A contribution to conversation
The author of Talking Cure is a Professor of English at Drexel University in the US. She has written many books on literary themes which, as far as one can judge from the references to them in this book, focus on what literature reveals about our emotional lives. The title, Talking Cure, comes from Freud, and she tells us that Jane Austen’s “well-formed insights” into the inner life of her characters “paved the way for psychoanalysis.” Two of Marantz Cohen’s earlier titles are Of Human Kindness and What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, so this book seems like a natural development of her area of interest.
Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation
By Paula Marantz Cohen. Princeton. 2023. 232 pages
It is an opportune time to explore the place of conversation in modern life with its obsessions with screens and schedules. Questions about how to cultivate the art and habit of conversation are indeed timely, so the book will certainly attract ready interest. The question of whether it actually rises to the expectations is not so readily answered. Much depends on what one’s idea of conversation is to start with.
If you are a writer or scholar, Marantz Cohen’s discussion about historically famous conversational circles like the Bloomsbury set, the poets of English Romanticism, or the groups that gathered like a court around luminaries, from Plato to Samuel Johnson to Jean-Paul Sartre, will certainly be of interest. But then it is likely that many such readers will already be in circles of their own – as well, of course, as the virtual online circles and podcasts that allow us to be observers, if not always actual participants, in the conversations of leading minds of our own time.
“History,” is indeed, as she says, “dotted with stories of people who found love, solace, inspiration and friendship through ongoing interaction with each other.” As Shakespeare might have quipped, “We need no ghost from the grave to tell us that.” The kind of enlightening and intellectually enriching conversations that much of this book considers, such as happens in university seminars and circles of learning, do not quite constitute typical conversation. Nor are they what most people would consider a useful template for drawing people together into real, unhurried, nurturing exchanges, and away from the texting and emoji communication that have displaced them.
Of course, we get some helpful hints, but they are not really original either. I think most parents know the useful ploy of bringing up difficult subjects with teens while engaged together in an activity or even while driving or out walking. We know that good conversation is about good listening as much as good talking. It requires respect and openness to changing or modifying one’s opinions. We know that pedantry, pomposity, and talking down are conversation killers.
So, very little is new. In discussing the recent post-lockdown phenomenon of Zoom, Marantz Cohen takes the subject no further than anyone would after a mere minute’s reflection. Yes, it’s a positive development. It allows one to participate in an international Shakespearean reading circle and share insights. No, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face conversation because it introduces an element of the performative, and dampens the spontaneity that is the heart and soul of real conversation. This is something that could be teased out much more.
Much of conversation is directed by the silent signals of body language, by the brief, even fleeting, spaces of thoughtful silence that punctuate our face-to-face encounters – things that are much harder to observe and “read” on the two-dimensional screen. Perhaps the Zoom experience has shown us something about the subtlety and refinement of human dialogue? Marantz Cohen is right in her summing up: only person-to-person conversation allows us “to interact vitally” with each other.
Apart from screens, the real inhibitor to free conversation today is the tyranny of political correctness. Manantz Cohen does not critique the phenomenon. This issue is treated rather summarily and is characterised as “polarization” of opinion, without addressing today’s culture of censorship from digital pile-ons, to cancellings, to the self-censorship which is the final stage of ideological repression.
Of this, Marantz Cohen’s book has nothing to say beyond recommending openness to other perspectives, to having one’s mind changed, to engaging conversationally with people of diverse views and backgrounds. As a way of underlining her openness, she mentions that she is part of one social group that includes “a Catholic.” The comment is interesting for what it seems to infer about the general climate of tolerance in a liberal American campus today.
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Marantz Cohen does condemn echo chambers, but her examples wouldn’t be what would come to mind for many of us. Recalling how women used to leave the dinner table to allow the men to conduct real, serious conversation over “brandy and cigars” makes her suspicious of “men only” places such as men’s sheds. In fact, she appears to see no value in conversational segregation along any lines at all, including gender.
Most people, I think, including public commentators such as Mary Harrington and Jordan Peterson, would disagree with her. There is and has always been a place for peer groups based on age, interest, sex, and other categories of common ground. These can be formative and nurturing places that build confidence and give people something to bring to wider, less familiar milieux.
Talking Cure, despite the origin and connotations of the term, has little to say about the therapeutic potential of conversation. In that sense, the title is a little misleading for anyone who is looking for help in opening and handling difficult and sensitive subjects, or in breaking down barriers to communication with vulnerable others. Marantz Cohen is more interested in exploring the conditions that facilitate intellectually engaging conversations. While she is open to conversation anywhere and with anyone, her focus in the main is on places and circumstances where conviviality tends to thrive – places like dinner parties, cafés, bars, and campus gathering places.
Marantz Cohen has nothing to say about the value of conversations around questions of faith. Religion for her is repressive and led humanity into “the Dark Ages” – the elected silence of monastic life is but a rejection of the mind-expanding, empathy-building art of conversation. It really does raise questions about how wide her conversational circles are in terms of beliefs and values. One imagines that any open conversation around the “Dark Ages” Church would raise the historically grounded argument that it was the Church, in particular the monasteries, that kept the flames of faith and learning alive. Furthermore, it was the Church that founded the first universities in Europe when barbarian force was spent.
Marantz Cohen appears to confuse the Dark Ages with the medieval period, and sees the Renaissance as asserting an enlightened humanism free of “the repressive vision” of religion. Quite an extraordinary claim when one considers that the greatest artistic expressions of the Renaissance era dealt with themes of faith, and were often commissioned by popes and other prominent churchmen.
So learning through conversation for Marantz Cohen appears to bypass the “big” questions that have engaged enquiring minds from Plato to the evangelising and atheistic polemicists of our own day. In the end, the potential of conversation to really open up a way to the truths that matter most doesn’t interest her. For people of faith, this is the most exciting and enriching context for conversation. It’s also a place where the Holy Spirit is active and present, where dialogue can be truly “inspired” in the original sense of the word.
Another signal omission in this book is its failure to address the negative side of conversation — the fact that so much of what passes for conversation is just gossip or ingratiation or manipulation. Conversation can be time-wasting, frivolous, and even harmful. It can leave us feeling diminished, used, or compromised, often morally compromised. Our capacity for speech, language, and highly developed communication offers so much for personal, social, intellectual, and spiritual growth. It demands an equally developed sense of responsibility for what we say and what we are prepared to listen to. There is a moral dimension to conversation which seems to be off-radar for Maranz Cohen.
In the final analysis, good conversation is a matter of disposition, not skill or a very qualified “openness”. This book does not have the measure of its title. It disappoints.
Margaret Hickey is a regular contributor to Position Papers. She is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.
Image credit: Pexels
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