Conversation, The Pleasure Of The Tongue
( Originally Published 1906 )
THAT must suffice for a glance at some of the outdoor recreations. But one must have indoor sports for the head as well as outdoor sports for the body, and to these we must now turn. I will name first, as the chief in my theory, what is far from the chief in my practice,—conversation.
The supreme mental delight of a thoughtful man or woman should be conversation ; but conversation, you know, is one of the lost arts. Need it be ? Thinking is not by any means one of the lost arts, nor is writing of books or of letters, nor is the reading of both. But bring two thoughtful, reading people together, face to face, with absolutely nothing in the room, with curtains drawn to shut out exterior suggestions, and probably they will both sit there appalled by the conversational vacuity.
Can you imagine Columbus sitting down with one of his officers in their dark cabin after land had been sighted and a new world won,—sitting down, they two, with folded hands and mute or stammering tongues, at a loss for something to say ? Can you fancy Stanley with his staff in mid-Africa grouped about the camp-fire in silence, embarrassed by lack of topics for conversation ? We are living in a time when whole continents, entire worlds, of thought and enterprise, of achievement and anticipation, are spread out in clear light or in provoking half-revelation before every wide-awake mind. There is not a man or a woman with healthy brain who may not have wonders of discovery matching those of Columbus or Stanley. And that we should sit about our camp-fires, embarrassed for lack of something to talk about ! That we should not meet as friends in a company of gold-hunters, to gloat over each rich find, each discovered treasure!
Our papers and magazines are crowded with announcements of inventions and scientific discoveries, and not alone in the realm of the physical is there wizardry at work. Every magazine you take up flashes to the seeing eye with glints of a great social and spiritual fire kindled anew in these modern days with sparks carried over from that first great century, fire of love to God and love to man, renovating our social order, making war on warfare, trying judicial systems in higher scales than theirs, remodeling governments, evangelizing the globe. We read carelessly the burning pages whose every line, five centuries ago, would have caused an intellectual earthquake, lay our fat finger on the page and pass it to our neighbor with a yawn. " Have you read that? That's the latest." Triumph of modern conversation !
For this keenest of all intellectual recreation but three things are necessary, all to be bought without money, yet with price,—a mind wide-awake, a friend like-minded, and an unselfish, unegotistic sympathy between you two. If you can gain those three things, you need never lack inspiring mental renewing.
But they are not easy to gain, and therefore it is that conversation is becoming a lost art. To converse well, and take pleasure in talking, one must know something thoroughly,—not a mere surface knowledge, good for no more than three sentences and an adjective; not a knowledge of books by titles and reviews, or of events by newspaper head lines, or of discoveries by stray paragraphs, but a knowledge that has its roots in genuine interest, its trunk solidified by persistent study, its leaves expanded in the free air of eager, original thinking. Smatter-brained folks cannot converse well.
The chief requirement for conversation, however, is sympathy. Unless you are will- ing to be interested in your friend's interests and he in yours, unless you have imagination enough to put yourself in his place and he in yours, unless you can give up your fads and hobbies, your private worries and individual ecstasies, and he his, you two may interchange monologues by the hour but you cannot get together, you cannot converse. But if you two are able, with the frank, spontaneous joy of childhood, to roam hand in hand through the forest of universal thought, plucking here and there a flower and often looking up to the sky, if you really can put your minds together for delight in mutual treasures, for intellectual fellowship and spiritual inspiration, then, ah, then, you will have won for yourselves one of the purest pleasures, one of the noblest recreations, this life can furnish a weary body or an exhausted brain.