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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Conspiracy Of Silence

Title:     A Conspiracy Of Silence
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Why do we go on talking? It is a serious question, one on which the happiness of thousands depends. For there is no more wearing social demand than that of compulsory conversation. All day long we must either talk, or--dread alternative--listen. Now, that were very well if we had something to say, or our fellow-sufferer something to tell, or, best of all, if either of us possessed the gift of clothing the old commonplaces with charm. But men with that great gift are not to be met with in every railway-carriage, or at every dinner. The man we actually meet is one whose joke, though we have signalled it a mile off, we are powerless to stop, whose opinions come out with a whirr as of clockwork. Besides, it always happens in life that the man--or woman--with whom we would like to talk is at the next table. Those who really have something to say to each other so seldom have a chance of saying it.

Why, oh why, do we go on talking? We ask the question in all seriousness, not merely in the hope of making some cheap paradoxical fun out of the answer. It is a cry from the deeps of ineffable boredom.

Is it to impart information? At the best it is a dreary ideal. But, at any rate, it is a mistaken use of the tongue, for there is no information we can impart which has not been far more accurately stated in book-form. Even if it should happen to be a quite new fact, an accident happily rare as the transit of Venus--a new fact about the North Pole, for instance--well, a book, not a conversation, is the place for it. To talk book, past, present, or to come, is not to converse.

To converse, as with every other art, is out of three platitudes to make not a fourth platitude--'but a star.' Newness of information is no necessity of conversation: else were the Central News Agency the best of talkers. Indeed, the oldest information is perhaps the best material for the artist as talker: though, truly, as with every other artist, material matters little. There are just two or three men of letters left to us, who provide us examples of that inspired soliloquy, those conversations of one, which are our nearest approach to the talk of other days. How good it is to listen to one of these!--for it is the great charm of their talk that we remember nothing. There were no prickly bits of information to stick on one's mind like burrs. Their talk had no regular features, but, like a sunrise, was all music and glory.

The friend who talks the night through with his friend, till the dawn climbs in like a pallid rose at the window; the lovers who, while the sun is setting, sit in the greenwood and say, 'Is it thou? It is I!' in awestruck antiphony, till the stars appear; and, holiest converse of all, the mystic prattle of mother and babe: why are all these such wonderful talk if not because we remember no word of them--only the glory? They leave us nothing, in image worthy of the time, to 'pigeon-hole,' nothing to store with our vouchers in the 'pigeon-holes' of memory.

Pigeon-holes of memory! Think of the degradation. And memory was once a honeycomb, a hive of all the wonderful words of poets, of all the marvellous moods of lovers. Once it was a shell that listened tremulously upon Olympus, and caught the accents of the Gods; now it is a phonograph catching every word that falleth from the mouths of the board of guardians. Once a muse, now a servile drudge 'twixt man and man.

And this 'pigeon-hole' memory--once an impressionist of divine moments, now the miser of all unimportant, trivial detail--is our tyrant, the muse of modern talk. Men talk now not what they feel or think, but what they remember, with their bad good memories. If they remembered the poets, or their first love, or the spring, or the stars, it were well enough: but no! they remember but what the poets ate and wore, the last divorce case, the state of the crops, the last trivial detail about Mars. The man with the muck-rake would have made a great reputation as a talker had he lived to-day: for, as our modern speech has it, a Great Man simply means a Great Memory, and a Great Memory is simply a prosperous marine-store.

What, in fact, do we talk about? Mainly about our business, our food, or our diseases. All three themes more or less centre in that of food. How we revel in the brutal digestive details, and call it gastronomy! How our host plumes himself on his wine, as though it were a personal virtue, and not the merely obvious accessory of a man with ten thousand a year! Strange, is it not, how we pat and stroke our possessions as though they belonged to us, instead of to our money--our grandfather's money?

There is, some hope and believe, an imminent Return to Simplicity--Socialism the unwise it call. If it be really true, what good news for the grave humorous man, who hates talking to anything but trees and children! For, if that Return to Simplicity means anything, it must mean the sweeping away of immemorial rookeries of talk--such crannied hives of gossip as the professions, with all their garrulous heritage of trivial witty _ana_: literary, dramatic, legal, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, commercial. How good to dip them all deep in the great ocean of oblivion, and watch the bookworms, diarists, 'raconteurs,' and all the old-clothesmen of life, scurrying out of their holes, as when in summer-time Mary Anne submerges the cockroach trap within the pail! And oh, let there be no Noah to that flood! Let none survive to tell another tale; for, only when the chronicler of small-beer is dead shall we be able to know men as men, heroes as heroes, poets as poets--instead of mere centres of gossip, an inch of text to a yard of footnote. Then only may we begin to talk of something worth the talking: not merely of how the great man creased his trousers, and call it 'the study of character,' but of how he was great, and whether it is possible to climb after him.

Talk, too, is so definite, so limited. The people we meet might seem so wonderful, might mean such quaint and charming meanings sometimes, if they would not talk. Like some delightfully bound old volume in a foreign tongue, that looks like one of the Sibylline books, till a friend translates the title and explains that it is a sixteenth-century law dictionary: so are the men and women we meet. How interesting they might be if they would not persist in telling us what they are about!

That, indeed, is the abiding charm of Nature. No sensible man can envy Asylas, to whom the language of birds was as familiar as French _argot_ to our young _decadents_. Think how terrible it would be if Nature could all of a sudden learn English! That exquisite mirror of all our shifting moods would be broken for ever. No longer might we coin the woodland into metaphors of our own joys and sorrows. The birds would no longer flute to us of lost loves, but of found worms; we should realise how terribly selfish they are; we could never more quote 'Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings,' or poetise with Mr. Patmore of 'the heavenly-minded thrush.' And what awful voices some of those great red roses would have! Yes, Nature is so sympathetic because she is so silent; because, when she does talk, she talks in a language which we cannot understand, but only guess at; and her silence allows us to hear her eternal meanings, which her gossiping would drown.

Happy monks of La Trappe! One has heard the foolish chattering world take pity upon you. An hour of talk to a year of silence! O heavenly proportion! And I can well imagine that when that hour has come, it seems but a trivial toy you have forgotten how to play with. Were I a Trappist, I would use my hour to evangelise converts to silence, would break the long year's quiet but to whisper, 'How good is silence!' Let us inaugurate a secular La Trappe, let us plot a conspiracy of silence, let us send the world to Coventry. Or, if we must talk, let it be in Latin, or in the 'Volapuek' of myriad-meaning music; and let no man joke save in Greek--that all may laugh. But, best of all, let us leave off talking altogether, and listen to the morning stars.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Conspiracy Of Silence