I was standing in front of my office one day when a colleague from another department ambled up. He's squat and strong and looks not so much like a professor as a woodchopper, with thick forearms like a pair of rolling pins, and hairy hands that are usually half-clenched. He exudes an enviable vitality; you have a feeling that he might live 120 years. "How are you?" I asked. And he told me--for 10 minutes running. He informed me in detail about his children's doings, his summer vacation, his ever-improving tennis game, and his multiple lecture engagements for the upcoming term. He spoke quickly and with a sense of dignity, as though this was a public occasion, as if he was being interviewed by a television reporter and was often so interviewed; he took answering the question about his well-being as a slightly arduous duty, but one that, owing to his stature, he was compelled to fulfill in a comprehensive way. When he finished his disquisition, he grunted, turned his back, and lumbered off down the corridor. "Nice talking with you," I said. But my dart was blunt, or at least not sharp enough to pierce what's got to be a rhino-thick skin. He faced me once more. "You're welcome," he said. He turned again and was on his way.
Well, you'll say, I should have defended myself a little better. Rather than letting my troll-king of an acquaintance go on and on, I should have butted in and said my piece. I should somehow have turned the lecture into a conversation, made the solo a duet, or at least, when he was through, done a better job letting him know how I felt. I should have said what the estimable Groucho said when he was similarly accosted in Duck Soup: "You know," Groucho tells his assailant, "you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle." And if my accoster got mad and wanted to storm off affronted? Another Groucho line would have served me well: "You can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff."
But when this sort of thing happens to me, I usually find myself with no resources at all. Bores leave me speechless. I was lucky to get out that meager line thanking him for the conversation. "There is no more infuriating feeling," says the classicist Robert Greene, describing this sort of an encounter, "than having your individuality ignored, your own psychology unacknowledged. It makes you feel lifeless and resentful." That's exactly how I feel when I have these encounters: lifeless and resentful. But why? Why is this kind of treatment so painful? People do all kinds of aggressive and antisocial things to each other--surely I do a few myself--and talking on and on can't be the worst of them. Still, being on the receiving end of such verbiage reliably sends me close to the edge.
What is it with bores? I mean the sort of people who always have to hold the floor. They talk constantly at you, hurling their words like spears, each one tiny enough but nearly deadly in their collective effect. Almost all bores seem to have been born with, or to have developed, an amazing capacity: they can talk and take in air at the same time, so there's never a moment to drop in your own two cents. On they go. They take no interest in you or anything about you; at best, you're a stage prop in the one-person drama that they compose, produce, and star in. These are the people who like to proclaim that they are about to make a long story short, when what they usually do is make no story at all interminable. They're the people who clear their throats, look you in the eye, and, with great finality, say, "My point is ...," then proceed to ramble on with no point whatever in sight. They're the people whose idea of human interaction seems to be turning up the volume on the monologue that's always going on in their heads. William James dignified this flow of words by calling it the "stream of consciousness"; in bores, the stream comes at you like a flooding fiver. Nothing stands in its way. Plutarch, the historian and moralist, dedicated an essay to this sort of person, and his assessment of the type was anything but sweet. Having a bore as a doctor, he says, is worse than having the disease; "as a fellow passenger he is worse than seasickness, his praise is more annoying than any blame."
What is the bore trying to tell you? Is it "You are nothing and I am all"? An acquaintance of mine, when asked how he is, inevitably replies with an interminable list of the places he's visited recently and then of where he'll be going next--the more exotic the place, the longer his dilation. As he talks, I feel myself shrink further and further toward oblivion.
Sometimes he'll name a place he's going to see and I feel that green clutch of envy. I wish I was going there too. Overall, it's no pleasure to be envious, but the good thing about envy, assuming that there is one, is that when you feel the bite, you learn something about what you want. When I hear about the trip to Paraguay and my stomach clutches, it probably means that Paraguay is a place to put on my wish list. On the matter of wanting, a lot of us go around dazed and confused. We don't really know what we'd like--there's so much available in our consumer utopia, it spins the brain. Knowing what you want isn't always an easy trick, though most children seem to master it. I understand that for some time Parisian followers of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to greet each other in the street with the salutation "Where do you stand in regard to your desires?" (I'm sure it sounds more elegant in French.) The salutation had the effect of reminding both parties that they're...