I was rereading Benedetta Craveri‘s biography, Madame du Deffand and her World, and when I hit the chapter about her St. Joseph’s convent salon, the parallels between the eighteenth century French salons and the evolving blogosphere gave me this mental image of one of those rooms where mirrors on opposite walls stretch out into a kind of curved infinity.
Look at this:
When the Grande Conde’s grand-daughter asked to be admitted to the Tuesday suppers given in Paris by the Marquise de Lambert, it was with an exaggerated humility which amounted to no more than a sovereign’s coquetry. It indicated that she recognized the strength of a new reality: the literary salon.
Substitute ‘invited to blog’ for ‘invitation to Tuesday suppers,’ read ‘Gosh, you really want little me?’ for the bit about royal coquetry, and see if it sounds familiar.
Hindsight makes it clear that salons were inevitable, given the human desire to gather in groups, whether around the communal fire, or at the local tea shop, pub, bath house, or wherever else people foregather. Just like it takes three ingredients to light a fire, there were three ingredients here: the rise of literacy, a boring king, and a remarkable woman.
French women who had the luxury of leisure time, and who could afford tutors and book and paper with which to write to other women, proliferated as print made books more accessible. In the early 1600s, Louis XIII became king.
As always, court centered around the king, but a teenage bride, Madame Rambouillet, sought to fill in the time between duty visits to a monarch whose social skills are best described as dorky, by inviting like-minded friends to discuss literature and the affairs of the day in the gorgeous Paris home her doting husband gave her. Oh! The chance to talk about something other than the king and his one or two interests!
The salon was such a success that Madame couldn’t resist formulating rules to make it more select and elegant, often to an extreme that was soon lampooned by the rival salons that sprang up, such as the rule against ‘common’ language. One could not arrive, shake out one’s umbrella, and remark on how it was raining; one must express oneself in poetic metaphor (“The celestial tears embrace the blossoms, drenching them with renew’d hue”) with extra points for classical reference, the more obscure the better.
Young Louis, the Sun King
A generation later, Louix XIV wrested attention right back to the royal person when he built Versailles, the ultimate in salons, and presided with all his wit, good looks, and charisma, augmented by a succession of bright, elegant mistresses.
But after his death, the salons began proliferating again, the earliest and most brilliant centered around his nephew, the Duke of Orleans, at his estate called Sceaux.
There, led by the duke, who liked his pleasures, excess became more popular than wit, until, as Craveri notes:
An entirely new social code replaced the etiquette which ruled Sceaux and other princely palaces and which subordinated the crowd of guests to the whim and glory of their royal hosts. The salon was devoted not to worldly power, but to communication.
In other words, gone for good were the days when court centered exclusively on standing around in your best clothes to watch the king eat, in hopes of being tossed the metaphorical scraps of royal favors, or being distinguished before the eyes of your rival courtiers by being invited to sit on a stool.
As Regent for the young king, the Duke of Orleans did not have the charisma to pull off being a central figure of focus. His draw was providing a beautiful atmosphere and sumptuous repasts, so that the wits of the day could duel with words, watched by an appreciative audience.
What were the favorite subject of salons? Just like the blogosphere—literature and philosophy, government and music, poetry and world travel, food and fashion, but above all . . .
In the 1600s, this daring, endlessly fascinating subject was called portraits. Not painted portraits, though of course everyone who was anyone must pose for those to be handed down to posterity.
Madame Sevigny, justly famed for her letters, was an expert at written and verbal portraits, and her cousin, le comte de Bussy-Rabutin, ended up clapped in the Bastille for a year and exiled to his exquisite chateau for decades as a result of practicing his rapier wit on the king’s penchant for ladies other than the unprepossessing queen. (Lesson: you could be witty at one another’s expense, all was fair game, but you Do Not Mess With The King.)
The most popular portraits were of the highest nobles and leaders of society, displaying that delicious tension between the evolving sense of privacy and the dangers of exposure: in other words, the subTweet, or blog post with the name scrambled to fool a direct search, but those in the know recognize the target.
As Louis XIV and Bussy-Rabutin demonstrated, no one was too high to be swatted down, but that made the oblique wit just that much more irresistible, especially in portraits that revealed secrets. Everyone wanted to be portrayed—to be thought interesting, to be “in”—though no one wanted the humiliation of exposure.
Just like in the blogosphere, while everyone loves discovering a post has become popular, there is no guarantee whatever that one’s fame won’t become overnight become infamy.
So people would try to build alliances, and fame, by praise of one another. “She is as beautiful as an angel, and her taste is exquisite.” “I am known for my discernment, so you may be certain I will give my exact opinion . . .” All that mutual squee (usually in well-worn phrases) was recognized at the time as efforts to please, or win attention by praising one another in a public place.
Some went to the salons merely to be seen hobnobbing with the pretty people. Some went to be heard. Some thought their words were valued when they were secretly mocked at other salons (usually the fellow who might have one or two witty observations, but couldn’t resist burying them in twenty minutes of self-serving rodomontade, or who insists on repeating them at every gathering)—others’ words were adopted and used in lesser salons, to great applause, sometimes delivered as original material . . . though to be caught at plagiarizing was to be mocked.
The earnest literary discussion going on in one room spun off into an intense exchange between three or four dueling wits in the alcove, heard by half a dozen, but then endlessly talked about over the next month, so that a hundred, five hundred, people knew enough of what had been said and by whom to try to intimate to their auditors out in the country that they had been in the alcove that night.
Meanwhile, the original subject spun out in threads of their own, sometimes gaining so much notice that the original subject was forgotten. Or, as we say today, went viral. Often with a twist that had little to do with the original exchange.
The hostess did not always know who was there on any given evening, or how long they stayed. Nor did she know what was reported later—and to whom. But one thing for certain: if it was interesting enough, more people came to her rooms—to listen, to talk, to be seen.
And so the women who hosted these salons had no governmental power whatsoever, but they wielded mighty cultural and social power.
The intellectuals used the salons to communicate their ideas; for society they provided conversation. In a country where the press is controlled but where freedom of speech is more or less absolute, the intellectuals need society to disseminate their ideas, to support their writings, to mediate with the authorities, to sound and guide public opinion . . .
The hotlink, Twitter, and the Google Alert, have replaced the flunkeys that powerful people (whether governmental, social, or both) of the eighteenth century could afford to send to various minor salons basically to listen for mentions of their names, or of other words indicative of sensitive affairs being aired.
In the blogosphere, there is a parallel with the danger of discussing governmental secrets in a social setting: the tension between what one can talk about in one’s blog, when, and the workplace seems to be escalating: more bosses appear to be noticing what’s said, who’s saying it, and how much of company time is being used to do it?
Salons were the mainstay of cultural life in the eighteenth century but it is hard to make a coherent plan of them. The result would produce some sort of peculiar family tree whereby different autonomous groups came together and dissolved at different moments . . .
Between each of these groups or families there might be sympathy, hatred, rivalry or collaboration, or one might be the heir to another, but none could count on the exclusivity of their members who, for the most part, circulated freely between them.
Wow. No matter how high tech we get, there are some things that just don’t seem to change.