The Curse of the Gab
Blaise Pascal’s remark that all our miseries stem from the inability to sit alone is a cliché at this stage. Franz Kafka attributed our miseries to impatience; the Buddhists blame desire. Fundamentally, the great bugbear appears to be silence; few of us can abide it.
The ability to speak well and cogently is one of the most desirable qualities on earth, and public speaking one of the most common fears. The control of language is the control of thought, and leads to influence over others. Control of one’s language to the point of delivering a dramatic parcel of it to a group is a measure of leadership, but this kind of spotlight is terrifying to many habitual gabbers, because habitual gabbers are intent on self-protection, and, I would venture to say, the reduction of meaning.
I grew up with two very good talkers of different sorts. My mother was pleasant, entertaining and reassuring. She was a thinker, and delivered the conclusions of her thoughts honestly and without confrontation, but could convey disapproval by subtle tones. Her nobility of intent, coupled with a penchant for decisive aphorism, had the unfortunate side-effect of making it hard to speak freely with her unless you shared her moral viewpoint. My father was also a thinker, and the fruits of his reading and rumination were delivered much more eloquently, but always in the form of a lecture. Outside the home he tended to talk himself out of favour and into gossip with his perfectly formed, non-native, forcefully delivered sentences. He silenced all argument with loud tones or departure. Both were colourful, and never superficial.
I was shy, and compounded the shyness by insisting on the well-formed sentences of my father’s lone dialect, quickly finding myself cul-de-sacced into silence. It wasn’t just the sentences. Practically everything other people said seemed wrong or puzzling. Throwaway comments are very mysterious when you don’t share the experiences or perceptions they describe. I was disabled, I think, by my obsession with what was said. I’d be silenced by a remark I couldn’t quite fathom and lived with it until I could. It took me a long time to realise that most people don’t consider what they say before speaking, and they don’t feel the vibrations of their words.
One of the reasons people don’t think before they speak is because most conversation is not seriously ideological. According to one psychological study, people most often talk about practical and social matters, even those who might be expected to do otherwise, like academics. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
Men descend to meet. In their habitual and mean service to the world, for which they forsake their native nobleness, they resemble those Arabian Sheiks who dwell in mean houses and effect an external poverty, to escape the rapacity of the Pacha, and reserve all their display of wealth for their interior and guarded retirements. (1)
The Irish are no exception to this, but they are great, even passionate, talkers. We can listen too, and argue, both of which meanings are contained in the root of the second half of the word ‘conversation’; versus means ‘turned toward or against’. Turning against, however, is not a choice offered to you when you meet a total stranger (in so far as anyone can be a stranger in such a small population) on the street or bus, or in a shop, and they expect you to engage in a kind of verbal mucking-about that has to do with nothing but noise.
Ireland is a bit like one of those American institutions where criminals are hounded by psychologists watching their every expression for signs of recidivism. The Irish person wants you to reassure them that we are all alike, that we watch the same TV programmes, support our county team and slate politicians. If you show no interest in them, they become suspicious and often indignant.
There’s probably a good historical reason for this, but it’s not the case in every country. If one is to believe Lynn Truss, (and allow her a little humorous exaggeration), the English avoid giving information about themselves in a way that would be unacceptable here. She quotes from George Mikes book, How to be an Alien, where he wrote:
The aim of introduction [in England] is to conceal a person’s identity. It is very important that you should not pronounce anybody’s name in a way that the other party may be able to catch it. (2)
In Japan, apparently, you are most respected if you only speak when you have something meaty to say. In many European countries reticence is the norm until some real intimacy is established. This is bound to create a more pragmatic, less needy social atmosphere, and possibly, less deception of self and others, though all of us deceive in order to get through the day and earn a crust.
Maybe I’ve simply become over-tired and too focused on the details of my various tasks to have time for social glue, but I do find my speech rather viscous when someone expects me to reply to 'It’s miserable out there, isn’t it?' and ‘Doesn’t look like it’ll clear up,’ or ‘Isn’t that shocking?’, and wait for unchallenging agreement. The fact that I don’t answer doesn’t mean that (a) I don’t like you or (b) I’ve nothing to say. It means that I’m thinking about what you’ve said in an effort to reply truthfully.
But that’s not the point, is it? Who wants truth? It’s too difficult, if not too depressing. In some situations I’ve been known to talk too much, entering into a generous exegesis of my mental state, only to realise that my interlocutor had turned to stone. How does one know where to stop? It’s perhaps better not to begin.
During my brief trips to America, I thought it sad that the convention there is to cleave to one’s own kind. Artists know artists, marketing managers know marketing managers, bike fanatics know bike fanatics. Everyone seemed defined by their work. Ireland became a lot like that during the ‘Boom’, and we’re still resonating. Cherishing everyone simply for themselves seems a better ideal, but in the quotidian not very operable. Distance is the only way to preserve what Montaigne called the forme maistresse, or ‘mastermould’ of the personality. You acknowledge the other but keep your own counsel. Trying to establish common ground is often pointless. The fact that the other is a fellow human is not enough.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after one’s own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (3)
Declining to gab is not the same as declining to sit silently with gabbers. One could hold one’s own counsel and steer the conversation towards communication rather than tail-circling. I usually don’t wait long enough, declining both personal silence and the silence of verbal glue. This is probably a flaw. It means I’m not there when the dross has been removed and the real person is revealed. It seems I have developed all the traits that lead to misery: restlessness, impatience and desire. Silence, however, I have lots of, when I find myself sequestered yet again.
Or is it silence? I was arrested by John Gray’s novel approach to the question in his new book, The Silence of Animals. Humans are the least silent of animals, he says, because of language.
Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. (4)
After some reflection, I have realised that it’s neither ambient gabbing nor lone silence that oppresses me most, but the gabbing in my head. I constantly resist the simple appreciation of being an aware and sensing organism in the world. I’m too busy carping at myself, or analysing myself, or haranguing myself, or simply building definitions of all the things I’m not taking time to converse with. Maybe the reason I’m not answering the people who are interested in the weather is not that I’m so tremendously deep, but that I’m too busy talking to myself.
All sounds are swept into silence, from the rustling of trees
to the garrulous torrent of human media. As though One
were surrounded by a field that shocks them into small, subaural
flakes. There is chattering in here, One’s own, but that
has no sound either, just tireless insistence, like an ineffable
“There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact,
try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.… Until I die
there will be sounds. And they will continue following my
death. One need not fear about the future of music.”
– John Cage: Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage
Everything vibrates, and vibration is sound. Be honest. It’s
not sound you lack but human speech, and that with
meaning, directed towards you. (5)
(1) Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The Over-soul’, Selected Essays, Introduction by
Larzer Ziff, London: Penguin Classics, 1985 (originally published 1841), p. 213.
(2) Lynn Truss, Talk to the Hand, London: Profile Books Ltd., 2005, p. 11. Quoting George Mikes, How to be an Alien (1946).
(3) Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Self-reliance’, Selected Essays, p. 181.
(4) John Gray, The Silence of Animals, London: Allen Lane, 2013, p. 162.
(5) Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 17.