Thursday 28 April 2011

The facetiousness of (?English) intellectual conversation


In days when I depended more on the physical company of other people, I was endemically frustrated by the facetiousness of conversation among people of my acquaintance.

In theory, there were plenty of well-informed people with similar interests around me; in practice the conversation was unrelentingly superficial and continually attempting wit, jokes - a light and unattached attitude to life was prevalent.

I found this diet of daily discourse profoundly unsatisfying, and would travel the length of the country for a few hours of 'deep' talk with one of the handful of friends who were able and willing to provide it.


Whether this is specifically English, and whether things have always been like this - I don't know.

But things are still the same - as far as I can judge.

Intellectual life is still populated almost exclusively by people who never drop their facade of unseriousness - indeed, who have perhaps become the facade such that there is nothing to drop. They are not 'hiding' anything; what you see is what there is.


This applies even to writers, scholars, scientists whose work is interesting - whose work I admire and have benefited-from; many of them come across as utterly superficial people.

Specifically, the intellect seems to be dissociated from the emotions - so that there is no depth: nothing behind the surface rationality.

The facial expression, the eyes, are 'glassy' - even while the words may be eloquent.  


I wonder, too, whether this could be a class thing, and an hereditary thing. My ancestors are 'working class', and I find that social conversation among people whose ancestors are solidly upper middle class generally strikes me as afflicted with this species of apparently inescapable triviality.

Presumably I strike them as dull, naive and over-serious.

But there it is!


At the end of the day, the general intellectual discourse among English intellectuals is - I find, on the whole - disappointingly annoying and uninteresting: even at the highest level, among people that I would expect or hope to be enlightening.


Professional, specialist conversation can, by contrast, be very interesting; and that was the basis for most of the best types of discourse; at least it *was*, until professional conversation became afflicted by political correctness, dishonesty, and fear.



James Kalb said...

An interesting observation.

If you feel responsible for running things you may not want issues to become issues. Tocqueville complained about the stupefying pettiness and conformity of democratic American life, and I suppose this is another example of the same problem. In countries where political life has been more crisis-ridden this sort of thing may be less of an issue.

The Crow said...

There sometimes comes a point where you may discover that there is nobody else with whom to speak. That you must supply your own answers to every question, and that you, yourself, are more expert that any expert.
People generally don't know much, even when they are reputed to. Upon reaching this level of accomplishment and experience, it becomes suddenly clear that you are it, and that you are quite alone.
Worry not. It is a passing thing, but it requires courage to accept this whole new level of responsibility.

B322 said...

As a kid growing up I got the same feeling about being serious as I did about being sensitive - that they were both crimes. Only comedy and mock violence seemed permissible to my peers. I wonder what they are like now; if they have developed an ability to be serious in middle age.

Alex said...

I haven't endured many, but it's true that the conversation of extremely clever people is often of such disappointing sophistry and insufferable levity that by comparison a casual chat at the bus stop would be a gem of scholarly discourse.

There is a suspicion of of 'seriousness' in British social intercourse that goes back a very long way. Stefan Collini analyses this Anglo-Saxon attitude, among others, in his book, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain. He quotes Anthony Hartley, who claimed that, "No people has ever distrusted and despised the intellect and intellectuals more than the British."

Bruce Charlton said...

@JK - probably some of it is the desire to avoid conflict about fundamental issue - like the rule never to discuss religion or politics in social situations.

Then again, traditionally the English were reserved about their personal lives - so what remains?


In such circumstances 'a sense of humour' becomes about the only acceptable attitude - applied to neutral subjects such as 'the weather', holidays etc.

Since most people are not funny, facetiousness is the inevitable result.


On the other hand, being serious in conversation does entail that people are not easily offended, and tolerate disagreement; and this is a skill in itself (and differs between the sexes).

One of the horrors of PC is that being easily and viscerally offended (and then of denouncing the offender - who, having caused offense, has no defense; and in which the importance of the topic or the nature of the discourse can never allow the senistivity rule to be set-aside) has become socially celebrated - thus all-but destroying the possibility of serious conversation among colleagues and acquaintances.

A society which prizes 'sensitivity' (i.e. such careful discourse as to rule-out even the possibility of anyone - no matter how chippy, brittle and insecure - becoming offended) is a society in which conversation can only be facetious about trivial topics or slavish about serious topics.

No wonder that so many people prefer to obliterate their own consciousness using the mass media!


Whether or not intended, this social practice atomizes people and reduces the chance of developing resistant alliances.


Anonymous said...

Given what intellectuals accomplished in the French and Russian revolutions, everyone should be suspicious of intellectuals.

The superficiality of conversion may have more to do with the viciousness of ideologues, who, in my experience, never pass an opportunity to humiliate anyone who thinks or acts differently. I know I'm sick of seeing their hatreds visited on colleagues, acquaintances, and friends.

Brett Stevens said...

Not to wax too nerdly on this, but there's two things going on: degree of self-actualization, and method of ascendancy.

An academic must confront "serious" (including mortal) issues all of his or her life, and so must self-actualize more than someone who handles less sensitive material. In addition, the way to rise in status as an academic is to master serious ideas.

That's not so for most people, who avoid self-actualization in favor of rote tasks, and ascend by socializing.