When the leaders of what is now called Emergent landed on the term “conversation” to describe itself, they landed on a loaded term. Why? Because “conversation” has a noble history and because not all Christians know how to “converse.” They know how to argue and denounce and affirm and confess and assert, but the art of conversation is not its most notable feature. To foster conversation, I begin a series on the Art of Conversation but I speak here for myself, not for Emergent.
The question: What are the central characteristics of a genuine conversation in your opinion?
I don’t anticipate this series being a long one, but to kick-start it I want to draw your attention to a massive and brilliant study, but for most of us far too specialized to be a book to “blog” our way through. The book is Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation. Her book is a detailed analysis of 17th Century salons, directed mostly by women, designed not for professors and specialists but for a nobility that wanted to form a society where its values and interests could become the central focus. I contend that the term “conversation” can be understood by taking an interest in this movement. I see its descendants in high society England and major metropolises in the world (e.g., high society New York — think The New Yorker). One publisher comes to mind: Alfred A. Knopf.
Let me list some characteristics and then in our next post begin to work our way into an understanding of “conversation” when it comes to “emergent” and then into a few suggestions for the Christian art of conversation.
The Age of Conversation, seen in the salons especially in France, found a group of people who had the following characteristics:
1. They were directed by women and showed an unusual degree of integration between the sexes.
2. They were concerned with the pleasure of conversation, of learning, of enjoying one another.
3. They were shaped by absolute equality between all participants.
4. They had an ideal: to “marry lightheartedness with depth, elegance with pleasure, and the search for truth with a tolerant respect for the opinions of others” (xiii).
5. They sealed themselves off from the power structures and politics of the day in order to form an ideal society.
6. They were shaped by a style: they carried on their lives with a notable style and a code of manners.
7. They secured an informal society that had some clear boundaries between themselves and others.
8. They were opposed from the left (Rousseau thought they were oppressive) and right (Pascal thought they were too worldly).
9. They privatized what was most important to life.
Now to the issue of “style”…
Life was made in the salons of France into “the most elegant of games” (340) that was shaped by loving one’s partner and fellow salon members as they ought to be loved. Tolerance and mutual respect shaped the conversation completely; honoring the integrity and value of the other shaped the the conversation as well. These conversations became the educational force for those so involved.
Central to the task was aim of pleasing others and to do this they developed several strategies, and I shall try to use the French words with some brief translation:
Esprit: mental, spiritual, and social sense and joy.
Galanterie: chivalry, galantry.
Complaisance: an obligation to the other, kindness, amiability.
Flatterie: without being overdone, one was to complement the other.
Raillerie: playful teasing of one another.
There are dangers here, like snobbishness, and they are obvious for anyone to see. But what happened was that the French salons created an environment where conversation occurred, not to beat the daylights out of someone else, not to denounce the other, but to enjoy the pleasure of discussing pressing concerns of a given group. They learned to converse in order to learn from one another and make one another more educated.
Conversation like this, however, has its problems. As Craveri sums them up, “their exquisite courtesy was a means of domination, and their intellectual malleability was a mask for sterility and sophism” (356). In fact, at times such conversations refused to ask the hard question. “As on the battlefield where French officers took their hats off to the enemy, or in life’s crucial moments when notaries drink to the health of their expiring clients, so, in theological discussion, politesse had the upper hand, and Morellet would turn to his adversary and address him as ‘Monsieur and dear atheist'” (359).
In other words, and I hope you like this swiped line from Cynthia Ozik, the danger of conversation in this sense is “tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte gone flagrante delicto.”