What I'd really like to tell the bores in my life
By Mark Edmundson
June 1, 2009
I was standing in front of my office one day when a colleague from another department ambled up. He’s squat and strong and looks not so much like a professor as a woodchopper, with thick forearms like a pair of rolling pins, and hairy hands that are usually half-clenched. He exudes an enviable vitality; you have a feeling that he might live 120 years. “How are you?” I asked. And he told me—for 10 minutes running. He informed me in detail about his children’s doings, his summer vacation, his ever-improving tennis game, and his multiple lecture engagements for the upcoming term. He spoke quickly and with a sense of dignity, as though this was a public occasion, as if he was being interviewed by a television reporter and was often so interviewed; he took answering the question about his well-being as a slightly arduous duty, but one that, owing to his stature, he was compelled to fulfill in a comprehensive way. When he finished his disquisition, he grunted, turned his back, and lumbered off down the corridor. “Nice talking with you,” I said. But my dart was blunt, or at least not sharp enough to pierce what’s got to be a rhino-thick skin. He faced me once more. “You’re welcome,” he said. He turned again and was on his way.
Well, you’ll say, I should have defended myself a little better. Rather than letting my troll-king of an acquaintance go on and on, I should have butted in and said my piece. I should somehow have turned the lecture into a conversation, made the solo a duet, or at least, when he was through, done a better job letting him know how I felt. I should have said what the estimable Groucho said when he was similarly accosted in Duck Soup: “You know,” Groucho tells his assailant, “you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” And if my accoster got mad and wanted to storm off affronted? Another Groucho line would have served me well: “You can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff.”
But when this sort of thing happens to me, I usually find myself with no resources at all. Bores leave me speechless. I was lucky to get out that meager line thanking him for the conversation. “There is no more infuriating feeling,” says the classicist Robert Greene, describing this sort of an encounter, “than having your individuality ignored, your own psychology unacknowledged. It makes you feel lifeless and resentful.” That’s exactly how I feel when I have these encounters: lifeless and resentful. But why? Why is this kind of treatment so painful? People do all kinds of aggressive and antisocial things to each other—surely I do a few myself—and talking on and on can’t be the worst of them. Still, being on the receiving end of such verbiage reliably sends me close to the edge.
What is it with bores? I mean the sort of people who always have to hold the floor. They talk constantly at you, hurling their words like spears, each one tiny enough but nearly deadly in their collective effect. Almost all bores seem to have been born with, or to have developed, an amazing capacity: they can talk and take in air at the same time, so there’s never a moment to drop in your own two cents. On they go. They take no interest in you or anything about you; at best, you’re a stage prop in the one-person drama that they compose, produce, and star in. These are the people who like to proclaim that they are about to make a long story short, when what they usually do is make no story at all interminable. They’re the people who clear their throats, look you in the eye, and, with great finality, say, “My point is . . . ,” then proceed to ramble on with no point whatever in sight. They’re the people whose idea of human interaction seems to be turning up the volume on the monologue that’s always going on in their heads. William James dignified this flow of words by calling it the “stream of consciousness”; in bores, the stream comes at you like a flooding river. Nothing stands in its way. Plutarch, the historian and moralist, dedicated an essay to this sort of person, and his assessment of the type was anything but sweet. Having a bore as a doctor, he says, is worse than having the disease; “as a fellow passenger he is worse than seasickness, his praise is more annoying than any blame.”
What is the bore trying to tell you? Is it “You are nothing and I am all”? An acquaintance of mine, when asked how he is, inevitably replies with an interminable list of the places he’s visited recently and then of where he’ll be going next—the more exotic the place, the longer his dilation. As he talks, I feel myself shrink further and further toward oblivion.
Sometimes he’ll name a place he’s going to see and I feel that green clutch of envy. I wish I was going there too. Overall, it’s no pleasure to be envious, but the good thing about envy, assuming that there is one, is that when you feel the bite, you learn something about what you want. When I hear about the trip to Paraguay and my stomach clutches, it probably means that Paraguay is a place to put on my wish list. On the matter of wanting, a lot of us go around dazed and confused. We don’t really know what we’d like—there’s so much available in our consumer utopia, it spins the brain. Knowing what you want isn’t always an easy trick, though most children seem to master it. I understand that for some time Parisian followers of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to greet each other in the street with the salutation “Where do you stand in regard to your desires?” (I’m sure it sounds more elegant in French.) The salutation had the effect of reminding both parties that they’re desiring beings—capable of wishing and having the wish come true (maybe), thereby attaining happiness (perhaps).
I once met a celebrated psychiatrist who told me how he picked up his daughter every morning at his former wife’s house and took the little girl—I think she was 10—to breakfast. He said it was the high point of his day. “What do you talk about?” I asked. “We talk about what we’d do if we won the lottery.” “Every day?” Yes, pretty much every day: there had already been an entire year of lottery-winner talk, and there was apparently more to come. At the time, I thought the guy, smart as he was, was implanting some questionable values. But later I changed my mind. What better way for a young girl—and her father too—to figure out who they might be than by figuring out what they would want if they could have anything at all? Psychoanalysis is generally the analysis of suppressed desires, but it might make some progress by taking overt desires seriously too.
It’s possible that bores, who often act in what seems a kingly fashion, don’t feel at all regal, but operate out of a sense of despair. Perhaps it would hurt my boastful traveling friend too much to take an honest stab at answering the question “How are you?” He’s been working on a novel for 15 years at least, and maybe it’s going to be the next Magic Mountain, but more than likely it’s going to be a few thousand slavishly revised pages adding up to not much. He’s got plenty of money, but it’s his wife, a painter and grand success, who provides it. So maybe he’s hurting and takes any opportunity he can find to pass on the pain.
The Dalai Lama says that one of the best things you can do when someone injures you, even in a minor way, is . . . nothing. You don’t pass the injury on, even to the extent of paining the insulter by drawing his attention to it. There’s an interesting notion behind this, which suggests that a lot of the world’s grief comes from people passing on their own injuries, compensating for their belittlement, by sticking it to somebody else. (Many injuries, perhaps most, are preeminently affronts to pride.) By this reckoning, Eve’s sin of getting Adam to take a bite from the apple is being carried forward through time, like a debt gathering more and more interest with each century. It began, maybe, with Adam taking revenge on his wife for misleading him as he felt she did, but it didn’t end there, for revenge begets revenge, on down the line. (Is that really what the doctrine of original sin is all about? Was Eve’s such a great sin because it began the chain of paybacks that continues on into the present?) Perhaps when I see my traveling friend, I pick up a dram of karmic merit, because I refrain from doing what I want to do—telling him that I damn well didn’t ask where he was going, but how he was. But do I later pass on his obnoxious behavior by getting mad at one of my sons for nothing very much?
I’m not sure that all nonstop talking is about expressing pain at the way one’s life has gone. There seem to be at least half-a-dozen different motives for this strange behavior. And I’m not convinced that I’ve come very far in figuring out why it bothers me as much as it does. Maybe it’s all about power differentials. A certain kind of bore is expert at locating people who cannot walk away. He puts them on the ropes at dinner parties—he loves to accost colleagues, junior colleagues in particular. Those who have won tenure at universities, partnerships at law firms, or research positions at major hospitals—all wear invisible medals commemorating the harangues that they’ve had to endure on their way to preferment. It sometimes seems that when certain people have power over you they’re willing to say almost anything.
During my first year of teaching, a senior professor locked me into his soft-spoken tirade laced through and through with the assertion that bombing Hiroshima had been such a fine idea that he sometimes still woke up thrilled by it. When I dared to suggest early on in the non-conversation that it might have been a better idea to give the Japanese a demonstration of what a nuclear weapon could do (I was thinking of our detonating one on an empty island), he shrieked: “That’s exactly what Hiroshima was! It was a demonstration! I think they got the point, too, don’t you?”
Some bores seem to be talking to themselves in your presence. Why do they need you at all? Is it a matter of catharsis? Do they need to get matters off their chest—and onto yours? (Wasn’t that how they killed some of the purported Salem witches—by piling rocks on top of their chests until their rib cages collapsed?) Maybe they want to feel a psychological pound or two lighter. Or is it sometimes just plain aggression? I can’t hit you, so I’ll pummel you with words. “The tigers of wrath are crossed with the horses of instruction,” as Saul Bellow says.
Some bores seem to be lonely. They have such a need for human contact that they come on too strong. They explode with words. It’s perhaps unkind to say it, but in a sense they’re the social version of the premature ejaculator. And they leave the scene of failed conversation guilty, sad, sorry, and determined to hold back the next time. Maybe they’ll think of car accidents or emergency rooms, whatever will stanch their amazing excitement at having scored a temporary partner. But next time will be no different than this. People quit booze, heroin, and (maybe hardest of all) cigarettes, but rampant oratory? Never that I’ve seen.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that we call totalitarian leaders “dictators,” that is, nonstop talkers. In company, Hitler apparently never shut up, and, however various his interests were—in his own mind he was an architect, a philosopher, a political thinker; he was a sort of Renaissance man to ruin anyone’s idea of the Renaissance—his intimate conversation was limited. He seems to have talked endlessly about his feats as a messenger in the First World War and about the astonishing loyalty of dogs, with an occasional sidebar about how there were, despite contrary opinion, a few “good Jews” in the world who were infinitely worth saving.
I often have the feeling that bores want to be addressing a whole crowd but can’t seem to find one. A friend once told me that when a mutual acquaintance of ours spoke to him, he felt like a town meeting. They are everywhere, these kingly aspiring characters, who go on and on. Confronted with one in the publishing world, Bellow reputedly said, “One of the great things about Hamlet is that Polonius gets stabbed.” Polonius may have died, but the odds are that Bellow’s nemesis lived on, not taking in a word that the Chicago sage said to him. Not hearing and not wanting to hear often seem to be another dimension of the malady. Bores don’t want their one-sided, usually self-deifying, constructions of reality punctured by anyone or anything else.
One-sided constructions: there’s something slightly autistic about the bore’s take on the world, and usually something a little skewed. His sense of things hasn’t been aired out by exposure to other people’s views. So part of what’s troubling about the bore’s Weltanschauung, untouched as it is by opposition, unchallenged by prevailing opinion, is that it smacks of madness—a whiff of lunacy rising off the discourse like discolored smoke. Still, that’s enough to provoke fears about a world in which everyone’s view of things is crazily off-kilter, one’s own in particular.
In his essay on talkativeness, Plutarch suggests that the bore, despite appearances, may often be out to win the esteem of the victim. The words are an offering. They come as something like a sacrificial tribute. Whatever the surface flow may be, the subtext reads like this: I care about your judgment; I want your esteem. I want to show you how smart I am, how learned, how good. Schopenhauer, Lord of Pessimists, seems to concur on this view: “Vain people are talkative, and proud, taciturn,” he says. “But the vain person ought to be aware that the good opinion of others, which he strives for, may be obtained much more easily and certainly by persistent silence than by speech, even though he has very good things to say.”
A guy I know, someone who’s quite accomplished in his way, does an odd routine when we bump into each other. I’d be happy to hear him on St. Augustine and the early Church, things he knows and can speak about well. He’s also deeply versed in our current institutional lore, supremely informed on the latest goings-on at the university, about which I’m sometimes in the semi-dark. Instead he orates on matters he knows nothing about, matters about which I can claim to know something. He understands that I’m writing an essay about Coleridge. Good. He proceeds to tell me everything he knows about Coleridge, some of which is wrong, the rest of which is pretty commonplace. He must think he’s doing me a favor by lecturing me on a matter close to my heart, and I think I’m doing a favor by listening. When two people take themselves to be doing each other favors when they’re not, the account books get unbalanced and disaster is up the road, for each one thinks he has the other somehow in his debt.
This acquaintance, you’ll have guessed, is a professor. Some professors are very good at conversation—they see it as a tennis-like business, where you pop the ball over the net then get it back in an unexpected way, maybe with a spin on it. (To the bore a conversation is like a tennis game where he gathers up all the balls from the court and begins hitting them at you as hard and fast as possible.) But never ask a professor a question about the book he happens to be writing—you’ll get the whole thing from soup to nuts. And only a masochist asks a graduate student about the contents of his dissertation—he’ll give it to you at twice the professorial length, or break down in tears (or both). You’d also be wise to think twice before asking an academic to name the best book about a subject on which he’s an expert, unless you have five spare hours to listen as he compares the literature, emphasizing the works in the field that are grossly overrated. You need to realize that when you ask a professor to recommend a book, he does not understand you to be asking him for a choice title to while away an evening. No, he understands you to be asking him who he is. The book he chooses must concentrate his identity as a scholar, a thinker, and a man.
Are some bores really looking for approval? I’m not so sure. If that were so, you could give them a word of recognition; you could punch their ticket; you could give them high marks in life’s grade book. I’ve tried that—but it never seems to work. Maybe they hear exasperation underneath the faked approval. Often, people who seem the most callous are the most sensitive (at least on their own behalf), the most attuned to a slight.
Am I oversensitive to bores? Less so than I used to be, but that’s perhaps only because I’m growing older and fewer of the cylinders are ready to fire. In prison, I understand, they call every man over 40 “Pops,” in recognition of his radically diminished capacity for aggression. Sometimes I simply do what everyone else does and let the bores rattle on. Chuck Daley, the late Detroit Pistons coach, was asked how he dealt with players who came off the court running their mouths at high volume about his pulling them out of the game. “I’m over 70,” Daley said. “I don’t always hear so good.”
But then there are times when I simply can’t hold back. One day a senior colleague turned up in my office to tell me how and why he wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t participate in a conference on lyric poetry that I was organizing (not entirely voluntarily) for the department. He went full throttle. He was hitting prophetic incantation. The air draining out of me, I felt lifeless and resentful again. But this time, for once, I managed to find something to say. “Hey, stop for a minute. Let me ask you a question.” And he stopped and I asked: “Do you know why I became a professor?” He paused and thought. He took some time. “I don’t really know,” he confessed. “Why?” “I became a professor,” I told him, “so that for the rest of my life I’d only have to listen to one person’s boring lectures.” (My own.)
When I was on the academic job market for the first time, I gave a talk at an Ivy League bastion. The fate of a job offer rested on this lecture. At the end of the talk, I got a question that was interminable and nearly incomprehensible. It was Polonius and Nestor working a tag team, with an occasional behind-the-ropes assist from Derrida, their manager. Finally, my interlocutor took a breath, and I detected what seemed to be a silent question mark. Something inside me, not me really, but that elusive demon that pops up occasionally to stir up trouble, borrowed my voice and said, “As you were asking your question, I had two fears. I was afraid that you would never stop talking—and I was afraid that you would.” No job for me. Well, I probably wasn’t meant for the Ivy League anyhow.
As a slayer of bores, I’m barely minor league. I’ll probably never touch the grandeur of Bellow’s remark about Polonius. And who will ever approach the glory of the Columbia philosophy prof who, the legend has it, slew a golden-winged, jewel-encrusted dragon of a bore in front of a scholarly host and became renowned for all time—sung of eternally in professorial anthem and epic. The lecture was windy and interminable and interminable and windy. It soaked up the afternoon and began to absorb the early night. Finally, finally it began to taper off, ending at last with a blunt assertion: The odd fact stands, the lecturer said, that in English two negatives will give you a positive. Saying he’s “not not hungry” means that he wants something to eat. But no matter how many positives you pile on, you’ll never get a negative. That is something beyond the capacity of the language: odd but true. End of talk. Finally. At the back of the hall, our hero rises. He cups his hands around his mouth and calls out, with grand exasperation and the force of trumpets, the words, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Truly, the bores win almost every encounter. But now and then, now and then, somebody musters his resources and takes one down.
Perhaps it’s odd that I have such a horror of being harangued—and that I like to read as much as I do. Is reading anything more than being lectured, albeit sometimes by a mortal god like Shakespeare? Well, of course you can always scribble in the margins, argue with the text, or close the book. (A friend told me about taking a volume of Kant from the library and reading a sentence that went on for a page or so, at the end of which, he found, in neat tiny script, the words “You Bastard.”) Of course, some writers have made marginalia an art, Coleridge probably preeminent among them. It’s said that he sometimes scribbled more words in the margins than the book itself contained. You can find volumes now with Coleridge’s marginal comments set in red type and the original contents of the book in recessive, clerical black. Coleridge aside, though, aren’t readers generally giving up one of life’s greatest freedoms, the freedom to think your own thoughts, live in the climate of your own mind? As the great old pop song goes: “Some other girls are filling your head with jive.” Maybe authors can do that too. Schopenhauer had this to say about the perils of reading: “It comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking, just as the man who always rides forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons; they have read themselves stupid.” Schopenhauer reminds us of a simple fact: when we read, or at least when we read badly, read lazily, “another person thinks our thoughts for us.”
Perhaps my allergy to bores—along with an attraction to reading that can border on addiction (hell for me is being caught in a strange place with nothing to read)—is at the center of a paradox: we want to be told authoritatively, once and for all, what’s what—and we want nothing of the kind. We love the character that therapists call the Subject Who Is Supposed to Know: he (and it almost always is a he) promises Truth. But we’re sickened at the thought of taking our truth from another—it’s belittling. And maybe we’re dismayed, too, at the idea that the world, so rich in appearances, with its strangeness, beauty, horror, and the rest, should give way and open to one golden key. What a shrinking of the manifold! What a bringing down of the angels to dance minuets on the head of a pin.
We like to build altars to this god or that and then tear the altars down. We fall all over ourselves praising an author, a statesman, a director, a music maker. For a while this person is all in all. But soon the prophet lets us down. We find the flaws in his bookkeeping: his numbers don’t crunch. So we defile his relics and pull his statues down. All of our tabloids go to town on him. But do we ever learn? Soon, won’t we be chasing after another ideal the way a starving man chases down a bread truck?
Maybe what’s most irksome about bores is that they’re contenders for the role of human prophet, who fail from the start. Yet perhaps they stir up some of the feelings that come along with this quest for a perfect authority, a quest that seems a lifelong preoccupation for many people. Sure, there are those who dismiss every authority out of hand and scoff programmatically at all offerings of wisdom. But I sometimes think they do so because their hunger for truth is so great, and the pain of past disillusionments so deep, that they’ve given up the quest out of self-preservation. Like alcoholics, they can’t afford to take even a sip of a heady brew, which in this case is the brew compounded of Truth or Wisdom—or some likely counterfeit of those things. Everyone wants to know how to live better than they do, which can quickly morph into a desire to live perfectly, maybe live forever. Perhaps bores are false prophets who stir up longings for more and truer light.
If simple explanations are the best, perhaps I gave myself away when I told that obnoxious senior colleague that I had become a professor so I’d have to listen to only one person’s boring lectures. And I confess to feeling the prick of recognition, pleasurable and painful at once, when I think of Oscar Wilde’s line: “I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments.”
Why does someone become an intellectual type—writer, editor, teacher—if not to be heard? He wants to sound his voice over the rest. He wants everybody to stop talking before he starts. Emerson devoted himself to describing a character he called the American Scholar, and what Emerson emphasized to start with was isolation and solitude. “In severe abstraction let him hold by himself,” he said. For Emerson, the way to think original thoughts is by standing apart from the everyday, by reading and thinking. But you don’t stay apart forever. Eventually, you come on strong with your truth; you let the world have it. Emerson’s sense of the genuine scholar-writer is latently aristocratic. Each truly contemplative man or woman (no one who had the formidable Margaret Fuller for a friend and Mary Moody Emerson for an aunt could neglect women wholly in this regard) is, at least potentially, a latter-day prophet. At a certain point the true scholar bursts into the world—and then World, look out.
However minor what I write and say may turn out to be, I confess that I’m drawn to this sense of high Emersonian vocation (everyone who picks up a pencil or turns on a computer probably is, at least in some measure). Being the Emersonian King of the Hill, or even a Foucauldian “founder of discursivity,” can sound like a good deal. But the more time goes by, the more I have to admit that the great part of what I know I’ve learned from other people and not by looking—Emersonianly, gnostically—into the precincts of my own soul.
Conversation, as the late philosopher Richard Rorty liked to say, is the name of the game, and conversation is all around us. We talk back to our books, assuming we’re reading well. If we’ve got the imagination, we seek in nature some of the facts that undergird all human experience: we listen to nature, or try to, rather than impose our truths on it. Mostly, and best, we talk to each other. To be happily married, as I’ve been fortunate enough to be, is to be a partner in a conversation that can last a full adult life. To have a true friend is to be able to test your hypotheses against someone who’s receptive, but who won’t give ground forever, and then let your friend try his wares out on you. At its best, friendly conversation is about giving up all claims to property and priority and engaging in collaboration—so that, at least for the two of you, something like an improvised musical composition in two parts is taking place. You do some rhythm to his lead; he lays down a bass line when you want to run the thing out into space. You both wind up saying things and thinking things that, alone, you never could have. This kind of hybrid mixing, this collaborative creation, is greatly to be treasured: it’s one of the best parts of life. And it’s to be found in many places, some quite unexpected. Late in his career, even Emerson, prophet of self-reliance, had to admit that many good things come from others, come from abroad: “Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar?” he asks. “It is this: Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.”
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.
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