Conversations From History Heard Through Books

In a prior blog post about The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces, I noted that the exhibit curator Adam Eaker characterized the show as a ‘conversation.’ (If you’d like to read that post, you can go here.)

Adam Eaker’s comment got me thinking about conversation and books.

I dare say that before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us took our talking for granted. We chattered across the conference room table, on the couch, in the kitchen, over dinner or drinks with family, friends, and colleagues — taking all the conversing for granted.

The pandemic put a temporary halt to many of our conversations or transferred them online, thanks to our new technology. If COVID-19 had struck ten years ago, nay, even five years ago, where would we be?

Suddenly, talking online was a great idea, despite the recent cautions from researchers and cultural commentators about our devices and their impact on meaningful conversations.

Left: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015) Right: Dr. Sherry Turkle, from sherryturkle.mit.edu

Dr. Sherry Turkle from MIT argued that our well-being and the well-being of future generations are in peril if we don’t get mindful about Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015).

In a 2015 New York Times review of Turkle’s book, the writer Jonathan Franzen exhorted;

“Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”

A few years before Sherry Turkle’s book, Stephen Miller wrote a book of essays cautioning us about our changing conversations.

Conversation:  A History of a Declining Art (2006) is a charming set of chapters, each focused on a different period in history, in which Miller outlines the many ways conversation has enabled — and inhibited — progress.

Miller winds his way from Plato to 17th-18th century Britain to the America of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie, then to the decline of conversation in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Conversation: a history of a declining art (2006)

Countercultural theorists like Foucault, the Merry Pranksters led by Ken Kesey, and ego enlarged writers like Norman Mailer, who often ‘made no sense’ — could quickly turn conversations into non-starters.

Miller Writes;

“The Merry Pranksters didn’t get much reading or thinking done. Or conversing. As Stone [novelist Robert Stone] puts it: “There was more hemp than Heidegger at the root of our cerebrations, and … many of us had trouble distinguishing Being from Nothingness by three in the afternoon.” They were “ripped” most of the time. One prankster who took amphetamines “never ate, never slept, and never shut up.” He was a manic talker — not a conversationalist.”

By the end of his book’s journey, Miller is not sure discourse will survive. He fears the expression of ‘anger,’ which he says has become a sign of being a ‘conscientious citizen.’ Our modern need to be ‘authentic’ doesn’t bode well for good conversation. Miller’s final sentence written in 2006 seems more than a little prescient;

“In the United States, where people are admired for being natural, sincere, authentic, and nonjudgmental — for being more like Rousseau than like Hume — the prospects for conversation are not good.“

Recent political events seem to have proven Miller right.

But I, for one, am not ready to give up on good conversation.

A look back with books at conversations from three eras in history may provide solace and instruction if we consider what was said and unsaid — how conversation shaped lives, ideas, and creations.

Conversation Before a Revolution ~ Multiple Conversations For a Better Understanding

The traditional historical narrative gives Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet credit for organizing the first salon. It was likely a literary event, probably akin to a book club.

Born in Rome to Italian nobility in 1588, Catherine was married off to Charles d’Angennes at 12. The husband was 23. Charles would become Marquis de Rambouillet a few years later.

Left: Portrait of Charles d’Angennes (1577-1652) (public domain)
Right: Portrait of Mme de Rambouillet Author unknown ca. 1646 held at House of the Dukes of Uzès (public domain)

As the child bride grew to womanhood, the couple moved to Paris, had seven children, and took their place amongst the French nobility of the Ancien Régime in a grand home situated between the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace.

Sometime around 1618, now a society maven, Madame de Rambouillet, leery of the gossipy, sometimes dangerous discourse of the French royal court and sensitive to the mud and stench of the Paris streets, decided to create an alternative space for noble gatherings.

She took charge of a massive architectural renovation of her Paris home. She designated a room in her renovated mansion for reception, painted the walls blue, and decorated it with brocade hangings and pillows — all in blue. Then, she invited a curated group of guests to visit.

Adjacent to her “Blue Room,” Madame de Rambouillet created small rooms — think Zoom break-out rooms — where guests could engage in more intimate conversation.

Her gatherings were a huge success and set a blueprint for future salon hostesses. 

In her book, The Age of Conversation (2001 Italian / 2005 English translation), the Italian scholar of French 17th-18th century history, Benedetta Craveri writes;
“…an indispensable condition of success, every salon had to have its own character, its own style, and its own particular chemistry in the mixture of guests, …”
Left: The Age of Conversation by Bernedette Craveri (2001 Italian / 2005 English translation)
Right: Benedetta Craveri from Academia Europaea (The Academy of Europe)

Craveri has done traditional academic research. Her elegant, brocaded prose often mirrors the world she profiles. And, her copious footnotes, almost 100 pages of endnotes, attest to her scholarship abilities.

The world Benedetta Craveri presented in her book matched the notions I’d pieced together from history class and movies like Dangerous Liaisons (1998) starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The movie was based upon a play that was adapted from the 1796 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, whose book was illustrated by the French painter and printmaker Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Fragonard is mostly remembered today for his stylized paintings like The Swing.

Left and Right: Illustrations by Jean-Honoré Fragonard for Les Liaisons dangereses (1796)

I was content with the image of Salons I had in my head until I had a conversation with another book.

A few years after Craveri’s book, Antoine Lilte, a young French scholar, professor, and cultural historian, produced a new conversation about French salons.

His book, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in 18th Century Paris (2005 French, 2015 English translation), originally a doctoral thesis, generated debate within the Academy and received much praise. He’s now regarded as a star in the field.

Left: Antoine Lilti @antoinelilti (Twitter).
Middle: The World of the Salon: Sociability and Worldliness in 18th Century Paris by Antoine LIlti (2005 French, 2015 English translation)
Right: The Invention of Celebrity by Antoine Lilti (2015 French, 2017 English translation)

As an aside, if you’re interested in broad cultural conversations from past to present, you might check out Lilte’s very entertaining and more recent publication, The Invention of Celebrity (2015 French, 2017 English translation). The Kardashians were not the first to seek their fortune with their fame!

In his book on salons, Lilte begins by drawing our attention to a painting.

In 1814, Anicet Lemonnier was commissioned to create a painting that depicted and honored the conversations held in the salon of Madame Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin. Geoffrin was dead (1777), yet her salon was still talked about.

But, Lemonnier’s painting was a ‘fake.’
Most of those depicted in the painting never set foot in Madame Geoffrin’s abode — and never met each other.

Lemonnier’s illustration of political, literary, scientific, and philosophical thinkers engaged in conversation was photo-shopped.

Image: Reading of Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (a tragedy about Ghengis Khan and his sons, published in 1755), in the salon of Madame Geoffrin painted by Anicet Lemonnier (1814)
Lilti’s reference to the painting reminds us how easily history is represented then re-represented, leaving images and information, often incorrect, lodged in our minds. Lilte argues salons were less a hotbed of political activism and more a social gathering for the rich and powerful — or those who sought fame and fortune. They were gatherings for the urban elite. No one else’s bank account could handle the cost. Hosting a salon — often weekly — was an expensive endeavor. It required a home able to comfortably sit up to 30-50 guests, a checkbook that could furnish a table with provisions for a sumptuous meal and a variety of entertainments, and staff to manage the ‘party’ then clean up the mess until the next salon — often the following week.

Lilte writes;

“Hospitality came at a price that was not within everyone’s reach. It was not enough to be witty and have friends in order to create a salon; it also required a dwelling spacious enough for company and the means to furnish it, decorate it tastefully, and prepare food for guests.”

Lilte’s argument is that salons were spheres that perpetuated and supported the ideas, mores, social structures, and conversations of the wealthy and powerful.

Both authors, Craveri and Lilti, provide valuable information and understanding of salons.

Reading one book on a topic is often insufficient. It’s a limited conversation. There is usually so much more to be said.

Conversation as a Club for Well-Being ~ Samuel Johnson and Friends

While the French were having their say in salons, there was another conversation fermenting across the channel.

In the winter of 1763-64, a small group of friends was invited to gather in London. There was a concern for the well-being of one of their brethren.

Samuel Johnson had lost a wife, been forced to move from a large, comfortable home because of financial difficulty, and he was searching for his next professional project. His last project had been all-consuming — the largest dictionary of English words to date, a seven-year tome, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

In the hopes of buoying Johnson, the group agreed to gather at the Turk’s Head Tavern on Gerrard Street, Soho, London, for libations and conversations. Today the Turk’s Head is a grocery, New Loon Moon Supermarket.

Left:  Samuel Johnson c. 1772, by Sir Joshua Reynolds held by The Tate Gallery
Middle: Turks Head Tavern now New Loon Moon Supermarket (photo 2012 from Trip Advisor)
Right:  Sir Joshua Reynolds by Gilbert Stuart c.1784 held by the National Gallery of Art – Andrew Mellon Collection
The group became known as The Literary Club or simply, The Club — marvelously chronicled by Leo Damrosch in his award-winning 2019 book.
Left: The Club, (2019) Right: Leo Damrosch from LeoDamrosch.com

In The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2019, Damrosch chronicles the idea as hatched by the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds who was concerned for the well-being of his friend, Johnson.

Prone to depression and ‘dark moods,’ Johnson had fallen into decline. In an era without antidepressants, Reynolds was forced to rely upon other remedies to improve his friend’s mood.

Reynolds thought that conversation with learned and interesting men might be the ticket to improved well-being for his friend. Reynolds was right. Johnson’s mood improved.

Today, wellness and health science experts encourage conversation and community as part of a cure for ‘dark moods.’

Conversation for Creativity ~ The Shape of Bloomsbury and Missed Conversations

Dorothy Parker, the writer, critic, and satirist, is said to have quipped that the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”

Some suggest Parker may have co-opted the phrase from a 1928 book Fire Down Below by a popular English novelist of the era, Margaret Irwin.

Whoever originated the phrase, there’s no question that Bloomsbury came in many shapes. Named for the London neighborhood, it was a fluid coterie of British, largely upper-crust intellectuals, artists, activists, writers, and philosophers.

An informal group began around 1899 when Thoby Stephen, brother of Virginia (Woolf) and Vanessa (Bell) Stephen, gathered his Cambridge friends for Thursday Evenings. His sister Vanessa followed his example with a Friday Club.

Left: Vanessa Stephen (Bell) Middle: Thoby Stephen Right: Virginia—Stephen (Woolf)
All images by George Charles Beresford ca.1902 (National Portrait Gallery)

Thoby contracted typhoid on a trip to Greece. Returning to England, he never recovered and died in 1906, age 26, leaving his sisters and friends to continue with the conversational gatherings that became known in history as The Bloomsbury Group.

With a range of interests, the group’s membership fluctuated over the years but they shared a belief in the importance of art, ideas, and conversation. It was a stunning array of personalities, preferences, and thinkers.

When they began to gather, most had yet to create the magnum opus(s) they would leave to history. One might ask, how much did conversation in these gatherings contribute to the achievements that were to come?

Left:  The Bloomsbury Group, (2005)
Right: Frances Spalding from FrancesSpalding.net

In 2005 the National Portrait Gallery, London put together a beautiful little book, The Bloomsbury Group. With commentary from art historian, critic, and biographer, Frances Spalding, it is a jewel crammed with photographs and images of the group’s art along with very brief biographies of 19 of the group’s members.

In her introduction, Spalding writes compassionately of her subjects;

“Bloomsbury never tired of analyzing their own and other people’s behavior. This testing habit of mind made them very alert, critical of themselves and others. It helped develop a blend of sensibility and intelligence that is particular to these friends — the warming of intelligence by sensibility and the testing of feeling by means of the intelligence. In 1925, on a rare occasion when Virginia Woolf did comment on the group as a whole, she praised her Bloomsbury friends for ‘having worked out a few of life which was not by any means corruptor sinister or merely intellectual; rather ascetic and austere indeed; which still holds and keeps them dining together and staying together, after twenty years, and no amount of quarreling or success, or failure has altered this. Now I do think this,’ she concludes, ‘rather creditable.’

It must have been the good conversations.


Top Row

  • Clive Bell, artist + art critic
  • Sir Desmond MacCarthy, literary + dramatic critic
  • Lady Ottoline Morrell, hostess, decorator, colourist, garden designer
  • Leonard Woolf, essayist, political activist, publisher

 

Top Middle Row

  • James Strachey, psychoanalyst
  • Alix Strachey, psychoanalyst + translator
  • Vita Sackville-West, author, garden designer
  • David Garnett, writer, publisher

 

Bottom Middle Row

  • Duncan Grant, post-impressionist painter with John Maynard Keynes, economist
  • Lytton Strachey, essayist, biographer
  • Dora Carrington, post-impressionist painter
  • Lydia Lopokova, Russian ballerina with John Maynard Keynes, economist

 

Bottom Row

  • Virginia Woolf, fiction writer, essayist
  • Roger Fry, art critic, post-impressionist painter
  • E. M. Forster, fiction + travel writer
  • Vanessa Bell, post-impressionist painter

A Missed Conversation

In recent years with more written about Bloomsbury and the group’s offspring grown, it’s apparent some conversations should have happened but didn’t.

Angelica Bell Garnett’s revelatory memoir, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood which won the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography in 1985, has much to say about missing conversations.

Angelica was raised by Clive and Vanessa Bell. It’s claimed that on her 18th birthday, her mother had a conversation with her and shared the family secret — her father was not her father. Her *real* father was her parent’s friend, Duncan Grant — who often lived amongst them as part of the household menagerie.

A few years later, at age 24, Angelica announced she would marry David Garnett, almost 50. Garnett was her parent’s friend and longtime member of the Bloomsbury circle. He’d also been her ‘real’ father’s lover.

Her family… well, you can imagine. Conversation was hard to come by.

Left:  Angelica Bell at Monk’s House circa1939 (cropped photo from Virginia Woolf photograph album) held by Harvard Theatre Collection
Middle:  Deceived With Kindness, (1984)
Right: Angelica Bell Garnett from Good Reads posted 2012

The marriage took place, officially lasted 25 years, and spawned 3 daughters. In her memoir, Angelica indicates she was not aware that her husband had been her father’s lover.

But John Maynard Keynes, the eminent economist and British public servant, also a former lover of Angelica’s biological father, had her to tea before her marriage. During their conversation, he suggested, as he put it, “It might not be a very good idea.”

In an interview given late in life, Angelica admitted she probably wasn’t listening to the Keynes conversation. “I was in love,” she said. Proving once again that conversation without listening is useless.

What Are Some Simple Lessons About Conversation From These Books?

— Often, you need to read more than one book to hear the real conversation.

— Conversation — and books — can be a salve for the anxious soul.

— Pay attention — or you might miss a meaningful conversation 🙂

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