On the limitations of conversation


I’m reading Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change your Life, because it seemed a quicker way to discover the best bits of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time than taking that great slow-moving volume down from my bookshelf and spending time with it…

In the chapter entitled How to be a Good Friend De Botton describes Proust’s social life.  Despite having a host of ‘friends’ who spoke highly of Proust’s friendship, of his others-oriented humility, his dazzling conversational ability, his memorable generosity, and his keen listening skills, Proust himself held a very cynical view of friendships.  He called conversation “a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring.” And described the futility of pursuing  friendships which make us ‘sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self.”

Proust questioned the claim that our friends are those with whom we can be our deepest selves and express who we really are.  He didn’t find this to be true of his friendships but turned instead to his writing to express what he really felt below the surface of the superficial niceties that made him a popular host.

I found DeBottom’s observations about the limitations of conversation intriguing.  His explanations as to why some choose writing over conversation to communicate their deepest thoughts makes sense to me.

What explains such limitations? Why would one be unable to chat, as opposed to write, In Search of Lost Time? In part, because of the mind’s functioning, its condition as an intermittent organ, forever liable to lose the thread or be distracted, generating vital thoughts only between stretches of inactivity or mediocrity, stretches in which we are not really “ourselves,” during which it may be no exaggeration to say that we are not quite all there as we gaze at passing clouds with a vacant, childlike expression.  Because the rhythm of a conversation makes no allowance for dead periods, because the presence of others calls for continuous responses, we are left to regret the inanity of what we have said, and the missed opportunity of what we have not.

By contrast, a book provides for a distillation of our sporadic mind, a record of its most vital manifestations, a concentration of inspired moments that might originally have arisen across a multitude of years and been separated by extended stretches of bovine gazing.  To meet an author whose books one has enjoyed must, in this view, necessarily be a disappointment because such a meeting can only reveal a person as he exists within and finds himself subject to, the limitations of time.

Furthermore, conversation allows us little room to revise our original utterances, which ill suits our tendency not to know what we are trying to say until we have had a least one go at saying it, whereas writing accommodates and is largely made up of rewriting, during which original thoughts–bare, inarticulate strands–are enriched and nuanced over time.  They may thereby appear on a page according to the logic and aesthetic order they demand, as opposed to suffering the distortion effected by conversation, with its limits on the corrections or additions one can make before enraging even the most patient companion.

Alain deBotton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, p.112-113

While Proust concluded that friendship is ultimately ‘a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone,’  I prefer to believe that I am fully and intimately known by my Creator and the more I share the whole of life with Him and invest time, whether silent dandelion gazing or meditating on His Words, or pouring out my heart as best I can, the more I come to know Him and understand this deep lasting friendship we share.  The permanence of this friendship then frees me to extend myself to others without such a paralyzing fear of rejection, as though everything depended on their response… But I do feel with Proust and DeBotton the limitations of conversation and human friendship, and look forward to the day when I shall know fully as I am fully known.  In the meantime there is this lifelong learning to ‘pray without ceasing’ and this stepping out to be a friend where I can…and always, the writing to understand and to make myself understood…

Thanks for stopping by,



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