Against Talking


From De claris mulieribus, Giovanni Boccaccio, 16th Century

by Vernon Lee

As towards most other things of which we have but little personal experience (foreigners, or socialists, or aristocrats, as the case may be), there is a degree of vague ill-will towards what is called Thinking. It is reputed to impede action, to make hay of instincts and of standards, to fritter reality into doubt; and the career of Hamlet is frequently pointed out as a proof of its unhappy effects. But, as I hinted, one has not very often an opportunity of verifying these drawbacks of thinking, or its advantages either. And I am tempted to believe that much of the mischief thus laid at the door of that poor unknown quantity Thinking is really due to its ubiquitious twin-brother Talking.

I call them twins on the analogy of Death and Sleep, because there is something poetical and attractive in such references to family relations; and also because, as many people cannot think without talking, and talking, at all events, is the supposed indication that thinking is within, there has arisen about these two human activities a good deal of that confusion and amiable not-caring-which-is-which so characteristic of our dealings with twins. But Talking, take my word for it, is the true villain of the couple.

Talking, however, should never be discouraged in the young. Not talking with them (largely reiteration of the word “Why?”), but talking among themselves. Its beneficial effects are of the sort which ought to make us patient with the crying of infants. Talking helps growth. M. Renan, with his saintly ironical sympathy for the young and weak, knew it when he excused the symbolists and decadents of various kinds with that indulgent sentence, Ce sont des enfants quis’amusent. It matters little what litter they leave behind, what mud pies they make and little daily dug-up gardens of philosophy, ethics, literature, and general scandal; they will grow out of the need to make them and meanwhile, making this sort of mess will help them grow. Besides, is it nothing that they should be amusing themselves once in their lives (we cannot be sure of the future)? And what amusement, what material revelry can be compared with the great carouses of words in which the young can still indulge? We were most of us young once, odd as it appears; and some of us can remember our youthful discussions, our salad-day talks, prolonged to hours, trespassing on to subjects, which added such a fine spice of the forbidden and therefore the free! The joy of asking reasons where you have hitherto answered school queries; of extemporizing replies, magnificent, irresponsible, instead of laboriously remembering mere solutions; of describing, analyzing, and generally laying bold mental eyes, irreverent intellectual hands, on personalities whose real presence would merely make you stumble over a chair or drop a tea-cup! For talking is the great equalizer of positions, turning the humble, the painfully immature, into judges with rope and torch; and in a kindlier way allowing the totally obscure to share the life of kings, and queens, and generals, and opera-singers; which is the reason that items of Court news or of “dramatic gossip” are so frequently exchanged in omnibuses and at small, decent dinner-tables.

Moreover, talking has for the young the joys of personal exuberance; it is all honeycombed, or rather, filled (like champagne) with the generous gaseousness of self-analysis, self-accusation, self-pity, self-righteousness, and autobiography. The poor mortal, in that delusive sense of sympathy and perfect understanding which comes of perfect indifference to one’s neighbour’s presence, has quicker pulses, higher temperature, more vigorous movements than are compatible with the sober sense of human unimportance. In conversation, clever young people vain, kindly, selfish, ridiculous, happy young people actually take body and weight, expand. And are you quite sure, my own dear, mature, efficient, and thoroughly productive friends and contemporaries, that it is not this expansion of youthful rubbish which makes the true movement of the centuries?… Poor stuff enough, very likely, they talked, those long-haired, loose-collared Romanticists of the Hotel Pimodan and the literary cafes recorded by Balzac, Jeunes Frances or whatever their names; and priggery, as well as blood-and-thunder, those lads round the table d’hote at Strasburg, where Jung-Stilling noticed the entrance of a certain tall, Apolline young man answering to the name of Goethe. Rubbish, of course; but rubbish necessary, yes, every empty bubble and scum and mess thereof, for the making of a great literary period nay, of a great man of letters. And when, nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine times, there results neither one nor the other, why, there has been the talking itself exciting and rapturous beyond everything that literary periods and literary personalities can ever match.

’Tis with the talking of the mature and the responsible that I would pick a quarrel. Particularly if they are well read, unprejudiced, subtle of thought, and precise of language; and most particularly if they are scrupulously just and full of human charity. For when two or three persons of this sort meet together in converse, nothing escapes destruction. The character of third persons crumbles under that delicate and patient fingering: analysis, synthesis, rehabilitation, tender appreciation, enthusiastic definition, leave behind only a horrid quivering little heap of vain virtues and atrophied bad instincts. In such conversations I have heard loyal and loving friends make admissions and suggestions which would hang you in a court of justice; I can bear witness to having in all loyalty and loving-kindness done so myself a thousand times. Nor is this even the worst. For your living human being has luckily a wonderful knack of reasserting his reality; and the hero or victim of such conversational manipulation will take your breath away by suddenly entering the room or entering into your consciousness as hale and whole as old Æson stepping out of Medea’s cooking-pot. But opinions, impressions, principles, standards, possess, alas! no such recuperative virtue; or, rather, they cannot interrupt the discussion of themselves by putting in an appearance.

Now, silent thought, whenever it destroys, destroys only to reconstruct the universe or the atom in the thinker’s image; and new realities arise whenever a real individual creature reveals his needs and ways of feeling. But in what is called a good serious talk there is no such creating anew; nobody imposes his image, no whole human creature reveals a human organism.: there is merely a jumble of superposed pictures which will not become a composite photograph; and the inherent optimism or pessimism, skepticism or dogmatism, of each interlocutor merely reiterates No to the ways of seeing and feeling of the others. Every word, perpetually defined and redefined at random, is used by each speaker in a different sense and with quite different associations. The subject under discussion is in no one’s keeping: it is banged from side to side, adjusted to the right and adjusted to the left, a fine screw put on it every now and then to send it sheer into the great void and chaos! And almost the saddest part of the business is that the defacements and tramplings which the poor subject (who knows, perhaps very sacred to some one of us?) is made to suffer, come not from our opponent’s brutal thrusting forward of his meaning, but rather from our own desperate methods to hold tight, to place our meaning in safety, somewhere where, even if not recognized, it will at least not be mauled … Such are the scuffles and scrimmages of the most temperate, intellectual conversations, leaving behind them for the moment not a twig, not a blade of the decent vegetation of the human soul. Cannot we get some great beneficent mechanic to invent some spiritual cement, some asphalt and gravel of nothingness, some thoroughly pneumatic intellectual balls, whereon, and also wherewith, we privileged creatures may harmlessly expend our waste dialectic energies?

Then, would you never talk? Or would you confine talking to the weather or the contents of the public prints? Would you have our ideas get hard and sterile for want of being moved? Do you advise that, like some tactful persons we—you—yes, you—all know and detest we systematically let every subject drop as soon as raised?

There! the talking has begun. They are at it, contradicting what they agree with, and asking definitions of what they perfectly understand. Of course not! And here I am, unable to resist, rushing into the argument, excited—who can tell?—perhaps delighted. And by the time we take up our bedroom candles, and wish each other good night (with additional definitions over the banisters) every scrap of sensible meaning I ever had will be turned to nonsense; and I shall feel, next morning, oh, how miserably humiliated and depressed!…

“Well and to return to what we were saying last night…”

Piece first published in 1904. Via

About the Author:

Vernon Lee (real name Violet Paget, 14 October 1856 – 13 February 1935) was a British writer.