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    Ch. 10 - Talk and Talkers

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    Chapter 11
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    Sir, we had a good talk. - JOHNSON.

    As we must account for every idle word, so we must for every idle
    silence. - FRANKLIN.

    THERE can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be
    affable, gay, ready, clear and welcome; to have a fact, a thought,
    or an illustration, pat to every subject; and not only to cheer the
    flight of time among our intimates, but bear our part in that great
    international congress, always sitting, where public wrongs are
    first declared, public errors first corrected, and the course of
    public opinion shaped, day by day, a little nearer to the right.
    No measure comes before Parliament but it has been long ago
    prepared by the grand jury of the talkers; no book is written that
    has not been largely composed by their assistance. Literature in
    many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but
    the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and
    effect. There are always two to a talk, giving and taking,
    comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid,
    tentative, continually "in further search and progress"; while
    written words remain fixed, become idols even to the writer, found
    wooden dogmatisms, and preserve flies of obvious error in the amber
    of the truth. Last and chief, while literature, gagged with
    linsey-woolsey, can only deal with a fraction of the life of man,
    talk goes fancy free and may call a spade a spade. Talk has none
    of the freezing immunities of the pulpit. It cannot, even if it
    would, become merely aesthetic or merely classical like literature.
    A jest intervenes, the solemn humbug is dissolved in laughter, and
    speech runs forth out of the contemporary groove into the open
    fields of nature, cheery and cheering, like schoolboys out of
    school. And it is in talk alone that we can learn our period and
    ourselves. In short, the first duty of a man is to speak; that is
    his chief business in this world; and talk, which is the harmonious
    speech of two or more, is by far the most accessible of pleasures.
    It costs nothing in money; it is all profit; it completes our
    education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed
    at any age and in almost any state of health.

    The spice of life is battle; the friendliest relations are still a
    kind of contest; and if we would not forego all that is valuable in
    our lot, we must continually face some other person, eye to eye,
    and wrestle a fall whether in love or enmity. It is still by force
    of body, or power of character or intellect, that we attain to
    worthy pleasures. Men and women contend for each other in the
    lists of love, like rival mesmerists; the active and adroit decide
    their challenges in the sports of the body; and the sedentary sit
    down to chess or conversation. All sluggish and pacific pleasures
    are, to the same degree, solitary and selfish; and every durable
    band between human beings is founded in or heightened by some
    element of competition. Now, the relation that has the least root
    in matter is undoubtedly that airy one of friendship; and hence, I
    suppose, it is that good talk most commonly arises among friends.
    Talk is, indeed, both the scene and instrument of friendship. It
    is in talk alone that the friends can measure strength, and enjoy
    that amicable counter-assertion of personality which is the gauge
    of relations and the sport of life.

    A good talk is not to be had for the asking. Humours must first be
    accorded in a kind of overture or prologue; hour, company and
    circumstance be suited; and then, at a fit juncture, the subject,
    the quarry of two heated minds, spring up like a deer out of the
    wood. Not that the talker has any of the hunter's pride, though he
    has all and more than all his ardour. The genuine artist follows
    the stream of conversation as an angler follows the windings of a
    brook, not dallying where he fails to "kill." He trusts implicitly
    to hazard; and he is rewarded by continual variety, continual
    pleasure, and those changing prospects of the truth that are the
    best of education. There is nothing in a subject, so called, that
    we should regard it as an idol, or follow it beyond the promptings
    of desire. Indeed, there are few subjects; and so far as they are
    truly talkable, more than the half of them may be reduced to three:
    that I am I, that you are you, and that there are other people
    dimly understood to be not quite the same as either. Wherever talk
    may range, it still runs half the time on these eternal lines. The
    theme being set, each plays on himself as on an instrument; asserts
    and justifies himself; ransacks his brain for instances and
    opinions, and brings them forth new-minted, to his own surprise and
    the admiration of his adversary. All natural talk is a festival of
    ostentation; and by the laws of the game each accepts and fans the
    vanity of the other. It is from that reason that we venture to lay
    ourselves so open, that we dare to be so warmly eloquent, and that
    we swell in each other's eyes to such a vast proportion. For
    talkers, once launched, begin to overflow the limits of their
    ordinary selves, tower up to the height of their secret
    pretensions, and give themselves out for the heroes, brave, pious,
    musical and wise, that in their most shining moments they aspire to
    be. So they weave for themselves with words and for a while
    inhabit a palace of delights, temple at once and theatre, where
    they fill the round of the world's dignities, and feast with the
    gods, exulting in Kudos. And when the talk is over, each goes his
    way, still flushed with vanity and admiration, still trailing
    clouds of glory; each declines from the height of his ideal orgie,
    not in a moment, but by slow declension. I remember, in the
    ENTR'ACTE of an afternoon performance, coming forth into the
    sunshine, in a beautiful green, gardened corner of a romantic city;
    and as I sat and smoked, the music moving in my blood, I seemed to
    sit there and evaporate THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (for it was that I had
    been hearing) with a wonderful sense of life, warmth, well-being
    and pride; and the noises of the city, voices, bells and marching
    feet, fell together in my ears like a symphonious orchestra. In
    the same way, the excitement of a good talk lives for a long while
    after in the blood, the heart still hot within you, the brain still
    simmering, and the physical earth swimming around you with the
    colours of the sunset.

    Natural talk, like ploughing, should turn up a large surface of
    life, rather than dig mines into geological strata. Masses of
    experience, anecdote, incident, cross-lights, quotation, historical
    instances, the whole flotsam and jetsam of two minds forced in and
    in upon the matter in hand from every point of the compass, and
    from every degree of mental elevation and abasement - these are the
    material with which talk is fortified, the food on which the
    talkers thrive. Such argument as is proper to the exercise should
    still be brief and seizing. Talk should proceed by instances; by
    the apposite, not the expository. It should keep close along the
    lines of humanity, near the bosoms and businesses of men, at the
    level where history, fiction and experience intersect and
    illuminate each other. I am I, and You are You, with all my heart;
    but conceive how these lean propositions change and brighten when,
    instead of words, the actual you and I sit cheek by jowl, the
    spirit housed in the live body, and the very clothes uttering
    voices to corroborate the story in the face. Not less surprising
    is the change when we leave off to speak of generalities - the bad,
    the good, the miser, and all the characters of Theophrastus - and
    call up other men, by anecdote or instance, in their very trick and
    feature; or trading on a common knowledge, toss each other famous
    names, still glowing with the hues of life. Communication is no
    longer by words, but by the instancing of whole biographies, epics,
    systems of philosophy, and epochs of history, in bulk. That which
    is understood excels that which is spoken in quantity and quality
    alike; ideas thus figured and personified, change hands, as we may
    say, like coin; and the speakers imply without effort the most
    obscure and intricate thoughts. Strangers who have a large common
    ground of reading will, for this reason, come the sooner to the
    grapple of genuine converse. If they know Othello and Napoleon,
    Consuelo and Clarissa Harlowe, Vautrin and Steenie Steenson, they
    can leave generalities and begin at once to speak by figures.

    Conduct and art are the two subjects that arise most frequently and
    that embrace the widest range of facts. A few pleasures bear
    discussion for their own sake, but only those which are most social
    or most radically human; and even these can only be discussed among
    their devotees. A technicality is always welcome to the expert,
    whether in athletics, art or law; I have heard the best kind of
    talk on technicalities from such rare and happy persons as both
    know and love their business. No human being ever spoke of scenery
    for above two minutes at a time, which makes me suspect we hear too
    much of it in literature. The weather is regarded as the very
    nadir and scoff of conversational topics. And yet the weather, the
    dramatic element in scenery, is far more tractable in language, and
    far more human both in import and suggestion than the stable
    features of the landscape. Sailors and shepherds, and the people
    generally of coast and mountain, talk well of it; and it is often
    excitingly presented in literature. But the tendency of all living
    talk draws it back and back into the common focus of humanity.
    Talk is a creature of the street and market-place, feeding on
    gossip; and its last resort is still in a discussion on morals.
    That is the heroic form of gossip; heroic in virtue of its high
    pretensions; but still gossip, because it turns on personalities.
    You can keep no men long, nor Scotchmen at all, off moral or
    theological discussion. These are to all the world what law is to
    lawyers; they are everybody's technicalities; the medium through
    which all consider life, and the dialect in which they express
    their judgments. I knew three young men who walked together daily
    for some two months in a solemn and beautiful forest and in
    cloudless summer weather; daily they talked with unabated zest, and
    yet scarce wandered that whole time beyond two subjects - theology
    and love. And perhaps neither a court of love nor an assembly of
    divines would have granted their premisses or welcomed their
    conclusions.

    Conclusions, indeed, are not often reached by talk any more than by
    private thinking. That is not the profit. The profit is in the
    exercise, and above all in the experience; for when we reason at
    large on any subject, we review our state and history in life.
    From time to time, however, and specially, I think, in talking art,
    talk becomes elective, conquering like war, widening the boundaries
    of knowledge like an exploration. A point arises; the question
    takes a problematical, a baffling, yet a likely air; the talkers
    begin to feel lively presentiments of some conclusion near at hand;
    towards this they strive with emulous ardour, each by his own path,
    and struggling for first utterance; and then one leaps upon the
    summit of that matter with a shout, and almost at the same moment
    the other is beside him; and behold they are agreed. Like enough,
    the progress is illusory, a mere cat's cradle having been wound and
    unwound out of words. But the sense of joint discovery is none the
    less giddy and inspiriting. And in the life of the talker such
    triumphs, though imaginary, are neither few nor far apart; they are
    attained with speed and pleasure, in the hour of mirth; and by the
    nature of the process, they are always worthily shared.

    There is a certain attitude, combative at once and deferential,
    eager to fight yet most averse to quarrel, which marks out at once
    the talkable man. It is not eloquence, not fairness, not
    obstinacy, but a certain proportion of all of these that I love to
    encounter in my amicable adversaries. They must not be pontiffs
    holding doctrine, but huntsmen questing after elements of truth.
    Neither must they be boys to be instructed, but fellow-teachers
    with whom I may wrangle and agree on equal terms. We must reach
    some solution, some shadow of consent; for without that, eager talk
    becomes a torture. But we do not wish to reach it cheaply, or
    quickly, or without the tussle and effort wherein pleasure lies.

    The very best talker, with me, is one whom I shall call Spring-
    Heel'd Jack. I say so, because I never knew any one who mingled so
    largely the possible ingredients of converse. In the Spanish
    proverb, the fourth man necessary to compound a salad, is a madman
    to mix it: Jack is that madman. I know not which is more
    remarkable; the insane lucidity of his conclusions the humorous
    eloquence of his language, or his power of method, bringing the
    whole of life into the focus of the subject treated, mixing the
    conversational salad like a drunken god. He doubles like the
    serpent, changes and flashes like the shaken kaleidoscope,
    transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so, in the
    twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions
    inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a
    triumphant conjuror. It is my common practice when a piece of
    conduct puzzles me, to attack it in the presence of Jack with such
    grossness, such partiality and such wearing iteration, as at length
    shall spur him up in its defence. In a moment he transmigrates,
    dons the required character, and with moonstruck philosophy
    justifies the act in question. I can fancy nothing to compare with
    the VIM of these impersonations, the strange scale of language,
    flying from Shakespeare to Kant, and from Kant to Major Dyngwell -

    "As fast as a musician scatters sounds
    Out of an instrument"

    the sudden, sweeping generalisations, the absurd irrelevant
    particularities, the wit, wisdom, folly, humour, eloquence and
    bathos, each startling in its kind, and yet all luminous in the
    admired disorder of their combination. A talker of a different
    calibre, though belonging to the same school, is Burly. Burly is a
    man of a great presence; he commands a larger atmosphere, gives the
    impression of a grosser mass of character than most men. It has
    been said of him that his presence could be felt in a room you
    entered blindfold; and the same, I think, has been said of other
    powerful constitutions condemned to much physical inaction. There
    is something boisterous and piratic in Burly's manner of talk which
    suits well enough with this impression. He will roar you down, he
    will bury his face in his hands, he will undergo passions of revolt
    and agony; and meanwhile his attitude of mind is really both
    conciliatory and receptive; and after Pistol has been out Pistol'd,
    and the welkin rung for hours, you begin to perceive a certain
    subsidence in these spring torrents, points of agreement issue, and
    you end arm-in-arm, and in a glow of mutual admiration. The outcry
    only serves to make your final union the more unexpected and
    precious. Throughout there has been perfect sincerity, perfect
    intelligence, a desire to hear although not always to listen, and
    an unaffected eagerness to meet concessions. You have, with Burly,
    none of the dangers that attend debate with Spring-Heel'd Jack; who
    may at any moment turn his powers of transmigration on yourself,
    create for you a view you never held, and then furiously fall on
    you for holding it. These, at least, are my two favourites, and
    both are loud, copious, intolerant talkers. This argues that I
    myself am in the same category; for if we love talking at all, we
    love a bright, fierce adversary, who will hold his ground, foot by
    foot, in much our own manner, sell his attention dearly, and give
    us our full measure of the dust and exertion of battle. Both these
    men can be beat from a position, but it takes six hours to do it; a
    high and hard adventure, worth attempting. With both you can pass
    days in an enchanted country of the mind, with people, scenery and
    manners of its own; live a life apart, more arduous, active and
    glowing than any real existence; and come forth again when the talk
    is over, as out of a theatre or a dream, to find the east wind
    still blowing and the chimney-pots of the old battered city still
    around you. Jack has the far finer mind, Burly the far more
    honest; Jack gives us the animated poetry, Burly the romantic
    prose, of similar themes; the one glances high like a meteor and
    makes a light in darkness; the other, with many changing hues of
    fire, burns at the sea-level, like a conflagration; but both have
    the same humour and artistic interests, the same unquenched ardour
    in pursuit, the same gusts of talk and thunderclaps of
    contradiction.

    Cockshot (5) is a different article, but vastly entertaining, and
    has been meat and drink to me for many a long evening. His manner
    is dry, brisk and pertinacious, and the choice of words not much.
    The point about him is his extraordinary readiness and spirit. You
    can propound nothing but he has either a theory about it ready-
    made, or will have one instantly on the stocks, and proceed to lay
    its timbers and launch it in your presence. "Let me see," he will
    say. "Give me a moment. I SHOULD have some theory for that." A
    blither spectacle than the vigour with which he sets about the
    task, it were hard to fancy. He is possessed by a demoniac energy,
    welding the elements for his life, and bending ideas, as an athlete
    bends a horse-shoe, with a visible and lively effort. He has, in
    theorising, a compass, an art; what I would call the synthetic
    gusto; something of a Herbert Spencer, who should see the fun of
    the thing. You are not bound, and no more is he, to place your
    faith in these brand-new opinions. But some of them are right
    enough, durable even for life; and the poorest serve for a cock shy
    - as when idle people, after picnics, float a bottle on a pond and
    have an hour's diversion ere it sinks. Whichever they are, serious
    opinions or humours of the moment, he still defends his ventures
    with indefatigable wit and spirit, hitting savagely himself, but
    taking punishment like a man. He knows and never forgets that
    people talk, first of all, for the sake of talking; conducts
    himself in the ring, to use the old slang, like a thorough
    "glutton," and honestly enjoys a telling facer from his adversary.
    Cockshot is bottled effervescency, the sworn foe of sleep. Three-
    in-the-morning Cockshot, says a victim. His talk is like the
    driest of all imaginable dry champagnes. Sleight of hand and
    inimitable quickness are the qualities by which he lives.
    Athelred, on the other hand, presents you with the spectacle of a
    sincere and somewhat slow nature thinking aloud. He is the most
    unready man I ever knew to shine in conversation. You may see him
    sometimes wrestle with a refractory jest for a minute or two
    together, and perhaps fail to throw it in the end. And there is
    something singularly engaging, often instructive, in the simplicity
    with which he thus exposes the process as well as the result, the
    works as well as the dial of the clock. Withal he has his hours of
    inspiration. Apt words come to him as if by accident, and, coming
    from deeper down, they smack the more personally, they have the
    more of fine old crusted humanity, rich in sediment and humour.
    There are sayings of his in which he has stamped himself into the
    very grain of the language; you would think he must have worn the
    words next his skin and slept with them. Yet it is not as a sayer
    of particular good things that Athelred is most to he regarded,
    rather as the stalwart woodman of thought. I have pulled on a
    light cord often enough, while he has been wielding the broad-axe;
    and between us, on this unequal division, many a specious fallacy
    has fallen. I have known him to battle the same question night
    after night for years, keeping it in the reign of talk, constantly
    applying it and re-applying it to life with humorous or grave
    intention, and all the while, never hurrying, nor flagging, nor
    taking an unfair advantage of the facts. Jack at a given moment,
    when arising, as it were, from the tripod, can be more radiantly
    just to those from whom he differs; but then the tenor of his
    thoughts is even calumnious; while Athelred, slower to forge
    excuses, is yet slower to condemn, and sits over the welter of the
    world, vacillating but still judicial, and still faithfully
    contending with his doubts.

    Both the last talkers deal much in points of conduct and religion
    studied in the "dry light" of prose. Indirectly and as if against
    his will the same elements from time to time appear in the troubled
    and poetic talk of Opalstein. His various and exotic knowledge,
    complete although unready sympathies, and fine, full,
    discriminative flow of language, fit him out to be the best of
    talkers; so perhaps he is with some, not quite with me - PROXIME
    ACCESSIT, I should say. He sings the praises of the earth and the
    arts, flowers and jewels, wine and music, in a moonlight,
    serenading manner, as to the light guitar; even wisdom comes from
    his tongue like singing; no one is, indeed, more tuneful in the
    upper notes. But even while he sings the song of the Sirens, he
    still hearkens to the barking of the Sphinx. Jarring Byronic notes
    interrupt the flow of his Horatian humours. His mirth has
    something of the tragedy of the world for its perpetual background;
    and he feasts like Don Giovanni to a double orchestra, one lightly
    sounding for the dance, one pealing Beethoven in the distance. He
    is not truly reconciled either with life or with himself; and this
    instant war in his members sometimes divides the man's attention.
    He does not always, perhaps not often, frankly surrender himself in
    conversation. He brings into the talk other thoughts than those
    which he expresses; you are conscious that he keeps an eye on
    something else, that he does not shake off the world, nor quite
    forget himself. Hence arise occasional disappointments; even an
    occasional unfairness for his companions, who find themselves one
    day giving too much, and the next, when they are wary out of
    season, giving perhaps too little. Purcel is in another class from
    any I have mentioned. He is no debater, but appears in
    conversation, as occasion rises, in two distinct characters, one of
    which I admire and fear, and the other love. In the first, he is
    radiantly civil and rather silent, sits on a high, courtly hilltop,
    and from that vantage-ground drops you his remarks like favours.
    He seems not to share in our sublunary contentions; he wears no
    sign of interest; when on a sudden there falls in a crystal of wit,
    so polished that the dull do not perceive it, but so right that the
    sensitive are silenced. True talk should have more body and blood,
    should be louder, vainer and more declaratory of the man; the true
    talker should not hold so steady an advantage over whom he speaks
    with; and that is one reason out of a score why I prefer my Purcel
    in his second character, when he unbends into a strain of graceful
    gossip, singing like the fireside kettle. In these moods he has an
    elegant homeliness that rings of the true Queen Anne. I know
    another person who attains, in his moments, to the insolence of a
    Restoration comedy, speaking, I declare, as Congreve wrote; but
    that is a sport of nature, and scarce falls under the rubric, for
    there is none, alas! to give him answer.

    One last remark occurs: It is the mark of genuine conversation that
    the sayings can scarce be quoted with their full effect beyond the
    circle of common friends. To have their proper weight they should
    appear in a biography, and with the portrait of the speaker. Good
    talk is dramatic; it is like an impromptu piece of acting where
    each should represent himself to the greatest advantage; and that
    is the best kind of talk where each speaker is most fully and
    candidly himself, and where, if you were to shift the speeches
    round from one to another, there would be the greatest loss in
    significance and perspicuity. It is for this reason that talk
    depends so wholly on our company. We should like to introduce
    Falstaff and Mercutio, or Falstaff and Sir Toby; but Falstaff in
    talk with Cordelia seems even painful. Most of us, by the Protean
    quality of man, can talk to some degree with all; but the true
    talk, that strikes out all the slumbering best of us, comes only
    with the peculiar brethren of our spirits, is founded as deep as
    love in the constitution of our being, and is a thing to relish
    with all our energy, while yet we have it, and to be grateful for
    forever.
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