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The Origins of Conversation

The idea of literary salons used to interest me a lot. I dreamed about having one. I saw salons as large tea parties, with groups of people getting together at set times to discuss interesting things. The host's job was to build up a list of interesting guests. I learned about competitive salon-running from Proust, but it was the salons of the Enlightenment that interested me. How did they work? It was hard to find out. Historians would mention them in passing, as a group, as if they were interchangeable. Every now and then, one would hear of Madame Geoffrin or Madame du Deffand in isolation. But one had no idea of what the events were like. Was there food? Was everyone assembled in a big circle? How often did guests have to sit through (endless) readings? In time, the desire to have my own salon, or even to attend somebody else's, flipped, turning into a desire to stay away and leaving only a residue of curiosity about the old days.

When I read Peter France's review of The Age of Conversation, I thought, better not. The review suggested that author Benedetta Craveri was trafficking in nostalgia for vanished, doomed elegance. And, as Mr France pointed out, nobody really knows what the conversation in great Parisian salons was really like, because nobody kept a transcript. (Almost all contemporary writing about salons was tendentious, aiming to flatter or dismiss the salons and their hostesses, not to inform a reader.) 

Craveri refers to this negative aspect of "the art of conversation," but she is more inclined to celebrate the positive achievements of the new politeness, which she rightly sees as quite separate from the royal court. Salon culture, centered in the great town houses of the nobility, is seen in Craveri's book rather as a refuge from public affairs, the creation of a beautiful world of leisure. If court politeness has the cold polish of marble, town politeness is "easy," relaxed, entertaining. From this perspective, true politeness is a moral quality, whereby the self is abnegated (concealed, Pascal would have said) in order to further the happiness of the group—although there is a tricky frontier here between complaisance (obligingness) and insincere flattery

Mr France also pointed to problems with Teresa Waugh's translations, although he did not identify any. My conclusion upon finishing the review was that I had a lot of other books to read.

This was no protection against fingering the book at the Met's gift shop. I happened to open to a particularly interesting passage, one that Mr French alludes to. It was about...

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Does conversation even occur, by these standards, in modern society? No wonder you have mused but not acted to initiate one in your own Blue Room or Living Room. I've had numerous occasions recently in this duo-college town of Ithaca to unite with intelligent people for evenings of conversation that were more mutual expositions. Last night, my father and I were hosted at the lake cottage of a prominent physicist who specializes in Plasma Physics. Does anyone out there know what plasma is? Charles Wharton patiently explained to us two largely ignorant but not entirely uneducated consumers of scientific inquiry what plasma physics entails and how he sees it as the sole promise for energy sufficiency by the year 2020. A National Geographic magazine, August 2005, sitting on the end table of their rustic living room had a cover article on the future of energy, and it wasn't even listed there! By the end of his explications, I asked where I might read more in order to get more comfortable with its tenets and details. Chuck stonewalled me, and refused a subtle invitation to explore the communications challenges of a complex science that's "all in the details." Thus a conversation was thwarted and a lecture was had. Most conversations are volleys of exposition, I note, lacking the mutually transformative magic of a true interchange of ideas, one building upon the other and subtly altering the worldview of all participants. The idea of a salon, where people meet to discuss a led topic, is enormously appealing and holds quite a bit of potential in this my highly educated and opinionated society. (As it might in yours.) One of my frustrations with the format of these blogs is that interesting discussions peter out after one day. This is one topic, for instance, that I'd be interested in continuing, as a conversation. I'm not sure if, by the standards evoked in your highly fascinating account of French aristocratic salons, real group conversations are ever held today. Perhaps they are at college seminars. All together, gatherings of motivated individuals to explore our minds and our humanity, to broaden our interactive skills and open our hearts would be more than a mere exercise of pleasures. I think of the unwieldy book clubs I've belonged to, inevitable devolving into gossip circles and food orgies. Absolutely no food, I'd say; wine, perhaps. It looses the tongue! Such an evening would certainly be best served by the firm hand by a prepared hostess. What about that preparation? Would there be time and aforethought expended on the part of guests? How would discussion be encouraged as distinct from polarizing debate, "protected from polemic and scandal"? How would the evening be framed to invitees? What would be the optimum number of guests? How long? What hours? Does this site have the potential for "conversation"? It lacks the immediacy of voice and tone, the intermediary gentility (or irascibility) of the personality, and the opportunity for a topic to be attentuated beyond perfunctory comments that sometimes ring (please accept my apologies and note my understanding of why) as merely congratulatory. (You deserve congratulations, bien sur.) You're right when you complain that we refrain from our complaints and opinions in these pages, and relegate them to private emails. A limiting factor, for me, is that I don't know who's in the room with me. And that matters. I don't feel safe. Not that there is any conventional electronic flaming going on here. But anonymous position-taking lacks the afore mentioned palliative tools of tone of voice, expression, and presumed good will. I wouldn't risk it here. What's the solution to that? Since we appear to be a small, and somewhat stable, group (with an obvious desire on your part to become broader and more numerous), what are the merits or demerits of making ourselves better known to one another? Who was it that volunteered at the Red Cross and experienced the chaos? Who is it that's moving to a more rural location? What do people do for a living? What are their ages and experiences? Do I already know these people? Do I get to be in the know as I suspect others in the community are? I'm intimidated by the anonymity. I'd be inspired to ask of my fellow post-ers their specific views or opinions, to exchange among them rather than merely in the same physical space. I can't resist the urge to become acquaintances, if not friends. Well, OK. Whose blog is this anyway? Who am I? Does anyone care? Is it possible, or even desirable, to get a real conversation started? If not, what, otherwise, is the point? RJ: lead the conversation, please.

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