Friday, September 27, 2002

Something unusual happened to me the other night: I got involved in an intellectual conversation. Since I live on the fringes of academia, and what little socializing I do is likely to be with professors and students, you might think this kind of thing happens all the time. But in my experience college teachers talk mostly about the same things that other middle class American adults talk about: office politics, their houses, children, food, health, absent friends and colleagues. Here in northern California there is a lot of talk about gardening. Did I mention food? People love talking about food.

I don't know what students talk about amongst themselves these days, but when I was a student we did have intellectual discussions, even though we didn't know very much and we had little in the way of life experiences, however many we were getting at the time. We also had intellectual discussions with faculty members, not only in class but in their offices or informally around the oak tables in the campus coffee shop. I remember taking my paper cup of coffee to a table where two faculty members were talking-I knew one of them pretty well, but not the other one. It took me a moment to understand what they were talking about. Was it Sartre or Hemingway? Was it particle physics or analytic philosophy or political organization in Southeast Asia? No, it was tires.

They were talking about tires. About buying tires, the different kinds of tires and which was better for what vehicle, and how much they cost. I think disillusion is too weak a word for what I felt. I actually felt embarrassed for them. Here they were, two professors, caught talking about tires.

But of course that was before I went out into the world and learned the hard way that poets don't talk about poetry, but about money, grants, publication and enemies. And so on. Some of the topics change according to age and relationship status: untold hours describing and analyzing sex and sex partners and identity crises, which eventually morph into years of hours on children and midlife crises, followed by descriptions of surgeries and senior moments. And the gender, class and race variations: so we add sports, shopping, traffic, travel and encounters with the law and bureaucracies, to the staples of job, family, stuff and other people. And food.

It wasn't always so. Among educated people, conversation used to mean what we call intellectual conversation: a combination of inquiry, wit, storytelling and gentle debate that involved matters of broad importance and meaning even when grounded in the specific. In Europe through the nineteenth century those who could talk well, who had wit, powers of description or analysis, were prized as friends and dinner guests. "In my opinion the most profitable and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. To me it is a more agreeable occupation than any other in life, " Montaigne wrote. Jane Austen's heroines prize it; even Lewis Carroll's Alice is fond of it.

This kind of conversation, which in the west must go back to the walking talks in the Greek gymnasium and Persian gardens, defined civilized discourse at court and in the salons in many cultures. It can be characterized by a light and breezy wit. But it can also excite the mind and heart and spirit.

At various times the prevailing styles of such conversation veered towards superficial sophistication and poseur cynicism. But three other possibilities occur to me as reasons why conversation has largely died out in our time and place. The first is front and center in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, in which a barely educated young American woman finds herself trapped in a small town on the American prairie in the early twentieth century, where rigid and narrow mercantile values suppress any intellectual inquiry, political dissent or even much fun.

Carol Kennicott, the American Bovary, yearns not so much for sexual romance as for a little bit of transcendence from the everyday. She yearns specifically for what she calls conversation: the entertainment of ideas, the play of serious questions.

Our society is more affluent and less rigid in some ways, but the values of Main Street have hardened to become the ground of reality. There is what you do to earn and how you spend, and that's pretty much it.

On the Main Street of my hometown there was a public library. In high school in the early 1960s I took out a book by historian Richard Hofstader called "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." When I was back in my hometown researching and writing "The Malling of America" I went back to the public library-now housed in a much bigger building a block below Main Street-to look for the Hofstader book. This was the early 1980s, before computerized card catalogues, and the books still had those pockets with cards in the back. The cards had the names of borrowers and the date due. I found "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"---it was the same dark blue bound copy I'd taken out in high school. And there was my name at the top of the card. It was the only name on the card.

As Stan Lee, the great intellectual of comic books was wont to say, 'Nuff said.

The second factor stems from the increase in the sheer amount of knowledge-or let's say data-and especially the resulting specialization that became a fact of everyday life in the twentieth century. Nobody today can possibly be familiar with as high a proportion of the available knowledge as an educated person in Europe or England or perhaps even America in the eighteenth or even the late nineteenth century. Along with specialization has come the special languages, which at best allow specialists to communicate efficiently about their specialty, but more often results in jargon impenetrable to any non-specialist, and not terribly meaningful even to those who purport to understand it.

This must certainly be a factor in the rarity of intellectual conversation in academic circles, where people from different disciplines may be engaged in very specific topics perhaps too complex or just of little interest to anyone else even if they could understand the jargon, but in any case the jargon itself is sufficiently discouraging. (My own view is that jargon is often an elaborate mask hiding its own triviality and emptiness, but that's another story...)

The third factor is how rushed and overstuffed most lives are today. Much of that is unavoidable, but much of it would lessen with less consumption and less TV, but again, that's another story.

What they add up to, I fear, is a culture which avoids and suppresses intellectual conversation. Somehow it has become suspect, embarrassing almost. It's particularly eerie here on the fringes of academia. You meet all these people who supposedly know something, but they never talk about it. They talk about tires. Does that mean they don't care about their subject-it's just their job? After hours and years of teaching, are they tired of talking about it? Do they think we're too dumb to understand, or that we'd all really rather talk about tires? Or maybe they all know something I don't, which is that talking about food is much more interesting to people and there's something wrong with me. Which, to be frank, is how I feel most of the time in social situations.

Sometimes I've thought that academics believe others are uninterested in their subjects, or that if they talked about them they would sound elitist and snobbish. But I have some evidence that they don't even talk this way with their colleagues.

A few years ago my partner and I went to a play with another couple and chatted afterwards in the car coming home. Two of the four occupants were teachers in the same department, and they chatted about a faculty meeting earlier that day. One of the faculty members in the car-the one I wasn't living with-was a full professor who just returned from an interesting teaching experience while on sabbatical, and he mentioned a colleague who had just returned from a year of research in a foreign country. What was this colleague researching? I asked. The professor didn't know.

It was then I spoke wistfully of my old naiveté, when I thought departmental faculty meetings were occasions for professors to discuss their research and current thoughts in the discipline that they presumably all had in common. He was astounded at this idea, and a little excited. He vowed to bring it up at the next meeting.

Later I learned that indeed he did: he suggested that all the faculty members talk briefly about whatever research or ideas in their field was occupying them. The response was tepid, I was told, a little confused and with some suspicion that it was trick, a kind of covert performance review. The topic failed to become a regular item on the agenda.

Then, I imagine, somebody asked if anyone knew of an ongoing special on oil change, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, now that I have a car (which I didn't as a student) I also talk about tires. I talk about daily life, and enjoy the exchange of information and opinions of others about their daily lives. Even about faculty meetings. (Not about food, though. Unless it's Italian.) It's just that I'd like this to not be the only topics or kind of conversation.

So in many ways the other night was a surprise. My professor partner and I went to the home of friends-one of her colleagues (though in a different department) and the colleague's husband, a musician and lately a student, finishing a degree in English. A friend of his from New York, another musician, was visiting, which was the occasion for this gathering. We've had enjoyable afternoons and evening there before, of conversation and music (and food-though it is not high on my list of conversational topics, I do enjoy consuming it.) But this time it was a little different.

Maybe it was because we got there early, and there were only six of us, sitting around the living room, eating from the buffet and drinking wine.
We talked about New York, about northern California, and several of the above mentioned topics appropriate to our age and class. We talked politics and war. Then our mature English student mentioned the reactions of other students to some tenets of deconstruction, and suddenly, we were off.

We went flying across literary theory, the reputed death of the author and romantic concepts of creativity to whether it was possible to know Truth or define Nature, swooping down to the conflicts over rivers and water here in California, the relative efficiency of rural versus urban life, and so on. We disagreed, challenged each other, threw support one way and then the other, got ticked, laughed. I had a great time, and I can tell you a little of why.

Conversations like this are explorations, not only of the topics, but of the process of discussion and argument. They are explorations of ourselves and of each other. The experience is far from being only cerebral. I enjoyed hearing myself say things I didn't know I knew, but I also rolled my inner eyes at hearing myself pontificating, and I felt bad when I realized something I said might have sounded insulting. I enjoyed what others said and how they said it. Sometimes it struck a nerve. It was exciting.

I discovered aspects of people I didn't know about. One was a stranger, an environmental sciences student who came in a little later and was immediately drawn into the debate-his immediate and impromptu comments on the water issue were pertinent and well informed. I admired his knowledge and his eloquence. Hey, this younger generation might not all be like the students across the street, bullet headed hulks drinking beer while being pulled on their skateboards by one of their huge dogs.

One of the original six-the hostess of the evening, wife to our mature English student-added her comments on Derrida (a primary deconstructionist). She is a scholar who has published a book in her field and is working on another. But I've never heard her talk about the substance of her work. I had no idea she had read Derrida. I had no idea it was even possible to read Derrida-what little I had read was impenetrable. (I had to turn to essays and commentaries by reliable interpreters to tell me what it said. But of course that doesn't stop me from pontificating.) It was a different side to her. And in a few words it told me something about how she thought and approached things beyond deconstructionism. More perhaps even than learning the name of her favorite restaurant might.

This conversation, this part of the evening, lasted no more than a half hour, but it stayed with me the next day. I felt I had to learn more about the water issue, and I should have more specific information on how agri-business wastes water. I thought about the urban versus rural uses of energy, and what else was involved in evaluating their relative merits.
I even thought about looking up a little Derrida, but that feeling passed almost immediately.

I was motivated to learn more, which became a more generalized feeling. I felt validated in my concerns and preoccupations that ordinarily seemed to have no relevance to anyone or anything else in the day to day.

We are more than our jobs and daily worries and wants. We are more even than our families and webs of relationships. We are more than our stuff. That "more" is not just an add-on either. It is as essential and as integral. It contributes to the form and the contents of our lives, our relationships, our moment on the planet. It's worth going there once in awhile, and sharing that aspect of ourselves.

It's easy enough for me to remember that, since I never stopped consciously being a student, even though I left school long ago. It's not so easy when other responsibilities take precedence, and particularly when you need to fit into the cultures of a particular place or occupation that don't include this kind of expression or these concerns.

But here we are, adults of some education, with years of living and intellectual, emotional, spiritual and practical experiences, who have seen and participated in history simply by virtue of being around this long, who have tested ideas in the world and in our internal responses, who have observed and shared aspects of many other lives and possibly other cultures. Why should we limit ourselves to a culture of the exclusively mundane?

What are we doing here? What is Truth, what is Reality?

Here, let me fill your glass.

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