For their group project this week, students are choosing four internationally famous celebrities to invite to dinner.
Ours is no longer an age of conversation as was, for example, Augustan London or the Roman Republic.No one really prides himself on his blend of conviviality, affability, and wit. We note in a general way that people are ‘sociable’ or ‘anti-social’, we may have something to say about their sense of humour, but we rarely stop to wonder if they are fit to grace our table.
Mercifully, no one holds dinner parties any more (surely?). At any rate, I have not been invited to one for many many years. I’ve been invited to friends houses for a bite to eat, of course, but not a sit down three-course napkin dinner, where strangers are present for my entertainment (as I am for theirs). Not, in other words, a dinnner party. And that is good, because I hate them.
Many years ago I knew a young lady, old beyond her years, who delighted in her skill at assembling guest lists for dinner parties. She would invite colleagues, old friends, new acquaintances, and, on one occasion, me. She had opinions about blending personalities, fantasies I suppose of sprightly conversation and tinkling laughter.
But the parties were famously awful. Everyone she invited hated everyone else. No one had anything to say. The food was indifferent. You either got drunk and slid shamelessly under the table, or you did all the washing up. Anything to escape.
In fairness to her, I am not a good guest. In large groups I generally fall silent (although I seem to master that in class, as my student’s bleeding ear drums and scrambled brains will attest), and have a mild dread of having to sit still after I have finished eating. Because I say so little I drink too much, and then, when someone inevitably attempts to draw this brooding monolith into the conversation, I am conscious of slurring my words and getting a bit fighty – I once insulted a Spanish banker, a pleasant enough man, by expressing somewhat Bolshevik views on his entire profession.
So while reason tells me that I should want to be present at dinner with Scarlett Johansson, José Mourinho, Umberto Eco and the ghost of Richard Feynman, I know for a fact that I would stammer at Scarlett with a mouth crammed full of hors d’oeuvre, knock wine over José’s suit, panic when Umberto addressed me in Italian, and attempt to ask Feynman’s ghost impossible physics questions when all he wanted to do was flirt with the very-much-alive Scarlett and talk football with José. I would feel stupid, ignorant, charmless, ill-mannered, and out of place. They would wonder what I was doing there, and I would agree with them.
The fact is, the dinner party is not a meeting of friends or equals. It is a mechanism of social networking and power relations. As I understand it, you are there to discuss what you do for a living, what car you drive, the value of your house, the price you put on education, and so on. José and Scarlett would be polite, no doubt, but they would also be right: I would not belong.
Richard Feynman might feel differently, however. Here he is in a short video interview, discussing his disrespect for respect, and honours, and exclusivity.