One of the serendipities of octogenarianism is the discovery of a splendid new book by a long forgotten former colleague. I speak of Stephen Miller’s “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art” (Yale, 2006) The last time I saw Miller was in Fall 1981 when he visited my Beaver College Media class, unannounced, as I was projecting a slide show of my art tour of Russia that summer. He was one of the few members of the English department I had found congenial enough to have a serious conversation with, although there had been damn few of those, come to think of it.
I left teaching shortly after to become a Welcomat pedagogue, and that was the end of him. In this book, there are allusions to his dispensing grants for the National Endowment of the Humanities and to his high class journalism (Partisan Review, Wall Street Journal et al) as well as working awhile for a conservative think tank. No more college teaching! Puzzling. He was clearly too good for Beaver. Googling got me nothing more about his career.
Anyway, the book is a wonder! We begin this essay on the history of what he neologistically calls “the conversible world” with the beginning of language, naturally. A pit stop in Sumer, where the new device of the city not only encourages conversations but devises libraries for its cuneiform records. “Gilgamesh” contains “conversation poems”. The genre gets ready to bloom. The Book of Job is scanned for diverse human intercourse. Plato and Socrates up the ante in Athens, whilst Sparta sets a contrary model of illiterate militarism. You get the idea. Conversation of steadily growing complexity makes the world seem to go round!
Eventually we get to his heroic models, Hume and Doctor Johnson, whose good manners and intellectual brilliance set the high standards this book counsels us not to forget. Coffee houses and private clubs flourish. There is a speedy but not unuseful skittering through American Lit from Franklin, Thoreau and Whitman (neither good at conversing—barbaric yawps are no go’s!) to Norman Mailer whose plea to replicate a culture of the White Negro gets him a big fat F from Professor Miller!
Crankiness is not civilized. Which leads Norman to Eminem whose foul mouth and misogyny shows US all how the sleazy Sixties misled us. I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s two miles from his Detroit 8 Mile Road milieu and he turned me off the first time I caught an earful of his lewd lyrics spinning the radio dial in search of my black Negro jazz and white swing.
It’s not the post modern junkies who are killing conversation, in my judgment. It’s the solipsism of the electronically isolated that keeps from knowing enough and having good enough manners to share what we’ve learned that’s killing conversation, artful or not. And Miller is good enough at reporting the limitations of the likes of Jerry Springer and Oprah and Rush Limbaugh. He even recommends small neighborly meetings and clubs to keep the art alive. (Yawn.) Pissing in the wind!
The K-12 curriculum must inoculate the masses against our media-born semi-barbarians. Q&A testing won’t do it. Teachers who know how to start and continue civilized talk in the daily classroom could immediately improve our medians. Trouble is they’ve already been gimmicked by the Ed Schools.
As I read his brilliant 13 page Bibliographical Essay which concludes this funky book, I suddenly understood what I’d been mulling over during the several hours I have been reading it. It’s a brilliant doctor’s oral. For 99 percent of our compatriots trying to read its recommendations, they’d never ever try to converse again.
The dining room table, late night palavers, exemplary adults are the only accessible routes out of the infantilization that has molded our electronic sandbox during the past century. Get a generation of high school teachers to metabolize Miller’s intellectual safari, and we’d soon be out of the woods. Otherwise HO HUM! Pass the TV commander.
You may read this piece on Broad Street Review.