The History and Meaning of Salons
....Benet Davetian

Why Bother Talking With One Another?

We are perhaps one of the most informed civilizations in history. It is a wonder that our minds and nervous systems have managed to handle all the information coming at us from a myriad of sources. The invention of trains, airplanes, radios, telephones, televisions, computers, and the internet have literally transformed the meaning of being 'in tune with the times.'

Yet, this feast of 'facts' and 'data' has exacted its toll. While it has increased our mobility, personal autonomy and privacy, it has greatly diminished our sense of community and the means available to us for 'making sense' of our world with the help of similarly-interested individuals. More importantly, it has tarnished our ability to appreciate inspiring conversation for its own sake. Pressured by a scarcity of time, the need to continually update skills, and a life very often overpopulated by hundreds of 'convenience' and 'entertainment' products, we find ourselves evaluating human relations based on 'bottom-line' goals. Will this meeting with so-and-so be 'useful'? Will we arrive at a 'conclusion' if we talk things over...If not, then why bother? What are the 'opportunity costs' of conversing just for the sake of it?

Human relations, however, cannot be measured at every turn by whether they will lead somewhere or not. Every individual needs to feel that he or she is connected to a living community in which he or she is permitted to enjoy relationships and ideas for their own sake. Achieving this freedom seems to be the major challenge facing those of us who are living in high-tech, super-rushed cultures where a few past generations have traded communal solidarity and patient civil interactions for efficiency and professional acuity.

Ideas, however---and the heart to put them into practice---require more than rational calculation if they are to flourish. They need people willing to appreciate the interdependent connections between creative thinking, interpersonal sharing, and mutual action-support networks. Salons and discussions groups provide the means for the recreation and preservation of these precious forgotten social tools and privileges. They provide us with the opportunity of gathering with others and breaking the chains of isolation that keep us in our heads; they lead us out out into the heart of the human community. So, a conversation salon needs not be a place for ideological lobbying. Nor need it be a place where social action is planned and carried out with bureaucratic efficiency. It serves its purpose magnificently if it succeeds in inspiring people to use their minds and hearts at their maximum capacity and come to appreciate the personalities and contributions of others even if they differ from their own. True conversation occurs when we feel at ease expressing our ideas and sentiments, while remaining free to modify them based on what we learn from others sharing our space and experience. Winning the debate is not the purpose of good conversation. Winning back our ability to talk with one another (as opposed to talking 'at' one another) is the ultimate and most precious goal of a salon.

It is in such environments that great ideas are born...and where people find the energy to have a positive influence on the world. The salon gathering not only satisfies our need for collective effervescence, but also our need to live our individual lives with the certainty that we are visible to others and supported by them.

It does not take millions of people to change social reality. Salons of previous eras have shown that it takes only a handful of creative and concerned individuals to trigger large scale positive change. Many of the ideas of great thinkers and doers in previous eras were born in gatherings where others were willing to listen to them and provide sincere feedback. The contemporary salon offers similar opportunities. It facilitates our desire to heal the rifts that have been the unintended consequences of an overly-rationalized, bottom-line culture.

Conversation salons are perhaps the new venues for a new cultural revolution: the revolution of rebuilding and revitalizing communities and their creative energies. If the numbers of recently-formed salons, local discussion groups, and internet virtual salons are any indication, we may be witnessing a seminal event in contemporary history: the revival of the ability to talk with others and relate with them for the simple pleasure of doing so. And also for the pleasure of contributing to human progress.

Salons: From Ancient Greece to Our Own Era

Since the beginning of recorded history members of a community have gotten together to discuss the survival and progress of their community as well as the progress of their individual members. The tribal councils, the town hall meetings of early settlers and Church gatherings were all designed to give citizens a voice in their communities.

The symposia of Ancient Greece, held in the homes of Athenians, were designed to bring together friends and strangers in an egalitarian environment designed to keep the influential and not-so-influential in touch with one another. These gatherings were held in rooms (androns) specially reserved for conversation and feasts. Artists, dancers, poets, philosophers, musicians, and historians regularly mingled with one another at these functions.

The Roman banquets were an offshoot of the original Greek symposia. Those held outside the auspices of the Emperor served to provide an egalitarian forum for the sharing of ideas and political views. Many of the gatherings purposefully brought together the elites as well as the commoners. This custom of providing people of different social classes with the opportunity of encountering each other in a politically safe environment continued into the Renaissance in Italy where salons became important centers of artistic, political, and philosophical innovation. In Italy, the publication of Baldasare Castiglione's seminal work on ideal conversation (Il Cortegiano – The Courtier) helped spark a continental interest in salons and provided universal guidelines for gatherings populated by people of various persuasions.

The French Revolution might have happened far later than it actually did were it not for the French salons. As early as the 1600's, middle and lower-ranking members of the nobility were holding intellectual gatherings far away from the stifling protocols of the central court. As the central court began promoting its own very exclusive salons, alternative salons became hosted by members of the rising bourgeoisie. What was originally the sole privilege of aristocrats became appropriated by all classes, including the lower classes who held their conversations in cafés. Moreover, since the court was increasingly being frequented by the bourgeoisie, Versailles could no longer be considered the home of the elite. The etiquette writer, Le Chevalier Méré, advised his readers to evade circles at court and expand their intellectual horizons by seeking civil company in other quarters such as the emerging intellectual salons where there was freedom from the oppressive ceremonials of court. By the end of the seventeenth century commoners were being admitted into the choice salons provided they possessed a worldly wit. By setting themselves off from Versailles and its political rituals, these salons acquired a particular prestige and influence, thereby managing to outlast the reign of Louis XVI and becoming the new centers of French social and political thought.

Two rules helped guide behavior in the earlier salons: 1) Participants were to consider themselves equal to one another. This was a considerable departure from the competitive hierarchical social relations at Versailles; 2) Rather than competing amongst themselves, participants recognized their superiority over the general population by demonstrating utmost refinement (raffinement) in conversations and avoiding all distasteful confrontations. The hostesses of these salons were charged with moderating the conversations and ensuring that the cohesion of the group was never seriously threatened. Needless to say, a good wit was highly valued during salon interactions, for it helped make controversial points while avoiding outright conflict Such civility standards reminded participants that they were expected to be refined enough not to need to resort to ostentatious or abrasive exhibitions of rank and artifice. The restraint imposed on vanity through such discernment had the salutary effect of stimulating discussions on a variety of intellectual and political topics that went beyond the self-serving issues preoccupying the courtiers at Versailles.

These conversation salons were, therefore, extremely effective means for mythologizing and strengthening the ideal of noble behavior within a rapidly industrializing world. Erving Goffman has explained that when the purpose of socializing becomes talk for its own sake, a boundary is automatically created between the talkers and the world, providing the conversants with the opportunity of developing ideas and values that increase their sense of identity. Goffman also assigns an 'euphoric' function to such conversational groups. At some point, the care taken by each member of the group not to threaten the sense of ease of other members creates moments of harmonic euphoria that confirm and solidify the identity of the group and its members. So, although conversations can be open-ended and avoid closure, these conversations satisfy due to the fact that they are providing relief from utilitarian and restrictive standards. In fact, a phrase very current in mid-17th century France was 'je ne sais quoi.' It expressed so perfectly the goals of an aristocratic elite determined to find some refined sentiment and superior worth that went beyond words and the bourgeois pragmatism of net monetary worth. Je ne sais quoi represented the exquisite feeling that arose when people in conversation suddenly found themselves in inexplicable sympathy and identification with one another….and quite pleased with the distinguished social circle that made such communion possible.

Although the salons of the 17th century continued to affirm the legitimacy of a monarchy and protected the privilege and status of aristocratic titles, their inclusion of members of the bourgeoisie and writers and philosophers eventually transformed them into centers for emerging radical Enlightenment thought. Furet notes how the prevailing political and social climate of the time helped these salons establish a certain standard of civilité that was capable of crossing class boundaries:
"The nobles of both Versailles and the capital read the same books as the cultured bourgeoisie, discussed Descartes and Newton, wept over the misfortunes of Prévost's Manon Lescaut, enjoyed Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques, d'Alembert's Encyclopédie or Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloise. The monarchy, the orders, the guilds, had separated the elites by isolating them in rival strongholds. In contrast, ideas gave them a meeting-point, with special privileged place: the salons, academies, Freemason's lodges, societies, cafés and theaters had woven an enlightened community with combined breeding, wealth and talent, and whose kings were the writers. An unstable and seductive combination of intelligence and rank, wit and snobbery, this world was capable of criticizing everything, including and not least itself; it was unwittingly presiding over a tremendous reshaping of ideas and values (1988: 14)."

Many of the intellectual salons were eventually held in the homes of successful bourgeois families; intellectuals circulated, without much unease, between noble and bourgeois gatherings. The salons of Mme. Geoffrin, Mlle Lespinasse and Mme. Necker were successful precisely because of their relative informality and a refreshing air of candor. Moreover, the absence of a presiding noble at these bourgeois salons gave more status to the intellectuals. This suited many of them who had suffered slights in the salons of the nobility where they had to defer to the social distinction of their hosts prior to being recognized for their own ideas and achievements.

It was in these bourgeois salons where irritation with the priesthood was most evident. L'incrédulité (skepticism) was part and parcel of new intellectual discussions that attempted to create a revitalized French culture not dependent on clerical guidance. It was, in any event, unavoidable that the task of explaining social life was transferred from the clerics to the philosophes. This rise in 'popular philosophy' accorded with the accelerating spirit of revolution and the new rational values of the bourgeoisie. Popular philosophy could be modified to serve the needs of the moment...religious scripture could not. Popular philosophy gave France a tool for promoting a conversational ethic that was both courteous as well as self-affirmative and not at all embarrassed with receiving or offering passionate opinion.

Catherine de Rambouillet's Paris salon became the standard for seventeenth century Europe. Referred to as the 'sanctuary of the Temple of Athena,' Madame de Rambouillet's salon was an egalitarian gathering where anyone possessing good manners, sincere and passionate ideas, and a love of good conversation was welcome. The hostess set strict standards of courtesy for her gatherings. Guests were expected to behave with one another with faultless courtesy and studied unpretentiousness. She is purported to have said that the last thing a person should do is make another feel that their ideas or talents have no worth. This standard of civility was taken up by other salon hosts such as Mme. Geoffrin and Madeleine de Scudéry who became so-respected as to earn the nickname of 'the Illustrious Sappho.' De Scudéry played a seminal role in advancing women's education and encouraging women to be well-read and conversant with politics and philosophy. She believed that if women could attend salons and be respected as valuable contributors to salon life then they could very well take on positions in public life.

By the eighteenth century, there were numerous salons hosted by women of various classes. The salons now acted as places where radical theories and political rumors could be discussed. A handful of salons acquired the power to make or break political careers. For this reason, many of the etiquette book writers began advising men to cultivate friendships with the hostesses of salons, for they could be more powerful allies than the officials at the Versailles court.

The French salons played a major role in giving voice to the rationalist and humanist onslaught of the Enlightenment philosophes. Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean le Rond D'alembert, Denis Diderot, and countless other original thinkers found sanctuary and support in the salons. When a thinker was persecuted or imprisoned, the salons continued acting on his or her behalf and disseminating their ideas. Salon hostesses, Madame Geoffrin, Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle Julie de Lespinasse, although they came from different social classes, were powerful participants in the rising revolutionary fervor. As the revolution approached in the late 1700's, many of the salon keepers risked persecution and imprisonment during the court's last stand against the forces of change. Madame Suzanne Necker, and her daughter, Germaine de Stael (who eventually had to go into exile to save her life), were heroic leaders who supported the mounting opposition to the absolutist monarchy. De Stael continued speaking out against authoritarianism during the strong reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French salon tradition spread to the rest of Europe. In England, Elizabeth Montague formed what came to be known as 'The Blue Stockings Club.' Although the ladies who formed this circle were more conservative than their French counterparts, they insisted that all guests of their salon be courteous, well-dressed and ready to engage in the most serious discussions of literature and art. The Duke of Wellington was refused entry on one occasion because the color of his stockings were unacceptable to the hostesses.

By the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century conversation groups and discussion circles had formed in many cities in Europe, including Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague and Madrid. Many of these circles, such as Madrid's La Tertulia del Café de Pombo, gathered around novelists, poets and essayists, giving writers a powerful voice for resisting fascism and authoritarianism.

Into the twentieth century, salons became a regular part of the American cultural landscape. Following the example set by the American expatriate Gertrude Stein in her Paris gatherings, many Americans began hosting discussion groups. The salons of Mabel Dodge and the legendary Algonquin Round Table continue to inspire contemporary North American discussion groups.

More recently, in the wake of the cultural transformations of the 1960's, salons and discussion groups have become powerful venues for discussion, social change and personal transformation and growth. A few years ago when the editors of the Utne Reader suggested that readers form salons, 13,000 people heeded their advice. Conversations salons represent a contemporary movement to recreate communal relationships in inspiring settings. By all counts the movement seems to be succeeding.