Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Age of Conversation by Benedetta Craveri.

Benedetta Craveri examines the world of the French salon from its genesis. Beginning in 1618 (the exact date is unknown), Mme de Rambouillet first invited a select group of fellow aristocrats to her Blue Room, where they participated in an experiment: a social event where conversation reigned and would be developed into an art. This event may seem trivial to the serious student of evolving western history; but it created a blueprint of social interaction for the following generation of the Enlightenment. The salonnieres of that later generation would use this forum to educate themselves, elevate the importance of reason and begin the process of questioning traditional institutions. This questioning would result in the French Revolution.

The usefulness of Craveri’s work is that it elucidates the origins of the salon. Most discussions of this institution begin with the Enlightenment. They overlook that the act of taking ceremonial manners out of the king’s court, into a realm where aristocrats focused gallant respect upon each other, was an innovation. This change of focus marks the beginning of the public sphere that would eventually challenge monarchical domination of opinion.

As a feminist historian, the author illuminates important darkened areas in our knowledge regarding women and their contributions during the 15th Century. The world of the salon was created and facilitated by women. This sphere evolved during a time when women were considered, by men, to be little more than a commodity traded between noble families. Women's predominance in this arena is a testament to the intelligence, ingenuity and independence, of individual noble ladies who invented a central role for themselves.

That said, I must reiterate that the Aristocratic Salon was not the Enlightenment Salon. By the beginning of the 15th Century, the nobility of France had lost their position as defenders of the king’s realm to professional armies. No longer contributing knights and warriors to the monarch’s battles, this class was left to justify its indolent position by professing its inherent superiority over productive classes. Such a goal cannot be pursued without a heroic attitude of self-involvement and arrogance. This was a circle which “never tired” concerning “the idealized story of their own daily lives” (Craveri, p. 47). The salon provided an extension of this show. Since nobles were now holding court for each other, the rules of courtly conduct still applied. “Flattery…was essential to society. How could courtesy—and even more so gallantry—systematically embellish everyday life without the providential aid of a lie?” (Craveri, p. 346). While some discussions concerned the arts, it was more likely that romantic love, taste, friendship or decorum itself, would be the topic. Never, in such an environment, could a Cesare Beccaria tour the most important salons, as he did in the 1760s, discussing prison reform. Topics relating to social change, education and science, would have to wait almost 150 years to enter the conversation. Approximately two-thirds of the book focuses upon the Aristocratic Salon. An intrepid reader will need the qualities of thoroughly enjoying pageantry, finding amusement in the folly of self-important puffery or exercising immense patience. For the reader without such qualities, an avenue is open to her that was not open to this reviewer: she can develop her skimming talents.

Mercifully, the salon does evolve more useful functions over the next century-and-a-half which allow it to genuinely give voice to society. Inclusion of bourgeois writers and thinkers based on their merits, along with the elevation of reason, produces a milieu worthy of the term “Enlightenment.” The environment of Mme de Tencin’s salon typifies this change: “the priority given to intelligence made [social standing] irrelevant…participants…were concerned only with following the logic of their argument to its very end, whatever the outcome might be…the intellectual adventure destined to threaten the whole established order took off” (Craveri, p. 293). It is a shame that only one-third of the book’s space is given to the Enlightenment Salon. But for those wishing to follow (or substitute) Craveri’s study on the years of development with a more thorough examination of the latter period, I recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters.

Craveri’s journey ends with a sad, circular irony: The aristocracy created the salon, in part, to display their superior courtesy and decorum. Such behavior provided a code for their Enlightenment successors to use in creating civil conversation on more controversial issues. These following discussions resulted in a determination that the nobility was the problem; resulting in a revolution which sent aristocrats to the guillotine. Professor Craveri closes with a paragraph from Hippolyte Taine's writing: “In prison, men and women would dress with care, pay each other visits, hold a salon…they would retain their dignity and their smiles; women particularly went to the scaffold with the ease and serenity with which they attended a soiree” (Craveri, p. 375). It is with this irony that noble conversation ended and the candles which had illuminated the evenings of the Aristocratic Salon were snuffed.

Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Neanderthal Man by Savante Paabo

Svante Paabo is a scientist who created and led a research team that uses genetic information to uncover the human past. Among their achievements to date are: 1) Isolating the first fragments of Neanderthal DNA. 2) Mapping the Neanderthal genome (the first complete genome sequenced from an extinct form of human). 3) Showing that there is Neanderthal DNA in the Homo Sapien genome. 4) Identifying that the Denisova Cave remains (discovered by archaeologist Anatoly Derevianko) were of a previously unknown species of hominid. The work of this team, under Paabo’s leadership, confirms the merit of applying genetic science to our study of the human evolutionary past.

Neanderthal Man is a memoir, a lesson in applied genetics and an exciting tale of discovery. It follows the career of one of the most influential paleogeneticists, from his college years through the aforementioned discoveries. Paabo is aware that he is writing for scientists and laypeople alike. Professional information is explained in a clear, methodical manner. The author first lays the groundwork for understanding basic genetics. Paabo then explains how the most advanced technologies for extracting DNA work. He then describes how he and his team employed these technologies to isolate DNA from Neanderthal bones. For the non-scientist, the internet provides important elucidation. Whether one’s interest is in genetics, human evolution or, more generally, to broaden personal knowledge, Neanderthal Man will provide enriching information.

As a memoir, the book is surprisingly frank. Paabo discusses his opinions of his colleagues, his bisexuality, and his political maneuvering in the scientific community. Characterizations can be amusingly blunt: “In charge of the Vindija collection was Maja Paunovic, a woman of a certain age…friendly enough but understandably dour—no doubt aware that science had passed her by” (Paabo, pp. 77-78). The author unselfconsciously discusses getting drunk with fellow geneticists, fretting about other researchers publishing first, romantic relationships with both sexes, and influencing “distinguished colleagues” by taking “advantage of their vanity” (Paabo, p. 217). It is a refreshingly honest look at work and self.

General non-fiction and science readers crave information and understanding. Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man is the kind of book for which we wait. It is a unique tome of new information. The reader learns a great deal while observing the paleogeneticists making discoveries about DNA and humanity’s place in nature. For those whose desire is to learn, a story where talented scientists are advancing humanity’s knowledge is an absorbing read. It makes one feel optimistic about the abilities of our species.

Paabo, Svante. Neanderthal Man. New York: Basic Books, 2014.