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Always more to say
On the place and purpose of conversation in literary history.
by James Como
To begin, this quiz: who is the speaker of the long quotation below? Hint: it is one of the most famous fictional characters in the history of English letters. Another hint: early in the narrative, the character “muttered some inarticulate sounds.” Later, he speaks:
You have destroyed the work which you began; what is it that you intend? Do you dare to break your promise? I have endured toil and misery: I left Switzerland with you; I crept along the shores of the Rhine, among its willow islands, and over the summits of its hills. . . . I have endured incalculable fatigue, and cold, and hunger, do you dare to destroy my hopes?
In fact, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature develops into quite the eloquent self-advocate, to whom his creator must surrender the conversational floor.
That garrulous entity arrived not very long after the regular gatherings of quite irregular men. Readers here will know of Leo Damrosch’s The Club, a superb account of the eponymous group of high achievers who met at the Turk’s Head Tavern, Gerrard Street, Soho, during the second half of the eighteenth century. Among others, the group included Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, and, of course, Samuel Johnson. The requirement for membership was that one be good company.
But the standards among such celebrated individuals were high. His companions, for example, alleged that Burke was a tiresome punster and a lame wit. One member allowed that he “hammered his wit upon an anvil, and the iron was cold.” Johnson compared his attempts at wit to a man trying to jump over a ditch and falling in. Yet Fanny Burney, the novelist and accomplished saloniste, said this about Burke upon meeting him for the first time:
His voice is clear, penetrating, sonorous, and powerful; his language is copious . . . and eloquent . . . his conversation is delightful! I can give you very little of what was said, for the conversation . . . [darted] from subject to subject with as much rapidity as entertainment; neither is the charm of his discourse more in the matter than the manner. All, therefore, that is related from him loses half its effect in not being related by him.
Not bad, I would say; “clubbable,” Johnson did say.
Damrosch allows that the raison d’être of the club was conversation, for (as Epicurus knew) good conversation makes for good company. There the star was Johnson, about whom Oliver Goldsmith opined, “if his pistol [of wit] misfires, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” Often, when Johnson started an argument, Garrick would say, “he’s wondering which side he shall take.” For his part, though, Johnson believed that the most impressive figure among them was Burke. He said, “you could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.”
We learn that of the forty-two members elected in the first twenty years, only four were “peers of the realm.” That is, the rest of the membership was of “the middling sort” (i.e., from the middle class), with many having known real poverty. Johnson was quite proud of that fact, too. Here Damrosch quotes C. S. Lewis to the same effect:
When I was a boy—a bourgeois boy—that term was applied to my social class by the class above it. Bourgeois meant “not aristocratic, therefore vulgar.” When I was in my twenties this changed. My class was now vilified by the class below it; bourgeois began to mean “not proletarian, therefore parasitic, reactionary.” Thus it has always been a reproach to assign a man to that class which has provided the world with nearly all its divines, poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, doctors, architects, and administrators.
In covering great swaths of intellectual, social, and biographical ground so engagingly, Damrosch has made me wish what Johnson wished of Don Quixote: that it were longer.
But having shoehorned in C. S. Lewis, I must take note of a second talking club, as famous in its day as “the Club” in its own, and still the object of much study. “The Inklings” came upon the Oxford scene in the thirties and gathered regularly until Lewis’s death in the early sixties. (Anyone interested in the Inklings should consult Diane Pavlac Glyer’s The Company they Keep, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, and Humphrey Carpenters, Inklings.) The group included, most prominently, Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, then for a while Charles Williams. Active at the meetings were Owen Barfield, Warren Lewis, Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, and John Wain, among many others.
There the men (as with the Club, no women) drank, ate, and smoked, but mostly talked, mostly about works in progress. Heavy blows were landed. Tolkien observed that only Barfield could keep up with Lewis in argument, but that none could stay with him when quotations were in order. Barfield (a lawyer and a philosopher of considerable note) allowed that no one had Lewis’s presence of mind, meaning everything the man knew was then and there available for immediate use. Membership was unofficial, but uninvited or surprise attendees were actively discouraged.
Silliness often accompanied argument, and beloved pains in the ass were tolerated, though not always with ease. (Take the case of the obstreperous and often intolerant Dyson, who aggressively discouraged Tolkien’s work; but, then again, Johnson loathed Gibbon as well.) Much cross-fertilization of imagination and literary spirit flowed among and between members, but it was Jack Lewis who was the Inklings’ Dr. Johnson. He was the most voluble of men, whose “dialectical obstetrics” (Barfield’s phrase) became legendary, and who wondered himself why he “could never say anything once.”
Today we have none to compare with either Johnson or Lewis. Perhaps the closest our age came to such a star, let alone megastar, was in William F. Buckley. His success was owing, I think, to his eagerness to turn an interview into a conversation. (Heather Hendershot has shown us how he did it in Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on The Firing Line.) Although there are nowadays the occasional simulacra, they are uncommon and frequently revert to form.
That brings us, penultimately, to The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. Why did Dr. Johnson so love this book? Why should we? The Don is mad, of course, but always he seems possessed with a subterranean awareness of that madness. In part two, with layers of disputed authorship at issue, this awareness begins to rise—until he snaps out of it and dies, at peace. By then Cervantes has taken us through a labyrinthine consciousness as engaging as any, even Hamlet’s.
How did Cervantes accomplish this? Conversations interlace through the entire text (and we should keep in mind that Cervantes was also a playwright). The author converses with his reader, but also with Quixote, who converses with everyone, including himself, or so it seems. Most notably Quixote (and so Cervantes) continually talks with the character who may be the greatest sidekick and friend in literary history, Sancho Panza (a comic and therefore uplifting Horatio). Together the two of them quibble, quarrel, explain, justify, console, advise, rhapsodize, lie, confess, forgive, and love with abiding loyalty. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Sancho? Especially if, like Dr. Johnson, you had none in life. (Mrs. Thrale came closest.)
If I may offer an exhortation: remember—as did Johnson, Lewis, and Cervantes—the Big Picture. In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe reminds us that we are Homoloquax, alone in the regnumloquax. He finds that the most rigorous research has concluded, in print, that “the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever.” Expressing his astonishment, Wolfe observes that, “in fact, in the one hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced [linguistic researchers] have learned . . . nothing.” He emphasizes: “speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes—speech is the attribute of all attributes.”
Wolfe’s conclusion is elegant: “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.” Or as Walker Percy has put it in his Message in the Bottle:
Existentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the science of man. Man is . . . that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.
St. John is right: in the beginning indeed was the Word.
First published in the New Criterion.