L’Art de la conversation
‘De l’air galant’ et autres Conversations (1653-1686): Pour une étude de l’archive galante
“I have traveled much, and devoted much study to human beings individually and collectively, but I have only found real sociability among the French: for they alone know how to joke; and fine, sub-tle joking, enlivening conversation is what makes up the charm of society.”
—The Memoirs of Casanova
Visiting Paris in 1752, the celebrated Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova was struck, as so many other foreign travelers had been, by the peculiarly French combination of brilliant conversation and graceful manners. Largely owing to the example of Mme. de Rambouillet, who, around 1620, had opened her famous Paris salon to members of a self-selected elite, including both court aristocracy and talented commoners, the qualities of politesse and bienséances—decorum, the right forms of behavior—became central to an entire way of life. Nobody better explained the meaning of bienséances than Lord Chesterfield, who in 1750 sent his son to Paris to perfect a gentleman’s education and learn the “graces.”
Les bienséances are a most necessary part of the knowledge of the world. They consist in the relations of persons, things, time, and place; good sense points them out, good company perfects them (supposing always an attention and a desire to please), and good policy recommends them.
Were you to converse with a king, you ought to be as easy and unembarrassed as with your own valet de chambre; but yet, every look, word and action, should imply the utmost respect. What would be proper and well-bred with others, much your superiors, would be absurd and ill-bred with one so very much so. You must wait till you are spoken to; you must receive, not give, the subject of conversation; and you must even take care that the given subject of such conversation do not lead you into any impropriety. The art would be to carry it, if possible, to some indirect flattery; such as commending those virtues in some other person, in which that prince either thinks he does, or at least would be thought by others to excel.
With the beginning of the eighteenth century, “sociability” had become an indispensable ingredient of French national identity. Montesquieu said as much with playful irony through his character Rica in Lettres persanes, published in 1721:
It is said that man is a social animal. On that basis, it strikes me that a Frenchman is more human than anyone else; he is man par excellence, for he seems to have been made solely for society.
The mainstay of this French art of creating a witty milieu, naturally enough, was conversation. Made possible by noble leisure, conversation offered distraction, amusement, and instruction, creating an atmosphere of consensus and harmony that, while playing down social inequalities between participants, emphasized sympathies and affinities. Hommes de lettres, some from the middle class, were an essential part of salon life, the most eloquent example being the poet Vincent Voiture, the son of a wine merchant, who said he had been “regenerated” by the company of Mme. de …