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Picturing a World

Importance of dialogue

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow is full of interesting discoveries and arguments. One idea grabbed my attention. Neuroscience, they say, seems to show that self-aware thoughts on a problem generally last about seven seconds. "[T]he great exception to this is when we're talking to someone else. In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems for hours on end" (p. 94). Graeber and Wengrow point out that many ancient philosophers framed their writings as dialogue. I would add, think how often writers have written as though there were a devil and an angel or two sides of personality arguing with each other when they want to depict a mental struggle. The device can seem contrived, but maybe it arises out of more than convention.

What interests me as a fiction writer is how this aspect of mind highlights the obvious: dialogue enlivens a story. If conversation is as deep and powerful as Graeber and Wengrow imply, then all the more reason to strive to get it right ourselves and applaud authors who do.
Another observation: it seems to me that the fine arts seldom show people actually talking to each other (unlike book illustrations). I suppose it's because actual exchange of speech occurs in a fleeting space of time with limited application. Also, it requires showing people with their mouths open, or at least their lips parted. Anyway, I couldn't think of a good example for illustrating this blog post but was happy to chance on Kate Greenaway's pretty image of a tea party. Love that rich cake and the garden and the blue-and-white china—and the two women on our side of the table so clearly talking to each other.
Image via Wellcome Collection

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