Waterfalls of Language

Some of us are waterfalls of language. But we can be too sure that our verbosity will solidify our relations with others. 

I had a friend who had an aversion to people who constantly filled a room with talk.  It was probably the eastern mystic in Paul, who was constantly chagrined by people who had dedicated themselves to replacing whatever silence they encountered with their own observations.  I never asked him why he recoiled from these conversational marathoners.  But I think I knew.  He favored words chosen carefully.  He liked a comment that had a point, but not ten points. Most of all, he recoiled against Very Verbal People who turned their opinions into a circus of logorrhea.  Speaking before fully processing what you wanted to communicate wasn’t his style.  Not surprisingly, his care with words and comfort with silence made him a wonderful listener and a good colleague.

Even so, there are times when we do love verbal people who light up a space with their wit and responsiveness.  For most of us that room is usually a theater.  It helps when we can witness a conversation that has been worked out and honed by a room full of crack writers. It helps as well to have actors who can deliver the perfect response with a naturalness that lets us forget that their words came from a script.

The performer as a Very Verbal Person is something of a showcase for the possibilities of language, a model that we may admire for putting a difficult person in their place or, better yet, restoring the will of someone damaged by the worst that life can give.  A good script perfects what is never quite so clear in real life.

                         Merchant Ivory.com

My favorite cases include the Schlegel sisters in James Ivory’s 1992 film, Howard’s End.  E. M. Forster’s  two young women are confined by the conventions of the day to stay close to their modest home in turn of the century London. But they are full of ideas and thirsty for conversation, even if the potential conversant is simply a clerk who shows up at their front door to retrieve a misappropriated umbrella. Their curiosity makes them seem fully alive.

There is also the pleasure of hearing the complex overlapping dialogue of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). Co-written by he actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the series’s two free spirits migrate through first love to eventually face the challenges of marriage and a family. It’s all done with restless characters who have made their interiority transparent. Its the same satisfaction a viewer gets from vastly different television classics like WB’s Gilmore Girls (2000) or The West Wing (1999).  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s breakthrough series about the Bartlett administration is defined by Sorkin’s love of dialogue structured as a series of intense interrogatories and responses. No voiceless and moody reaction shots here. In Sorkinworld characters are always duty bound to frame their feelings as complete arguments and counter-arguments.

The surprise in the otherwise more conventional Gilmore Girls lies partly in the fact that the actors were running through scripts that were often twice the number of pages as similar hour-long shows.  Indeed, the long-running series now in re-runs owes its best scenes to the rhythm and pacing common in 1930’s film farces.  Who knew that there is a bit of Groucho Marx in Lauren Graham?

In these and other entertainments the fun is in watching Very Verbal People trade rebukes and put-downs using a logic entirely their own. The point obviously was not the real-world relevance of the logic, which only makes sense within the manufactured world of the narrative, but the pleasure of seeing people completely comfortable with the task of explaining everything.

All of this boils down to our love of the idea of total fluency.  We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to imagine the right thing. . .anything. . .that will resolve the challenges of dealing with prickly others.  Its only natural to admire those who make it look so easy.

Well Said.

                                   Cory Booker

Sometimes a person comes up with the right words at just the right time: the result of good timing, a sense of irony, and an apparent simplicity that may yield a deeper truth.

Responses to others can be kind or cutting, playful or hurtful.  They are at their worst when one of the parties can hide behind anonymity.  One effect is that our political climate has become coarser and more toxic. It doesn’t help that our President seems to have no sense of humor.

Here are just a few favorites of the whittier kind heard from politicians, past and present, residing on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Presidential candidate Cory Booker is frequently asked about race as a factor in the current political climate.  One recent response: “I’ve had lots of crazy things said to me, like, ‘Is America ready for another black president?’ And I’m confident it’s never been asked of a white candidate, ‘Is America ready for another white president?’”

  • [Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill had a notoriously rocky relationship in and out of the British House of Commons.  Both were sharp witted and ready for a quick retort.] Churchill once asked her for some advice on how to proceed in the House of Commons.  She responded with a simple “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” In another exchange that supposedly took place at a party, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

  • [In a recent exchange in Parliament the loquacious MP Anna Soubry dressed down government minister Michael Gove over his support of Brexit.  She ended her statement with a pointed question, to which Gove responded,] “The right Honorable lady is a distinguished criminal barrister. Now I know what it is like to be cross-examined by her.  But I also understand why Lawyers are paid by the hour.”

  • [President Obama loved to work with writers to come up with quips for the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner.  He seemed to enjoy sparring with journalists, perhaps because he was a successful writer before assuming the Presidency.  He also relished quips playing off of absurd Republican assertions about his personal history.]  A favorite: ”These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”

  • And there’s also this: ”The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

  • John Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960 by a close margin.  Charges during the campaign that his wealthy father was rigging the result led to this observation by Kennedy, delivered in his usual understated style: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.'”