Conversation Envy

Anaïs Nin once observed that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

I have pondered this for some time and am bound to disagree. Life shrinks or expands, at least to me, in proportion to one’s conversations.

Last night I had an acute episode of Conversation Envy.

I can tolerate the drivel most of the time, but deep down I secretly yearn for a philosophical argument and a fresh point of view with the odd bon mot thrown in the mix to keep things fresh.

Living in a blaze of obscurity has its drawbacks. One is the quality of chat to which one is exposed.

Quentin Crisp said that the key to speaking with style is to command of a vocabulary large enough to give you both flexibility and precision in expressing yourself. The more words you have the more accurate and entertaining will be your self-portrayal in conversation.

Recall the startled bemusement of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain in “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” “Good heavens. For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it!”

These days one is engulfed in incoherence. Grammatical errors aside (“Between you and I”, problems with “infer” and “imply”, “flout” and “flaunt”), there is a paucity in topic matter.

Last night I was waiting on a table of distinction. Both elegant women wore the kind of important necklaces that one can only buy at the Metropolitan Museum store: heavy amber beads and interesting silver.

The men were straight out of Renoir’s Boating Party.

At the end of the evening I had occasion to be near their table. Their conversation stopped me in my tracks.

One of the men suggested that love, like evil, is a mystery.

There was mention of ‘meaningless malevolence’ and references to the Classics. They may have quoted Yeats and TS Eliot. There was objection to using the word ‘apartheid’ in contexts other than the South African one.

I did know what I was hearing, however. The quartet was engaged in mental calisthenics and the exchange of ideas.

I yearned to partake of this conversational feast.

I was having an attack of Conversation Envy!

One of the chaps, Michael Curtis, was talking about a piece he had written for American Thinker and how he had titled it “When will Irish Eyes be Smiling on Israel.”

I was engrossed.

Usually I don’t bother to eavesdrop on conversations. They are invariably as useless as wet newspaper. Most of what passes as conversation flows as swiftly as papier-mâché. No one really listens to anyone else and if you try it you will see why. There is a difference between conversation and speech. People have not lost the power of speech. They have lost the art of conversation.

Things are more interesting when a couple has a row. Then there are little popcorn bursts of truth. There is also a chance of collateral windfall. An arguing couple once stormed out of the restaurant forgetting a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

The kitchen staff talk about sex and mime unspeakable things with rolling pins or French loaves. The bus kids talk about surfing and how they did/are going to do Molly this weekend. The other servers talk about what a bitch that woman on 45 is and how they will never serve her again. Or they rat each other out: “Whose job was it to do lemons? Who hasn’t done their side work?”

I have one or two friends with whom I discuss what other people like to call Conspiracy Theories.

But in the main I am a conversational anorexic.

When I was a journalist, I had unfettered access to interesting people. I interviewed Charlton Heston once at the Hyde Park Hotel in London.

Jani Allan with Charlton Heston at the Hyde Park Hotel in 1990 for a Sunday Times (UK) interview.

Jani Allan with Charlton Heston at the Hyde Park Hotel in 1990.

“Mr Heston,” I said, “My friend Elaine and I have had a crush on you since we were 13.”

“Where’s your friend Elaine,” was his wry response.

During the lunch gabfest he told me that his life’s philosophy was based on Winston Churchill’s exhortation to never give up.

He leaned towards me and in pure Churchillian metre he intoned:

“Never, never give up. Never, ever, ever, give up…”

Political Correctness and the fear of treading on sensitive corns has all but bandaged conversazione. One certain way to prevent conversation from becoming boring is to say the wrong thing, but who has the brass ones to do so these days?

I want to sit at a table and listen to people sbottonarsi as they say in Italian – open up. Or mettere in piazza – make public those things that are private. I want a grand buffet of conversation. I would like to discuss The Waste Land. T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Andy Warhol’s From A to B and Back Again

As Schopenhauer wrote in “Our Relation to Others”: Politeness is a tacit agreement that peoples’ miserable defects, whether moral or intellectual, shall on either side be ignored and not be made the subject of reproach.

I am tired of politeness and weary of anaemic conversation. Come sit here and talk to me….

This column was originally published by Jani Allan in 2013 on her My Grilling Life blog.