There is a small scene in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence that has remained with me about a minor character named M. Rivière, “who thought the life of ideas the only one worth living… and to whom good conversation appeared to be the only necessity.”
He had obviously always been desperately poor and anxious… and it was apparent that his literary ambitions had failed. [But] he had lived in a world in which, as he said, no one who loved ideas need hunger mentally… Archer looked with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious young man who had fared so richly in his poverty.
“You see, Monsieur, it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence? It was because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took to so much duller work: tutoring and private secretaryship. There is a good deal of drudgery, of course; but one preserves one’s moral freedom, what we call in French one’s quant a soi. And when one hears good talk one can join in it without compromising any opinions but one’s own; or one can listen, and answer it inwardly. Ah, good conversation–there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing. And so I have never regretted giving up either diplomacy or journalism–two different forms of the same self-abdication.” He fixed his vivid eyes on Archer as he lit another cigarette. “Voyez-vous, Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: that’s worth living in a garret for, isn’t it? But, after all, one must earn enough to pay for the garret…”
Not to say that I have likewise chosen a life of drudgery in order to escape unfettered in the blogosphere. But it is here–in these modest writing exercises, in the stretching out of the aesthetic gaze–that a deep part of the intellect thrives. Here, I am in conversation with the world without compromising any opinions but my own. I am free to follow my own idiosyncrasies wherever they ramify, and preserve my quant a soi.
Je responderay: Old French for “I will respond.” Danish writer Isak Dinesen adopted this motto from a friend’s coat-of-arms as a call to discourse (conversation), to responsibility, and to writing.*
Ah, good conversation–there is nothing like it, is there?
Je responderay. I will respond.
I live for conversations.
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