Under my byline

Talking heads

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 16 May 2009

Ridicule, dir. Patrice LeconteOVERLEAF 29

The wonderful French film Ridicule (1996) follows the short career of a minor nobleman named Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy at the pre-apocalyptic court of Louis XVI in Versailles. Like bees drawn to honey, the thousands of nobles of every degree massed there buzz for favour and advancement. For many, the only hope is to achieve conspicuous success as a wit — that is, to be able to engage in fast, clever and original repartee and rapier-sharp put-downs, thus getting rivals out of the way. The final arbiters of taste (and taste is strict indeed: puns, for instance, are frowned upon) cluster about the king, an amiable dolt, and are, like all the participants in this ruthless sport, utterly humourless.

Apparently spontaneous, such deadly wordplay in fact requires intense preparation. One former courtier, recalling past glories, shows Ponceludon de Malavoy his vast card catalogue of witticisms, classified and cross-indexed according to the permitted categories.

Reading in the news this week that Mr and Mrs Obama had hosted “An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word” at the White House, to which they invited well-known actors, poets and writers, I was reminded of this film and, by extension, of the role of the salon — that antique form of entertainment a few organisational steps above the adda. Ridicule, of course, takes the medium to its extreme, to the point at which wit is no longer wise and no longer serves humanistic aims — a plain metaphor for the decadence and moral emptiness of the court as a whole.

The Obamas’ affair was naturally a sedate and non-contentious occasion, dedicated to showcasing talent and having a pleasant time rather than engaging in passionate discourse. Even so, the president said: “We’re here to celebrate the power of words and music to help us appreciate beauty and also understand pain. They inspire us to action.” This is a touch woolly, but bodes well for future events at the Obama court.

If, however unlikely this is, the Obamas wish to make their soirées a forum for open and freewheeling conversation (thus truly celebrating “the power of words”), they or the appointed MC will have to work very hard. The wit-cataloguing nobleman of Ridicule is not the only example: I thought first of Genia Schwarzwald, the remarkable woman activist of pre-1940s Vienna who is affectionately but judiciously portrayed in management thinker Peter Drucker’s fantastic, autobiographical Adventures of a Bystander (1979). She ran a successful and long-lasting salon at her home, five nights a week, which Drucker attended as a precocious adolescent.

Madame Geoffrin's salon in 18th c Paris, from Jacques Delille, La Conversation, 1812The Schwarzwald salon was an elaborate and choreographed performance. Drucker observes that, traditionally, there were two types of salons: one the dominant French model, run by women with women as the chief participants; and the other managed by a woman to showcase a male star, like the salons at which Dr Samuel Johnson and Anatole France shone. But Genia’s was, Drucker realised many years later, more like the modern TV talk show pioneered in America, where one participant at a time sits next to the host and is “on camera”. Young Drucker himself made it “on camera” a few times, and found it a scary but fruitful experience.

There were a few fixed stars at Genia’s salon, however, individuals who “combined intellectual incandescence, independence of mind, and radiant beauty” — not so far-fetched a description of the Obamas themselves.

The era of the true salon is past, definitively, and was over even while Genia ran hers. Yet, “high” culture is in again. The “public intellectuals” who rule the airwaves and the commentariat are journalists, academics and think-tankers; perhaps the Obama evenings will be an early step in a return to the political stage of the artist — for so long held at bay in the cultural highlands.

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