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Response to Review of The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris

We should be delighted that the tradition of harsh criticism is still alive in the academic world. And I am grateful to the editors of Review in History for inviting me to repond to the long review of my book by Elena Russo. Apparently, ten years after the original publication, the book still seems to merit a detailed discussion, and even, it would seem, a demolition.

Russo’s review, however, is curious. It starts with a short, though rather fair, statement of the objectives and conclusions of my work, and then gradually proceeds to offer an increasingly distorted and hostile interpretation, which ends in a refutation of a piece of work that I do not recognize at all. I was surprised, for example, to learn that I have written a ‘danse macabre’, full of ‘humiliations’ and ‘passive obedience’, and built on an absurd determinist conception of history. On the contrary, I tried to show that the salons were at once places of creativity and distinction, where the criteria of social prestige were refashioned by the interactions betweeen wealthy aristocrats and men of letters. The World of the Salons is not a dark tale of social domination, but an inquiry into the ambivalent signfications of polite sociability in Old Regime society at a moment of profound social and intellectual change.

Yet, nothing in the book seems to suit the tastes of my Professor Russo – neither the method, nor the sources, nor the conclusions. The concept of ‘worldliness’ (mondanité), for example, which stands at the heart of the book, seems inappropriate to her on the grounds that the word did not exist in the 18th century. She worries that its use might thus enlarge the scope of the study from the classical ‘salons’ to the larger game of sociabilities. But that, precisely, is the purpose of the book, as Russo herself acknowledges. Indeed, I sought to propose a new category of historical sociology to explain a phenomenon obscured by the notion of ‘literary salon’, which was inherited from the literary history of the Third Republic. The utility of the concept of worldliness, in my view, is to describe both a social formation, a set of more or less formalized practices, and a cultural set of debates, which focused on the issue of ‘le monde’, in the specific sense of ‘high society’. It is certainly possible to debate the use of the concept, to clarify it, to challenge it, or even to dismiss it altogether. That is, after all, what scholarship intends – to engender critical contestation. But it seems bizarre to disqualify the term, as Russo does, simply on the on the grounds that Barthes and Deleuze once used it!

Oddly, while Russo reproaches me for placing too much value on a collection of quotations and anecdotes, her own critical strategy depends largely on offering a different interpretation based on a small handful of citations. For instance, to cast doubt on my analysis of the social conflicts that occurred within worldly sociability, Russo says nothing of the long analysis I propose of the conflicts around La Reynière’s ambitions, or the many testimonies I quote from very different authors. She only focuses on two short citations which she claims I have misunderstood. Concerning the letter from Maréchal Richelieu to Mme Favart, Russo is right to insist on the context of the theatre, but Richelieu’s formula is broader, and reveals that the language of sociability was far from necessarily implying an egalitarian ethos. Besides, as we know, relations between the gentlemen of the court, actors, playwrights, and Papillon de la Ferté is precisely one of the cases in which daily tensions were felt between the ideals of wordly ‘honneteté’ and the constraints of social and political subordination. It is therefore excessive to characterize this this correspondence as a mere ‘business letter’. As for the citation from Diderot, Russo’s interpretation seems far-fetched. Diderot is not engaging in this text in an anthropological and legal discussion of civil life. He is thinking quite specifically about how a man of letters should behave in society in relation to les grands, and the reference to ‘les sauvages’ is obviously an implicit critique of Rousseau. To quote this text in a discussion of worldliness is not at all to pursue a strategy of ‘loose analogy’. It is, on the contrary, to accurately contextualize an important and oft-recurring debate in the encyclopaedist milieu. The rising social status of writers and their attendance at high society salons confronted them with hard choices, since they were forced to balance the fiction of equality that governed polite conversations against the reality of the social distinctions they experienced daily. Diderot’s text deals at length with this issue, and with the proper tone to adopt with ‘gens du monde’. Curiously, Russo does not seem to notice that in addition to the short quotation she mentions, I cite and comment at length on the same text in the following chapter, relating it to other texts by Diderot (especially Le Neveu de Rameau), and to positions taken by other writers (Morellet, La Harpe, d’Alembert). What I try to demonstrate is not only the ambivalence and the contradiction, but also the awareness that characterized the relations of writers with ‘le monde’. Diderot is a good example, since he desperately sought to negotiate between the snobbery of Grimm, on the one hand, and the fierce criticism of Rousseau, on the other. To treat the dilemma of Diderot and other writers in this way couldn’t be farther from a strategy of an ‘unmasking of the agents’ false consciousness’ that Russo pretends to find in my book.

Let me stress that I am genuinely open to the discussion and criticism of my findings and conclusions – and indeed welcome such exchanges as the very stuff that makes scholarship exciting. Yet, in order to take such criticism seriously, it must be conducted in good faith. To pretend, as Russo does, that my conclusions are based simply on a collection of decontextualized anecdotes does not seem to me to meet this minimal standard. Indeed, for a critic of the past, Russo seems curiously uninterested in historical investigation. She dislikes, and even despises, any kind of social history, which she sees as mere ‘materialism’. She shows no interest in my archival findings. She apparently can not figure out why the quantitative analysis of the police archives are so important. She does not mention the private ‘carnets’ of Mme Goeffrin, the papers of Mme de La Ferté Imbault, or the letters I found in Geneva, London, and Paris. Nor does she make the slightest reference to the notarial documents that reveal that Morellet, d’Alembert and Thomas, who wrote famous ‘Eloges’ of Mme Geoffrin, received a monthly ‘pension’ from their generous friend.  Therefore,the gap is too great between Russo’s goal of general refutation, on the one hand, and the nitpicking around a few quotes, on the other. It is regrettable since some of the questions raised by Russo, about the public sphere, the ideal of sociability or the temporality of worldliness, are worth being seriously discussed. I understand that some scholars would like to stress, more that I do, the power of langage and the autonomy of polite discourses from the social dynamics of ‘le monde’. That is why this review looks as a missed opportunity for a fruitful debate. Then, rahter than reply to every one of Russo’s specific criticisms, (even though some, especially with regard to historiographical discussion, strike me as particularly unjust) (1), let me emphasize a few issues of general importance and leave readers to judge the specifics for themselves.

The first general issue regards the public sphere. Russo’s comments reveal many misunderstandings on her part. First, I do not criticize the whole of Habermas’ theory, but only the interpretation that sees in the salons an institution of the bourgeois public sphere. This interpretation was taken up and developed in the 1990s by numerous authors, including Daniel Gordon and Dena Goodman, while erasing the social and economic dimensions of Habermas’ own analysis. In my view, salons are much better understood as social venues of ‘le monde’ (high society), which had its own rules and its own dynamics at the intersection of the Versailles court, the urban elite, and the milieu of letters. This space, in truth, was neither private nor public, but corresponded to the area of ​​’society’, not in the modern sense of the general conditions of civil life, but in the 18th-century sense of small and informal gatherings of conviviality. I stress this point repeatedly in the book, so it is difficult to grasp Russo’s odd assertion that I would defend an abrupt private/public dichotomy or that I would present the salons as ‘private’ spaces. I simpy make no such claims.

Moreover, it is highly ironic that Russo reproaches me for not being interested in the dynamics of publicity and in the emotional reactions of readers who took up the defense of Rousseau when his celebrated quarrel with Hume went public. I am very interested in the subject. So interested, in fact, that it forms one of the central themes of the book I published two years ago on the history of celebrity. In this book, I pursue the discussion of Habermas’s model of the public sphere, but this time from another angle, examining the role of emotions, curiosity, and sensibility, rather than rational argumentation, in the shaping of the public sphere. Of course, I can hardly reproach Russo for not having read my new book. But it is difficult to convince myself that she is ignorant of my interest in this topic, since I published an article on Rousseau’s ambivalences about celebrity several years ago that Russo herself has quoted positively in a paper of her own!(2)

Despite my interest in Rousseau’s contradictions, Russo claims that I am a follower of Rousseau, and that I simply endorse his negative image of worldliness wholecloth. This is completely misguided. I spend as much time analyzing the varied perspectives of Voltaire, Morellet, La Harpe, and Mercier, who report both positively and ambiguously on salon life, and I do so with equal sympathy. In fact, I have tried to show two things: first, that the worldly sociability of the salons was not immune from the social and political tensions of Old Regime society. Second, that wordliness sparked very different discourses, ranging from praise to criticism. On this point, I think we agree. But unlike Russo (or Gordon), I do not grant any privilege to a discourse of praise. Rather, I aimed to show that these debates revealed the ambivalences and the contradictions of the situation of writers in 18th-century polite society. Most of them vacillated between the Voltairian ideal of a political and cultural alliance with the social elites and the monarchy, and the new values associated with patriotism and a broader conception of the public.

Carried away by her desire to refute the book in its entirety, Russo finally attacks my ‘method’, which she attributes to a materialistic and vaguely Marxist social history as well as to the ‘structural formalism of mid-sixties literary criticism’, a combination that apparently yeilds the odd consequence that my way of writing history resembles that of … Marc Fumaroli! Really? All this does not seem very coherent, and indeed, once again, not very serious. Eager to discredit my work, she lumps it together with that of her theoretical adversaries, without trying to understand my approach on its own terms. To take only one example, it is simply wrong, as well as absurd, to write that ‘one of the unshakeable convictions of this book is that cultural competence must be reduced to one’s own class interests, and that the social group people are born into determines every facet of their intellectual life’. Not even the most unrecontructed Marxist from the 1960s would share that view today; I certainly don’t. On the contrary, the book’s principal aim is to show that wordly practices allowed bourgeois women like Mme Geoffrin (whom I do not represent as ‘ridiculous’) or intellectuals like Marmontel and Suard to enter high society and to fashion themselves as ‘hommes du monde’ rather than as simply ‘writers’. Even the traditional nobility was profoundly affected by the dynamics of wordliness and the new criteria of social prestige, based on cultural competence and polite codes. Moreover, I do not assume that there is a direct link between social status, wordly practice, and intellectual life. As I write in the conclusion to the book: ‘The adherence of many men of letters to the practices and representations of high society does not imply any abdication of criticism, as shown by the case of the baron d’Holbach. A writer’s intellectual autonomy was not necessarily asserted by a formal break with elites, but could also take place, within certain limits, through a commitment to some of their cultural values’ (p. 237). That is why the short final ‘lesson’ that Professor Russo deigns to give me on the opposition between intellectual history and social history seems needlessly condescending and mal-à-propos. It reveals a vision of historiographical debates unchanged since the 1990s. No wonder, then, that Russo does not understand that one might try to write a social and cultural history that integrates intellectual history, but that does not cede to it the autonomy that it sometimes claims.(3)

More disturbing, perhaps, is that Russo seems horrified by the fact that I make reference to Marcel Proust in order to understand the mechanisms of worldliness! Proust, however, was an outstanding analyst of salon life and his views were less negative than Russo believes. Just as she is shocked that I dare mention the term ‘worldliness’ as a long term feature of French cultural history, she sees in my invocation of the name of Proust clear proof of my total lack of historical method. As a literary scholar, and a specialist of the 18th century, she finds it obvious that since Montesquieu and Proust did not live in the same century, they do not belong to the same world. But this crude historicism is naive! Of course, one task of the historian is to identify different temporalities. And yet wordliness, as a social and symbolic form, has certain longue durée features, which can be observed over time. It hardly needs to be said that this does not mean that polite society remained unchanged. The second half of the 18th century corresponds to a particular period in French social and cultural history when the role of the salons had the greatest impact, while in the early 20th century, Proust painted a declining and even dying high society. The historian must try to describe and interpret the articulation of these different temporalities, but also the play of cultural memory and retrospective imagination, of which Proust himself was, as a writer, a subtle analyst.

In reading this lengthy review, I kept returning to one central question : why would a colleague dedicate 24 pages to an attempt to demolish a book she obviously finds badly researched and badly thought? The final pages offered me the answer: my book, in her view, is not only wrong, it is also dangerous because it attacks a myth, that of the literary salons of the 18th century, where elegant sociability and philosophical criticism were supposed to have cohabited peacefully. This is not only a political fantasy, whose history I study at length in the French edition of the book. It is also part of the credo of many academics today, who dream of an intellectual arena immune to all interactions with the vulgar world. Above all, it is part of the professional capital of literary scholars, and one of the reasons why they love the 18th century. They feel so strongly compelled to defend it, that when strong evidence is lacking, they welcome caricature and mispresentation in its place. In the end, Russo reproaches me bitterly for a lack of ‘historical imagination and generosity’. The mention of generosity here must be, I assume, ironic …. As for imagination, one needs a great deal of it to continue to believe in the fanciful vision of the 18th-century salon that she, and others, have inherited from the 19th century.


  1. Russo reproaches me to not mention enough Daniel Gordon and Dena Goodman. It is true that the English edition has very less notes and that the historiographical discussion is much more allusive. But Russo knows perfectly that in the French original edition, both Gordon and Goodman are frequently quoted, either to acknowledge my debts, or, more frequently, to explain my disagreements with their works. The French edition also contains a whole chapter on the ‘invention of the salon’, from the early 19th century to current historiography.Back to (1)
  2. Antoine Lilti, Figures publiques : les origines de la célébrité (1750–1850) (Paris, 2014), English translation forthcoming with Polity Press (2017). The article is Antoine Lilti, ‘The writing of paranoïa : Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the paradoxes of celebrity’, Representations, 103 (Summer 2008), pp. 53–80. Russo quotes it, rather positively, in her ‘Slander and glory in the Republic of letters: Diderot and Seneca confront Rousseau’ <> [accessed 28 September 2016]. The first draft of my article was presented at a seminar at Johns Hopkins University, at which Russo was present. It was evidently a forgettable occasion, for she seems now to have forgotten it.Back to (2)
  3. Since Russo pretends that I am reluctant to engage with intellectual history, let me mention a number of articles in which I do just that: ‘Comment écrit-on l’histoire intellectuelle des Lumières? Spinozisme, radicalisme et philosophie?’, Annales HSS, 64, 1 (janvier-février 2009), 171–206; ‘Does intellectual history exist in France? The chronicle of a Renaisssance foretold’, in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives and Appraisals, ed. Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn (Oxford, 2013); ‘Le pouvoir du crédit au XVIIIe siècle : Histoire intellectuelle et sciences sociales’, Annales HSS, 4 (octobre-décembre 2015), 957–77.Back to (3)