Downstairs, Green’s Café, just off Bonn Square, is empty. I walk in regardless and catch a waitress coming down the stairs.
“Muse dinner?” I ask hesitantly. She sort of nods and waves an arm toward the stairs, which I ascend. On the first floor, the café is packed. Two people on every table – just tucking into their starters – it’s an ordinary, albeit very busy, scene of laid back early evening socialising.
Except this is no ordinary scene. The majority of these people are strangers – not just to the people on other tables – but to the person they’re talking to. This is the student branch of the Oxford Muse Society – a group who organise a meal like this one every term. The set-up is relatively simple. A guest (tonight, one of those guests is me) is paired up with another person and the two of them are given a menu. Not for food – we’ve all chosen from set menus in advance – tonight’s selections are for conversation.
And when I say menu, I don’t mean (as I imagined) a load of flash cards with things like “What’s your favourite film”; “tell me something interesting about tobacco advertising”; I mean an actual menu with “starters”, “soups” and all sorts of courses with things like “How have your priorities changed over the years?” or “What are the most decisive, enjoyable or difficult conversations you have had?”. And they’re just for starters.
I am seated, because there is an odd number, with two other people – one a student, the other an Oxford resident. They have just started their conversation – but have already shared enough information to introduce each other. We quickly get on with our first course, bizarrely from the “fish” section of the menu, a dish entitled “What have you rebelled against in the past and what are you rebelling against now?”. From there we go on through one or two more menu topics, usually deviating into all sorts of other things that each one brings up – we discuss the cultural norms of Russia and Islam; the strengths and deficiencies of British education; the influence of religion in childhood; the ethics of worker exploitation. Our conversation takes us all around the world, back through history, into our own lives and each others.
This is very different to an ordinary conversation. There is politeness but no pleasantries, no small talk. Conversation is usually a time-filler activity, or a chance to establish specific social bonds – something called the “phatic” function of language. The Muse Dinner by contrast is a space where conversation is cultivated for its own socio-political value. One person I speak to after the event even describes it as a kind of art project because of the way in which it facilitates a larger message to its participants.
In fact, there is more than one occasion when the whole thing feels a little bit cult-like. One of my partners for the evening tells me about the society’s founder, a sociologist, philosopher and historian named Theodore Zeldin, who invented the project in order to re-engage societies in discussions of big issues and ideas. Whenever people here mention him, they sort of nod determinedly with a slight smile, as if wistfully recalling a secondary school crush. Some mention the society’s last event at which Zeldin gave an affecting speech. Others tell me he’s “interested in the wellbeing of society”. I imagine his face on a book cover with silver triangles and cryptic little symbols and a title like “The Sixth Way: Conversation, Vegetables and the Human Spirit”.
But I think this impression is generated largely by the rarity of a society that has so strong and specific a basis of philosophical thought – rather than by anything more sinister. Although there is something loosely religious about it all. The mechanisms of conversation are so open and with no ulterior agenda for the topics, I find myself unafraid to dive straight in to our talk with absolute honesty – as I imagine one does in a church confessional. The society’s current organiser sums it up nicely: “The bottom line is, it is what you make it. It’s about community. It’s about engaging in social ritual in different ways.”
Back over in my corner, we stay for a long time after we’ve finished our food – the sustenance of conversation far outpacing our appetites. I come away from the café with a feeling of community and, having compared my life with others’, a reminder of the relativity of my beliefs and feelings. In Green’s Café the following day, people will come and go, talking between their own groups or working alone on laptops. Few will talk to the strangers around them and neither, wherever I am the following morning, will I. Conversation needs its own space and I can think of few better places for it than the Oxford Muse Society. The old advice from your primary school assemblies was wrong: talk to strangers.