Story type: Essay
Many people suppose that it is the easiest thing in the world to dine if you can get plenty to eat. This error is the foundation of much social misery. The world that never dines, and fancies it has a grievance justifying anarchy on that account, does not know how much misery it escapes. A great deal has been written about the art of dining. From time to time geniuses have appeared who knew how to compose a dinner; indeed, the art of doing it can be learned, as well as the art of cooking and serving it. It is often possible, also, under extraordinarily favorable conditions, to select a company congenial and varied and harmonious enough to dine together successfully. The tact for getting the right people together is perhaps rarer than the art of composing the dinner. But it exists. And an elegant table with a handsome and brilliant company about it is a common conjunction in this country. Instructions are not wanting as to the shape of the table and the size of the party; it is universally admitted that the number must be small. The big dinner-parties which are commonly made to pay off social debts are generally of the sort that one would rather contribute to in money than in personal attendance. When the dinner is treated as a means of discharging obligations, it loses all character, and becomes one of the social inflictions. While there is nothing in social intercourse so agreeable and inspiring as a dinner of the right sort, society has invented no infliction equal to a large dinner that does not “go,” as the phrase is. Why it does not go when the viands are good and the company is bright is one of the acknowledged mysteries.
There need be no mystery about it. The social instinct and the social habit are wanting to a great many people of uncommon intelligence and cultivation–that sort of flexibility or adaptability that makes agreeable society. But this even does not account for the failure of so many promising dinners. The secret of this failure always is that the conversation is not general. The sole object of the dinner is talk–at least in the United States, where “good eating” is pretty common, however it may be in England, whence come rumors occasionally of accomplished men who decline to be interrupted by the frivolity of talk upon the appearance of favorite dishes. And private talk at a table is not the sort that saves a dinner; however good it is, it always kills it. The chance of arrangement is that the people who would like to talk together are not neighbors; and if they are, they exhaust each other to weariness in an hour, at least of topics which can be talked about with the risk of being overheard. A duet to be agreeable must be to a certain extent confidential, and the dinner-table duet admits of little except generalities, and generalities between two have their limits of entertainment. Then there is the awful possibility that the neighbors at table may have nothing to say to each other; and in the best-selected company one may sit beside a stupid man–that is, stupid for the purpose of a ‘tete-a-tete’. But this is not the worst of it. No one can talk well without an audience; no one is stimulated to say bright things except by the attention and questioning and interest of other minds. There is little inspiration in side talk to one or two. Nobody ought to go to a dinner who is not a good listener, and, if possible, an intelligent one. To listen with a show of intelligence is a great accomplishment. It is not absolutely essential that there should be a great talker or a number of good talkers at a dinner if all are good listeners, and able to “chip in” a little to the general talk that springs up. For the success of the dinner does not necessarily depend upon the talk being brilliant, but it does depend upon its being general, upon keeping the ball rolling round the table; the old-fashioned game becomes flat when the balls all disappear into private pockets. There are dinners where the object seems to be to pocket all the balls as speedily as possible. We have learned that that is not the best game; the best game is when you not only depend on the carom, but in going to the cushion before you carom; that is to say, including the whole table, and making things lively. The hostess succeeds who is able to excite this general play of all the forces at the table, even using the silent but not non-elastic material as cushions, if one may continue the figure. Is not this, O brothers and sisters, an evil under the sun, this dinner as it is apt to be conducted? Think of the weary hours you have given to a rite that should be the highest social pleasure! How often when a topic is started that promises well, and might come to something in a general exchange of wit and fancy, and some one begins to speak on it, and speak very well, too, have you not had a lady at your side cut in and give you her views on it–views that might be amusing if thrown out into the discussion, but which are simply impertinent as an interruption! How often when you have tried to get a “rise” out of somebody opposite have you not had your neighbor cut in across you with some private depressing observation to your next neighbor! Private talk at a dinner-table is like private chat at a parlor musicale, only it is more fatal to the general enjoyment. There is a notion that the art of conversation, the ability to talk well, has gone out. That is a great mistake. Opportunity is all that is needed. There must be the inspiration of the clash of minds and the encouragement of good listening. In an evening round the fire, when couples begin, to whisper or talk low to each other, it is time to put out the lights. Inspiring interest is gone. The most brilliant talker in the world is dumb. People whose idea of a dinner is private talk between seat-neighbors should limit the company to two. They have no right to spoil what can be the most agreeable social institution that civilization has evolved.