Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Limitations of Logic

We live in a flat that can only be reached by climbing ninety-six stairs. This means that it is difficult for many of our friends to visit us - they are too old to manage the climb, or, due to accident or illness, too weak in lung or limb.

I have a very good logical solution to this, which would mean they could visit easily. My solution is to employ some strong young men - they could be attractive too, if this would be helpful - to carry frail guests up the staircase. There is no shortage of hail and hearty males available - they happily run up and down the stairs with new fridges and bits of furniture when we buy them. The availability of the means of transport is not a problem at all.

But somehow, even though this is a rational, logical solution to a problem, it will not do. Illogical though it most definitely is, I know no one who is prepared to be carried anywhere, upstairs, downstairs or along flat ground. There is a loss of dignity involved that makes it better simply to refuse to attempt the ascent to flats on high floors if the only means of transport is a fireman's lift. I understand this although I cannot explain it in rational terms.

Similarly, the way I reacted the other day to what was, logically, a perfect question for starting a conversation, defied good sense.  It was at a social gathering to which I'd been invited as my husband's wife - that is to say, it was his achievements that had resulted in our attendance, not my own, meagre as they are.

At this event, a very high-powered woman involved in Washington politics found herself stuck next to me and decided to try to make conversation. After exchanging names and our reasons for being at the party, she sallied forth boldly with the question, "What are your interests?"

Again, just as logic dictates that hiring men to carry my more infirm guests upstairs makes sense, the clever woman's question was, logically, excellent. If you want to get to know someone, it's obvious - ask them about themselves, ask them for the information you need. It's a straightforward approach. It seems so reasonable - the data is lacking, so ask for it.

Yet it isn't, because, once again, it turns out that human beings are not always straightforward - at least I'm not. The very idea of being put on the spot and asked, bluntly, to talk about myself, appalled me. Leaving aside the fact that I was told repeatedly throughout my childhood never to be pushy,  on what basis would I reveal myself to a stranger? When you meet people, in my reality at least, you need to meander about conversationally, talking about neutral things, until you have established that your perspectives are vaguely similar and you can more or less trust each other enough to discuss the important things in life. Until I'm sure of the temperament of an interlocutor, my aim is to deflect personal questions - and not only out of an instinct for self-preservation, but also from a desire not to come across as a self-obsessed bore.

Mind you, in my case my interests are so abnormal that my reaction is actually probably not really all that illogical anyway, when you come down to it. I realised this when, too shocked to think of an alternative strategy, I endeavoured to answer the Washington woman honestly. I heard myself saying, "Handspinning alpaca wool, making patchworks out of my husband's old shirts, listening to The Archers", and I saw her eyes glaze with boredom (or was it horror?) at almost the speed of light.  And I hadn't even got on to the comparative grammar systems of Slavic, Romance and Finno-Ugric languages or the merits of Gregg shorthand in comparison to Pitman's, the mysterious quality of the paintings of the Northern Primitives and the difficulty of choosing between van Eyk and van der Weyden, the wonders of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and ...

Conversation, I realised at that moment, needs to proceed irrationally, each participant a diver in deep, dark water, groping for handholds in the uncertain gloom. Hurling a sensible question into the mix has the effect of a harpoon plunging into a rockpool, sending everyone scuttling back into their respective crevices and holes.


  1. Small talk is a talent I do not possess, and of course I envy those who do. Now and then I come across well-intentioned columns that promise to reveal the secret of opening and then maintaining a conversation with a stranger, but none of the advice offered has ever worked for me. Indeed logical information for an intuitive encounter.

    1. I'm always worried the person talking to me might really want to go and talk to someone else so my mind darts about trying to give them opportunities to bow out. The Queen always asks, "Have you come far", I've read. When in England, I find talking about the Archers a great help, provided the people I'm talking to are listeners. The only reason I listen is to provide myself with small talk, especially now it is like East Enders in the country. Sorry if you haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about.