The art of the salon

Refining our cultural conversations

WE TYPICALLY THINK of the grandest, most impressive parts of European culture in terms of physicality: castles, palaces, libraries, gardens, food, cafés, galleries, museums and monuments. These are the items we list on itineraries for a trip.

However lovely these things are, they don’t fully represent the best that a culture has to offer. There’s a touching moment, recorded in his diary, when the American writer Henry James realises this for himself. He’s spent the day in Florence, visiting the Uffizi Gallery to see the works of Botticelli, and he’s strolled through the Boboli Gardens and wandered around the narrow streets near the Palazzo Vecchio. Finally he sits down on an old marble bench set into the wall of a distinguished palazzo, still occupied by descendants of the people who built it. As he leans his head back against the wall, he realises that he’s outside and he wants to know the life on the inside. He wonders what the family might be doing, what they think and feel about their city – and he imagines the kinds of conversations they might have with their friends. It’s these discussions, he realises, that lie behind the beauty and charm of the city: it was built by people who, across many generations, talked to one another about how to see things, what to care about, how to live with grace and dignity.

James is alive to the danger of all modern tourism: one gets to know the outer shell of a place, but its inward life, its best spirit, its animating sensibility, its preferences and moral taste (to use a phrase he loved) – all these deeper elements remain hidden. You might have intuited this yourself: going back one night to the hotel in Venice and noting the warm lights of a second-floor apartment; the window is open and tantalising voices float down: Cara, cosa ne pensi? Seductive, pointed, clear. And you feel how sad it is that you are going back to order a club sandwich from the obliging kitchen staff in your hotel, when – if life were perfect – you’d be mounting the stairs into that low-ceilinged, spacious room to see these people, your dear friends. You’d drop into a deep old sofa between Giovanni and Elisabetta and pick up your place in their talk about Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova, or Joseph Brodsky, the Russian exile who won the Nobel Prize in Literature and who came to a party in this same flat and wrote about it, unkindly, in his poetic memoirs of the city. In this moment, you are no longer simply visiting Europe, you are part of it; you have discovered that you belong, which has nothing to do with ancestry and everything to with attitude. To be European isn’t a matter of citizenship as defined by bureaucratic protocols: it’s a vocation of one’s soul. (In an era that’s so wisely alive to how anyone might be born in the wrong body, we’ve given little attention to the thought that anyone might be French or Dutch or Italian and yet have been landed with a body defined, by current politics, as Australian.)

To get back to James on his bench: what he is fantasising about is a special kind of conversation, one that’s intimate and serious at the same time; it’s ambitious about ideas, but humane and witty and warm. Perhaps the actual family, by the walls of whose home he sits, won’t quite live up to his ideal – but they might. One of the most appealing things about Italy, which continues into the present, is the widespread culture of conversation. The taxi driver has views on Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza – inexpert, maybe, but seriously held; the girl working at the bar likes talking about writers from Dante Alighieri to TS Eliot; the chef at the restaurant doesn’t care for quotations: he wants to think through every big question of existence for himself (and doesn’t realise that Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would have loved his conclusions). A delight of Italian culture is the conviction that good things are for everyone. The soccer supporters are in the piazza, eating pizza and drinking wine and proudly in love with the baroque facade of the local church.


THIS KIND OF European cultural conversation reached a particular peak in the eighteenth century. The guiding ideal was the integration – or marriage – of social and intellectual life. In an elegant room, usually in an aristocratic house (perhaps in Paris or Milan or near London), a small group of serious-minded people would meet to discuss ideas. It was unlike an academic seminar: the atmosphere was playful; the aim was to be witty as well as wise. Participants didn’t think of themselves as amateurs, incapable of more elevated rigours. Rather, they detected a crucial merit in framing intellectual discourse in terms of friendly, engaging conversation. Ideas, they believed, became more powerful when they were presented in terms that would suit a party rather than a lecture hall. In the salon, no one had to be listened to; they earned the attention of their friends with the ease and contour of their talk, with their pith. The aphorism was their ideal: a memorable, repeatable summation of a point worth memorising and worth repeating; something you could try out on your less learned friends.


SEEN FROM CONTEMPORARY Australia, the salon can seem like an odd artefact: a charming curiosity, which may be admired and understood in its period setting, but is no more relevant to contemporary life than the powdered wigs and crinoline dresses of its habitués from the 1700s.

But the salon has multiple virtues – and a distinctive potential – that fit the particular needs of our times. In the ideal salon of today, it’s not just avowed intellectuals who are present. A salon needs people who represent varied aspects of how our world functions – people with experience of public administration, of business, of finance, of advertising and marketing. We don’t know nearly enough about the reality of other people’s experiences. We know some of the outside picture: we’ve a vague notion of what it’s like to be a real estate agent or a ministerial advisor or a writer or the manager of a medium-sized business; but the inner story of what is truly involved and what it’s actually like mostly passes us by. We need to hear the honest confessions, the backroom stories, the trials and the hopes of people who are not quite the same as us.

Theoretically, social life would provide this, but it’s routinely the site of the kindest failure. Ten people get around a table or twenty-five people stand about drinking cocktails: it’s very pleasant, everyone is good-natured, but at the end of the evening we realise we have never gone above the level of polite chitchat. We’ve asked people how they are and they’ve told us they’re great; we’ve talked in a jokey way about what’s in the news – though we’d never give our honest views and don’t imagine anyone else would either. Our hosts have devoted the greatest care to what we eat and drink – and it is certainly delicious. They’ve worried about the canapés and bought a new kind of balsamic vinegar for the salad dressing (and that’s a delightful thoughtfulness on their part). But there’s no equivalent ambition that we should have a particularly fruitful or profound conversation. It’s no one’s fault. Australian culture hasn’t set this up as a central concern – as a necessary, even sufficient, ingredient for any social gathering.

The lovely idea of the salon is that conversation shouldn’t be left to chance. We should, in advance, hit upon a common theme for the evening. It might be fairly personal – what I’ve found most difficult in my career – or more overtly public: is democracy broken? We could tackle a huge philosophical question – is beauty purely subjective? – or a secret detail of existence: how often do you think you are an idiot? The questions aren’t ultimately to be resolved in a few hours of discussion. The point, rather, is to identify a catalyst for the deeper explorations of one another’s experiences, attitudes, ideas, doubts, ambitions, worries, changes of outlook, styles of thinking and moments of revelation: that is, from the vast richness and complexity of accumulated inner life that we all carry with us, but rarely share in detail.

We learn most deeply when we learn from people we feel close to. We can grasp the allure of ideas that hitherto have been closed to us because they are advocated by someone we know well and trust and feel warm towards. The fundamental check on our intelligence is not so much barriers of rationality – an inability to follow a logical argument – but the private contours of our imaginative sympathy. We don’t see how anyone could be a monarchist or an admirer of brutalist architecture; seventeenth-century Japanese prints or the music of ABBA mean nothing to us – until we hear someone we really like explaining in the right way their love for these things. We don’t need to hear it from just anyone – the world is full of enthusiasts who we easily dismiss. It has to be someone who has already won our respect and, more than that, has a hold on our affection. The closer we feel to someone, the more accessible their lives become.

Disagreement isn’t in itself a problem, though we understandably fear conflict arising on occasions that are supposed to be pleasing. What we’re ideally trying to do in the salon is educate one another in how to handle disagreement gracefully. What someone says may be the exact reverse of what you think – perhaps they are not right, maybe you are. But in the salon there’s a key premise at work: the other person is onto something, they’re not in any way stupid, they’re telling you what they believe. This sounds like almost nothing, and entirely obvious anyway: but in reality it’s incredibly hard for us to accept that someone can be wrong and yet fascinating; that they can hold a view we find incredible and yet be a transparently decent and capable and intelligent person. In the dream salon, the response when we encounter disagreement is not to try to decide who is right, but to explore the real reasons people think as they do. What attracts them to a particular way of seeing things? What experiences lie behind their convictions, what doubts have they had and how did they quieten them? To understand this is far more important than trying to convert someone or adjudicate a truth that – however grand-sounding – has little direct consequence on our lives. The deepest question we can ask others – but rarely do – is what does this idea mean to you?


THE SALON IS, in a certain sense, clearly a European idea: that’s where it developed and first flourished. And this historical fact can lead to the limiting assumption that the idea of the salon can’t work here in Australia. But there is nothing specifically tying this evolved form of social exchange to any particular segment of the globe’s surface. The idea of Europe itself, as a fairly coherent cultural notion, only emerged very slowly and is still far from mature. People might equally have wondered in 1832 or 1961 how an idea that had thrived in Paris could possibly be relevant to people living in Vienna or London. What made Europe distinctive was a tradition of not caring too much where an idea came from. The dominant classical architecture that defines the centres of London and Paris came from Greece and Rome. Europeans didn’t think that a good idea couldn’t work because it came from a place it took several days (at best) to get to.

As the world feels like it is contracting or fragmenting into its smaller constituent parts, and as the COVID-19 crisis suggests that our opportunities to travel might be severely curtailed for at least some time, a new idea comes to the fore. If we can’t get to Europe, we can bring what we love in Europe here.

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