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.

Complaints about individuals speaking without listening have a long history. In 1863 the periodical “Southern Illustrated News” printed the following wry description of overlapping monologues: 4

I hope there were no listeners within earshot, as I am sure the dialogue, or, more properly speaking, the two monologues, they would have heard—(for we spoke both together, neither of us paying the slightest attention to what the other was saying !)—must have been supremely ridiculous! He poured forth a perfect rigmarole of sentimental heroics; whilst I was equally voluble in angry remonstrance!

In 1928 the quotation from Rebecca West with the word “interesting” was published, and in 1935 the instance with “intersecting” was published. Both citations were presented earlier in this article.

In 1942 the mystery writer Margaret Millar released “The Weak-Eyed Bat” which included another incisive remark about conversations and monologues. 5

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

The above quotation has been explored in a separate entry on the Quote Investigator website here.

In conclusion, the quotation was printed within a story published by Rebecca West in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1928. The word “interesting” was contained in the quotation; however, QI believes that West intended to use the felicitous word “intersecting”. Indeed, she corrected the quotation when the tale was reprinted in 1935 and 1956.

Image Notes: Illustration of intersecting colors created by QI with Gimp. Portrait of Rebecca West, Author: Madame Yévonde, Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Terri Guillemets who shared with QI several interesting citations about conversation including this one. Guillemets operates the pioneering online quotation website The Quote Garden. Thanks also to Kat Caverly whose inquiry about the Margaret Millar quotation indirectly initiated this research. Special thanks to John McChesney-Young who obtained scans of the key 1928 citation in “The Saturday Evening Post”. Many thanks to the discussants on the Wombats mailing list including: John Cowan, Claire, Barbara Schmidt, Brian Whatcott, and Mark Halpern. Cowan pointed out the pertinence of the lectio difficilior potior principle.)

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)
  4. 1863 July 4, Southern Illustrated News, A Bundle of Old Letters (Continuation from previous issue), (Written for the Illustrated News), Start Page 6, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 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)