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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 the skills that Mme Geoffrin had, and the ones that she didn't.

Mme Geoffrin, who followed the formula of the Marquise de Lambert's Tuesdays while replacing the hôtel de Nevers's ceremonious tone with Mme de Tencin's freer and more familiar one, did not herself participate in discussions. Lacking the culture of the one and the intellectual gifts of the other, she left the conversation to her guests and merely listened with an attentive ear even to arguments that she was not capable of understanding. Her main concern was not for entertainment but for the success of the enterprise, which had to be protected from polemic and scandal. For this reason she took care "to preside, supervise, and keep control over these two naturally free societies, to establish the limits to this freedom, and by a word or gesture rein them in as though by an invisible thread." ... According to the tradition of polite society, the hostess's taste defined her salon's cultural boundaries, but in the rue Saint-Honoré, the interests of the guests were paramount.

A third unappealing aspect of the book that Mr France's review had turned up was its accent on the seventeenth century. There are lots of things to like about the seventeenth century, but, as Ms Craveri points out, when it comes to the styles of this century and the following one, people come vastly to prefer one to the other. I've always preferred the style of the century of the Enlightenment to its predecessor, which seems heavy and bombastic to me in comparison. (I have compromised by settling for a "long" eighteenth century that runs from 1660 to 1789.) Ms Craveri states that unifying the research that has been done on her topic was a principal objective in writing The Age of Conversation, and, indeed, she demonstrates some outstandingly important continuities. I know this because the passage about Mme Geoffrin so caught my interest that I bought the book. Not the first time, but the next time I was in the museum. I had to work myself up to buy this one!

Long before the halfway point, I realized that I was reading the most important women's-studies book that I've ever come across. Not that I've read that many, and not that The Age of Conversation ought to be pigeonholed as "women's studies." But no book that I've seen has shown women as the inventors of so many social practices that we take for granted. Conversation itself was an invention of seventeenth century ladies; I'll explain in a minute how it differed from prior modes of verbal exchange. Polite letter-writing was invented by two hypochondriacal women who, as if to anticipate Proust, wrote to each other from beneath the same roof. The very idea that refined people without academic credentials might make valid arguments about public affairs was perhaps the most momentous invention of the salons. It was the fruit of a hard-won battle, withstanding attacks by scholars and by witty misogynists such as Voltaire and Boileau, and it led France straight to the revolution. By 1789, these inventions were no longer aristocratic property. The fact that so much had been changed by women, and that so many aspects of society were designed to please them, is the source of France's deeply undeserved reputation for effeminacy, but it is a legacy of the ladies who parade through the pages of The Age of Civilization.

How did this happen? In stages, to be sure. Arguments can be made that there were salons in the sixteenth century, and Ms Craveri discusses these in her extremely interesting Bibliographic Essay, itself an important contribution to the field. But the common view is that it was Cathérine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet who got things going when she rebuilt her town house, the principal feature of which was La chambre bleu - "the Blue Room." Sadly, no documentary evidence of the Blue Room's design has come down to us, but with its alcove and its brocade hangings, its cabinets of rare curiosities and its lovely garden views, it made quite an impression on contemporaries, and in the end the Blue Room may have become the lavish prototype of today's millions of lounges and living rooms. (Indeed, the disappearance of the living room from the American floor-plan marks the end of an upwardly mobile impulse ignited by Mme de Rambouillet.)

So much for the site, the locus amoenus, which was perceived, in the 1620s, as novel. Equally new was the desire to escape to a pretty room where social conduct was determined by good manners and sophisticated wordplay. To understand this, we have to step back a bit to consider what the seventeenth century would be all about for the French aristocracy. Not to be too brutal, it was nothing less than castration. The biggest problem in the development of every modern state before 1789 was the role of hereditary aristocracy. Nearly every country had such a class, but nowhere were the noblesse so powerful, individually and as a group, as they were in France at the end of the Religious Wars in 1598. The history behind this is complex, but the Bourbon kings and their ministers - particularly Cardinal Richelieu - realized that reducing the power of the nobility was essential to peace, union, and national wealth. Confrontation was indirect, but the aristocrats got the message. They were not going to help the crown run the kingdom - not by right, that is - and they were not going to be allowed to decide for themselves when to fight and whom to fight for. The nobility did not give up without a struggle. Many who quarreled with the overhaul of their class were executed, and the country itself nearly fell into anarchy during the two Frondes, or uprisings against the regency of Anne of Austria (in which she was aided by Cardinal Mazarin). Louis XIV never forgot anything, but he especially didn't forget the humiliations of the Fronde de la noblesse, headed for a time by the child-king's feckless uncle, Gaston d'Orléans. It was with aristocratic hot-tempered obstinacy in mind that Louis would build the world's most glamorous corral, the Château de Versailles.

The Frondes may be seen as hiccups following the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648. Richelieu and Mazarin had been successful in keeping that warfare off of French soil, but once the demobbed aristocrats had no external enemies to fight, they fell upon themselves and upon the crown. The Fronde de la noblesse petered out only because Gaston lost his nerve - and the respect of the military men who had fought for him. In any case, the military class had been at war for twenty years at least, but gained nothing for their class. Its more intelligent members, who could see what was coming, needed a refuge in which to forget their loss of power, or perhaps reformulate it. They needed a scene, away from the court, where they could demonstrate their superiority in some nonviolent way. Mme de Rambouillet, a marquise very much aware of her position in the world, condescended to open her Blue Room to a few select persons of the first quality for a few hours of such pleasure.

It must be understood that seventeenth-century aristocrats understood freedom very differently from today's Americans. They would not have considered the wearing of comfortable clothes a demonstration of freedom, but simply one of poverty. Nor would they have regarded loose rambling to signify freedom, but only stupidity. The freedom that they wanted was the freedom to shine, without exciting the anxiety of the crown. For these men of the sword, and the women who married them, freedom and inactivity were completely incompatible.

In their elaborate clothes, speaking their perfect French and being witty about it, too - quick with rhymes and epigrams, showing at every turn that they knew everything that was going on in their world (which they called le grand monde, the only world that counted) - the habitués of the Blue Room would not be said by us to have taken it easy, but then we forget the alternative. The alternative was the court, an institution that, while more or less ramshackle at this period in French history, was nonetheless deadened by ritual and protocol. At court, you took your place. You did not speak until spoken to, and you did not introduce topics (as, indeed, is still the rule for conversing with HM the Queen). Court life could be so dull as to make live burial only slightly less preferable. Making it even duller was the severe cutback of intrigue. Louis XIII and his widow put their faith in the Cardinals, and would not listen to alternatives. Whatever other consequences this might have for France (many of them momentous), it meant that aristocrats had no interest in hanging around the Louvre petitioning for favors. They went straight to the Cardinal if they were smart, and they probably knew what the answer was going to be before they crossed the colonnade of the Palais Cardinal (today's Palais Royal). Besides, of all the hunting-mad Bourbons, only Louis XIV would prove to have any taste for court life. If nothing else, intelligent, sensible aristocrats needed somewhere else to go, and if they were lucky they were on Mme de Rambouillet's list.

Conversation signifies an exchange of (hopefully) interesting remarks in which the participants are not privileged on any grounds other than their ability to converse. Mme de Rambouillet abolished privilege to the extent that she made her clever, well-born friends park theirs at the door. Once you were inside the Blue Room, you were Good Enough. You were good enough to be there, and now you must show yourself to be a little better. Conversation began as a game, a volley of "natural" (but really rather high-flown) sentences in which certain topics were taboo. One did not speak of oneself. One did not ask personal questions, or allude to anything that might embarrass others. Certainly the most forbidden of forbidden topic was what we call romantic or erotic love. This is not to say that the members of Mme de Rambouillet's circle led chaste lives, although many did. It simply means that the Blue Room was off limits to any flirtations that might lead to the removal of garments. The one thing to bear in mind about conversation is that it was impossible at court, where the precedence of birth counted for more than intelligence. It is also out of bounds in most traditional societies. Unsophisticated men everywhere mock it and complain about it, seeing only the idleness that, paradoxically, makes conversation useful, if not to human purpose, than to the human spirit.

It is hard, even from Ms Craveri's close examination of the records, to conjure an image of Blue Room fun. It could be somewhat coarse; the taste for practical jokes seems to have been widespread among the upper class. One of the strangest notes sounded throughout The Age of Conversation is the incessant laughter of women. It is hard to know how to interpret this, but I'm disinclined to take it as proof of silliness. From beginning to end, from Mme de Rambouillet to Mme du Deffand, Ms Craveri traces a streak of dark pessimism among her ladies, and it may be that laughter was scarecrow for despair. Also, when conjuring these blessed hours, we mustn't think that traditional aristocratic entertainments were disdained. Theatricals were always in the works, and dancing was hardly unknown. But wordplay was clearly the principal novelty. And to keep this aspect of the proceedings at the highest pitch, Mme de Rambouillet enlisted a stringer.

Vincent Voiture was the son of a wine merchant. He was not any kind of noble. But he was educated, and he had the wherewithal to devote his hours to verse. Almost nothing that he wrote is worth reading today; it was always meant to be utterly contingent on a particular moment. He was introduced to Mme de Rambouillet in 1625, at a reception for the Duke of Buckingham - an affair so grand that his unimportance would not strike an audible note. He was found pleasing, and in time he became an indispensable votary of the Blue Room. It would be wrong to think of him as a "professional" writer; there was as yet no profession of writers. And it would be wrong to think that he knew more about rhetoric than any of the noblesse. But it was his role not to be free, or at least quite so free as the others. He was seen as something of a latter-day court jester. "Once again," Ms Craveri writes,

Voiture seems to symbolize the future. With him, the writer made his entry on the social scene and became an integral part of it, while retaining a strong element of ambiguity. Sough after, spoiled, argued with, the "intellectual" was treated by the nobility both as an equal and as a very different being. Equal in the salon's utopian surroundings, he could not but hold an inferior position in the general context of a hierarchical society based on birth and wealth. Years later, not even the enormous prestige of men of letters in the Age of Enlightenment could entirely eradicate the social differences.

The ambiguity of the commoner in the salon, like the ambiguity of aristocratic privilege itself, would make the salon a force for social instability. On the eve of the Revolution, when Paris was littered with bright salons, whose hostesses often possessed veto power over the nomination of ambassadors and ministers, the entire country was quaking.

I have written at length about Mme de Rambouillet partly because her Blue Room was so different from what the salon would become in the following century, when a bourgeoise such as Mme Geoffrin, without any education to speak of, could host one of the most important assemblies of the day for forty years, on the strength of personal charm and discernment. In the eighteenth century, the conversation at the leading salons would grow more serious and insistent (if never less polished) than Mme de Rambouillet would have conceived or allowed. Her plaything became a school for the nation, such that, by the last days of the ancien régime, it was everywhere conceded that France was the school for gentlemen, and every educated Frenchman was expected to be a gentleman. What began as an ultra-exclusive resort became the stamp of national character.

I will conclude by suggesting that there was one person who more than anyone else guaranteed the robust growth and wide extent of the salon in the eighteenth century. That person was not a woman, but none other than Louis XIV himself.

Because I didn't know anything about the Blue Room until Ms Craveri taught me, I never appreciated Louis's cleverness in appropriating all the attractions of the salon in his successful attempt to lure leading aristocrats away from Paris - and their independent salons - and off to Versailles. While he was still young, he staged festivals, called Plaisirs de Versailles, that were the most talked-about events of the day. (To get a good idea of the inspiration for these productions, you could do worse than to watch Roland Joffé's film, Vatel). Louis himself practiced all of the polite virtues of the salon; one might almost say that he ruled by politeness. In the 1660s, Versailles was an escape; nobody foresaw that in 1682 the king would move his court there permanently, thereafter to avoid Paris like the plague. Thereafter to pitch the aristocracy right back into the dullness of court life under Louis XIII. The new dullness was brilliant, and as energetic as the Blue Room, but it was a routine, and there was only one star. Conversation came to a stop at Versailles.

So, when the old king died in 1715, and his heir's regent took the court back to Paris, new salons sprouted like mushrooms after rain. When the court returned to Versailles within ten years, after the scandalous collapse of John Law's bank, Paris went on being Paris, only moreso. For over forty years, Versailles had been the genuine capital of France. From now on, it would only hold that title nominally. Until reading The Age of Conversation, I had always wondered just why Louis XV and Louis XVI failed to fill their ancestor's footsteps. Were they weak and stupid? Not exceptionally. Now I think I know what it was that they missed. They lacked the Sun King's genius for shining in a salon, together with his eagerness to do so. They were out of step with their own country in ways that had nothing to do with their isolation at Versailles.

By attending to Louis XIV, I have gotten away somewhat from the preeminence of women in this history, but women are on every page of The Age of Civilization, and I don't see the need to spoil the surprise of meeting them. My very hearty recommendation of this book is tempered only by the infelicity of the translation. In two places, I caught Ms Waugh in utterly tone-deaf transliterations of the original. One of them was Oscar Wilde's line about hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue: to bring this epigram back into English by replacing "tribute" with "obeisance" is almost other-worldly. For the most part, however, the difficulty is one of recomposing Italian ideas and perspectives for an Anglophone readership. There were numerous passages in which sense seemed about to give way to contradiction. There is perhaps no way in which that problem of rendering a worldly professor's vantage in a very different language could have been solved. I hope that an ambitious English-speaking scholar will take on this material from a more familiar point of view. But Benedetta Craveri's book will probably still be vital reading even afterward. (September 2005)

Benedetta Craveri: The Age of Conversation (2001; New York Review Books, 2005; translated by Teresa Waugh). The book was originally published by Adelphi Edizioni in 2001. Interestingly, Ms Craveri is the wife of a French diplomat, Benôit d'Aboville, to whom she has dedicated this book. M d'Aboville, as an énarque, is doubly aristocratic. I'm advised that Ms Craveri is also the grand-niece of the philosopher Benedetto Croce. That's a lot of eggs benedict!

Peter France's review appeared in the June 23, 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books.


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