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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

The Archaic Art of Discourse

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I was first going to call it simply "talk." But the word carries too much baggage. There's talk, and there's talk. Discourse and drivel, shall we pejoratively say?

It's revealing, I'm sure, that at least one dictionary defines the sort of discourse I mean as "coherent reflection or thought". . . only to brand it "archaic."

I'm hardly the only one; but for years (as my readers may have noticed) I've lamented the seeming decline of serious discourse in "the public prints," as they used to be called. (That I can't call them "media" in itself confirms my point. Print is the only "medium," save maybe the spiritualist kind, truly hospitable to discourse.) My lone reward for my labors, it seems, is to have been hopelessly misunderstood, at least by editors and fellow writers.

Well, but no wonder. I was treating the problem too narrowly, doctoring a symptom, not the disease. Still, if I haven't cured the condition, at least I've put it in the proper larger context. Serious discourse has declined in the written word (look at e-mail, if you can stand it) because, first, it declined in the spoken. "Coherent thought" is "archaic!"

Of course it's misleading to judge from personal experiences; but mine I think are typical. Generations ago, family meals were talkfests. Sunday dinner went on till late afternoon, the one kind of "jawing" as deadly serious as the other. Neighbors or friends dropped in not for a reason, not to do anything, merely to talk. Evenings one spent out on the front porch, definitively unraveling the Riddle of the Universe... definitively at least till tomorrow night.

For me, then, it was a mindbending jolt when we visited my mother's older sister and her tribe, divided from us by years, miles, manners, and above all minds.

Somehow, you just couldn't get those folks to sit down and talk. They had to be "doing" something ("pawing the air," as I called it). Arriving, you were handed your itinerary: today the mall, tonight the show, tomorrow the zoo, etc. Or when they came to you (200 miles in the car), down came the decree, disguised as an impulse: "Let's all go for a little drive!" Grandchildren were choused like doggies or West Point plebes, no mischievous stray moment left unregimented, no catching-the-breath in which one might succumb to such subversiveness as talk.

You came away wondering, who were they, these unstrange strangers? Didn't they ever just sit down and get to know each other even, let alone you or any other chance comer; or, most important, themselves? They knew a lot of things. They knew the way to the mall, the zoo, etc.; but they couldn't have found the human heart or head even with GPS. Apart from shared family memories, ever fading, ever recycled, had the "doing" ever flagged in their presence, the silence would have been deafening. When they weren't "doing," you half-suspected, like Henry James's Lord Mellifont, they just weren't there at all.

More recently, I spent a few days visiting friends, sharers of pleasant past associations. Alas, not once during my stay was the television turned off, or even down. To my host, it seems, the television, not I, was the honored guest. His smalltalk was all of its inane flickering images. Huh?

I honestly didn't want to watch the circenses, a.k.a. the Olympics? Or reruns of that forgotten unforgettable sitcom? Well, then, what about such-and-such scientific or historical offering, some skin-deep skimming of those bottomless depths, thinly sandwiched among in-your-face hucksterings of noxious nostrums and gaga gadgets? No. I wanted him to turn the damned thing off and look me in the face and join me in "coherent reflection or thought."

Of course most of the nostalgically-recalled old-time talk was drivel, too. But if one had a thought in him, at least the conditions for getting it out were there.

In the best of times, serious talk takes place among very few people, ideally just two at a time. For such blessed souls, life itself is an ongoing discourse. They go through it addressing each other's points in turn. They don't fudge them, they don't talk past each other to the crowd, as in our so-called political "debates." Essentially they're allies, seeking the truth together, not adversaries, out to grab the chance personal or partisan advantage.

American schools, at least since Dewey, seem to have opted for drivel, marketed under such euphemisms as "brainstorming" or even (for crying out loud) "group thinking." That misfit back there subversively whispering in his neighbor's ear or covertly reading "War and Peace" must be forcibly "socialized" down to his statistical Dick-and-Jane level.

Me, I can't help trying, in both speech and print, to carry on a discourse from one day to the next: "I've wondered about what you said yesterday" or "wrote in your last column."

Most people seem not only to make no such effort but to feel no need of it, of long-term coherence in their lives. Sufficient unto the day is the muddle thereof! The Riddle of the Universe, they contend, remains un-unraveled despite thousands of years of asking by wiser men than them. Why bother, then, when escape's just the flick of the TV remote away?

But to a certain kind of mind, even if the great Questions are unanswerable, it's still more important to go on asking them than to deal in the latest brands of drivel.

C. S. Lewis tells of a hostess who warned, Never let two men sit together "or they'll get talking about some subject, and then there'll be no fun." "An endless, prattling 'jolly' replaces the intercourse of minds," Lewis mourned. "Talk, by all means; unceasing cascades of the human voice; but not, please, a subject. The talk must not be about anything."

Yes, even drivel, "prattling jolly," speaking and writing about nothing, have their avid listeners and readers.

But the level of a man's intelligence is the measure of his duty. If he's wise enough to know the difference, his duty is to speak and write about "something," at least once in a while. Life's too short to spend it doing less, speaking and writing less than our best. And, above all, of things worth speaking and writing about.

As Plato says in "Meno": "That belief in the duty of inquiring about what we don't know will make us better and more manly and less helpless than if we think that we can't discover what we don't know and have no duty of delving into it."