A Conversation about a Conversation: Ian McEwan talks with Steven Pinker or Does He?
‘ Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?
She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arms. He said again, softly:
‘Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?
– James Joyce, The Dead
“We’re going to have a conversation about conversation.”
So began an afternoon chat between novelist Ian McEwan and psychologist Steven Pinker at New York’s Morgan Library, part of PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival.
Before a full house that McEwan swore to ignore (but didn’t) and Pinker played to (and couldn’t resist), this unlikely pair sought to illuminate the rules of what Samuel Johnson called “one of the greatest pleasures in human existence.” Or, as McEwan put it, to pursue “what actually happens when we engage in conversation.”
What followed was a steady stream of literary, linguistic and cultural references, from Homer’s Odyssey to Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, with nods to Joyce, Melville, and even Clarence Thomas along the way.
Both speakers have devoted space in their life’s work to plumbing the mysteries of conversation: Pinker in his studies Words and Rules, The Stuff of Thought, and others; and McEwan in countless pages of fictional dialogue, including critical exchanges between the hapless honeymooners of his latest novel, On Chesil Beach.
In fairness, it was not always conversation onstage, rather more often like dueling monologues. Typically, McEwan would introduce a topic with a roundabout writerly arc while shuffling sheaves of notes. Pinker, his empty-handed but game sparring partner, would respond to specifics and then expand by hewing to some basic principles and examples in his work.
A much-repeated Pinker example of conversational euphemism: “If you could pass the salt, that would be awesome.”
In that mangled construction lies a request, a declaration, a euphemism, and a shared context all at once. Pinker reminds us that – however indirect this request for salt – the listener knows that salt is the object of the sentence.
Meanwhile, both parties know full well that it would not be awesome at all if the salt was passed. But the speaker has avoided making an imperative command while maintaining polite decorum, and might still wind up getting the salt. Which would be awesome.
McEwan immediately picked up on this notion of conversation as veiled, indirect and euphemistic. An example of his: James Thurber’s noted cartoon of a man and woman standing by an apartment lobby elevator bank. He to She: “You wait here – I’ll bring the etchings down.”
Everyone knows what “etchings” means except, perhaps in this example, the speaker, which is why the joke’s on him this time. So Thurber simultaneously cites the innuendo and the failure of this particular dialogue.
Another from McEwan: The mafioso’s comment to the shopkeeper: “Nice store. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.” There is simultaneous floating threat and proposition in an ostensibly simple observation, but shared subtext clearly delivers the message with sinister indirection.
Pinker likened such construction to Clarence Thomas’s infamous question: “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” as related by Anita Hill.
There is threat, outrage and invitation in one question, all delivered to the air rather than to a specific party.
But the English language – perhaps especially American English – provides so much wiggle room for these constructions. McEwan pointed out the French advantage of having the formal you – vous, and the informal you – tu, to help provide context or shared knowledge.
He told of American GI’s being issued handbooks in 1943 to assist in conversation with British locals, especially in critical areas like ordering libations at the pub (“Gimme a beer” left many a man thirsty.). Mutual knowledge and individual knowledge often run on parallel tracks, at least until someone has the idea to say out loud that, for instance, the Emperor has no clothes.
But context was key to each speaker’s view of conversation. Pinker offered the example of reading a transcription of a speech or lecture versus an actual manuscript; the transcript will always read disjointedly, without any apparent context or connections between topics and comments. (McEwan likened this to Nabakov’s admission “I write like a genius – and speak like an idiot.”)
Context may be a shared responsibility in a live dialogue, but McEwan described context in fictional dialogue as the novelist’s duty, not the reader’s. Yes, the writer must consider the obscurity of a reference to his audience, but complete shared knowledge cannot be assumed.
Consider McEwan’s own work: the tortured characters in On Chesil Beach, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs, and others, suffer – and suffer from – indirect language and the barrier to intimacy it forms. An entire McEwan work, Atonement, is based on a young girl’s complete reconstruction of events borne of a basic emotional misdirection. The unhappy Gretta and Gabriel of Joyce’s The Dead, and Odysseus and Penelope at their reunion in The Odyssey suffer famously in the absence of shared context.
Pinker took it further by arguing that intimacy naturally resists articulation, a function of our primitive intuitive biology – our hardwiring, in his basic thesis. Intellect – language, almost improbably – must bridge the gap. And sometimes that gap remains, with the resulting failures of cognitive context and cooperative principles presenting as autism-like symptoms. Or – as McEwan had to put it – like Melville’s Bartleby, who broke all rules of conversational engagement with his gloomy reply to almost any query “I prefer not to.” Here, isolation also resists articulation.
When McEwan stated that fiction is the “way in” to human nature, he was echoing Pinker’s own principle that language is the window into our natures. For a novelist, this means plot, character, setting, and dialogue. For a cognitive scientist this means research and analysis, theory and proofs. And at the end of this spirited conversation about conversations, these were mere stylistic differences.
And if you could pass the salt, that would be awesome.
Dennis O’Donnell is a direct-import marketing specialist in giftware and housewares, and is a frequent business traveler to Central America, Europe and Asia. His interest in indigenous handcrafts has taken him to Guatemala, Honduras, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere to promote artisan entrepreneurship issues. He is a native of Philadelphia PA and still lives and writes there.