Category Archives: Rebecca West

There Is No Such Thing as Conversation. It Is an Illusion. There Are Intersecting Monologues, That Is All

Rebecca West? Apocryphal?

converse09Dear Quote Investigator: The notable British author Rebecca West once wrote a brilliant comment about people talking without communicating. Her words have been included in several important reference compilations of quotations, but the situation is confusing because there are two different versions of her statement that differ by a single word. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

1) There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.

2) There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are interesting monologues, that is all.

Would you please determine which of these is accurate?

Quote Investigator: This cogent remark was included in a short story by Rebecca West titled “There Is No Conversation”, and the earliest appearance of this work located by QI was in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1928. The quotation employed the word “interesting”, but QI conjectures that West’s auctorial intention was to use the word “intersecting”. The story began with the following passage: 1

There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are interesting monologues, that is all. We speak; we spread round us with sounds, with words, an emanation from ourselves. Sometimes they overlap the circles that others are spreading round themselves. Then they are affected by these other circles, to be sure, but not because of any real communication that has taken place—merely as a scarf of blue chiffon lying on a woman’s dressing table will change color if she casts down on it a scarf of red chiffon.

In 1935 the work “There Is No Conversation” was reprinted by West in her collection called “The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels”. The beginning segment matched the one above except the word “interesting” was changed to “intersecting”: 2 3

There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.

Which word should appear within the quotation? Both were published under the name of Rebecca West, but QI believes that the surrounding text makes the best choice quite clear. West employed the figurative language of colored scarves to beautifully illustrate and reinforce the meaning of the phrase “intersecting monologues”.

The phrase “interesting monologues” was published first, but its denotation did not conform closely to the neighboring text. QI conjectures that the mistake was introduced during the editorial or typesetting process. A known class of errors replaces a less common word such as “intersecting” with a typographically-similar word such as “interesting” that occurs more frequently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1928 December 8, The Saturday Evening Post, There Is No Conversation by Rebecca West, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Rebecca West (Cicely Isabel Fairfield), Quote Page 810, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1956 (Reprint of 1935 edition), The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels by Rebecca West, There Is No Conversation, Start Page 63, Quote Page 63, Published by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England. (Verified on paper)

Most Conversations Are Simply Monologues Delivered in the Presence of a Witness

Mark Twain? Margaret Millar? Elizabeth P. O’Connor? Rebecca West? Leo Buscaglia? Anonymous?

bat07Dear Quote Investigator: The following entertaining remark is often attributed to Mark Twain:

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.

I have also seen these words ascribed to the award-winning mystery writer Margaret Millar. Could you determine who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain wrote or spoke the statement above. The phrase should be credited to Margaret Millar although the original wording was slightly different because it used the singular word “witness”. In the 1942 novel “The Weak-Eyed Bat” Millar wrote the following exchange. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“As a matter of fact, have you never noticed that most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness?”

“No,” Jakes said.

“Well, listen next time you hear a couple of women talking. They’ll each have a list of likes and dislikes that they intend to reel off. Now wouldn’t it be much simpler for Mrs. Smith to sit in front of a mirror and read her list without competition…”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1942, The Weak-Eyed Bat by Margaret Millar, Quote Page 117, Published for the Crime Club by Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of University of North Carolina, Greensboro)