Montaigne's essay "On the Art of Conversation" was a pleasure to read. I am apparently not the only one who thought so because the editor's note says that Pascal referred to Montaitne as " 'the incomparable author of The art of conversation.' " The editor states that this essay has a special place in French culture and even French children know about it. I am completely ignorant of French culture and education so I don't know if it is true or not. But I am intrigued to know what the French think of it and if and why it has a special place in their culture.
As for myself, I can say I enjoyed the essay so much because I found it to be one of Montaigne's chattiest and least formal. He not only made me laugh, but he also made me mourn for what is mostly certainly a lost art--conversation.
From the beginning of the essay and as a thread running throughout, Montaigne carries a theme of using other's mistakes as an example for your own life:
We do not improve the man we hang: we improve others by him. I do the same. My defects are becoming natural and incorrigible, but as fine gentlemen serve the public as models to follow I may serve a turn as a model to avoid.
This thread pops up again and again, "a bad use of language corrects my own better than a good one." And, "How many statements and replies do I make every day which are silly by my norms--so even more frequently, to be sure, by the standards of others!" And "We run ourselves through with our own swords." And on and on. It made me think of one of my favorite Demotivators
What does all this have to do with conversation? Only that Montaigne believes "this world is but a school of inquiry. The question is not who will spear the ring but who will make the best charges at it." We are "born to go in quest of truth" and one of the best ways as Montaigne sees it is through conversation. But even if one says silly things in conversation, which everyone is wont to do at one time or other, the important this is to be willing to admit your opinion is wrong. Because "The surest proof of animal-stupidity is ardent obstinacy of opinion. Is there anything more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious, then a donkey?"
Montaigne is not talking about polite conversation, on the contrary, "We ought to toughen and fortify our ears against being seduced by the sound of polite words." It is not harmony we are seeking in conversation, you cannot dig out the truth if everyone agrees, "We can only improve ourselves in times such as these by walking backwards, by discord not by harmony, by being different not by being like."
Conversation is also not debate. People do not set about debating in order to winkle out truth. Debating has nothing to do with truth at all. Instead, it is about order and style and one-upmanship. It is about opposition and teaching your "enemy" a lesson.
True conversation is a mutual search for truth and understanding. This does not mean conversation must be gentle and tame. Far from from it. Montaigne enjoys "strong, intimate, manly fellowship, the kind of friendship which rejoices in sharp vigorous exchanges just as love rejoices in bites and scratches which draw blood." In other words, Montaigne likes to be roughed up in the bedroom and in the parlor. (On a side note, ever since I read Montaigne's sentence an image of him tied up and blindfolded on his bed with his wife wearing her corset and high heeled boots scratching long red fingernails down his back keeps popping uninvited into my head.) Contradictions to our arguments should not offend or irritate us, but wake us up and make us pay more attention.
Unfortunately, then as today, it is difficult to find people who are willing to converse in so vigorous a manner. People "have no stomach for correcting because they have no stomach for suffering correction, always dissembling when talking in each other's presence." Who want's to be corrected? Who wants to be wrong? We have reached a point where we are ashamed or embarrassed of being proved wrong. My Bookman and I joke with each other because we each like to be right even to the point of being pig-headed. Each of us tries to trump the other, tumbling out as many facts and anecdotes as we can think of. And if we run out, we start making up new ones until the original conversation is lost and we are one-upping the other with absurdities until the one who cannot answer silliness for silliness is the loser. Montaigne would be horrified I am sure.
Was there ever a golden age of conversation? If so, how did it get lost and how can we get it back? How can we learn to converse with one another not as adversaries but as seekers of truth? How do we extricate ourselves from polite talk where no one says anything about anything? How do we get over our need to be right all the time and stop being pig-headed, stop being donkeys, stop being pig-headed donkeys?
Montaigne says that "Apprenticeships must be served, before you set your hand to anything, by long and sustained study." So it is with those of us who have never learned the art of conversation. We must apprentice ourselves, but to whom?
Next week, a very long Montaigne essay "On Vanity"