“Conversation should be loved; it constitutes good society; friendships are formed and
preserved through it. Conversation brings natural talents into play and polishes them.
It purifies and sets the mind to rights and constitutes the great book of the world.”
– from Pierre Richelet’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise, Ancienne et Moderne, 1728
Does that quote ring a bell? We featured it nearly eight years ago when announcing the creation of the Athenaeum Salons. I came across it again this summer while reading and re-reading some of the many books and articles that have been written on salon history and the art of conversation (and it is an art!) and was struck anew by both its astutely observed truths and the relevance of those truths to the Athenaeum’s aims over its long life. Conversation, like reading, creates an opportunity for us to develop our own thoughts and become more known to ourselves by listening for, and cultivating our understanding of, the ideas of others.
Over the course of this past year, a variety of separate occurrences have coincided to make me suddenly aware of the evolutionary and exponential accretion of meaning that the Salons have achieved since that first tentative Friday evening gathering in February 2006. From Salon conversations where someone would make reference to a previous year’s Salon in order to connect to a point just made by a presenter, to Molly Lederer’s perceptive observations in her piece on the Salons in last April’s issue of East Side Monthly, to the RI Council for the Humanities’ recent exciting public recognition of the Salons’ community role of providing connection and context across disciplines and organizations, it is clear that the Salons are no longer merely a mad whim – they now have a life and history of their own. And because so many of you have made it a priority to be here Friday after Friday with your curiosity, your openness, your voices, your support, and your enthusiasm for learning about new people, new endeavors, and new ways of engaging in issues and ideas, that long-ago vision of an ongoing conversation that would thread itself through our lives and the life of our community is no longer a dream – it’s a dream come true.
I was recently mulling the question of what the humanities bring to our lives, and realized that one of the things I value most is the way they teach us to ask questions, and then find in the answers even more questions – which perhaps explains why my no longer questioning the healthy present life of the Salons has made me suddenly very curious about their past and future. To answer these new questions and inspire many more, we will feature a Salon series this year called The Cosmology of Conversation, where we look at times and places in history (including 18th and 19th century France, 18th century Rome, 19th century New York City, early 20th century United States, and a bit about Providence in another era as well) in which the conversational format flourished, satisfying both personal and communal goals. “Cosmology” includes the study of origins, structures, laws, and evolution, and evokes the idea of constellations, a metaphor found not infrequently in the study of salon culture. (A favorite example comes from one of our series speakers, salon historian Daniel Harkett, who relates that to convey the 19th century poet Delphine Gay’s charismatic centrality within the social sphere, a contemporary critic referred to her as the “planet Gay.”) As always at the Athenaeum, we seek to shape the future by means of what we can learn from the past – so I hope you will all become cosmonauts this year!
See you in the Salon!
Our thanks to Guest blogger, Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement, for her Fall Program Preview.