June 2, 2021
Three Conversation Pieces I
As India continues to find its bearings amidst Covid tumult, we invited writer Aveek Sen to consider his shifting everyday in a country living a moment he calls "beyond grim." Honing in on the idea of the 'conversation,' Aveek explores how his own conversations have become at once more vital, yet oddly unfamiliar in the channels they now inhabit.
Did you notice how freely we talk to each other the moment we stop recording our Zoom sessions? And we feel even freer when we switch off our cameras and become just two voices.
Two points of light on our screens – a green one and a red one – watch us as we begin talking. Rather, the green one, the camera, is an eye; the red one, which tells us that we are being recorded, is an ear. Sharp and non-human, they make us radically uneasy.
Turning them off feels like a liberation. Suddenly, what we are saying to each other becomes ephemeral, disembodied, unlocated, and therefore unfixed. The non-human is still present. In fact, it is what had made our conversation possible. But we had to render the non-human ethereal, if only as a necessary illusion.
Isn’t it strange that, like Echo, we become most fully ourselves when reduced to pure voice, without body or image, the measure of a distance both unbridgeable and instantly bridged?
Is this, then, the paradox of conversation? Is this what makes conversation eternally modern, eternally contemporary – and, therefore, eternally wanting and wanted? The nymph, Echo (pure sound), tethered to the boy, Narcissus (pure image), helplessly unmindful not only of each other but also of the medium, air or water, that made their mythical union impossibly possible.
I can talk to you and you to me because of Zoom, Skype and the internet. Yet, we are most effortlessly true to each other, and to ourselves, when we wish away these other presences as we converse.
When two people talk to each other, there is a third thing that comes into being. If they are not careful, they could mistake the ever-present medium, the enabling apparatus, as that third thing. But o the solace when they realize that this is not so. The third thing is the conversation itself, the in-between creature that is the two of them together-yet-apart. The solace that this gives them is both affective and political. It makes real for them their twinned experiences of privacy and proprietorship.
Conversation is both process and product. But, as a product, it feels most fully ours when we choose not to turn it into a commodity. We ‘keep’ it best only when we let it go, turning off that little red eye. Market, institution, archive: each threatens to transform the I-and-Thou into the I-and-It.
Perhaps, then, in talking about conversation, we should use the word, produce (as a noun), instead of product
– like those heart-shaped potatoes, produce of the soil, that Agnès Varda picks up lovingly in Gleaners and I, grown, harvested or gleaned to be cooked and eaten, or allowed to rot into her art.
Is this yet another paradox of conversation? Is this what gives to our desire to converse, to be understood by each other, in its most disinterested form, an intensity that is not economic but, in the oldest and largest sense of the word, erotic?
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?” you ask me, as the traveler asks the leech-gatherer on the lonely moor in Wordsworth’s poem. I find the doggedness of your curiosity difficult as well as amusing. “I write, I teach, and collaborate sometimes with artists and performers,” I answer, “But I would resist identifying myself as a writer, critic, teacher or curator. I take photographs too, but that does not make me a photographer either.”
“So, being elusive is your job,” you say. I imagine the glint in your eyes from your tone. “Yes, it is very hard work,” I say, “for the stakes are high, as are the risks.” “Well then, you’re an escape artist!” you catch me out. I find that description too alluring to resist.
“What is an escape artist’s medium?” you press on, “Freedom? Independence? Chance?” “My medium, if you insist, is conversation,” I find myself saying. I look out the window. It is getting dark outside. “I’m drawn to what lives in order to perish, like music, dance or theatre. That’s why I prefer to write in other people’s books instead of writing my own, which would feel like making my own tombstone.”
Like the light outside, your voice changes key. “But,” you say, “the afterlife of conversations is in the effect they have on those who make, listen to, or overhear them.” “You do see, don’t you, that conversations cannot be captured without being changed fundamentally?” You don’t give in. “But they can be remembered, forgotten, absorbed, appropriated, resisted or – God forbid – realized.”
It is time to shift to another game. “Conversations can be of three kinds,” I put on my classroom voice. “Tell me,” your notebook is ready. “First, the ones you have sitting by flowing water.” “Ah,” you get it instantly, “Benares conversations on October afternoons, when the buffaloes come to bathe in the river. Time passing yet not passing, and the river, like the talk, flowing yet not flowing. OK. Number two?”
“Then, there are conversations by still water.” “Hmm, distantly reflective but intricate. I remember sitting next to the great stepwell in Hampi with a friend who is dead now and talking like that. The water was so far down that looking at it gave me vertigo, yet it still reflected the sky. Would you allow me to guess the third kind of conversation, Socrates?” “If you must, Alcibiades.”
“This time, we are by the sea, and there isn’t much left to say,” you say in a sort of check-mate voice, “This is about the impossibility of conversation. That’s where Fellini liked to leave us.” “Yes, yes!” I’m unabashedly thrilled that you’ve led me to my desert-island film. “Marcello’s mock-helpless shrug at the end of La Dolce Vita.” “Like a last toast raised to the grand futility of human attempts at communication,” you add with a self-parodic splash of purple.
Night has fallen at last in my garden. Dawn is breaking in your time zone. You like to have the last word, I realize. Yet, somehow, we have begun speaking as one voice. Time to stop?
Aveek Sen lives in Calcutta and writes on literature, art, cinema, music and everyday life.
Header credit: La dolce vita (1960)