23. Conversation

by Culture and Anti Culture

(For context see post 1)

No sooner had the snake beheld this venerable image than the king began to speak and asked:
“Whence comest thou?”
“From the crevices where the gold dwells.”
“What is more glorious than gold?” asked the king. “Light,” answered the snake.
“What is more refreshing than light?” asked the former.
“Conversation,” replied the latter.

Goethe’s ‘Fairy Tale’


The word conversation is used by the guardians of anti-culture in the U.S. almost constantly.  For example, having a “national conversation about poverty”, “the conversation continues online” and other horribly empty phrases.   This poor word has taken a terrible beating in recent times, its meaning almost inverted by the force of repeated abuse.  Similarly, the phrase “we need to talk” usually means “shut up and listen to me.”

At least in America, real conversation is not dying, but dead.  I mean unprejudiced, broad-minded, tolerant, fruitful exchange between people, face to face; exchanging, not only words, but gestures, tones of voice, intimations. There is no substitute for this direct contact, as shown by many failed attempts to replicate the effects of real human contact, using computers or video and voice links.  Real conversation must involve, especially at present, a gradual negotiation over the meaning of words and ideas.  It must be free of both hostility and appeals to authority (I’m older than you, I have a degree in this, etc.)  Conversation is a mutual, improvisational art, whose real goal is truth and depth of understanding.  It is NOT debate or argument, not verbal fencing with thrust and parry, victory and defeat. Though it need not lead to any agreement, some sense of mutual understanding will be the result, even between enemies.

Conversation does not demand urbane sophistication, the right refined words or good grammar.  It always demands some feeling for subtlety and nuance.  Nothing is absolutely clear-cut when words are exchanged; everything arises in a living context.  True conversation is a fabric of words, gestures, feeling and thoughts.

Let us use the word ‘justice’ to exemplify the demand true conversation makes on us to mutually work toward understanding one another’s use of words.  In our culture, justice usually refers to fairness and just desserts.  It also can mean retribution. (Remember the Old Testament formula “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.)  Or it can refer to the orderly working of the law and its mechanisms. The highest virtue of the ancient Greeks was ‘justice’, but that fundamentally referred to a wholesome earthly and cosmic proportionality, and a hierarchy of worth; of things in their true place and value.  Bandying the word ‘justice’, without a mutual sense of how it is being used, is not conversation–it is argument and debate, with the purpose of winning and not understanding.  Such contention contributes to the vast mass of bullshit we are suffocating under.

By understanding a word I do not mean the result of rigid definition, but a feeling for its use and the concept it refers to.  Concepts are like cloud forms, with a vague periphery and a dense central meaning.  True conversation has, as one of its features, the ability to tease out these central meanings, entertain them and, in a sense, get ‘inside’ them. The poet, John Keats, spoke of the ability to entertain something in the mind, to deeply experience it, without being controlled and seduced.  He called this capacity ‘negative capability’ and it is indispensable for lively, creative exchanges.

Symptomatic of real conversation, is that it enlivens and refreshes its participants. It also exemplifies the old maxim ‘I can’t, we can’.  Conversation ‘midwifes’ new conceptions, images and impulses, which would otherwise be stillborn.


The Supper at Emmaus      Caravaggio