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L’Art de la conversation

edited by Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, with a preface by Marc Fumaroli
Paris: Classiques Garnier, 593 pp., FF175

De l’air galant’ et autres Conversations (1653-1686): Pour une étude de l’archive galante

by Madeleine de Scudéry, edited by Delphine Denis
Paris: Champion, 393 pp., FF380

Les Caractères

by Jean de La Bruyère, edited by Louis Van Delft
Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 544 pp., FF150


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.1

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 Rambouillet. Conversation transformed the processes of mutual seduction into a form of general politeness. Only a close knowledge of the rules of worldly society could allow a circle of conversationalists to play with fanciful utopian ideas without losing their grasp of the real. For a few hours, it was said, the enchantment of the spoken word would spread a balm of forgetfulness, creating a contagious euphoria and a sense of well-being that amounted to a powerful soothing agent for all of life’s dramas and difficulties. One of the most eloquent accounts of this effect appears in Mme. de La Fayette’s portrait of her friend, the celebrated Mme. de Sévigné:

When you are caught up in a conversation from which all constraint has been banished, everything you say has such charm and suits you so well that your words attract laughter and grace around you, and your brilliance imparts such a glow to your complexion and your eyes that, even though it seems your thought should only have touched the ears, it is clear that it is inspiring to the spirit.2

The fascinating and complex cultural phenomenon of the sociabilité of the ancien régime has been the subject of a distinguished tradition of study in France that goes back to the nineteenth century, and has recently been attracting renewed critical attention,3 with important contributions from the US, particularly from the women’s studies departments of American universities.4

This interest is understandable. In no other moment of European history did women appear to enjoy a condition of prestige comparable to that of the female elite of the French seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But if the culture of French high society, with its language, literature, salons, and psychology, was to a great extent created by women, at the same time it could hardly have developed without the close relations between the male and female worlds that distinguished the French aristocracy from as far back as the Middle Ages. The art of conversation was the main vehicle of these relations.

Among many critical works on the subject that have appeared in recent years, the texts collected by Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h in L’Art de la conversation are particularly useful. Until the invention of the tape recorder, conversation was the most ephemeral of genres and we can do no more than catch an echo of the voices of the ancien régime in the literary forms closest to the spoken word: memoirs, letters, dialogues, plays, and novels. On the other hand we can get a very clear sense of the aesthetic, moral, and social importance of conversation from the critical reflections of contemporaries and the many pedagogical tracts written about it. Hellegouarc’h’s anthology gives an excellent selection of such writings, most of them previously unavailable. Her book takes us straight to the heart of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century controversy over the utility, moral value, and truthfulness of the art of conversation, a debate that included Rousseau, who saw it as frivolous, and Charles Pinot Duclos (1704-1772), the witty novelist, historian, and secretary of the Académie Française, who took a more nuanced critical view.

Hellegouarc’h’s book is published by the Classiques Garnier, whose editor Marc Fumaroli has during the last ten years revitalized research in the French art of conversation; he has analyzed its rhetoric and style, and thrown light on its historical setting and its many implications, whether cultural, artistic, or political.5 In his masterly preface to the anthology, Fumaroli now puts the subject in a larger perspective. Exploring the origins of Western conversation, he finds its archetypal model in the Athens of the fifth century BC; only after considering its metamorphoses in European culture does he consider its final triumph in the France of the ancien régime.

It is in Plato’s dialogues, and in particular around the figure of Socrates, Fumaroli argues, that the conversational ideal emerges for the first time. As he remarks, conversation in the dialogues “carves out…a time-out-of-time in which one attains supreme happiness, a search among friends, under the sign of love, for the divine ideas of the true, the beautiful, the good.” In the company of others like himself, Platonic man could exercise “the deepest vocation of the soul, which public life sought to deny him.”

From Aristotle down to the twilight of the classical world, under the late Roman emperors, this ideal of pagan philosophy would celebrate, in a rural setting, the happy liberty of private conversation, in contrast to the eloquence of the public forum; it would place otium—leisure—before negotium —business. Scholarly quiet took precedence over the tumult of civil passions.

The same ideal, Fumaroli argues, was to reappear in Renaissance Italy, coexisting with the Christian tradition. He brings out deep connections between the idea of the philosophical convivio and the Christian banquet (the wedding at Cana, the supper at Emmaus, the Last Supper), and between Christian conversatio, which takes place in heaven, and Platonic conversation, which is of this earth but also aspires to another life, outside “the city.” The analogy is again evident in the appropriation by Renaissance writers of the myth of Arcadia, in which man could hope to rediscover the happiness and innocence of his origins. It was against the same bucolic background, Fumaroli reminds us, that a new genre of painting developed in the sixteenth century with the “Sacred Conversations” of Giovanni Bellini and Fra Bartolomeo, in which the saints take the place of the shepherds in ecstatic contemplation of the Virgin and Child.

This tradition of conviviality can be linked to the origins of French conversation, but the rules had changed. In seventeenth-century France the criterion of participation was no longer friendship but respect for the bienséances; the purpose no longer a search for happiness but pure amusement. Renaissance conviviality had opposed private life to public life; but with the art of conversation different oppositions were in play: the life of the cour was seen as opposed to the life of the ville; royal absolutism was opposed to civil society. For the French nobility, otium was now imposed rather than chosen. Their political ambitions thwarted by the modern and centralized monarchy, above all that of Louis XIV, the privileged classes took refuge in a variety of pastimes—loisirs—establishing their own sphere of freedom outside the court, in their own social world, providing a model to be followed by writers and prominent members of the bourgeoisie. Yet in this playful space beyond the reach of the censor, where conversation was supposed to be carefree and an end in itself, people did not, in fact, stop thinking and talking about literature, religion, morality, and philosophy. Thus words spoken in private society, as Daniel Gordon has suggested in a recent study,6 came to make up for the absence of accepted public language; and polite society developed for its own uses the forum that, when it was extended to include politics in the next century, came to be known as public opinion.

Louis XIV slowed down the expansion of Parisian society and salon life by concentrating it in Versailles, but after 1715, with the ascendance of Philippe, duc d’Orléans, to the Regency, it was to become an independent power, often at odds with the interests and political strategy of the monarchical state. At this point Paris attracted admiration throughout Europe because, as Fumaroli writes, Europe saw in Paris the realization of “that genius of civilized leisure, of spiritually exalted repose that since antiquity has been the pinnacle of political and philosophical success.”

Under the guidance of the philosophes of the eighteenth century, this leisure-loving and highly literate class embarked on the most daring political speculations. Their salons were no longer mere “fortunate isles” in which they might escape the interference and brutality of power; they became an agora in which some of the participants were ready to transform all of France into a utopia. More and more burdened by the sense of its importance, more and more the prisoner of its own influence, the practice of conversation increasingly lost its vocation for intimacy and private pleasure and thus prepared the way for its own downfall. With the Revolution of 1789, the monopoly on intellectual discourse and discussion of new ideas would pass from the private to the public sphere. After centuries of silence the art of political oratory was finally rediscovered on the benches of the National Assembly.

  1. 1

    Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, with an introduction by Oliver H.G. Leigh, in two volumes (Dingwall-Rock Ltd., 1925), Vol. 2, pp. 21-22.

  2. 2

    Portrait de Madame la Marquise de Sevigny, par Madame la Comtesse de La Fayette sous le nom d’un inconnu,” in Divers Portraits (Caen, 1659), p. 315.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Bernard Beugnot, L’Entretien au XVIIe siècle (Montreal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1971); Christoph Strosetzki, Rhétorique de la conversation: Sa dimension littéraire et linguistique dans la société française du XVIIe siècle (Paris-Tubingen: Biblio 17-20, 1984); Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, Exclusive Conversations: The Art of Interaction in Seventeenth-Century France (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988); Alain Montandon, editor, Du goût, de la conversation et des femmes (Clermont-Ferrand: Association des publications de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de Clermont-Ferrand, 1996); and Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation (Cornell University Press, 1993).

  4. 4

    See, for example, Carolyn C. Lougee, Le Paradis des Femmes (Princeton University Press, 1976); Joan De Jean, Tender Geographies: Women and Origins of the Novel in France (Columbia University Press, 1991); Erica Harth, Cartesian Women: Version and Subversion of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime (Cornell University Press, 1992); and Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: ACultural History of the French Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1994).

  5. 5

    Among the writings of Marc Fumaroli see, for example, La Diplomatie de l’esprit (Paris: Hermann, republished in 1998); “La Conversation au XVIIe siècle: Le Témoignage de Fortin de la Hoguette,” in L’Esprit de la lettre: Mélanges offerts à Jules Brody (Tubingen: G. Narr, 1991), pp. 93-106; “La Conversation,” in Les Lieux de mémoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), Vol. III, Les Frances, t. 2, Traditions, pp. 678-743.

  6. 6

    Daniel Gordon, Citizens Without Sovereignty (Princeton University Press, 1994).

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