There’s really nothing about college I love more than inebriated discussions. I’m not sure why, but there’s always that point during any college social gathering — and it may have to do with the feigned intellectual, collegiate atmosphere campuses tend to have — when a very intense, involved conversation arises. If you’ve ever stayed at a party past 1 a.m., and you’re not making out on a loveseat in the corner, or trying to find your coat so you can get the hell out, it’s probably because of a particular conversation. Alcohol plays an interesting role in conversations. It’s the whole reason that people feel comfortable sharing insights and concerns they’d never voice while sober, but it also impairs their ability to coherently voice those concerns. Of course no one realizes this at the time, as they are blathering on about this band or that friend’s girlfriend. But pressed the next day for a recap of that discussion, the one they seemed feverishly devoted to the night before, they’ll admit there wasn’t much to it. The problem is exponentially confused if one, or God forbid, both people involved in the conversation are enrolled in a philosophy class. Those ever involved in a “How do I know I have hands” conversation know what I mean.
But drinking merely heightens the inherent comedy of any real, substantial communication. Language is a problem. Everyone realizes this when running up against actual language barriers; it’s what makes studying abroad so simultaneously eye-opening and frustrating. Forget the Chinese word for toilet paper at a Beijing supermarket and you’re screwed. But we seem reluctant to realize that no two people, even fluent English speakers, are actually ever speaking the same language. The meaning you associate with a certain word, or at least its connotations, is almost certainly not exactly the same as someone else’s. I remember one conversation I had with a friend — in broad, un-intoxicated daylight — where I tried the entire time, missing the entire content of the discussion, I might add, to figure out his use of the word “mimetic.” Only after a few weeks in a classics class am I beginning to even get a grasp of the concept, but I’m never actually going to access the idea he was trying to express. Milan Kundera’s brilliant novel, the “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” plays on this disconnect for comedic effect, as if his two lovers’ different understanding of the connotations of parades is the reason they can never know each other. But in most situations — Kundera’s characters notwithstanding — we recognize when there’s a fundamental misunderstanding. Normal conversation deftly acknowledges, even respects, certain constraints of language. But what I love about drunken conversations is that they just smack up against these barriers like a bird against plate glass, as if they’ll get you to understand if by sheer force of conviction.
Whether or not it’s possible to get around this misunderstanding I’m still unsure; the only method I’ve yet found is, again, in fiction. Dave Eggers wrote his book “What is the What,” which he termed a “fictionalized autobiography” in the voice of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. Based on his interviews with Deng, Eggers combines Deng’s fascinating story with his own experience, creating a narrative that either man might have experienced. It’s an exercise in sustained empathy, the likes of which is rarely seen in writing, fiction or non. William Burroughs, for my money, plays a similar game in “Naked Lunch.” He’s an author who spent his entire drug-addled life consorting with various characters — cops, bookies, addicts and gigolos. His novel seems to evoke something of each of them, and they are each written in the style of prose appropriate to their characters: science fiction, detective fiction and even the detached pseudo psychological journal are all spliced together, as is Burroughs’ fashion. It’s like reading 12 books at once, each by a different author. Some authors strive to find one authentic tone; he has a cupboard full — a feat I can only attribute to sincere empathy.
Of course, when I tried to explain this to someone at a party, the only reaction I got was a long stare and a response, the gist of which was “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.” He had read the same book and was far more concerned with something entirely different. So we just talked louder and louder until someone who had no interest in either of our concerns finally told us to go home.
__Kevin Mooney is the Flat Hat Confusion Corner columnist. He fully supports drunkenly talking your acquaintance’s ears off, as long as he is not one of them.__