the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 1   --   February, 2000

On Dialogue:
An Introduction

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       The Literary Saloon affords, at this early hour, no escape from the brightness of day. Glassy winter sunlight pours in, shining too harsh a glare on the corner establishment. The cold wind howls outside, whisking customers by. Some look up as they pass, registering the previously overlooked tavern. Their pangs of interest remain indistinguishable from the sharp bites of wind and none venture in. Not today. But they will remember the façade, the doors. Some, at least, will return.
       The Literary Saloon is an open book, a place of refuge. Both aloof and welcoming, tucked in this side street, it is a discovery waiting to be made -- and then returned to or dismissed, however one sees fit.
       The first browser approaches, driven as much by the cold as by curiosity. There is a brief clatter of the pair of double doors as the man enters. The street bustle is shut out behind him; within there is only a library-silence. The man stands by the entrance, surveying the room, shaking off the cold with a last shiver, then taking off his coat.
       The Literary Saloon is empty. A man stands behind the bar in an apron, drying glasses. Candle-flames flicker on the tabletops.
       The visitor approaches the bar slowly, considering his position. He pulls up a stool at the bar, tossing his coat over another.
       What'll it be ? the publican asks. The man orders a warming whisky. It's on the house, for the first customer of the afternoon.

       Who is he ? Hard to tell, from mere appearances. Youngish, eager. Likely a student. His name ? Names get confusing, and bars foster an atmosphere of anonymity. At the Literary Saloon symbolic appellations will have to suffice. We'll call him B. Not that he's second-rate, but he's clearly looking to follow, not to lead, and intuition suggests that a more deserving and appropriate figure will claim the designation of A before too long.
       B has hardly sipped the double whisky before another figure slips through the doors. A man at least ten years his senior, clutching a large pile of books and papers. A likely candidate -- a likely A.
       Balancing his books, A moves without hesitation to the bar. He deposits his pile with a thud, takes a seat beside B. Without asking the publican pulls him a stout, leaving it to settle before handing it over. A has never visited the establishment, never met the man behind the bar, but just as he was drawn into it, and to the bar, so this too seems perfectly natural and expected. A thick, dark stout was what he would have ordered in any case.
       Cheers mate, the publican offers. A raises his glass, with a nod to B as well. He busies himself with his papers, but in such close proximity conversation cannot be avoided. Sitting there he could not have meant to avoid it.

The Dialogue:

B:    On Dialogue ? There's a title. The ancient Greeks you're reading there ? Platonic, Socratic stuff ?
A:    It is my own work, actually.
B:    An essay on dialogue.
A:    A dialogue ...
B:    Of course. But isn't it an outdated subject ? After all, it's not a popular form any longer.
A:    On the contrary. Dialogue is everywhere. I believe one might even consider this exchange ...
B:    Conversation, sure. Though I don't know if I'd call the loose give and take of most drunken barroom chat dialogue.
A:    Nuggets can be found there too, I would imagine. We can put it to the test once we have reached an adequate -- meaning excessive -- level of inebriation.
B:    I'll drink to that. But really, what's your interest ?
A:    Dialogue serves many functions, and my interests are varied. Currently I am considering the dialogue specifically as a literary device.
B:    I thought that went out with the Greeks.
A:    Then you thought wrong. The dialogue has always been a popular form of presentation, preferred over the essay in many cases.
B:    Examples ?
A:    Erasmus, Galileo, Bishop Berkeley presenting science and philosophy. Less widespread in the past century or two, there are still examples of the form. Imre Lakatos' Proofs and Refutations (see the complete review's review) is a notable one.
B:    But the fact that it is less commonly employed proves that it is outdated.
A:    The fundamental validity of the form remains.
B:    For what ends ?
A:    The presentation of ideas.
B:    So it is in direct competition with the essay ?
A:    The essay offers itself as an alternative.
B:    A clearly superior one.
A:    I am not convinced. The dialogue offers other advantages.
B:    Such as ?
A:    Different points of view.
B:    If it is one author who pens the dialogue, who puts the words into his dialogists' mouths, then the difference is illusory.
A:    I agree that the argument will tend to be biased, but in its presentation it allows for an easier understanding of the different possible positions.
B:    Other advantages ?
A:    The dialogue most nearly approximates human intercourse, the give and take of discussion and argument, without essayistic digression.
B:    The essay could be seen as a monologue, and the dialogue as a two- or multi-voiced essay.
A:    True, but I am not yet concerned with these finer differentiations.
    In part the choice of form depends on the purpose. I believe the dialogue can serve as a more engaging introduction to an issue that perhaps eventually demands a more exacting, essayistic analysis.
B:    Philosophy.
A:    Literature, actually. Arno Schmidt's efforts in this regard seem, to me, to be exemplary. The many Nachtgespräche (now translated, in part, by John E. Woods as Radio Dialogs).
B:    But those were radio plays.
A:    Hardly the stuff of drama. But entertainment nonetheless. Bringing a wealth of information and interpretation to eager ears and readers. I still find them of use.
B:    Essays or lectures would have been as good.
A:    Less effective, I believe. Schmidt's style lends itself to this freer form. It was better suited to convey what he wished to convey.
B:    You hope to emulate Schmidt ?
A:    Depending on my ends. In presenting an unfamiliar author, then certainly I would strive for Schmidtian dialogue. In other cases other models might be used.
B:    Persuasive set scenes, miniature dramas without the stage. I don't why one would choose that form over another.
A:    The limitations -- the fact that they are not, in fact, played out, that there is little that is descriptive and no cues for how the words are to be understood ...
B:    No laugh track.
A:    Correct. All this focusses attention on the argument. It is the closest to trying to convince or explain face to face.
B:    Face to face -- as here -- there are more cues.
A:    Even on the page we read reaction into the words and build characters out of the unnamed mouthpieces. All reaction, however, arises merely from the words supposedly spoken, not from an author's interfering descriptions.
B:    He slyly smiled and wryly suggested and giggled with contempt and whatnot.
A:    Correct.
B:    It's an idea.
A:    It is.
B:    But don't you think that you should take advantage of the new opportunities, the new media ? As you propose it the dialogue is static, a fixed, single (though bifurcated) voice. The interactive dialogue would seem to offer greater possibilities.
A:    A chat room ?
B:    Possibly. Permitting involvement and exchange, an evolution and progression of thought.
A:    Such dialogues -- such conversations -- also pose difficulties. They are fleeting. They must be started practically anew on each occasion.
B:    As a static dialogue is read over from the beginning on each occasion.
A:    They are, I would think, more exclusive, limited to the participants.
B:    Anyone can listen in.
A:    But the participants assume the role of the author -- without assuming the same responsibility that the author has.
B:    Why not ?
A:    The dynamics of the creative process differ when there are two or more players. They may not have the same objective. There may be competitive elements that distract from the actual arguments.
B:    You suspect it will all be sophistry.
A:    I suspect conversation will tend in that direction.
B:    It might not be all bad. There's a liveliness, a fundamental honesty about the immediacy of open dialogue.
A:    Again: it depends on circumstances and the purpose of the conversation.
B:    Something to consider.
A:    There are many things to consider, and I have just begun. I will examine the possibilities and the shortcomings. I am curious what the form offers.
B:    Any time you want to talk it over .....
A:    I appreciate the offer.


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© 2000 the complete review