Experimenters in Sentences and Selves

by David Wemyss (June 2012)


I had the misfortune recently to be caught in a most uncongenial conversation in a coffee house. All those present were in superficial agreement that a controversial new development in the city centre was a folly, and I offered the view that political opposition to the plan looked impossible now, and that it would only be stopped if the funding fell apart. Someone wondered if a rare wildlife discovery could impede it. I replied that the political will to go ahead was so strong that a rare wildlife discovery would be dismissed in terms of “green fanatics getting in the way of progress, and putting jobs and prosperity at risk”. The reaction was striking. Just momentarily, some of them clearly thought that this was my opinion.

My wife even felt it necessary to clarify the position: I had just been saying that this would be the tone adopted by the business and political community. Upon being told that it wasn’t my opinion, one of the others actually said “I should hope not”. Suddenly I experienced an unexpected dalliance with the view, flinching at the realisation that representing it vervefully had been taken to be unseemly, perhaps even suspicious.

And the sanctimony of “I should hope not” had introduced a conversational miasma I knew I would not easily forget. Yes. Come to think of it, a lot of these complacent old hippies deserved to have their pieties ruffled. As they fulminated about Donald Trump’s latest polemic against wind farms in Scotland, where he’s trying to build a controversial new golf course and hotel near Aberdeen, I felt mischief curdle into contempt.

Of course one of the problems was that my interlocutors didn’t know (in truth, they could never easily have been told) that I had moved quite markedly to the right in recent years. But I always used to say that, although conservative ideas were a handy bucket for bailing out sanctimony, it was the boat that mattered, not the bucket - and that we shouldn’t end up adoring Margaret Thatcher just because hating her was a cliché. So I wasn’t about to become a Donald Trump fan just because someone was telling me off for having seemed to say that jobs and prosperity might be more important than a few squirrels. Or was I?

Well, only partly to my surprise, that was where I was heading. Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad. They isolate those of us for whom conversation is not disputatiousness but atmosphere, not debate but climate, and then they drive us into Lear-like zaniness. A couple of weeks later Donald actually addressed a Scottish Parliament committee on the subject of wind farms, and, since the media coverage had been predictably unhelpful, I checked out what he had really said. It wasn’t very good. I was disappointed, but I was having fun.

In fact, I found myself beginning to think that I was simply out of sympathy with any thinkable polis at all, and that it wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that I could end up located outside conventional probity altogether. I didn’t know what I really thought any more, and I felt capable of thinking anything as long as it felt good to the touch.

When he’d been drinking, the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean sometimes revealed his treason to people who just couldn’t hear what was actually being said to them quite plainly. If I’m a bit like MacLean, whose side am I on? I can’t say. Maybe I’m always trying to infiltrate the opacity of my own words, in the thrall of an unknown country I can’t even name.

But then isn’t this what any serious novelist knows? - that “real-life” conversation is a testing ground for the possibility of remarks, and that you end up not knowing what to make of what you say - the sensual and the elegant and the clumsy and the hateful and the manipulative - because your relationship to your utterances has become that of an author. A fiction-writer. 

An experimenter. 

Of course I haven’t actually written a novel.

OK, switch it. It’s not what any serious novelist knows, it’s what any serious person knows. The dark obverse of airy conversation - but it’s so often missed.

Be that as it may, though, it also has to be said that agreeable interlocutors are still out there, often ordinary people, just not very many of them. No clichés, no in-group/out-group cheerleading, no easy moralising, no toeing the party line. When someone like this talks to you, you don’t feel that speaking has been turned into a managerial project, or an investment. Travelling light is possible. And it’s been evidenced in a strong literary tradition.  

For example, as fin-de-siècle Vienna slowly became what Karl Kraus called a testing station for the end of the world, Robert Musil suggested that it was the mark of a poet to be open to ideas but to hold none.

Then, half a century later, the historian and philosopher Michael Oakeshott characterised conversation in terms of style - not content - and playfulness. It should be extemporised, unrehearsed, fluid and self-surprising. For Oakeshott, our opinions are things we should only just have and no more. I like that.

And, in his 1989 masterpiece “Real Presences” (subtitled “Is there anything in what we say”), George Steiner talked about the placing of a lamp in the window, signalling hospitality of spirit and openness of imagination. That a guest will be “one of us” should not be taken for granted. Hospitality has much to do with curiosity.

Great stuff. But, even so, was the trajectory of my thinking ultimately more to do with the simple fact that I had been sitting with people who thought they knew me well but didn’t really know me at all? Well, yes and no, and, in the end, probably no. When I’m in a bad mood, I often think that egalitarianism and environmentalism are contagions infecting everyday speech, but, even if the people in my coffee house imbroglio had known that this kind of psychological noir was in my make-up, I doubt that it would have made much difference.

It would still have been the case that not one of them would have been capable temperamentally of saying something with a bit of élan about it - 

“ . . . now, David, this next bit may not be congenial to you, but let me say it anyway, and no doubt we’ll need to get more coffee as we tease it all out.”

And that’s the point. Those little brushstrokes in everyday language - brushstrokes that used to say so much by way of nuance and courtesy and reserve and reticence - but yet also exploration and flair and openness - no longer count for anything. Everyone takes it for granted that people just don’t talk like that any more.

Or is it that people just don’t talk - not if they can help it. They’d rather just sit around telling themselves they all agree, sharpening clichés into shibboleths.

They think talking to other people should be relaxing, and that only like-minded people are relaxing to be with, but perhaps the deeply easeful thing about conversation comes from a kind of classical poise, a poise that can accomplish its own equivalent of sonata form - exposition, development, recapitulation - and reconcile differences, not hide from them. But this reconciliation isn’t like a debating society competition.

In fact it isn’t disputatiousness at all. In the sweep of its architectural span, a genuinely easeful conversation can explore contrasts and tensions without setting them against each other in mere hostility. But this is rare nowadays. “He’s a really nice guy” and “she’s a lovely person” are trotted out so cheaply. Conversational hospitality clearly pushes prices up too much to be an everyday purchase. Is that because it trades on some expensive losses?

I keep going back to that coffee shop, not least because it’s one of my favourites, and I don’t want it to be tainted by the memory of what happened in it. And, in time, my view of what happened has begun to shift. I can never stop hoping that conversations will be felicitous, but you simply can’t storm the barricades of unsatisfactory talk. Unsatisfactory talk has to remain unsatisfactory. It must. You can’t touch it. That’s a rule you have to stick to.

But you can turn the rule to your advantage. If you can appropriate the sense that your relationship to your words - and all that bears down upon them - is that of an experimenter, you can begin to feel strangely affectionate towards the infelicitous, whether you put the blame on inhospitable interlocutors or  just accept your own strange impenetrability, glowering over you with an unforgiving eye. Anyway, the distinction constantly blurs.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we don’t set out to speak (or listen) as if that were true. We have recourse to it later - if the opacity of our words troubles us. So maybe we need to hold onto that idea of experiment. Maybe the opacity would trouble us a good deal less if we understood better the insouciance of a genuine creator - a Stravinsky, perhaps, or a Matisse - and remembered the other bit of the quote: our little lives are rounded with a sleep.

Or, as George Steiner puts it - to paraphrase him just a little - the shaping pathologies of language and conversation are like crazily-shaped creatures that survive in the great deeps of the sea. Brought to the surface, they burst or shiver into inert powder. Only a compulsive regret would bring them to the surface, so let them be. Put them to work, as they are and where they are and how they are. Conversational hospitality may yet reach its apotheosis in uninhibited improvisation. Perhaps the classical model has to switch to jazz. For the experimenter - the experimenter in sentences and selves - even forgiveness becomes a possibility. And, as people sometimes say, the first person you have to forgive is yourself.

 

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