I first came across the term “idle chatter” in a seminar about German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time led by the only man I have ever really considered a mentor, Professor Johannes Fritsche. We picked our way through the book sentence by sentence: Fritsche — in his charcoal suits, fingers to his pursed lips — tried to show us exactly what Heidegger was up to and was determined, finally, not to let him get away with it. It was mental labor, and it sunk down into the core of me where it now swims alongside my most formative memories, feelings, and ideas.
It turns out that Heidegger was not a big fan of idle chatter. He ultimately preferred conversation that was mute and mysterious, dusted with poetry and allusive of the greater conundrums of existence. He delighted in saying things like, “Language is the house of the truth of Being,” and, “We still by no means think decisively enough about the essence of action.”
This is also a man who — as Karl Jaspers chillingly recalled from one of his last meetings with Heidegger, just before World War II — dressed himself up in a kind of peasant’s version of an SS uniform and talked about how you had to take Hitler seriously because he had such beautiful hands. Such a person has clearly taken a wrong turn in his thinking. Indeed, the more I realized that Being and Time is really a sustained attempt to undermine the everyday speech of human beings in the name of something more fundamental, some murky “truth” that cannot even properly be named, the more I became convinced that idle chatter must not be so bad after all.
Still, Heidegger was no fool. He realized that you can’t just plunge into every conversation with a reference to the being of Being. When, for instance, you bump into a neighbor on the way back from a stroll through the Schwarzwald, you’ll probably indulge in a little idle chatter first. You’ll at least mention that the elderberries are ripening this season without necessarily bringing up the fact that you think the ripening of the elderberries is a phenomenon of the revealing of nature itself in its very self-concealing.
He does leave a place for the “babble” of the world in the incessant day-to-day murmurings of human beings. And then he craftily slips in his objection. What concerns Heidegger specifically is the threat of idle chatter becoming the dominant means of communication in the modern world. This could transform us, Heidegger thinks, into a society that has no depth, into human beings who have lost touch with the more important questions. It would mean that people spend all their time talking about daily affairs and never let their thinking dwell on the meaning of Being at all. For Heidegger, this simply will not do.
Heidegger liked to talk about how man was becoming “uprooted” and losing touch with what is “primarily and primordially genuine.” As always with Heidegger, it all leads to one thing: authenticity. He was interested in distinguishing an authentic way of life from an inauthentic one, the authentic person from the inauthentic person.
I call this column Idle Chatter as an affirmation of those things that Heidegger (and the legions of thinkers who share his intellectual tendencies) would denigrate by describing as “uprooted” and “cut off” from the “genuine.” Heidegger is attacking what we sometimes call civil society or cosmopolitanism. He is declaring war against urbanity and fluidity. He is attacking the modern world itself, striking at what he thinks is its very foundation, or lack thereof. One can imagine him sitting in a trolley car in Berlin, revolted by all the idle chatter murmuring up around him. A young couple discusses an article about the popular theater in the newspaper. Another man reads a second-rate volume of science fiction. Two young girls sing lines from a ballad of the time:
What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague
Heidegger shudders and hurries off the trolley car and toward the train that will carry him back to his lonesome country paths at the edge of the forest. Ah Heidegger, ah humanity!
I title this venture Idle Chatter in honor of all the murmuring on the subway cars and buses and hopelessly “ungrounded” city streets of the world’s great, if flawed, metropolises. I suspect that there are no “genuine relationships-of-Being towards the world.” Or if there are, we haven’t found them yet and have already wasted too much time looking. I propose we not be bothered by that fact. Idle Chatter isn’t bothered by that fact. It takes as a methodological rule of thumb that anything is interesting. The trick is in saying how and why.
In an interview he gave after World War II, Heidegger remarked that “only a God can save us now.” I propose that the one redeeming feature of the generally farcical character “man” is that he doesn’t need any saving — never has. And if said creature someday passes again out of the pages of time, as the scientists and philosophers tell us he inevitably shall, he’ll have done so on his own two feet, Homo erectus, making a go of it one way or another all the way to the end.
In saying all this, I propose in Idle Chatter to connect to a tradition in American Letters (though one can find practitioners of idle chatter in all the literatures of the world). It’s a particular way of listening to language, wherever that language is found. You can see glimmers of “idle chatter” in the writings of the Founding Fathers, particularly the letters exchanged between the crotchety John Adams and the relentlessly patrician populist Thomas Jefferson (only he could hold those two things together). It exists in figures like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who have their ear to the ground and are trying to construct an American literature out of what they’re hearing.
But perhaps it is best expressed in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters.”
There is beauty in the way that Emerson pays verbal attention to the milk in the pan, the meal in the firkin, and the ballad in the street. But the trick of the passage, the promise and the problem of it, is in the final line. The more you think about it, the more you realize that something infinitely vast is being proposed here. The passage suggests that inquiry must stay amongst the stuff of life, that one should never stray too far from the meal, the milk, and the ballad. At the same time, it suggests that these things are transcended in talking about them. There is a truth, an ultimate reason, to the ballad in the street. It’s a truth accessible to the enquiring mind and the telling of that truth redeems us in a way, fulfills something in us.
The kind of truth Emerson is talking about is also always a little bit mysterious. You’re never sure exactly what you’ve got even when you’ve got it. Just as you attempt to nail that truth down it fades away again, and you find yourself standing amongst a clutter of things. And then you gather yourself up and try at it again, though perhaps not right away.
There is, therefore, no special provenance for ideas, no place to go for them other than the same place where we already are. Ideas jump up out of the field of life when the right mood is hit, or even merely by chance. The world is always telling us about itself, but its constant babble never resolves into anything definitive. The story has no conclusion, no punch line, no second level. It is idle chatter. But there within the swirl of infinite chatter can be found our deepest insights and our moments of most profound clarity. When a painting or a movie or a song or an essay can draw itself around a moment of idle chatter and show it as something clear and vital and evocative, then we are able to achieve the very height of human experience, which isn’t very high at all — it hasn’t gone anywhere and the only place we’ve been transported is back to ourselves. • 6 August 2007