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by Richard Nilsen

The world’s most famous novel addresses war and peace, but it begins, oddly, in a lady’s salon in St. Petersburg.
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Anna Pavlovna had sent out the invitations: “If you have nothing better to do, Count (or Prince) … I shall be very charmed to see you tonight between 7 and 10.”
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Then: “Anna Pavlovna’s drawing-room was gradually filling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there.” Subjects of great pitch and moment were discussed among the men and women, including war and peace.
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In the novel, it is 1805 and near the end of two centuries of such salons, almost always run by women, and a gathering place for the best and brightest —  philosophers, writers, politicians and theologians.
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Their purpose was, as laid down by the Roman poet Horace, “aut delectare aut prodesse” — “to entertain and to educate.” All across Europe, such gatherings were where the latest ideas were hashed out, usually by the people with the means and power to bring them to practical fruition.
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It was in these salons, and their all-male counterpart, the coffeehouses, that the Enlightenment took shape.
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In recent years, Justine Kolata has attempted to resurrect the salon in contemporary London, in a group called The Public Sphere. She explains those of the

Justine Kolata

18th century: “They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately 20 to 40 people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon.”

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Further, she says, “Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. … Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals.”
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Sound familiar?
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Historian Susan Herbst writes: “Strong women remade the salons. They became central information nodes in the communication network that was 18th century Paris. Salons were soon news agencies, workshops for writers and centers for patronage. Many of the salonnières worked actively to make their gatherings simulate the classroom. Although discussion was the key mode of communication at the salon, lecturing followed by close questioning of the speaker was not uncommon… Women used the salons strategically to learn, to be entertained and to escape the boredom that characterized many of their lives.”
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It is said the central drives of human life are food, shelter and procreation, but there is another: the drive to learn. We too often think of education as something provided for children, continuing perhaps through college, but then having been fully formed, we go out into the world to make our way. But the fact is, we never stop learning, or more important, wanting to learn. That can be by study or by experience. It can be as simple as learning how to plant potatoes or as complex as parsing Sanskrit.
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The formal salon was originated in Europe among already educated classes, but the desire to learn is not so restricted. In the United States, a more democratic version grew. Middle-class people, wanting to better themselves, attended the lyceum or the chautauqua, where they paid to hear lecturers discuss subjects from history to travel to what we would now call “life hacks.”
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During this period, primarily the middle years of the 19th century,  these lyceums were established for the purpose of improving the social, intellectual, and moral fabric of society. They featured lectures, dramatic performances, class instructions, and debates, by noted lecturers, entertainers and readers. It was possible for someone to make a living traveling the lecture circuit, traveling from town to town or state to state to entertain, speak, or debate in a variety of locations, never staying in one place for too long. Their appearances were open to the public, which caused them to contribute significantly to the education of the adult American in years before and after the Civil War.
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Later in the century and into the early years of the 20th, the lyceum gave way to the chautauqua, which was traditionally held over several days under a tent, rather like a religious revival meeting. Speakers were often inspirational or reformist, touting such things as temperance, women’s rights, and moral uplift. Often, there was music: bands or spirituals. (It was in the chautauquas that white middle-class northerners were exposed to African-American music beyond the insulting parodies of the minstrel shows).
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The chautauqua began in 1874 on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was known as the “Mother Chautauqua,” because there were soon many “daughter chautauquas” springing up around the country.
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“Given the values, technology and geography of its time,” wrote educator Peter Feinman, “Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America.
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“The Chautauqua founders recognized that many middle-class Americans with no access to higher education, especially in rural areas, were thirsting for knowledge in an accessible format.
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“It brought people new things to talk about: For a brief moment a small town could become a cultural center linked to the larger world, much as radio, movies, television and the Internet would later do.”
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Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
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They were an alternative entertainment to the vaudeville shows, a kind of middle-brow version of highbrow. Eventually, though, the vaudeville won out and the chautauquas faded. (They do still exist, in reduced form).
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Yet, the desire for adult education did not cease. An America striving for improvement, moral and intellectual, found other means, including the Carnegie libraries, and later, the Book of the Month Club (founded in 1926) and the Literary Guild (founded in 1927). There were the Harvard Five-Foot-Shelf and the rise of popular encyclopedias — Compton’s and Funk and Wagnall’s, among others.
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But even the salon concept persisted — and still persists. In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Logan Roberts and Georgia Douglas Johnson brought together the stars of African-American culture and literature.
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And now, groups in England, such as Salon London, The Public Sphere and Pindrop Studios continue the tradition. And in the Arab world, salons in private homes offer women the chance for learning, and allowed for mixed-gender socializing. Within the confines of the salon, the free-flow of conversation and reciprocity is encouraged, and a sense of equality is fostered.
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Keith David Watenpaugh writes in his 2006 book, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class of  the opulent evenings spent in a Syrian salon: “Wearing either all black or all white dresses ordered from Paris, Marrash hosted the mixed evening get-togethers in which literary topics as varied as the Mu’allaqat, a cycle of seven pre-Islamic poems or the work of Rabelais were discussed. Chess and card games were played, and complicated poetry competitions took place; wine and ’araq flowed freely; participants sang, danced, and listened to records played on a phonograph.”
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And Iranian author Azar Nafisi wrote about discussing Western authors in a salon group in her best-selling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran.
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The lust for learning is unquenchable. Hence the popularity of TED Talks, the rise of The Great Courses and streaming Great Courses Plus, and the flow of

Amanda Podany; Great Courses

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Horace had it right: entertain and educate. The two are not at odds. To an inquisitive mind, little is as entertaining as learning. We should not be shy about the power of being amused.lectures and panel discussions telecast on C-Span Book TV and now, C-Span History TV, which fill up the Congress-free weekend hours.
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I remember my college roommate who said the goal of life is to be amused. He meant nothing shallow by this: His idea of amusement was to enter the Peace Corps for two go-rounds, and spent seven years in Korea. He spent his time learning Korean, Japanese and Mandarin — to add to his collection of Spanish, German and Italian. He later got his graduate degrees in Spanish Linguistics and wound up teaching at Indiana University. Amusement was never sitting in front of a TV watching sitcoms and eating Doritos.
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Being amused, in this sense, is being engaged, being connected to the world, being interested. It leads to cosmopolitanism and a drastic reduction in bigotry, prejudice and ignorance.
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Finally, on a personal note, I always felt I learned a great deal preparing and talking to the members of the Spirit of the Senses. I miss that very much.  My hunger is not quenched.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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