November 13, 2007

The Salon

Jesse Browner has written a fascinating article in Bookforum tracing the social origins of the salon in early seventeenth century France. A Salon was the indispensible forum for the French Enlightenment- authors like Rousseau owed their importance in part to the charm they exercised in a salon. Browner shows that the earliest salon was that linked to Catharine de Vivonne, a leading aristocrat in early seventeenth century France and patron of arts. Catharine de Vivonne withdrew from the court early on in her life, setting up an aesthetical court nearby to which she attracted writers, artists, noblemen and wits. Her influence grew and even notables like the Prince de Conde, a plausible contender for the French throne in the mid century, went to her to pay her court. In doing so they entered a realm in which wit was the only passport, commoners and women found themselves treated equally at the table so long as they were entertaining conversationalists.

Browner links this phenomena to the rise of the epistolary novel- something that he is surely right to do. He should though link it to a greater extent to the rise of French philosophy- from Pascal to Voltaire, French philosophers relied on the salon for finding patrons and evaluating rivals. Furthermore Browner is too literary in his dating of the Salon's ending. He finds its end in a satire written by Moliere in 1658 which mocks the pretensions of the aristocratic patrons and their literary clients. Moliere's satire may well be devestating but the salon outlasted it- surviving right into the eighteenth century and becoming like the English coffee house a model which spread across Europe. Tolstoy mocks the artificiality of the salon in War and Peace, where Pierre is seduced by the beautiful Helene in the superficial surroundings of the Salon. The Salon like Helene is we are allowed to infer superficial and rests upon the pretence of civilisation and not its reality.

The Salon therefore survived, despite attacks on it right up until the nineteenth century. It survived as a locus of aristocratic female patronage of the arts, particularly in France and those places which emulated the French model of enlightenment. Consequently it gave birth to an ideal of female intellectual engagement and conversation that was one of the motors behind the enlightenment and the emancipation of women. Madame de Stael, the formidable patroness and thinker, would have been impossible without the Salon's creation. It was accused of fostering a society that had left behind martial virtue for female wiles, but its historical consequences were much less obvious than its opponents suspected. Martial virtue, for all the jeremaids of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has not evaporated and indeed coping with its excesses seems to be one of the major tasks of our own time. The Salon though aided the cultivation of an intellectual revival which is one of our main tools to resist chaos and disorder, it also strengthened the position of women within aristocratic society, something that may have contributed to the great acheivement in the West of this century, the emancipation of half the human population.

The article, with which we started is worth reading, there are further implications to be drawn as I suggest about the Salon form, but its interesting to discuss the seed from which so much art and thought grew.