Is After-Dinner Speaking a Disease?

IT has been said of the prophet Daniel that he went with the greater willingness to the den of lions because he knew that he would not be called upon for an after-dinner speech. This is merely an inference. But I find, upon further consideration of the prophet’s record, a more important indication, to wit, that even in his early day the custom of after-dinner speaking was already well established; for when, on a certain well-known occasion, he rose to address the company in Belshazzar’s banquet-hall, he was introduced by the Queen of the realm, who, speaking undoubtedly without notes, began very simply (see Daniel, 5: 11), ‘We have with us this evening one who needs no introduction.’

I wish that the account ’might go more into the details of that occasion: as to the nervousness of the Queen, for instance, and Daniel’s air of studied indifference until he rose to address so distinguished a multitude. But it is indicated in the record that he illustrated his remarks with a number of anecdotes.

This whole matter interests me because, not only have I suffered under the vagaries of after-dinner speakers, but I too have presided at a feast; I have held the wand; I know the abracadabras and the eeny-meeny-miny-mos. ‘We have with, us this evening a citizen than whom . . . which reminds me of a story. ... I know you are impatient . . . but a moment of your time . . . sure you are looking forward to . . . without further humble assistance from me .. . honor of presenting — ’ I too have trembled and perspired over the unforeseen emergency, or have risen panic-stricken, wondering just what the speaker’s middle initial might be.

An experience on one such occasion may serve me well for a text. It was a small assemblage, with good-fellow-ship the keynote, and in my hands lay its post-prandial destinies.

A group waylaid me before the dinner began. ‘Are you going to call on John Q. Robinson?’ they inquired anxiously.

‘I have been so instructed,’ I answered, ‘and his official position alone would seem to make it desirable.’

‘Then, for our sakes, find some way to choke him off! We’ve all heard him — and we know,’ they added darkly.

In those days I had all the confidence

of youth. I went at once to John Q. Robinson, praying for tact on the way. But he was delightfully easy of approach.

‘I wish to apportion the time,’ said I. ‘May I get an idea how much we are to expect from you?’

‘Only a moment or two,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘I have positively nothing to say to them. They have heard me before, and I am sure they want to hear from the others.’

‘Then shall I apportion you fifteen minutes?'

‘Five will do,’he said with emphasis. ‘Five or less.’

The testimony of those protesting ambassadors lingered in my mind, and I made assurance doubly sure. ‘Will it offend you if I tap on a glass, or give some other indication of a time-limit?’

He was amused by my persistence. ‘Of course it would not annoy me,’ he said kindly, as to a child; ‘but you will find no occasion.’

At the end of fifteen minutes his hearers were obviously restive, and I tapped on a glass. He would not hear it. At intervals I cleared my throat loudly. He was deaf to all but his own voice. After twenty-eight minutes I leaned so far forward that he saw me

— and I saw that he saw. He deliberately turned his back toward me and addressed one side of the room. At the end of thirty-five minutes he sat down amid applause. But the nature of that applause he failed to comprehend.

All the time I was a coward, and I knew it. I should have crashed two dinner-plates together, and failing in that, I should have summoned the dinner committee and beaten him to the floor with chairs.

At intervals throughout several years my mind has recalled that experience and turned it over and over. It was not so flagrant an after-dinner crime as many that you may have known, and yet it is so bold in its outlines.

John Q. Robinson is a gentleman courteous in his ways — of that I am assured. On this occasion he knew how many were to speak, and that fifteen minutes was a liberal allotment to each speaker. His promise was solicited and given. Despite all that, he refused to heed the signals which he both heard and saw. There is only one possible explanation: while he spoke, John Q. Robinson ceased to be his normal self; he became, in fact, hypnotized. Doubtless this explanation is simple and obvious enough to men of science, but to me it came as a Columbian discovery. I sought at once an erudite and goodnatured psychologist. ‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘how does a man hypnotize himself?’

‘Oh, in various ways,’ was the reply: ‘looking fixedly at a bright object, or something of that sort.'

‘ Listening to a sound ? ’ I asked.

‘Well, not so much that.’

‘Must it be one bright object?’

‘ Why no, it does n’t have to be bright, as a matter of fact, and it might be many objects.’

‘Ha!’ I said to myself, ‘The eyes of his audience.’ And I mulled over the matter for a time. But the idea had not assumed a comfortable completeness in my mind. I sought my friend again, and found him still good-natured.

‘This auto-hypnosis,’ I said, ‘is it actually a trance? Is it as real as the hypnotic state induced by an operator, or whatever you call him?’

‘Yes, indeed, it can be very real.’

‘How real? How far can it go?’

‘Oh, hysteria — all that sort of thing.’

I think that my psychologist, while still good-natured, was becoming bored. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘read this. Then you’ll know all about it.’ And he left me at the mercy of a tome which fairly bristled with the technical terminology of his craft.

Yet the Fates were kind to me. Plunging into the very middle of the book, I read persistently along, much as I go at a Russian novel, remembering how the names of the characters appear on the page without pronouncing them. Suddenly I was jolted into an intense interest.

‘The memory of a hypnotized subject has a wide range,’ said the book, ‘much wider than it has at other times. Frequent instances of this extraordinary memory have been given, so surprising as sometimes to lead to the belief that the subjects were endowed with a mysterious lucidity. Richet remarks that somnambulists describe in minute detail places which they have formerly visited or facts which they have witnessed. ... We have been able to make a hypnotized subject give the menus of dinners she had eaten a week before. Her normal memory did not extend beyond three or four days.

I reread the page, and then in memory I sat again with a pleasant dinnergroup on an occasion which may be mentioned here because it is historic, and listened while an eminent Senator wrecked his chances for the presidency by talking at us actually for hours, disregarding all consideration of those who were to follow him, blind to every evidence of unrest in the audience facing him, deaf to the poundings and shufflings that even their sense of courtesy could not repress. His friends explained the occurrence later by alleging a mental break-down. ‘Sickness,’ they said. Surely sickness was there, if a state of auto-hypnosis may be called sickness; and to my mind that is a sufficient explanation.

‘ Is it easier for a man who has once hypnotized himself to do it again?’ I asked my kindly psychologist.

‘Yes, indeed, easier each time.’

How satisfactorily this accounts for the legislator who can rise in the halls of Congress and talk for hours, recalling old addresses of his own, statistics, quotations from the Classics — a marvelous achievement when considered merely as an act of memory, and very often it is obviously nothing more.

Once on a time I attended one of those annual social occasions in New York City where the sons of some distant commonwealth get together for the sake of good-fellowship and the renewal of early associations. Both of the Senators who represented that state at Washington sat at the head table; both were to speak, and there were other speakers to be heard as well. One of the Senators talked for fifty minutes, and the other talked for an hour and twenty minutes, and the guests departed at intervals throughout the evening in a state of gloom and depression. Similarly, at a dinner in Washington, a Speaker of the House of Representatives held an obviously fidgetty audience of dinner-guests beneath his gaze, and used up the entire balance of the evening, so that other speakers whose names appeared upon the programme had to be omitted altogether.

These Senators, and his Honor the Speaker, and John Q. Robinson, all were undoubtedly well-intentioned, with no desire to spoil a pleasant, evening for a roomful of guests, or to act discourteously toward fellow speakers. But they have hypnotized themselves so often by gazing into the upturned eyes of a waiting audience, that they pass under the spell with ever-increasing facility. Considerations of courtesy, sounds of warning — attention to any such disturbances as these is inhibited.

I have spoken frankly of Mr. Robinson, and I have told the true story of that evening, yet it does not disturb me to realize that these very words may come under his eye. He will never know that he is the man. When his speech was over on that occasion of regrettable memory, and he mingled with his victims as they rose preparing to disperse, it was evident from his hand-clasp, his assured smile, his every word, that he felt himself the distinguished speaker of the evening. If he had heard muttered imprecations, it would still have been impossible for him to discover the truth. He was a friend to everyone there, and everyone was his friend. He had come out of his trance, and the deeds of the immediate past were as though they had not been.

‘We have to thank Heidenhain,’continued my learned volume, ‘for having first pointed out the importance of inhibitory processes in hypnosis. ... We may then consider every hypnosis as a state in which the normal course of the ideas is inhibited. . . . When one idea among several gets the upper hand, through its intensity, or for some other reason, and represses other ideas — ’

And my oracle tells me further that the hypnotized subject will show a definite antagonism to any of those influences which tend to oppose the actions upon which he is engaged. ‘ The hypnotized subject,’ it continues, ‘seldom remembers on awaking the events which occurred during his hypnotic sleep. On the other hand, when he is asleep his memory embraces all the facts of his sleep, of his waking state, and of previous hypnotic sleeps.’

The alarming truth forces itself upon my mind that the professional orator who rises to his feet to-morrow not only is able to deliver all of the speech that he has prepared for the occasion, but, if properly hypnotized, could add to it all other speeches that he has ever delivered on previous occasions. The thing is cumulative. He not only goes into this trance with constantly increasing ease whenever the eyes of many auditors are fixed upon him, but he can run longer. Truly, it is time we did something about this social custom of after-dinner speaking!

A strange custom it is, and one that has crystallized into curiously definite forms. Once upon a time a gifted afterdinner speaker told a funny story to illustrate the point he had in mind. His intentions were honorable, and the immediate result was all that he had hoped; but I wish that I knew that man’s name. I would post it here in capital letters as a candidate for eternal obloquy.

‘Do you know any funny stories?’ says the harassed-looking individual; ‘I have to make an after-dinner speech.’ Anything will do. He will look up the stories first, and attach a speech to them. And it is another curious thing about this custom of post-prandial disturbance, that it is maintained even on occasions when no one desires it. At such times the Toastmaster is drafted under protest. The speaker would prefer to be among his friends; and the diners have attended the dinner with two dominant motives: they want to eat, and they want to chat with their associates.

‘Shall I call on you now?’ says the Toastmaster, apparently calm, but with betraying fingers nervously twiddling his coffee-spoon while he turns to the Distinguished Guest at his elbow, who is trying to appear unconcerned. ‘Shall I call on you now, or shall I let them enjoy themselves a little longer?’

‘I can’t understand why those people in the far corner are so discourteously inattentive,’ says the Toastmaster querulously to a Member-of-the-Dinner-Committee who has come busily up to confer with him. ‘Could n’t you get a hint to them?’

Can't understand! Merciful heavens! They are inattentive because they do not want to listen. Of course they will conform to the proprieties if someone jolts their elbows; but they have a subconscious idea that they have come there to enjoy themselves — that this feast is a carnal occasion, where the head is to be subordinated to the stomach for a reasonable time. Their suppressed instincts have rebelled at the command that two digestive processes shall be carried on simultaneously within their mortal frames.

But I suppose there is as little use protesting against an established social custom such as this as against a fixed social costume like a dinner-coat with useless buttons on the sleeves. It is the fault of no one living; for surely I would not seem to blame that worthy creature, the Toastmaster, curiously spineless person that he is. It is his custom to weigh the happiness of a hundred diners aganst the possible injury to the feelings of a single speaker, and then to shirk the obvious duty incumbent upon him. Cowards, these toastmasters, and little wonder! For when by rare chance a truly courageous soul presides over the feast, and it falls to his lot to dam some stream of inexhausttible eloquence, he wins the hatred of one whose brain-child he so ruthlessly mutilated, and the indifference of many who never knew what they were spared. Out of any hundred toastmasters that you have known, will you not admit that at least ninety have failed to exercise courageously the authority invested in them? Not only have they not controlled the floods they were set to guard, but often they have themselves overflowed upon a surfeited, saturated meadow-land of hearers. Truly they are a by-product of an effete social machine; perhaps the war will prove to have burned them out — and yet I am no optimist. Think of the innumerable banquets to returning heroes!

Nor should I blame that other reputable citizen, the After-Dinner Speaker, because of what he does while in a hypnotic trance. He and his audience are the victims, not of any premeditated crime on his part, nor of any innate viciousness, but of his own good-nature. True, I have heard that there are in existence professional after-dinner speakers who seek opportunity, men who actually train themselves for such service, memorizing anecdotes, and, like trained newspaper reporters, have on tap a little of the professional patter of all trades and all schools. They are an inevitable product of the system; like the hired social organizers at summer hotels, they must formulate new recipes for spontaneity. Perhaps, since the thing is to be done at all, men should seriously study how to do it well. But I should like my son to choose some other profession.

A colleague of mine tells me that a young man once confessed to her an ambition in this direction. ‘Do you think,’ he asked, ‘I might gain in fluency by practising, as Demosthenes did, with pebbles in my mouth?’

‘Yes, indeed,’ she answered enthusiastically; ‘but don’t use pebbles, use Portland cement.’

Probably the chief blame for maintaining the present system at its worst attaches to that securely established institution, the Dinner Committee; and with them it is often inexperience or ignorance rather than vicious natures. It might be better, indeed, if in their case the task had been studied as a profession. I remember that once upon a time the chairman of such a committee placed in the hands of one who was to preside a list of the names of those who were to be introduced. The affair, by t he way, had a charitable excuse.

He glanced at the list, and asked her when the speaking was to begin.

‘At nine,’ she said firmly.

‘Will any of your speakers and singers take less than fifteen minutes?’

‘I should certainly hope not,’ she said earnestly; ‘they are all distinguished and most talented.’

He wrote fifteen after each name, added twenty minutes in all for combined intervals and delays, drew a line under the column, and silently handed her the paper for a bit of simple arithmetic.

She looked at him aghast. ‘Why, that means that they won’t be through until after midnight, and many of our guests live in the suburbs. What shall we do?’

‘Leave some of them out,’ he suggested simply.

‘But that is impossible,’ she said. ‘They have all volunteered their services, and they are all so distinguished. ’

There was nothing more to be said; and after all it was her party.

These rambling comments are worthless unless they are accompanied by some constructive suggestion. An assemblage of memories, pleasant and unpleasant, leads to the conclusion that there are two classes of after-dinner speech. One occurs on those occasions when people have assembled to hear certain speakers talk at length on subjects with which they are acquainted, and incidentally a meal is served. If the meal is a hearty one, and the audience dines heavily, it is unfair to the speaker. Such speeches should come first, and a light collation might be served afterward. This has many points in its favor. Audiences will be more likely to stay until the bitter end; and as even an expert sometimes talks too long, it may be that the gnawing pangs of hunger will set a limit to a talk that might otherwise lack it.

The second class includes those speeches which are properly responses to toasts. It is these that have been more abused by custom in such fashions as I have narrated. Yet the present autocracy of dinner-committee chairmen, the dynasty of toastmasters, and the tyranny of after-dinner speakers, will, like all tyrannies, perpetuate these abuses so long as there is an acquiescent majority. We have learned in these days that such is the fundamental cause of all anachronistic survivals. Education of the majority is the great solution. If, then, hypnotism is the key to this situation, it is in the science of hypnosis that the helpless majority must be educated, for it is, after all, their eyes that hypnotize the speaker. They have done it heretofore unconsciously. Let them become conscious and active factors in the game, and imagine the result. The after-dinner speaker finds himself facing, not an array of victims, but an array of masters. He will say whatever they will him to say, and stop exactly when they will. There are pleasant possibilities in the fancy. What may we not do, Svengali-wise, in days to come, to those high-seated individuals who stare back at us from the head table?