13 Nov French Salons and South Asia
Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.
A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:
A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation.
The salon evolved into a well-regulated practice that focused on and reflected enlightened public opinion by encouraging the exchange of news and ideas. By the mid-eighteenth century the salon had become an institution in French society and functioned as a major channel of communication among intellectuals.
A whole world of social arrangements and attitudes supported the existence of French salons: an idle aristocracy, an ambitious middle class, an active intellectual life, the social density of a major urban center, sociable traditions, and a certain aristocratic feminism.
The period in which salons were dominant has been labeled the ‘age of conversation.’
Theatres of conversation and exchange – such as the salons, and the coffeehouses in England – played a critical role in the emergence of… the ‘public sphere’ which emerged in cultural-political contrast to court society.
Wealthy members of the aristocracy have always drawn to their court poets, writers and artists, usually with the lure of patronage, an aspect that sets the court apart from the salon. Another feature that distinguished the salon from the court was its absence of social hierarchy and its mixing of different social ranks and orders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, salons encouraged socializing between the sexes and brought nobles and bourgeois together. Salons helped facilitate the breaking down of social barriers which made the development of the Enlightenment salon possible.
Put all this together and a fairly clear picture begins to emerge. One can see the evolution in society whereby a public space is created outside the patronage of the court and in this space individuals on the strength of their talents and freed from the stigmas of social hierarchy engage in conversations about ideas that form the core of the Enlightenment. And this paves the road to the French Revolution in 1789, the fading out of the monarchy, and its gradual replacement by a democratic political order. (For an understanding of the factors that drove this evolution, read the first part of this excellent essay on Hobbes. The economic historian, Dierdre McCloskey, makes the extreme claim that it was these conversations that explain the modern world, not material or economic factors.)
The contrast with South Asia should also be obvious. The patronage of artists by the courts was very similar to that in France but the creation of independent spaces for public discourse never took place, radical ideas of equality and liberty never took hold, and the hierarchical social order was never disturbed. As a result, a social revolution did not take place in South Asia.
Notwithstanding the absence of a revolution that would have done away with social inequalities, South Asia inherited a democratic order as a legacy of British colonial rule – a democratic order into which the ancien regime survived with its privileges quite intact. Not surprisingly, in this undisturbed social hierarchy, the wielders of authority remained at the top and mere talent at the bottom.
As we have argued in earlier posts, this reversal of sequence is what makes the evolutionary process in South Asia so unique and fascinating – democracy and the vote are being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that is substituting for what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the Western world. And all this is taking place without any real sharp discontinuity in the intellectual and moral worldview of the typical South Asian.
Given the nature of the dynamic, it is no surprise that the struggle for the socially marginalized is proving to be so long drawn out and painful. The privileges of birth are yielding ground only very reluctantly to talent. Not for nothing does South Asia remain one of the last bastions of dynastic rule.
One last thought: can we think of blogs as modern-day equivalents of the French salons? If yes, does that give us some new ideas on how to use them better?