Sunday, August 06, 2006

Talking and Grief

So let's start with the New York Review of Books, shall we? In the latest issue, Russell Baker reviews that new book 'Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.' In Steve's Guide to Book-Reviewing, attention is always given to reviews written by a) friends, b) enemies, or c) reviewers who have themselves written good books, or bad ones. Baker comes in firmly in category C, since his journalistic essays in the 70s are stellar, and since his 80s memoir, 'Growing Up,' is wonderfully involving and genuinely touching. In addition to this, I have it from several sources that Baker is himself a wonderful practitioner of the art of conversation, so of course I scrutinized the review (oh, who am I kidding? Yes, yes ... I scrutinized EVERY review! But some, like this one, I do for more personal reasons, in addition to just being ready to inform the ignorant masses).

As usual in cases like this, the reviewer is more entertaining than the book under review, but that's OK. Baker pretty much likes the book but pooh-poohs its Chicken-little style hand-wringing about the future of conversation. The book's author theorizes that the more mechanical devices abound that SUBSTITUTE for conversation, the less actual conversation there'll be. Baker points out that this is close to boobish - people will always like talking to each other. He also points out that an abundance of these conversation-substitution devices requires a lot of money ... I don't know how comfortable I am with that point, on a few levels, and not least because when I recently lived on Mark St (which is located in Jamaica Plain but only physically ... in reality, it's Sao Paolo, or Bogota, or Shanghai: poor, dirty, un-technological, and earth-shatteringly loud), I saw evidence that it might be true - people sat out talking because, in part, they had no alternative.

Still, I enjoyed Baker's attempts to analyze what consitutes good conversation. He comes up with some rules, and I thought I'd share them, just to get your own juices flowing on the subject:

"Both participants listen attentively to each other; neither tries to promote himself by pleasing the other; both are obviously enjoying an intellectual workout; neither spoils the evening's peaceable air by making a speech or letting disagreement flare into anger."

I won't belabor the point by mentioning that Sam Adams, Willam Howard Taft, and especially, toweringly, Erasmus were all masters of the art ...

Another master of the art was Ben Jonson, whose name crops up over in the New York Review of Books in a review Anne Barton writes about a bunch of new Shakespeare books. Her piece is mostly just a tedious rehash - we know very little about Shakespeare, how reliable are the clues seeded throughout the plays, etc. - so I wouldn't ordinarily have mentioned it, except that over in the latest issue of the New Republic, Rochelle Gurstein reviews two books about grief, Joan Didion's and Donald Hall's. She wins BIG Steve-points by giving a generous portion of her piece's opening to C.S. Lewis' shattering 'A Grief Observed,' about the death of his wife - a book that never fails to set tears in my eyes. Grief is a subject I know well, of course - not only because I've lost half a dozen intensely close human friendships (Mark, Sam, Sarah, my dear friend and teacher Gerry), but because I've tethered my heart's deepest love to a species that's short-lived, especially all my deepest loves, my valiant Huron, my poor Buford, my darling old friend Aidan, and of course my boy, my Beetle, who produced a grief worse than anything I've ever felt.

That's where Ben Jonson comes in ... naturally any discussion of grief brings him to mind, since he went against the 16th century grain and actually LOVED the little boy he lost in 1603. As I type this, I'm propped up on pillows in bed, utterly pinned by limply snoring dogs ... but in this case it doesn't matter, since the poem Jonson wrote about that loss is in my long-term memory, because it's so sadly, sweetly perfect:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy:
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou were lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson, his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

But my, that's a bit of a downer as an ending to this installment, isn't it? And that's not right, since grief is just a by-product, as you know as well as I do: grief is just a by-product of being brave enough (or stupid enough, altough you know which one I say it is) to give hostages to time. To LOVE something that's mortal. And that love is pure joy (well, not pure! Just this morning, I stood on the sidewalk for ten minutes while Lucy had a heated argument with a fire hydrant)(sigh), the best - and happiest - part of being alive. Nothing gloomy about that! What fools and cowards would EVER let the by-product dissuade them from the whole and total reason for being here?

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