Now that I have been writing these monthly essays with a slightly fuzzy sense of purpose for almost a year, I’ve begun asking some questions of what I hope to achieve with my writing. I thought a lot about how I would define my larger aspirations and the shape that my monthly contributions towards a cultural conversation take. This led to the project I am now calling ‘Art Of Conversation’. And I thought it would be a good idea to share this with my readers, whoever and wherever you might be. So in this month’s essay, I want to guide you through the rationale behind this endeavour and explain what we are doing here.
“A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.”
~ Will Self
It's long been fashionable to criticise book and film reviews. Many people over many years have lamented that book reviews are (seemingly) fuelled by nepotism and superficial in their treatment of their subjects: In 1846, Poe wrote that critics “place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright”; in 2007, Steve Wasserman complained that “the pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers”. I have some sympathy for such opprobrium, but it can't be denied that reviews are invaluable to many who need a way to cut through the dense overpopulation of entertainment output.
I rarely read reviews because they don’t offer me what I want; they are usually formulaic recommendations to see or avoid a film or book based on the sweeping impressions it made on that particular reviewer. While the aim of most mainstream reviews is to give an opinion on the work as a whole, I find it much more interesting (and illuminating in offering potential approaches to interpreting the book or film for myself) to examine specific aspects of the work in question. But rather than wishing these reviews would offer deeper, more reflective analyses of art, I decided to engage in it myself. My hope is that my essays here will play some part in inspiring and provoking you, dear reader, and others to begin to build something like a conversation.
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
In a percipient video-essay on Arrival (one of my favourite films) The Nerdwriter states “that there is no thought without expression, no content without form, that an idea – however profound it feels to you – does not really exist until you can write it down”. Right from the first step in the causal chain of thinking, ideas require a kind of language to translate them from abstractions experienced by the thinker into rational items examinable by the mind. It is only in the expression of the idea that its reasonableness, its implications, and any holes in the fabric of its logic can be known. This is the same process that operates when we express our ideas out loud for the understanding of other minds, when we write them down or speak them out. We feed into the machine of conversation our own contribution, that idea about a book read or opinion on a piece of music, and our interlocutors are able to examine these notions and then feed into the machine their own linguistically expressed ideas. This is the dialectical process, the testing of propositions against others to constantly refine our thinking.
This is also a big part of why we read, at least for those of us who, in addition to pure enjoyment, seek growth, understanding, and varied forms of knowledge from books. We are interested in the ideas great minds have produced and want to incorporate into our own thinking those concepts of worth from art. And when we discuss with friends what we’ve read or heard or seen, when we read the opinions of others on artworks we have considered, and when we put into the world our own ideas in blogs, videos, etc., we are continuing the process. That’s what I want to do with ‘Art Of Conversation’ – to play a small part in the ongoing, cross-media, cultural conversation.
“I like people to express themselves heartily, their words following wherever their thoughts lead.”
~ Montaigne, On the Art of Conversation
In his essay On Three Kinds of Relationships, Montaigne wrote: “I am seeking the companionship and society of such men as we call honourable and talented.” I will appropriate that and amend it to “such people as we call interesting and interested”. These two terms are those that I make it my goal to be, partnered with my desire to avoid committing (to borrow from Christopher Hitchens) the one unforgiveable sin of being boring. Those two properties are the most basic requisites for flourishing conversation, because to be interested is to listen deeply and thoughtfully, and to be interesting is to do or say something meaningful about what you heard.
Montaigne loathed small talk and sought out conversations with depth, dialogic spaces for patiently exploring ideas through respectful debate. It is not difficult to guess what he would have made of modern media and its hyperbolic, frenetic mode of discourse. He advocated for the cultivation of rich and meaningful relationships with individuals able to challenge and progress your own thinking. His disarmingly personal On Friendship explores the nature of the most profound friendship of his life, with humanist writer Étienne de la Boétie, one that lasted until the early death of his comrade. This relationship was predicated on intellectual and emotional intimacy, the nature of which he described as “a matter of the mind, with our souls being purified by practising it”.
I have been fortunate enough to have had such friendships over the years, and the defining feature of them and the subject of my most vivid and happy memories with those people is the quality of conversation. This is the kind of friendship that Montaigne says commends itself “in the sharpness and vigour of its communications”. And this is the tone I would like to bring to this thinking space I call ‘Art Of Conversation’, the honesty, closeness, and playfulness found in those late-night discussions over a shared bottle of whiskey. The kind of dialogue that explores those topics not often addressed in day-to-day life, questions of meaning and art and sex and religion and politics and love, with the wit and good-natured banter that occurs naturally between close friends.
“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
~ William Hazlitt
So what do these ideas coalesce into? How do we get from what we just looked at to where we are with this project? The answer can be expressed in a way that acts conveniently as a sort of mission statement:
Here at ‘Art Of Conversation’, we are attempting to cultivate dialogues that question life, meaning, and culture through literature, music, and cinema. The aim is to provoke ideas and dialectically explore the terrain of the mind, to live out in reading and writing the examined life. This is a creative space for deep thinking within the cacophony of the internet and modern life, somewhere to think and talk about literature, philosophy, religion, and anything else of interest, and to do so the way you might talk with a close friend over whiskey late into the night.
Given that we plan to engage with cultural artefacts (and produce from these investigations creative works of our own as part of a wider conversation), I think it is apt for me to close by quoting the words of someone else. Christopher Hitchens, who has long been an influence on my writing and who taught us that how you think is of more importance than what you think, wrote a brilliant, ironic book called Letters to a Young Contrarian, and I borrow from it to summarise what I have elaborated on in this essay:
“It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence. If so, let us continue to correspond so that I may draw from your experience even as you flatter me by asking to draw upon mine.”
• Will Self, ‘Falling Short: seven writers reflect on failure’ in The Guardian (2013)
• Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (unknown source)
• Nerdwriter1 video-essay, Arrival: A Response to Bad Movies (2017)
• Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Of Criticism – Public and Private’ in Delphi Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (2015)
• Steve Wasserman, ‘Goodbye To All That’ in Columbia Journalism Review (2007)
• William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830 (2004)
• Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Three Kinds of Relationships’ in Essays (Penguin Classics) (1993)
• Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Friendship’ in On Friendship (2004)
• Michel de Montaigne, ‘On the Art of Conversation’ in On Friendship (2004)
• Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)