"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Prolix, The Garrulous, And The Incessant Need To Talk–Where Is The Poetry Of Language?

Maggie Proctor was an intelligent woman – proud, educated, and well-spoken; but she was hopelessly prolix and garrulous.  It was not that she had nothing to say – she often did - but it got lost in a running commentary on the trivial and unnecessary – a personal gluey pastiche, a horror vacui, and a non-stop travelogue of diners, signs, and turns in the road.

A colleague known to both of us was equally smart, properly socialized, and talented; but he too could never stop talking about wines, aeronautics, and business models – a running account which had little to do with conversation and all to do about himself.

An relative of Maggie’s with two university degrees, a modestly successful career as a lecturer and academic, and a wide-ranging interest in cooking, film, and literature was no different. If he found no easy and polite way to introduce his ideas into the discussion, he simply talked to whomever was closest to him, creating a private channel of conversation outside of the mainstream, one that had nothing to do with the principal flow but all to do with his intent to express his ideas to someone, anyone.

An older woman with a modest pedigree, moderate means, moderately successful marriage and family, and a perceptive intelligence, was also never quiet.  Like Maggie Proctor she talked about nothing of significance; and like the academic found ways to shift all conversational interest to herself. 

She was neither non-stop commentary, nor talking juggernaut, nor side-conversationalist, but deft at shifting the conversation to herself via non sequitur, then going on about whatever had come to her mind.  She was less interested in what she was saying than the fact that she was saying it.

All four had a compulsive need to talk.  To those around them it was annoying and unstoppable – a disruptive, persistent intrusion into the normal course of conversation which should have ebbed and flowed and been consistent, built by ideas generated and continued by each individual but always a mainstream with no distracting side channels or eddies.

Why was this? Why would ordinarily composed men and women who under the right circumstances could make perfect sense and offer reasonable observations become in company garrulous and prolix?  The simplistic explanation is Freudian.  They had been overshadowed by husbands and fathers, fought insecurity and low self-esteem, and found speaking a way to express identity, self-worth, and ability.

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This does not explain how otherwise intelligent individuals could so badly misread social context and never pick up on the clues of frustration, lack of interest, and annoyance? Was their need for self-expression so great and the satisfaction from it so complete that they ignored what should have been obvious? Or were they simply self-centered people who had exaggerated notions of their worth and the value of their ideas.  People who had not been so much overshadowed as over-indulged?

Sophisticated, complex, nuanced speech is human and ours alone.  More than physical strength, will, or native intelligence, it is more versatile, adaptable, and uniquely subtle and persuasive. One may be born with a variety of aptitudes and abilities, but a silver tongue can overcome deficiencies in character and personality, and enhance any image the speaker wishes to convey.

Franchot Gunn had a silver tongue and an effusive charm, and no one could resist him. Professors, women, colleagues, supervisors, and competitors were all seduced by his grace, intimacy, and personal concern.  They had no interest in really knowing who he was, what motivated him, or from what compassionate or spiritual spring his sympathy and understanding came.  He was so good at his elegant ballet, that people were enticed, engaged, and finally hooked.

Charm and a silver tongue will get you everywhere”, he told his young son. “The only lesson you will ever need to know.”  This bit of wisdom was of course not new, and ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ was the the guiding principle of P.T. Barnum, the greatest huckster in American history.  

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Although there have been plenty of pretenders to his throne, none understood the absolute gullibility of the American consumer than Barnum.  No matter how exaggerated his claims or preposterous the creatures in his side shows, people packed his big tent and kept coming back for more.

Dostoevsky suggests that Christ was the original huckster, offering man the promise of redemption and salvation but guaranteeing him nothing and consigning him to a live of hunger and misery.  Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness and His crafting of a message of hope to billions who would follow him – “Man does not live by bread alone” – was no more than a bill of goods.

Franchot Gunn’s deliberate deception worked like a dream. His silver tongue enabled him to lull even his harshest professional critics.  Hours of revisions of proposals, reports, and company white papers were avoided because of his ability to convince people of the irrefutable logic of his arguments and the rightness of his cause. 

His ability to marginalize enemies and build almost universal support among the staff gave him carte blanche. His charm was so convincing that even his severest critics never knew that he had hung them out to dry. He set his own hours, worked at his own pace, produced responsibly if sometimes superficially, and had more time to himself and his personal ambitions than anyone else he knew.

“Look at it this way”, Franchot explained. “The ends justify the means” He knew that in the marketplace of human nature he might one day meet his match and be snookered, taken for a ride, or hung out to dry. “Equal opportunity”, he smiled.

As far as anyone knew Franchot Gunn was never taken in, seduced, or entrapped by anyone else’s silver tongue and charm. He was too good and too smart.  The nice thing of it all was that no one wanted him to come a cropper.  He had fooled so many people into thinking of him as the ideal lover, colleague, and friend that no one resented his successes or the ease with which he accomplished them.

Like everything else persuasive speech has a spectrum.  There are those like Franchot Gunn who innately and perfectly understand the power of language and its ability to change people’s minds, attitudes, and actions with only the slightest substance behind it. 

There are, however, legions of others like Maggie Proctor who sense the power of speech but cannot employ it.  They have either never learned its subtleties nor mastered its complexities;  or been so conditioned and motivated by personal need that any possibility facility is useless. For them language is a blunt instrument.

Lacking any subtle insight, they hammer away with results opposite to what they had intended.  They are surprised that what they consider well-intentioned speech is taken the wrong way and that they have become a nuisance.

Most of the rest of us muddle through, neither influential nor inept and for whom language is but a tool for practical communication.  We blunder, say the wrong things at the wrong time, make lame excuses, infuriate our children, anger the boss, and never figure out the right lines to use with women, but we fall well under the bell curve.  We suffer the garrulous and the prolix just as poorly as the Franchot Gunns of the world.

In the end we try to make peace and do our best to understand them; but many hours of patience are required to do so; and most of us jump ship rather than listen to them go on.

At its best language is neither intimidating nor frustrating; neither blandly practical nor inspiring.  It is elegant and lyrical. The poetry of Blake, Auden, Yeats, and Eliot and the language of Shakespeare do more than explicate or crudely persuade.

Such poetry is not beyond reach, but intimations of it few and far between in our prolix, and garrulous society.

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