Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Conversational cue cards: more on the Epicurean Feast

Mr. and Mrs. Hendy from The Meaning of Life
While I was at the Perth Writers Festival (more on this in a little while), my regular column was published in the Canberra Times: 'Life often requires conversational cue cards'.

As I noted in an earlier post, I recently hosted The School of Life's conversation dinner, an Epicurean feast. My Canberra Times column reflects on the value of this. A sample:
The room at the North Fitzroy Star was filled with more than 50 strangers, united only by curiosity and an interest in good conversation. Everyone had menus: partly with food, partly with philosophical questions such as: ''Imagine you are immortal. Is the idea wonderful or horrific?'' 
I introduced Epicurus as a thinker and patron philosopher of the evening, but the night belonged to everyone: the point was not to sit and be entertained, but to talk straightforwardly and honestly about Epicurean ideas: pain and pleasure, wealth and freedom, friendship and equality, religion and death. And to do so while reflecting on oneself. 
The result of this experiment was heartening. While guests quickly adapted the questions to their own interests and sensibilities, the cue cards worked: the conversations were rich with candour, intelligence and reflection. Folks revealed their anxieties and biases, ambitions and failures, political bugbears and domestic idiosyncrasies; they revealed, in a word, themselves. There were silences, but those of comfortable thinking and remembering, not awkward thumb-twiddling.
Some might find this intimidating, but most guests seemed chuffed by the atmosphere of honesty and acumen - many seemed liberated by the ferment of talk. And the point is not that the School of Life has a monopoly on conversation; that we cannot do this ourselves, with friends (or strangers) at the dinner table. 
The point is an Epicurean one: human life is a collaborative enterprise. Yes, we have the gift of speech, as Aristotle noted - but sometimes we need help unwrapping it.

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