In Milton’s day, conversation meant sex — quite literally so. It was a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” sort of word, coming from a Latin term meaning “to associate with.”
To communicate, also from our Latin ancestors, is “to make common,” to share — whether ideas, inner feelings, diseases or head lice.
Speaking comes from Germanic roots: spakan, to make sounds with the mouth. To talk is to share tales — narratives, monologues, even numbers.
Our Indo-European forebears had a writing taboo, believing the capture of words, sounds and ideas in symbols to be akin to sacrilege. The word didn’t necessarily create the cosmos, as it does in Christian myth, but it does create culture — the place of tilled soil. Society, the union of comrades. Civilization, the dwelling of civilians.
(Did I ever mention how much I love dictionary.com, by the way?)
At any rate, I was too busy last week to follow much of my habitual Web discourse, since I was planning and celebrating Mean Samhradh, picking berries and making jam, making bread and punjabi khardi. Before that, I was practicing for and participating in our gig.
Curiously, I didn’t miss it all that much.
So much of the Web is virtual conversation — meaning that it seems like the real thing, but really isn’t. And I think of the ancestors and their profoundly oral lives, based on the word spoken, sung, whispered, imparted lips to cochlea.
Virtual conversation is a bit like virtual sex — titillating but ultimately unfulfilling, a substitute for real relationship.
We fill our lives with status updates, twitterings and related silliness, mistaking it as equivalent to a friend’s hug, a mother’s kind word, a smile from a stranger. But what to do? To reach out is to risk — having one’s hand slapped, yes, but also confronting the Other’s reality. The tearful eye, the frustrating in her shoulder. The reality that this human being is more than a symbol on a page, a flickering light on a screen. It makes it more difficult to be cruel, easier to be empathetic.
Perhaps presence — real, actual — is the key to community, with its speculative origin in “sharing common duties,” and the antidote to what’s poisoning our shared, tilled field.