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Serious People And Serious Places: The Enlightenment Salons And Salonnières Of Eighteenth-century Paris

With an overarching goal of beginning to define some of the conditions of the age defined here as the Enlightenment, this paper puts forward an interpretation of the Parisian Salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the opening section,




  Serious People and Serious Places The Enlightenment Salons and salonni è res of Eighteenth-century Paris  Ron Jelaco  McGill University 21st June, 2010 Introduction The Salons and the Republic of Letters  With an overarching goal of beginning to define some of the conditions of the age defined here as the Enlightenment, this paper puts forward an interpretation of the Parisian Salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the opening section, groundwork is laid with a discussion of the seventeenth-century salon, also referred to as the ‘Aristocratic’ or ‘  Precieuses  ’ salon. The study then moves on to my primary focus: the conditions surrounding the ‘Enlightenment’ salons of the second half of the eighteenth century. Particular attention will be paid to the hostesses, or ‘salonni è res’ of these Enlightenment salons, where they will be represented as serious, ‘career’ women, whose aim it was to both educate themselves, while at the same time, enable the philosophes to undertake their work on the projects of the Enlightenment. Admittedly, this could be a very unwieldy topic. 1 There are miles of books written about the happenings in the Age of Enlightenment, with perspectives drawn from countless angles. And to complicate things further, a review of the writings on the Parisian salons shows that speaking definitively about their place in history is not done without some controversy. While many twentieth-century historians place the salon at the very foundation of the Enlightenment, other very respected Enlightenment historians barely mention them. Among others, Carolyn Lougee, Colin Jones, James Van Horn Melton, Dena Goodman and Jurgen Habermas, all find the Parisian salons to be an integral and indispensable part of the workings of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, some of the For the purposes of this paper, ‘The Enlightenment’ will be considered to be the intellectual project that 1 granted human reasoning dominate authority, and that was broadly and self-consciously entered into by European intellectual elite in the middle to late eighteenth century.  Serious People and Serious Places most respected contemporary historians take a contrasting view. Peter Gay allows no more than a few paragraphs in his two volume opus to discuss “the cultivated Parisian ladies who played hostess to the philosophes;” Roger Chartier grants the salons little more than the role of “the primary form of conviviality” in Parisian social life; and the nineteenth-century Le Goncourts, who thought that the Parisian salon was not only not instrumental, but rather, destructive to Western culture. From their point of view, the Parisian salon was the first sign of nineteenth-century decadence appearing in French culture -- the beginning of the destruction of all that is beautiful and good. But for the purposes of this study, it will be 2 Goodman and her central placement of the salons as the ‘working space of the Enlightenment’ -- serious places occupied with serious people -- that I find most interesting and expandable. So consequently it is her interpretation that I use as a guide here. Drawing from her highly respected scholarship, Goodman posits the following two-part thesis: First, the Parisian salon evolved from being primarily a social affair where civility and politeness were cultivated by a resurgent Republic of Letters, and as a consequence, 3 reasonable discourse was allowed to blossom. Furthermore, as salons matured and civil discourse became valued and adopted as standard practice, the salons took on a much more serious mandate, becoming the working space for the projects of The Enlightenment. And the very heart and ‘engine’ of the salons were the salonni è res. Goodman sees the Republic of Letters as a network of men (the 2  See Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment.  Ithaca: Cornell 2 University Press, 1994. p. 74. The Republic of Letters referred to here was thought of as continuation of the  Respublica Litteratum  of 3 Erasmus a century before. The link to the  Respublica Litteratum  is made by modern historians who attempt to identify an srcin of the civil discourse so important to the Enlightenment. I mention it here with caution. For once one looks beyond the broad use of epistolary communication shared by both Erasmus and the Philosophes, the comparison weakens. Attempts to link the content of Erasmus’s Christian correspondence with the hypothetical projects being reflected upon in the age of Enlightenment, the comparison begins to depend solely on the collegiality made possible by epistolary discourse. And even that link eventually is questionable when you consider Erasmus’s generally harsh criticism of reflective scholarship and the ‘arid intellectualism’ that can arise in such discourse. For an examination of the role that Erasmus and his contemporaries play as a foundation to 18 th  Century scholasticism, see Constance Furey’s book,  Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters  , Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Serious People and Serious Places philosophes) and women ( salonni è res) who worked in tandem in networks of social and intellectual exchange. And for the philosophes and salonni è res, their base and ‘working space’ was t he Parisian salon. “Women played a central role,” writes Goodman, “both in the representation of history upon which the convivial idea of sociability was based and in the practice and representation of polite conversation in the Parisian salons in which French men of letters experienced sociability.” The philosophes had rejected the institutionalized academies and the university as the institutional foundation for their intellectual projects, and turned to the Parisian salons to continue their conversations and literary inventions in a more open, but still regulated venue. The importance of the governance embodied by the salonni è res should not be underestimated. The salonnières served to listen attentively to the philosophes and to provide polite regulation and civil authority as it was warranted by them. As Goodman explains, “The French Enlightenment was grounded in a female-centered mixed-gender sociability that gendered French culture, the Enlightenment, and civilization itself as feminine.” 4 The Aristocratic Salons of the Seventeenth Century Politeness Regulated Discourse The early seventeenth century saw the birth of the Parisian salon. The salons began as interesting conversations sessions that formed following dinner parties.   And because these 5 gatherings were held in the private homes of aristocratic women, the otherwise disputational debates that would have inevitably arose from many of these contentious discussions had a natural governing -- in their private homes, the aristocratic women held an unusual authority. 3   Goodman,  Republic  , p. 6.4 In the centuries under consideration in this paper, the term “salon” was not used to connote anything more 5 than a room in a house or apartment. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that authors and historians adopted the term to also describe the affairs conducted within the salon, i.e., the salon as “event”. The Goncourts used the term to refer to the social gathering in Les Femmes au XVIIIe siècle   (1862). And, what these gatherings were called by their participants does not seem easy to discern. However, the term is now so commonly used to describe both the room and it’s proceedings that I’ve chosen to leave it.  Serious People and Serious Places The most important salons of the earlier period began to form as a response to the rise of a new bourgeois class in France . As France and the rest of Europe made a turn toward a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, Paris -- the largest city in Europe -- became a magnet for an aristocratic class who migrated from the provinces and foreign countries. Louis the XIV’s move to Versailles succeeded in consolidating his authority -- by making himself even more distinct and absolute -- and drawing the nobility out of their remote manors. But his exodus from Paris also left the Parisians feeling autonomous themselves. They found themselves living in an ‘independent‘ city. Paris for the first time had the feel of being a city within a larger world. The nobility left their provincial manor houses to come to the city, were they were attracted to several specific neighbourhoods; the Marais, L’Ile de la Cite, Faubourg Saint-Jacques, and Faubourg Saint-Honore. Reflecting new economic conditions in France, this upsurge of Parisian aristocracy created a geographic concentration of noble families and a construction boom of mansions, or  hôtels  , that had never been seen before. And, this migration of aristocracy resulted in fortifying the position of the monarchy as absolute authority. The new political order, centred entirely on Louis XIV, caused the collapse of prior military and judicial powers once held by the nobility. “Especially after the defeat of the Fronde in 1653,” writes John Conley, “aristocrats found themselves transformed into courtiers in a pacified, centralized France. And, certain aristocratic women invited others into their Salons for receptions and dinner parties emerged as a key venue for the socialization of this newly leisured aristocratic class.” 6 The salonni è res could regulate not just the volume and tenor of the discussions, but even the subjects discussed. By the end of the seventeenth century, the polite behaviour that was learned and promoted at the early salons became fashionable; in vogue; honourable, and valued as a social skill. And the polite structure controls imposed on the men of the salons was established by the women of the salons. “By the eighteenth century,” explains Goodman, “French men of letters … 4  Conley, John J. The Suspicion of Virtue: Women Philosophers in Neoclassical France.  Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University 6 Press, 2002,, p. 10.  Serious People and Serious Places viewed their own culture as the best in the world because [it was] the most sociable and the most polite; it had reached the highest point civilization had yet attained. Women were central to their understanding of sociability and civilization.” The Salons and their salonni è res induced a certain 7 ‘feminine’ refinement in its participants that went beyond simple etiquette or the proper use of dining utensils. Being a salonnière required the capacity to carry on witty conversation and to comment with a certain level of expertise on matters of contemporary politics and religion (with enough discretion to protect themselves from the eavesdropping ‘spies’ of the Court). Aristocratic women ( salonni è res) were in command of all aspects of the salons -- from the list of invitees to the menus and even the topics of conversation. The work of the salonnière was not simple and not everyone could do it. For a salonnière, “the participation in a Parisian salon culture,” argues Linda Timmermans, “demanded a certain minimum of literary and philosophical skill. The salonnière was expected to show a command of French in her conversation and her correspondence. She should be able to discuss the latest concerts, shows, and exhibitions as a connoisseur. The popular parlour games were often literary in nature, presupposing an acquaintance with classical and contemporary literature. An avid reader of novels and of essays by the moralistes  , she was expected to discuss the movements of the heart with witty detail. She would wield the distinguo  to perceive and comment on the slightest differences in the phenomenon of love.” 8 As a citizen of the Republic of Letters, the salonnière also had to be an accomplished letter-writer. Letter writing was very much in vogue among the elite in France. Epistolary writings were the primary form of communication between the salonni è res and the people beyond the walls of the salon -- le monde   -- in fact, it was one of the traditions that organizes most strongly the very notion of Republic of Letters. The citizens of the seventeenth-century Republic of Letters maintained an active network of correspondents. The seventeenth century witnessed a highly-developed 5  Goodman, Republic, pp. 3-4 7  As quoted by Conley, p. 11 8