“We don’t talk anymore, like we used to,” Charlie Puth laments. His love, his conversationalist, has become an opacity. Her obscurity knocks the singer into the throes of sorrow, and their once-great dance of words has slowly pirouetted. Their backs are now turned.
Puth’s lyric is a pop cultural example of a sentiment thinkers have toyed with for decades. What is the best mode of human experience? Is it solitude, the brain’s reward to the silent mouth? Is it conversation as a sort of glissade down the slope of masses? Or is it somewhere in between?
“A subtle conversation, that is the Garden of Eden,” Caliph Ali Ben Ali supposedly said. I stumbled on this quote some time ago, in a book whose title is irretrievable. To compile the media I’ve encountered, the art that expresses a sentiment similarly and eloquently to the Caliph, would be to compile the stars in the sky. To name a few films: My Dinner with Andre, Before Sunrise, Blue Jay, Beatriz at Dinner. To quote John Updike’s story “The Happiest I’ve Been: “The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself — the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of those Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.”
I could go on.
The beauty of a good conversation is in its ineffable error. “Errare,” to directly quote the Latin, meaning “to wander.” What makes subtle conversation the best of all possible moments is that it is not the moment of the dyspeptic isolate nor is it the vapid moment of the glossed socialite. It is a space in between where one works out things through the visage of another person or persons. Moods, brief physical infirmities, intellectual ticks, they all flicker across the face of the conversationalist, and provide for a protean dialectic whose beauty is in its non-shape, in its wander.
Whenever I try to conjure up my most poignant remembrances, I see through the fog of memory a low-lit moment in the library, about 1 a.m., where my bleary-eyed friend and I simultaneously and spontaneously take a break from humdrummery and begin a conversation as subtle and tinkering as any I’ve had. It isn’t the specific substance I remember (although I do remember a debate about the Second Amendment), it is more so the mood of untried lucidity. It is the sort of verbal jazz that proved an ephemeral brightness in our thoughts. What made the experience so searingly memorable was not its concrete resolution, but its interpolation of subjectivities. I call it interstitial happiness, a sort of space in between, suspended and writhing and mutating like a small, gaseous cloud above two people talking. The cloud itself is just a symbol for the flow of the conversation, but the feelings created in the two parties are the simultaneous awareness and disassociation from the “conversation” itself. You are aware of your fugue state, aware of your unconscious conjecture, but are also loose and un-trying with your mind, making such spurts of thought nuanced jewels. It is wonderfully improvisational yet pulled from your deepest intellectual center. It’s an odd sensation, but aren’t most great things a bit odd?
I would argue our deepest memories (some of them, at least) are bound up by a good conversation, a moment of transitory lucidity that didn’t come when alone (those are much harder, more frustrating, less reactionary), but when shadowing another’s words and dancing with them. It’s an unforced, verbal tango, a fully-sensate ooze of words and logic and philosophy that works to investigate life. It is On the Road, in words. The act and purpose of a Moriarty displaced into moment-by-moment jargon. If the “goal” of life is to find a few fleeting answers to the unanswerable, I think this is how we can stumble into staying solvent.