Salons and Beyond

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Photo by Flickr/Michael Coughlan
These days, our large-scale institutions don't seem to be doing famously well at educating, legislating, healing, employing, producing, governing, or even entertaining, so the ardor for meaningful conversation remains unquenched and is worth fanning.

Editor’s note: In the early 1990s, Utne Reader was one of the primary figures in the resurgence of salons—intimate gatherings for face-to-face conversation and idea exchange. The following article from the March/April 1991 issue was and still is an excellent primer to salons for the uninitiated, and is being excerpted here to help spark another salon resurgence. For information on how you can start or join a salon, visit Utne Reader’s Guide to Salons.

It was really a salon that my friend Joan and I attended at the Neahtawanta Inn near Traverse City, Michigan, the night after Thanksgiving, although in these parts they tend to be called potlucks. Joan was up visiting from Washington, D.C., taking a break from prosecuting drug fiends. Our hosts, Sally and Bob, are longtime ecology and peace activists and organizers. Sally teaches yoga, also sometimes works in classrooms with developmentally disabled kids. Bob was once a high school science teacher and ran a small screen printing business for a while. As a citizen activist he now teaches science to his county commissioners, constantly nudging local public policy toward sustainability. Jeff, who manages a local computer store, and his wife Lee, a teacher, were part of the group around the two tables.

Three other couples rounded out the party. As we enjoyed the heaps of good food we all had brought, our conversation was general, a mix of news and opinion, giggles and commiseration. When it came to national politics, our repartee, it must be admitted, was a little cynical, but it all strengthened our local sense of community and improved our knowledge of one another. It was fun and—even better—it was nourishing to be talking about the things that matter, seeing old and new friends at particular moments in their lives.  We were mutually interested and caring in appropriate degree, fostering our little subculture’s vision of peace and sustainability.

Could an evening like that change the world? Not all by itself, certainly, but a thousand widely scattered variations on it would be a respectable beginning. Small groups have always been the locus of change. What they do, in a sometimes offhand way, is constellate new cultural forms and give birth to the unexpected. Sometimes the talk is the thing, sometimes the feeling. When we risk talking about something we really care about it’s infectious. Like any good infection, such talk can produce heat, a fever of intellectual excitement. People seem to enjoy participation in a group that’s known to be making a creative contribution. Word gets around and Hey! Presto! You are hip for real.

Hankering to be hip has long been a basic incentive to salon participation. However frivolous the glitter of wit, it holds an undying fascination, as evidenced by the enshrinement of the Algonquin Round Table. One of America’s most famous salons, it was a brilliant, boozy writers’ luncheon of the 1920s. Convened daily at the cozily handsome Algonquin Hotel, just across the street from the offices of The New Yorker, the Round Table was a salad-days confab for the likes of Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, George S. Kaufman, Franklin Pierce Adams, Ring Lardner, and many of Broadway’s leading lights. It was their conversational playground before they and it became legendary, which is probably why they felt free enough to be so witty.

For most of human history it’s been like this, people banding together in little social units, larger than the family, smaller than the tribe. In earlier times, the nature and propriety of every form of relationship were well understood. People knew how to be together in groups like lungs knew how to breathe. Indeed, some hold that the Neolithic era marked a high point in the development of human culture, that cavewomen and cavemen were riffing around their campfires, sharing tales of children’s antics, and gathering expeditions in the bush in new songs that took shape over needles and sinew.

Ever since the Renaissance, salons have been under the aegis of women, if not their exclusive domain. Women set the tone, perhaps of a basic receptivity; they established an attitude of listening and responding that evoked significant conversation. The salons of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and modern eras were hothouses of intellectual activity, where the most brilliant authors and philosophers would gather to present their latest poem or chapter, to meet patrons and other influential folk, and just to do some freestyle scintillation. Given the evanescence of conversation, all of this activity has never been, strictly speaking, productive. Nevertheless—or perhaps as a result—salons have been enormously influential. William Doyle writes in his Origins of the French Revolution, “The aristocratic ladies of the salons were the midwives of the Enlightenment.”

In the Enlightenment heyday of the salons, their habitués were dismissed as precieuses, but the term stuck, and lost its derisive edge. And some might allow that the benefits of these salons—liberty, equality and fraternity—were precious, indeed.

Today, to be a precieuse requires that one’s basic needs are well-enough met to permit a life of the mind. Your average urban doer may feel busy beyond belief, and hardly leisured, but white collar work is not quite the same existence as falling into bed exhausted after a day of slinging hash or hauling concrete blocks.

Perhaps salons in the classic sense, which meet regularly and have a consistent core group, must be primarily urban affairs. While not requiring a whole Paris, there must be a sufficiently large concentration of people for there to be an intelligentsia from which to draw participants.

The word salon is French for drawing room, and a place to hold a salon is indeed essential. That, plus a willingness and ability to commit the time, are really the only external conditions to be met.

Many of the most brilliant salons of the past—Mlle. de Scudery’s “Saturdays of Sappho” and Julie de Lespinasse’s 17th-century Parisian gatherings, for example—were run on a shoestring. Devotees of Rahel Varnhagen’s early Romantic Berlin salon eagerly assorted themselves around her attic for the lavish pleasures of the hostess’ intelligence and of the gatherings themselves.

In descriptions of great salonieres, one reads of their social prowess, charm, wit, and force of personality. Clearly, the ability to orchestrate a great salon is as distinctive a human gift as perfect pitch. Hosting a salon takes finesse, intelligence, and respect. It’s a dynamic art of composition.

Mabel Dodge, whose early 20th-century salon in Greenwich Village—despite the brevity of its existence—reverberates through American culture, was a master of the art. Dodge, an heiress, was not much of a conversationalist herself, but, writes Robert Rosenstone, she possessed “a rare faculty for attracting people and making them wish to speak from the heart.” The likes of journalist John Reed, union leader Big Bill Haywood, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and celebrated muckraker Lincoln Steffens discovered themselves to be “a subculture suddenly making connections between disparate schools of thought, social doctrines, and movements in the arts” in her salons.

So there’s a sense in which a salon is an instrument, a little like a symphony orchestra. Madame de Staël, history’s most famous saloniere, played tunes that France danced to into the Napoleanic era and beyond. Salons can also serve as cauldrons, concocting the substance of new culture.

These days, our large-scale institutions don’t seem to be doing famously well at educating, legislating, healing, employing, producing, governing, or even entertaining, so the ardor for meaningful conversation remains unquenched and is worth fanning.

Certainly there’s good thinking going on everywhere. But thought can easily get trapped in its particular realm. Community leaders and local organizers need theoretical expertise. Visionaries need to confront the discipline that implementation demands. The dreamers, the leaders, and the theoreticians may be members of separate circles that need to intersect to be useful to society as a whole. So we need to become acquainted, to share information, to develop trust in one another, and to challenge, correct, and synthesize. The tradition and courtesy of the salon afford a setting in which all that can happen. A salon is a thought-traders’ rendezvous.

Stephanie Mills is the author ofWhatever Happened to Ecology(Sierra Club Books, 1989), and the editor of In Praise of Nature (Island Press, 1990).

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