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The Decline of Conversation

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06/15/2012Albert Jay Nock

[On Doing the Right Thing, chapter 3, "The Decline of Conversation."]

Speaking as Bishop Pontoppidan did about the owls in Iceland, the most significant thing that I have noticed about conversation in America is that there is so little of it, and as time goes on there seems less and less of it in my hearing. I miss even so much of the free play of ideas as I used to encounter years ago. It would seem that my countrymen no longer have the ideas and imagination they formerly had, or that they care less for them, or that for some reason they are diffident about them and do not like to bring them out. At all events the exercise of ideas and imagination has become unfashionable. When I first remarked this phenomenon I thought it might be an illusion of advancing age, since I have come to years when the past takes on an unnaturally attractive color. But as time went on the fact became unmistakable and I began to take notice accordingly.

As I did so a long-buried anecdote arose to the top of my mind and has remained there ever since. I am reminded of it daily. Years ago Brand Whitlock told me the story of an acquaintance of his — something in the retail clothing way — junior partner in a firm whose name I no longer remember, so for convenience we will make acknowledgments to Mr. Montague Glass and call it Maisener and Finkman. Mr. Finkman turned up at the store one Monday morning, full of delight at the wonderful time he had had at his partner's house the evening before — excellent company, interesting conversation, a supreme occasion in every respect. After dinner, he said — and such a dinner! — "we go in the parlor and all the evening until midnight we sit and talk it business."

Day after day strengthens the compulsion to accept Mr. Finkman as a type. This might be thought a delicate matter to press, but after all, Mr. Finkman is no creation of one's fancy, but on the contrary he is a solid and respectable reality, a social phenomenon of the first importance, and he accordingly deserves attention both by the positive side of his preferences and addictions and by the negative side of his distastes. I am farthest in the world from believing that anything should be "done about" Mr. Finkman, or that he should be studied with an ulterior view either to his disparagement or his uplift. I am unequivocally for his right to an unlimited exercise of his likes and dislikes, and his right to get as many people to share them as he can. All I suggest is that the influence of his tastes and distastes upon American civilization should be understood. The moment one looks at the chart of this civilization one sees the line set by Mr. Finkman, and this line is so distinct that one cannot but take it as one's principal lead. If one wishes to get a measure of American civilization, one not only must sooner or later take the measure of Mr. Fink-man's predilections, but will save time and trouble by taking it at the outset.

As evidence of the reach of Mr. Finkman's influence on the positive side, I notice that those of my American acquaintance whose interests are not purely commercial show it as much as others. Musicians, writers, painters, and the like seem to be at their best and to entertain themselves best when they "talk it business." In bringing up the other instincts into balance with the instinct of expansion, such persons as these have an advantage, and one would expect to see that advantage reflected in their conversation much more clearly and steadily than it is. Where two or three of them were gathered together, one would look for a considerable play of ideas and imagination, and one would think that the instinct of expansion — since one perforce must give so much attention to it at other times — might gladly be let off on furlough. But I observe that this is seldom the case. For the most part, like Mr. Finkman, these people begin to be surest of themselves, most at ease and interested, at the moment when the instinct of expansion takes charge of conversation and gives it a directly practical turn.

One wonders why this should be so. Why should Mr. Finkman himself, after six days' steady service of the instinct of expansion, be at his best and happiest when he yet "talks it business" on the seventh? It is because he has managed to drive the whole current of his being through the relatively narrow channel set by the instinct of expansion. When he "talks it business," therefore, he gets the exhilarating sense of drive and speed. A millstream might thus think itself of more consequence than a river; probably the Iser feels more importance and exhilaration in its narrow leaping course than the Mississippi in filling all the streams of its delta. By this excessive simplification of existence Mr. Finkman has established the American formula of success. He makes money, but money is his incidental reward; his real reward is in the continuous exhilaration that he gets out of the processes of making it. My friends whose interests are not exclusively commercial feel the authority of the formula and share in the reward of its obedience. My friend A, for example, writes a good novel. His instincts of intellect, beauty, morals, religion, and manners, let us say, all have a hand in it and are satisfied. He makes enough out of it to pay him for writing it, and so his instinct of expansion is satisfied. But he is satisfied, not exhilarated. When, on the other hand, his publisher sells a hundred thousand copies of another novel, he is at once in the American formula of success. The novel may not have much exercised his sense of intellect, beauty, morals, religion, and manners — it may be, in other words, an indifferent novel — but he is nevertheless quite in Mr. Finkman's formula of success and he is correspondingly exhilarated. He has crowded the whole stream of his being into the channel cut by the instinct of expansion, and his sensations correspond to his achievement.

Thus by his positive action in establishing the American formula of success, Mr. Finkman has cut what the Scots call a "monstrous cantle" out of conversation. Conversation depends upon a copiousness of general ideas and an imagination able to marshal them. When one "talks it business," one's ideas may be powerful, but they are special; one's imagination may be vigorous, but its range is small. Hence proceeds the habit of particularizing — usually, too, by way of finding the main conversational staple in personalities. This habit carries over, naturally, into whatever excursions Mr. Finkman's mind is occasionally led to make outside the domain of the instinct of expansion; for his disuse of imagination and general ideas outside this sphere disinclines him to them and makes him unhandy with them. Thus it is that conversation in America, besides its extreme attenuation, presents another phenomenon. On its more serious side it is made up almost entirely of particularization and, on its higher side, of personalities.

These characteristics mark the conversation of children and, therefore, may be held to indicate an extremely immature civilization. The other day a jovial acquaintance who goes out to dinner a good deal told me a story that brings out this point. It seems he had just been hearing bitter complaints from a seasoned hostess who for years has fed various assorted contingents of New York's society at her board. She said that conversation at her dinner-table had about reached the disappearing-point. She had as much trouble about getting her guests into conversation as one has with youngsters at a children's party, and all the conversation she could prod out of them nowadays, aside from personalities, came out in the monotonous minute-gun style of particular declaration and perfunctory assent.

"She's right about that," my friend went on. "Here's a precis of the kind of thing I hear evening after evening. We go in to dinner talking personalities, no matter what subject is up. The theater — we talk about the leading lady's gowns and mannerisms, and her little ways with her first husband. Books — we hash over all the author's rotten press-agentry, from the make of his pajamas to the way he does his hair. Music — we tell one another what a dear love of a conductor Kaskowhisky is, and how superior in all respects to von Bugghaus, whose back isn't half so limber. Damned quacks actually, you know, both of them! Good Lord! man, can you wonder that this country killed Mahler and put Karl Muck in jail?

"Well, we sit down at the table. Personalities taper off with the end of the soup. Silence. Then some puffy old bullfrog of a banker retrieves his nose out of his soup-cup, stiffens up, coughs behind his napkin, and looks up and down the line. 'Isn't it remarkable how responsibility brings out a man's resources of greatness? Now who would have thought two years ago that Calvin Coolidge would ever develop into a great leader of men?'

"Guests, in unison, acciaccato — 'Uh-huh.'

"Next course. Personalities pick up a little and presently taper off again. Somebody else stiffens up and pulls himself together. 'Isn't it splendid to see the great example that America is setting in the right use of wealth? Just think, for instance, of all the good that Mr. Rockefeller has done with his money.'

"Guests, fastoso — 'Uh-huh.'"

My lively friend may have exaggerated a little — I hope so — but his report is worth an observer's careful notice for purposes of comparison with what one hears oneself. His next remark is worth attention as bringing out still another specific characteristic of immaturity.

"But what goes against my grain," he continued, "is that if you pick up some of this infernal guff and try to pull it away from the particular and personal, and to make real conversation of it, they sit on you as if you were an enemy of society. Start the banker on a discussion of the idea of leadership — what it means, what the qualifications for leadership are, and how far any president can go to fill the bill — how far any of them has ever gone to fill it — and all he'll do is to grunt, and say, 'I guess you must be some sort of a Red, ain't you?' A bit of repartee like that gets him a curtain call from the rest every time. It's a fine imaginative lot that I train with, believe me! I have sat at dinner tables in Europe with every shade of opinion, I should say, and in one way or another they all came out. That's what the dinner was got up for. How can you have any conversation if all you are expected to do is to agree?"

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