L’s the loquacious variety
Who is found in all sorts of society.
He drinks in the sound
Of his own voice till drown’d
In a species of self-inebreity.
Oliver Herford, A Little Book of Bores (1906)
It is often said that a man has fallen in love with the sound of his own voice, but this charge strictly applies only to those men who are content to soliloquize in the wilderness, or to preach, like St. Francis, to the birds. What a man falls in love with is, more often, the conceit that others love the sound of his voice even more than he loves it himself. I have read, and have no difficulty believing, that a man is especially attracted to a woman who is slightly hard of hearing because he mistakes her straining after his words for a keen interest in what he has to say. I know from a long and intimate connection with the trade of professoring, that a captive audience is bliss, but that a captive and apparently captivated audience is very heaven.
There was a time when professional mourners were hired to raise loud lamentations in the funeral train of a defunct grandee. Montaigne tells us that the simulated grief of these hirelings often kindled real grief in bystanders, so that professional mourners acted like a hired claque in the audience of a theater. It is human nature to mimic, and by mimicking very often to feel, the emotions exhibited by the people who surround us. This is called “entering into the spirit of the event,” or more dryly, joining in with “the madness of the crowd.”
Hired listeners are not, perhaps, so obviously crass as hired mourners, but this is no doubt due to the fact that their employer, unlike a defunct grandee, is present to approve their performance.
I regularly advise students that there are few skills more valuable than that of feigning interest in what another person is saying. There are at the same time few deficiencies more disabling than an inability to conceal boredom, impatience, ironical mirth, or derisive incredulity. Meetings, speeches and presentations are at the heart of our post-industrial economy, and the ability to play one’s part in these performances, whether by speaking or appearing to listen, is essential to professional advancement.
Thus, I tell my students to look upon my lectures as a sort of teething ring on which they can exercise their infant skills of feigning interest and concealing disgust. My lectures are, I assure them, far less fatuous, inane, and boring than the innumerable meetings, workshops, and speeches they will be expected to endure, like bouts of dysentery, in the course of their professional lives.
* * * * *
“They are a very decent generous lot of people out here and they don’t expect you to listen. Always remember that, dear boy. It’s the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard.”
So says the British expatriate Sir Francis Kinsley in Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One (1948). He is speaking, specifically, of southern California; but also of the United States generally. Much the same can be said about the men and women who today hold forth, with or without the aid of PowerPoint slides, in meeting rooms and conference centers across this great, greedy and garrulous land. “They talk entirely for their own pleasure” and “don’t expect you to listen,” but they do expect you to look like you are listening, and moreover to look like you are listening with pleasure.
These thoughts occurred to me, although not for the first time, as I listened (without pleasure) to the self-pleasuring pontifications of the vainglorious buffoons of the current January 6th Inquiry. It obviously gave them pleasure to hear themselves speak with such self-important gravity, and their pleasure was no doubt amplified by the hired audience that managed, by careful vetting and long practice, to simulate interest in the verbal froth of this grotesque charade.
Have you noticed that a speechifying politician is now almost always flanked by flunkies who pretend, not always persuasively, to listen to the speechifying politician? Covid face-masks have in recent years emphasized the non-speaking role that these flunkies play in a speechifying spectacle. Sometimes they are officers in uniform. Sometimes they are a Vice President and fawning legislator. Sometimes they appear to be a couple of random interns that were hustled in from the lunchroom. But these human props in every case stand there, appearing to gravely listen, and do not conspicuously pick their noses, check their cell phones, or swig from their silver hip flasks.
Have you noticed that the most banal “talk” is now very often recorded, not because anyone attending the “talk” could possibly wish to relive the experience, and not because anyone absent from the “talk” could possibly regret missing it, but solely because the recording camera adds to the simulated importance in the “talk.” The presence of that camera amplifies the pleasure that the speaker takes in hearing his (or her) own voice, and also serves as a sort of mechanical claque to infect the audience with the spurious idea that they are hearing something worth listening to.
* * * * *
“All are vain of something, and think they possess some gift, some talent, some quality, which gives them a superiority over their neighbors.”
T. Cogan, John Buncle (1776)**
A man falls in love with the conceit that others love the sound of his voice because it makes him feel important to be listened to, even when his audience is packed with a claque of prostitutes, spaniels, and slaves. This is especially the case in a man who is proud of his eloquence and wisdom, and who will therefore pay any prostitute, pet any spaniel, and pamper any slave who ratifies this pride by simulating interest in his words.
I have come to believe there is nothing men crave so much as this feeling of importance, and that this is one of those cravings that grow as it is gratified. This is why our politicians so seldom follow the example of Cincinnatus and exchange the rostrum for the plow. This is why even the most ordinary people nowadays will, if at all possible, rush off to a “meeting,” preferably at some great distance and by airplane, and there cock open their laptop, pull up their slides, and unload a “talk” on some credible facsimile of an audience.
The self-affirming pleasure of being listened to, or at least seeming to be listened to, is why there is so much empty argle-bargle, hokum and nonsense in this world.
I know whereof I speak because I have felt, and in a very small way gratified, this craving; and because I suffered the symptoms of withdrawal when my very small but illusory sense of importance passed away. I know it because I have been myself one of the glib and talkative ones, and because I am only now learning to hold my tongue.
“Let the tattler restrain his loquacity with the curb of thought, repeating daily for meditation the wholesome proverb—‘Man has two ears, and but on tongue, that he may proportionally hear much and talk little.’” ***
*) Oliver Herford, A Little Book of Bores (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 24.
**) T. Cogan, John Buncle, Junior, Gentleman (London: J. Johnson, 1776), pp. 268-269.
***) George Macdonald, Poems and Essays, or, A Book for the Times (London: Partridge and Oakley, 1851), p. 114.