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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 124-126
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Confrontations with Rousseau's Historiographical and Pedagogical Legacy
Antoine Lilti's Le Monde des salons offers a rich and multi-faceted account of an essential eighteenth-century social and cultural context. If we know it today as the "salon," it was only named as such after the fact. What is more, Lilti argues, this world never did quite conform to the standard notions that we have inherited of it, whether via Rousseau esque aversion to aristocratic culture or post Revolutionary nostalgia for polite society. Opening with a chapter on "The Invention of the Salon" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lilti pointedly and provocatively situates his study in the disparities that differentiate such archetypal images as Lemonnier's 1814 painting "Une lecture chez Mme Geoffrin," portraying d'Alembert reading Voltaire's L'Orphelin de Chine before a gathering of the intellectual and political vanguard of the Enlightenment, from what he argues was a more complex, diverse and diffuse social reality. The book derives much of its energy from the effort to rethink historiographical commonplaces, foremost being the tendency to define the salon too narrowly in terms of a regular get-together. Instead, Lilti argues that what comes to be called the "salon" designates a broader constellation of social practices, which he characterizes in terms not of a place or a recurring event but of a coherent social dynamic, "la sociabilité mondaine." He identifies this dynamic by four criteria, two of which are especially illustrative: The first is "divertissement" and the search for pleasure, entailing a society that is its own end. The second is politeness, which, following Norbert Elias, Lilti associates with the long term transformation of noble culture, through court-society, into the elite urban system of le monde.
In this respect, the salon is not, for Lilti, opposed to the "court" as an egalitarian rather than a rigidly hierarchical space. The opposition of salon to court has been a running motif since Tallement des Réaux described the creation of Mme de Rambouillet's chambre bleue as a refuge from Henri IV's notoriously rough Louvre. But Lilti emphasizes continuity: "l'usage du monde [est] en grande partie dérivé [ . . . ] de la rationalité de cour" (167), insofar as the basic principle underlying both milieux remains that of elite identity and distinction. In addition, he argues against viewing the salon exclusively as a privileged medium for "literary" activity. It is only in the other direction that we can meaningfully understand the connection between the salon and the writers and texts that it so famously embraced: "Il est tentant, alors, de renverser l'analyse et, au lieu de regarder les activités des salons comme des pratiques littéraires, d'étudier la littérature au salon comme une pratique mondaine" (273). Given that these writers and texts were also the primary figures and works of the French Enlightenment, Lilti's analysis of the salon leads him to the question of how to reconcile the progressive "philosophie" of the eighteenth century with the high society out of which it emerged. His analysis is trenchant in its efforts to reframe the long running debate on why [End Page 124] the philosophes were so drawn to le monde, even as they criticized noble frivolity and arbitrary rank. Most accounts, he argues, have over-emphasized distinctions, say, between Classical-era ruelles and the "serious" gatherings of the eighteenth century or between "literary" and "aristocratic" salons. But in fact, such dichotomies are foreign to the logic of a cultural formation that simply did not postulate any contradiction between noble pastime and legitimate intellectual pursuit: elite sociability could foster critical enquiry just as criticism could, and should, if it was to be authoritative, conform to the established codes of aristocratic civility. The secret...