02 May 2007

A Conversational Opening

I've often wondered about "small talk." Since I've never had the gift of gab myself, the whole idea of complete strangers conversing strikes me as full of mystery and complexity.

Not to say that this is a bad thing.

Of course, by writing these words I'm engaging in a conversation of sorts with anyone in the world inclined to read it. And sometimes it amounts just to small talk. Perhaps this will be one of those times.

But I'm thinking of such matters now because of the odd opening of a certain book review in the latest issue of The New Republic. Sherwin Nuland is reviewing a book by Katherine Park about the origins of human/medical dissection.

Nuland starts by telling a story intended to illustrate the conventional wisdom on the subject. He was recently at a "luncheon where alumni of a large Ivy League university had gathered ... one of the group's officers was holding forth at my table on a thesis ... regaling his attentive listeners with accusations of the obstinacy with which the church opposed human dissection during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This, he pointed out as emphatically as if he were addressing a jury, had necessitated all kinds of clandestine and gruesome activities on the part of those whose aim was to study the human body, whether for scientific purposes or because they were artists of the caliber of Leonardo, Titian, and Raphael. Not only was medical knowledge thus stunted in its advancement, he added in his summation, but such opposition necessitated the well-known horros of grave robbing in order to obtain cadavers for study, an unnatural activity that marred the image of the profession of healing until late in the nineteenth century."

Nuland goes on to say that his table-mate was quite wrong, and credits Katherine Park with getting the history of dissection right, as against a venerable tradition of such misconceptions.

But I have to wonder about that conversation at the table. My thoughts linger there. This was, I imagine, an alumi association of a medical school, or of a university with a strong medical school as an important component. Even so, I find it hard to think of Renaissance-era dissection as a natural topic for post-prandial discussion.

Suppose you were brimming with thoughts, erroneous or otherwise, about the history of dissection, and its connection with grave-robbing. Would you just dive into action, to share them with a table full of strangers (or people you hadn't seen in the 20 years since you and they graduated, perhaps?). Or would you have to wait for an appropriate opening in the conversation?

And what might that be? If I complain about my aching muscles, "oh, I did too much walking today, my leg muscles are still sore," would that suffice? "Oh, the science of anatomy developed only rather slowly to the point at which such things can be understood, Christopher. Why, did you know that this is how the horrors of grave robbing came about?" -- and off, in my Nuland-stoked imagination, my imaginary table mate is launched.

As you see, I still have a lot to learn about small talk.

No comments:

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.