Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The world of my imaginings

I have an aunt who is a much-traveled lady. She once told me about a place that she knew of in Vienna. Everyone was dressed in black and smoked cigarillos. The place was underground in a dim room painted black. She sat at a round table and listened to someone singing about anarchy. The bartender made specialty drinks in martini glasses and would spin them, with a flick of his wrist, towards the subdued, serious revelers. I remember when she first told me that story, I didn't think I'd ever heard of anything so cool.

Lately, the image of that possibly mythical anarchist club in a far off land has been haunting me. I was reading Vanity Fair when I came across a word I'd never heard or seen before: "conversazioni." Weirdly enought, the modern spelling "conversazione" appeared to me a day later in my copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (sidebar: an adaptation due out next December. Happiness). Was this a case of serendipity? Or was it one of those tricks of the brain in which one learns the meaning of a word for the first time and then it is everywhere?

Either way, I discovered the "conversazione", when used in English, denotes a social gathering for the purpose of conversation about literature, the arts, science. I'll add philosophy to the list to round out my personal interests. The word fired my imagination. I thought of the older meaning of the English "salon" which was a gathering for purposes of education rather than the informal literary readings that they are today.  I daydreamed of shabby rooms filled with elbow-patched blazers and unruly hair. I imagined what a gathering might be like. I have determined that when I move, I will begin a writing critique group. But this is one of those professional "shoulds", if you understand what I mean. Beginning a conversazione group, now that would be a "want".

I remember back when I was in my undergrad, taking philosophy courses. After the last session of the upper year special topics seminars, the profs would invariably take our small class out to the dingy, dark little grad bar at Carleton, Mike's Place. God, it felt so grown-up to get an invitation to that bar. But when we sat down and settled with our beers or what have you, I was always disappointed. There was something about those philosophy kids that bothered me. It was more than the fact that they were always on, it was the constant pissing contest that was apropos of nothing. They had studied quite a long time to prove that they were smarter than the next kid. They would bring up a topic and then one by one, they would expound other people's theories. They had memorized quotes. They could say, "but Wittengenstein has it..." with the greatest elegance. They could cite individual page numbers in specific editions written by all the great thinkers of the Western canon. But from those kids I don't think I heard a single unique thought in all the time I spent at Mike's Place or in those classes.

Perhaps I was the one who had it wrong. Maybe modern philosophy has come to a juncture, a mid-life crisis, during which great thinkers are considered great if they can pile up other people's theories like a stack of pancakes. I don't know. What I do know is that when I think about this concept of "conversazione", I don't like to remember that sort of "intellectual" discourse. What I want to know is what you think of specific topics -- not what great thinkers have said, not what is in the news, not those phrases that folks of my generation seem to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat -- pawning them off as unique thoughts. I would like, above all, to converse with intelligent, divergent thinkers. Yes, that's what it is. Divergent thinkers gathering in dark, quiet pubs or shady underground clubs. That would be divine! :)