IS THERE ANY CONVERSATION

by Charles Dudley Warner

Is there any such thing as conversation? It is a delicate subject to touch, because many people understand conversation to be talk; not the exchange of ideas, but of words; and we would not like to say anything to increase the flow of the latter. We read of times and salons in which real conversation existed, held by men and women. Are they altogether in the past? We believe that men do sometimes converse. Do women ever? Perhaps so. In those hours sacred to the relaxation of undress and the back hair, in the upper penetralia of the household, where two or three or six are gathered together on and about the cushioned frame intended for repose, do they converse, or indulge in that sort of chat from which not one idea is carried away? No one reports, fortunately, and we do not know. But do all the women like this method of spending hour after hour, day after day-indeed, a lifetime? Is it invigorating, even restful? Think of the talk this past summer, the rivers and oceans of it, on piazzas and galleries in the warm evenings or the fresher mornings, in private houses, on hotel verandas, in the shade of thousands of cottages by the sea and in the hills! As you recall it, what was it all about? Was the mind in a vapid condition after an evening of it? And there is so much to read, and so much to think about, and the world is so interesting, if you do think about it, and nearly every person has some peculiarity of mind that would be worth study if you could only get at it! It is really, we repeat, such an interesting world, and most people get so little out of it. Now there is the conversation of hens, when the hens are busy and not self-conscious; there is something fascinating about it, because the imagination may invest it with a recondite and spicy meaning; but the common talk of people! We infer sometimes that the hens are not saying anything, because they do not read, and consequently their minds are empty. And perhaps we are right. As to conversation, there is no use in sending the bucket into the well when the well is dry?it only makes a rattling of windlass and chain. We do not wish to be understood to be an enemy of the light traffic of human speech. Deliver us from the didactic and the everlastingly improving style of thing! Conversation, in order to be good, and intellectually inspiring, and spiritually restful, need not always be serious. It must be alert and intelligent, and mean more by its suggestions and allusions than is said. There is the light touch-and-go play about topics more or less profound that is as agreeable as heat-lightning in a sultry evening. Why may not a person express the whims and vagaries of a lambent mind (if he can get a lambent mind) without being hauled up short for it, and plunged into a heated dispute? In the freedom of real conversation the mind throws out half-thoughts, paradoxes, for which a man is not to be held strictly responsible to the very roots of his being, and which need to be caught up and played with in the same tentative spirit. The dispute and the hot argument are usually the bane of conversation and the death of originality. We like to express a notion, a fancy, without being called upon to defend it, then and there, in all its possible consequences, as if it were to be an article in a creed or a plank in a platform. Must we be always either vapid or serious?

We have been obliged to take notice of the extraordinary tendency of American women to cultivation, to the improvement of the mind, by means of reading, clubs, and other intellectual exercises, and to acknowledge that they are leaving the men behind; that is, the men not in the so-called professions. Is this intellectualization beginning to show in the conversation of women when they are together, say in the hours of relaxation in the penetralia spoken of, or in general society? Is there less talk about the fashion of dress, and the dearness or cheapness of materials, and about servants, and the ways of the inchoate citizen called the baby, and the infinitely little details of the private life of other people? Is it true that if a group of men are talking, say about politics, or robust business, or literature, and they are joined by women (whose company is always welcome), the conversation is pretty sure to take a lower mental plane, to become more personal, more frivolous, accommodating itself to quite a different range? Do the well-read, thoughtful women, however beautiful and brilliant and capable of the gayest persiflage, prefer to talk with men, to listen to the conversation of men, rather than to converse with or listen to their own sex? If this is true, why is it? Women, as a rule, in "society" at any rate, have more leisure than men. In the facilities and felicities of speech they commonly excel men, and usually they have more of that vivacious dramatic power which is called "setting out a thing to the life." With all these advantages, and all the world open to them in newspapers and in books, they ought to be the leaders and stimulators of the best conversation. With them it should never drop down to the too-common flatness and banality. Women have made this world one of the most beautiful places of residence to be conceived. They might make it one of the most interesting.