I’m still recovering from that dinner scene, and I read To the Lighthouse months ago, this spring.
The hosts are not talking. The teenaged lovers are late. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are fumbling at conversation. And Charles Tansley is sitting in judgment on them all, brooding. Don’t we all have a part of him in us? The student, the bitter young man who had never been to a circus as a child, who had worked his way up, he keeps telling himself, on his own, whose grandfather had been a fisherman. He is delighting, too, that he can later tell his friends that, at a dinner among people of a class who possess the freedom to speak their minds, they are talking such nonsense.
And they are. Mrs. Ramsay, the hostess, is orchestrating the chitchat, but her mind is elsewhere. In fact, she is desperate: her husband across the table isn’t talking. And is it forgiveness she needs from him or does she need to forgive him? Like the husband in Mrs. Dalloway, she cannot bring herself to tell her spouse in words of the love she feels for him. And Mr. Bankes, forcing himself to be charming, feels nothing for the woman sitting next to him. He fears the dinner party will discover that he would rather spend this evening, any evening, in his chair with a book, in silence. And so, they talk nonsense: Mrs. Ramsay suggests that Mr. Bankes must not like sitting in the garden.
But what the brooding Charles Tansley misses is that Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are resorting to a language of which he knows no word. Imagine a roomful of people in incomprehension, Virginia Woolf says. They speak French, because that, at least, is a language everyone will know.
Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity. Replying to her in the same language, Mr. Bankes said, “No, not at all,” and Mr. Tansley, who had no knowledge of this language, even spoke thus in words of one syllable, at once suspected its insincerity.
This passage opened a door for me. Not until the reading of this book had I engaged with this dinner guest reality, had felt so urgently this need for a group of people to talk. And never before had I viewed small talk as a remedy to this blight of social dis-ease.
As Mrs. Ramsay says to Lilly Briscoe, but with only a glance, “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire. Unless you apply some balm to the anguish of this hour and say something nice to that young man there, life will run upon the rocks–indeed I hear the grating and the growling at this minute.”
I am a theatre person. I’m comfortable in silence. I can look at you and say nothing. If it sounds fun I can “become aware of the architecture in the space,” letting my soft gaze rest on the beams of the ceiling, or I can let my thoughts gently to my own breath. I can even communicate for half hours in groanings and song-moans, and I can look you in the eye and say, “I love you” or “I need __________ (anything–sex, love, wealth, weapons, fire, blood, diamonds, a baby to hold, my papers back–you fill in the blank)” with a straight face, in complete honesty. I’m also a spiritual person. Like I get it: the apostle Paul wants the church in Ephesus to speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making music in their hearts to the Lord. I think I can do that.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to relate to each other like normal people. We have to have a relationship with conventionality. Everyone knows we can create space; sometimes we have to fill it.
So that is why I will be talking with you about the orange line and the transit system in Milwaukee. You say they have a church every corner? I’ll crack a joke, the obvious one, the one that probably stopped being said seven years ago, about how nowadays it’s more like a Starbucks on every corner. And I’ll laugh at my own joke, louder than you. I’ll even prepare to mention that I rode the trains once in St. Louis. I’ll shake your hand when I get off the bus. You can’t offer me your right hand because it’s full, but you’ll say, “Sorry for the left hand” and you’ll mean it, and I’ll be thankful that you helped me endure an unexpected journey on the shuttle on the last leg of my ride home.*
*This happened. All of it, I’m sad to say.
That’s why I’ll ask you about your sister–you have a sister, right? And talk about the bug that’s going around. I’ll say things like, “Yeah, that post-Labor-Day bug” that “everyone got,” and I’ll say it like any part of that made sense. Yeah I’ll talk about flu shots with you. I’ll even tell you where the CVS I got to is. You’ll nod and murmur agreement. You’ll be complicit in the conversation.
You’ll ask me what my plans are for the weekend. I wouldn’t have thought to ask that. I think that’s almost invasive, especially on a Wednesday, but I’ll try to come up with something, even if I end up risking a conversation about Trader Joe’s or the Giants. We’ll probably talk about how good rest is always and how good friends are or how good we thought the weather was going to be.
Actually, so many things will be considered good. Your new job. My reasons for leaving California. People’s reasons for moving away or to California. The amount of homework you–in general–didn’t do. The amount of overachieving I–in general–did do. How you and I are feeling about the reading we did or didn’t do, right now or in any part of our histories in school. The number of people in my church. The different number of people in your church.*
*Both were considered ideal. Say what you wish about small talk, it is not narrow.
Your name again. My name again. Me not wanting to say I’m bad with names, but since you said it, we should probably have a moment of solidarity about this. In fact, us at names is the only thing we can agree on as being unequivocally bad. Nevertheless so many things are hard. Your job. Actually, your job must be hard. So is being far from your aging parents. (In some cultures that’s necessary to state in a first conversation. We don’t want anyone to think we are heartless.) Having a car is hard. Not having a car must be hard. Both are still “worth it.” In truth, so many things can be both hard and worth it. Like cooking for oneself or doing meal prep in advance or buying crockpot recipe books at yard sales or trying to make time to go to Disneyland (who am I talking to?). And depending on the day, the same can be said for walking in the rain or learning how to live in drought or being a San Francisco baseball fan.
Is small talk worth it? Virginia Woolf narrates that Lily Briscoe, the young artist that Mrs. Ramsay had compelled with that powerful glance to say something to Charles Tansley, had indeed succumbed. She engages the man who had before been rude to her, asking him (“quickly, kindly”) if he will take her to the lighthouse, and he tells her about sailing with his grandfather, about how he learned to swim. He regains his pride. He enters life.
“But,” Lily asks, “what haven’t I paid?” At what what cost? “She had not been sincere.”
Small talk, if we are to allow it, if we are to value it, if we are to embrace it because we cannot yet embrace each other, must be sincere. If we are to entreat each other with words because we sense that there are connections more meaningful in this moment than breaths, then let our words be heartfelt. And if we need our rambling agreements, our surface street witticisms, to orient us in all our fragility and triumph together in space, then let us, by all means, talk on.
But let us be sincere. Let us always be sincere. The rest, as Hamlet tells us, is silence.