismay, by Miller. It was called "Pow-Wows" and offered "freestyle gatherings" where "artists, tech-heads, educational visionaries, painters and neo-country-western singers ate, sang, danced, talked and inspired one another". Not what he has in mind at all. And the measure of his book is that it makes one want to rush out and converse about it. Four o'olock to seven; bring your wits.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta

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