In Conversation with Paul Holdengräber

08/21/2014 03:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014
Rahav Segev via Getty Images

This conversation first appeared in Full Stop.


In this, our second conversation for Full Stop--you can find our first conversation here--Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library claims that good conversation can leave one "hopeful about the possibility of speech."

As one of the world's leading conversationalists, he would know. In the hundreds of events he's done since coming out to New York a decade ago to join the library as their director of Live from the NYPL, he's spoken with everyone from Mike Tyson to John Waters, Toni Morrison to Matthew Barney, Pete Townshend to Paul Auster, Harold Bloom to Jay-Z. Listening to him talk with various artists and intellectuals, one is reminded of the fact that Western philosophy began with dialogue. How could it have started with anything else? Conversation, which is really just connection, is what makes us human, what gives us our will to live.

I've never been more hopeful about the possibility of speech, and thus hopeful about the possibility of life itself, than the two times I've had the privilege to converse with this curator of public curiosity.

Tyler Malone: What is conversation to you and what is its value?

Paul Holdengräber: It's interesting to have children in that regard because one thing you notice very early on is that conversation is how we become human. The word "infant" literally means "without the possibility of phatic expression." We begin our lives by being spoken to and then slowly by responding. It's what makes us come together as a kindred species. Without this dialogue, without this possibility of exchange, part of our humanity--that which makes us truly human--is lost. So for me conversation is a way of going back to that initial moment. Conversation is a giving and a taking, back and forth.

You know, the only sport I emphatically love is ping pong. Now I often play with my young boy at six in the morning before he goes off to school. I caught myself thinking the other day that our game was but a variation on what I do professionally. Ping pong is a form of exchange, of back and forth, of quick and slow, of spin and no spin--conversation is something of that nature.

Do you think of conversation as a sort of sport then?

I know so little about sports, so I'll try not to sound too foolish. Though something really strange has happened to me now, which is that I've become really interested in the World Cup. "Half a century later, Paul discovers a sport." The other day I was glued to the screen watching that game between Portugal and the US. It was just fantastic. I love the statistics. I loved that when the Americans scored the first time they did it in 32 or 33 seconds. I'm getting my answer now as I'm talking to you. I haven't forgotten your question. And that's something that conversation does: while you speak, you discover what you think. So maybe I'll get to answering your first question by the end of our discussion.

A conversation is not quite like a sporting activity, though it is very physical in some ways, so there is an athletic quality to it. I often say that when I'm on stage, I bring my body. But I don't think conversation is about scoring. And not only is it not about scoring, I'm actually not even trying to make a point. I'm trying to see what happens, and how long we can keep the rally going, but I'm not trying to win, to prove, to demonstrate. I'm trying to, in a Socratic way, be the midwife--to bring about, to be the porte-parole (as they say in French), the spokesperson, the person who carries the word, who makes it emanate, who makes it emerge. To have the adventure of speaking come out, that's what I'm interested in.

You mention "bringing your body," and so I'm curious about your thoughts on the physical aspects of conversation--and particularly in what you do, where there isn't just the physical bodies of the two people conversing, but also the physical presence of a live audience comprised of many bodies. So what are your thoughts on physical presence in conversation?

In conversation, I would say that I bring my presence. I'm with the other person. I want to be a mixture of in their way and giving them open space. It's a very strange combination. I don't want people in the audience to feel that I am invisible. There are others who occupy a function such as mine who want to become invisible. That is not what I want; I don't want to merely facilitate. When people talk about "facilitating" conversation, I hate that word nearly as much as I hate the word "panel." (The word "panel" in my mind is one of the worst words in the English language, especially when it is used in the context of what I do. Talking of "panel discussions" immediately gives me a rash.) I don't facilitate; I complicate. In some way, I try to make something complex, more challenging. When there's a very large audience, I feel the presence, but I'm not overburdened by it. I love the live aspect of it. Of course, part of the joy is when you forget the audience because you're so engrossed in the conversation, but you never really do. They're always there, and in some way you know that.

You recently interviewed Adam Phillips for the Paris Review. I know you prefer the word conversation, but in the Paris Review, they use the word "INTERVIEWER" in the exchanges, not even mentioning the name of the interviewer except in the byline.

They certainly label it an interview, and treat it as one. It's very interesting to note that a few things happen when you do that. One is that they do sort of tune you out, in a way. But another is that you really feel like you are writing for posterity. I'm happy to know that my interview will be collected in the next big issue, so it will be something that people will still read forty years from now.

Before we talk about the Phillips interview, I want to riff on that for a second. Do you not think about posterity then in your own NYPL conversations? Is that less of a concern than when you were working on the Paris Review interview?

It's changing in me. Maybe it's a fact of age? Or maybe it's related to this interview with Adam Phillips which took a decade to do? It took a decade to do, but without the knowledge that I was going to do it. When I spoke to Adam five years ago, I wasn't thinking that this would some day end up in the Paris Review. It just so happened that one day the editor Lorin Stein and I were talking and he mentioned that he would love to break every rule of the Paris Review and have a psychoanalyst in its pages, which had never happened before. So I put together 250 pages into 15 pages. It took us four months, and a lot of work.

For a long time, I would have said that in a way my desire was to create these moments that are heightened but temporal, like a performance you go to at Carnegie Hall where 50 years later you remember that one performance. They belong to a certain moment, and the trace is whatever memory you have of them. Now I'm actually thinking quite often about the afterlife of conversation, and maybe not just leaving them untouched but doing something with them. I don't yet know quite what.

One thing that Adam Phillips said in your interview that I think really applies to our conversation is, "It seems to me that digression may be the norm, the invisible norm, in conversation. Because if you believe in digression as something separate, you must believe it's possible to be coherently focused and purposive." I know you're fascinated with digression...

I am. The last line of my introduction, you will remember, is another line of Adam's, "Digression is secular revelation." To my mind those words are so powerful and pungent. They remind me of another line I love, by Laurence Sterne, which we may have spoken about last time, about digression being the sunshine of narrative. It's in the moments where you go off track--insofar as you believe in a track, which I don't necessarily do--where the important things come out. That's I think why Freud was so fascinated by jokes. It's a moment where we go into areas we didn't quite know we'd be going into, where we go off the beaten path. It's in those moments that we travel, and we see something unexpected, turning our gaze to something we hadn't planned to look at.

In that quotation you have read back to me in Adam's response, there's a power of identification for me which is very strong. I feel very kindred to that.

Last time we talked a little bit about the ever-elusive "ideal conversation." Would that be one that goes completely off track or do you prefer to not even think about track at all when you do what you do?

Oh no, I do. There's an ambivalence towards structure. On the one hand, I often think of the arc of a conversation. In that arc, I think of the beginning, which is extremely important. Where do you start? What is the first thing you say to Patti Smith or to Zadie Smith or to Ricky Jay or to Jay-Z? And then, on the other side of the arc, where do you want to end? Usually I have a sense of where I want to end, but it doesn't always go that way, which can be exciting. I particularly love endings that are sharp, where you end nearly brutally, where you just stop and say, "Thank you very much." It's as if, if we think in analytical terms, the session is over. Lacan famously would interrupt his patients and say, "Merci." There's something very appealing about that kind of an end, instead of the extremely well-crafted talk. Often talks of that type can seem so canned. It's as if they could be given anywhere, at any time, with no surprise--which makes them intellectually not so compelling. So, no, to answer your question, it isn't so much about being in the dark or being completely lost, but it is a mixture of being lost and found.

Unlike in your Paris Review interview with Adam Phillips though, your conversations for the NYPL are not consumed in print form. You can't edit them before the public gets them. You're sort of stuck with wherever the conversation goes.

You're stuck. It's like music. You can't go back; you can't undo. So it's highly prone to failure. My job is tremendously prone to disaster, to it not going well. Of course, that happens. Flattery is very much a part of the responses I get regarding what I do. Very often people will come up afterwards and say, "That was one of the best conversations I've ever heard." Sometimes I really internally disagree and I feel like saying to them, "Get a life!" I think, "Really? You thought this was good? It was clearly not." I never say that to them, but I feel it. Sometimes though--and this is really exciting--a child or husband or wife or close friend or relative of the person I've just had a conversation with will come up to me afterwards and say, "I've never heard my mother speak about this." That's fantastic.

In conversation, do you think the participants are both simultaneously hiding and revealing themselves?

I think it's in the The Red and the Black where Stendhal has this line which roughly translates to, "Words and speech have been given to man so he can hide his thoughts." Of course. We know this. Our lies are our truths. What we hide and what we try to obfuscate, what we avoid, the ways in which we deceive others and deceive ourselves--all this is so much a part of who we are. So you encounter that a lot in conversation, of course, but you also encounter great moments of candor.

The best single interview I've ever done in my life was probably with Mike Tyson. There was a moment that everyone still quotes back to me because it was so powerful. Werner Herzog, the filmmaker and director, had told me to ask Mike Tyson about his love of the Frankish Kings. When I asked him why he loved them so much, he responded, "Because they knew how to kill." It was a moment of such candor, such vulnerability. The reason we often hide is because we are afraid that if we reveal our truth it will make us more fragile. In this case, he's very fragile and very strong at the same time.

Is "political correctness" the death of conversation in a way?

When I was in graduate school, political correctness was at its height. And I brought it home. My parents were living in Brussels. It was my first or second year at Princeton. You didn't know how to call women, whether you were even allowed to look at people. You couldn't say certain things because it might offend a minority. I remember my mother, bless her soul, had no clue what political correctness was. I said, "PC," and she thought it meant "partly cloudy." My father thought it meant "parti communiste." I remember going through all of this, trying to figure out what it is one could say, what it is one couldn't say. I was just speaking the other day with John Waters and he brought up political correctness. Of course, it limits you. The notion that there are certain words that you can't use because they might offend is very limiting. Of course, the context of speaking itself is limiting. The point is not to become fearful of stating what you think is right.

I think it's also important not to fear being wrong. The best conversations, for me at least, are the ones in which I feel free to say something stupid or wrong or disappointing, something I might even disagree with later, even a moment later.

Have you ever heard the Robert Frost line about a liberal being someone who can never take his own side in an argument? So brilliant. In a way, I always feel, yes, and no, and maybe. I often think how I would have been a disaster in the American system of multiple choice. Anyone who has a slight degree of intelligence will know that there are many sides to something. Fundamentalism and literalism come from a deep-rooted sense of being limited or lacking in humor.

The reason I'm disappointed by almost every conversation is because I have such a high view of the revolutionary power it can have--and such a belief, probably childlike, in the magic of words. In some sense, I'm always putting too much pressure on it to deliver. But at the same time, I strongly believe that while speaking we are trying things out. You told me you're teaching a class on the essay. Why do I probably love the essay more than any other form? Why are Emerson and Thoreau and Nietzsche and Montaigne so important to me? Montaigne writes something like, "Dear reader, I'm trying this out." Conversation is something like that, something like the essay; they're places where you are trying out ideas.

I'm sure I spoke about my father last time we spoke. He's now 96. Still to this day, if I am to get his respect, I better argue well. I better have a reason why I believe in this rather than that. Even if it's wrongheaded, make it interesting.

Because words are not the world, they're either too specific or too vague, do we mar our thoughts by forcing them into language? Would it be better to be silent?

What is the last line of Wittgenstein's Tractatus? "Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent."

I think silence would be very difficult--at least for me. I will admit though that in conversations, I love moments of repose. I love the uncomfortable silences. I relish them. The other day we had Karl Ove Knausgård here. He had this moment when Jeffrey Eugenides was speaking to him, where he was silent for a good thirty seconds. So uncomfortable, so great. Everybody refers to that moment. So I love those moments in conversation when there is silence, but do I think that we should be joining a religious order and taking a vow of silence? I can see why it could be tempting, especially in this day and age where I worry there may be too much chatter. I fear I contribute to that. But I think it isn't in my future to be quiet.

I do find your question fascinating though: the intersection of language, approximation, disappointment. A rose is not a rose--we know this. It is an approximation. The word flirts with the possibility of arriving at the thing itself. But in phenomenological terms, we can't arrive at the thing itself. It's not there.

I was educated in the Belgian system, and also in France, and nearly everything was an oral exam. I was mainly educated by Jesuits. A nice Jewish boy educated by Jesuits is interesting. I remember we were studying the Platonic ideal. This Jesuit professor who was maybe all of five feet tall was terrifying and intimidating to us because he knew so much, was so encyclopedic in his knowledge. Jesuits, as you may know, study for fourteen years. He came in and placed a pen on the table, and said, "For Plato, how many pens are there there?" My friend got up, put the pen in his jacket, and said, "Please take the other one." Which was so brilliant. The professor said, "This man will go far. We don't even need to have the rest of the exam. You've understood the philosophical gesture."

Continuing on with this rumination on silence, I just saw the new documentary on Roger Ebert, Life Itself. He lost his jaw late in life to cancer, and thus also lost his ability to speak. At the same time, he discovered the internet. Of course, his reviews had been on the internet for quite some time, but he began blogging. I started thinking about the idea that without conversation, we might lose the will to live. So when Ebert could no longer speak, he found a new way to converse, which was through this blog.

I love his book, Life Itself. He's someone whose work I have followed, but I didn't know they were making a film about him. In that book, he has some of the best pages on Herzog.

Herzog is in the documentary as well.

I am sure he would speak up for him. Ebert's pages on Herzog are so wonderful because he gets him right. Herzog is so often gotten wrong in my view, and in Herzog's own view as well. If you want to get Werner really angry, you tell him he's a romantic. There have been plenty of really smart people who have said that to him, particularly in the German Romantic spirit. In my view, he's right to dislike that. He's anything but that. He's extremely practical. He says, "Stop whining! The universe has not asked you for your art. Just do it if you want to do it. If you want to make a film, just go out, steal a camera, and do the work." There's nothing romantic about that point of view. It's actually quite pragmatic.

But to get to your question about Ebert and silence, and the will to live: we are the talking animals. That's one of the distinctions that makes us human. We speak, and in the act of speaking, we communicate, hopefully. Not always, and not always well. More often than not, actually, not well. What interests me in Ebert's predicament is that there seemed to be an urgency, a need to communicate. There's no retirement, in that way. I don't understand retirement, except for people who have done a lot of manual labor. I wouldn't know what to retire from, or to. I think that's probably what he must have been feeling, though I don't know his story well enough to say for sure.

Do you think that all great conversations are in a way about their own conversationness in the same way that the greatest novels are usually in some way about their own novelness?

I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. I sort of understand, but I don't completely understand.

For me, the greatest works of art, no matter the medium, are those that take their own medium to task, or use the strengths and weaknesses of their medium to do or say whatever they're saying. Do you find conversation works in the same way? Is a good conversation in some way always about conversation itself?

I suppose so. I suppose in a conversation that one may feel is successful, there is a transmission of something that makes one hopeful about the possibility of speech. In some way, what a good conversation does is make you believe, like that Beckett line, "I can't go on. I'll go on."

Please check out the NYPL's upcoming season:

This post first appeared in Full Stop, where you can read both conversations here and here.


Tyler Malone is a writer and teacher. He is the Editorial Director of Patrick McMullan's PMc Magazine and the Interviews Editor for the Tottenville Review. He has contributed articles, reviews, and interviews to various literary magazines including The Millions, Full Stop, and Literary Traveler. He was once known as "the Reading Markson Reading guy."