Rather than sit on this post for any longer, I figured I’d chop it into several pieces. The remaining segments (at the moment, I have outlines sufficient for two or three) will be spread over the next five to ten days, with unrelated interludes.
Conrad points us to a superb discourse by Gawain on the aesthetic play of the Heian aristocracy, part historico-literary reflection, part speculative construction of a new community. The essay grows from a kernel of Conrad’s musings about the potential for a new freemasrony of intellectually kindred spirits:
I want a Republic of Letters. Not so much a movement. More a society. I guess the germ of my thought was, there are all these intellectual types all over the world–some might be writers or artists, others scholars, and others even accountants or concrete engineers–but they all like thinking and reading–maybe they all have a dry sense of humour, somewhat cynical–but they don’t know too many like themselves. [ . . . ] The interpersonal connections would be not merely by chance, as is the case with most friendships, but through adherence to certain common beliefs–though unlike in a movement or artists’ group, there would be no unified goals, no “head”, no one purpose.
Thoth’s glabrous beak! That certainly raises a resonant chord of longing in my own crabbed and introverted heart
When I lived in Ann Arbor, my housemate organized regular meetings of a small salon. Her personal style had the exuberant force of a deviant extrovert, and she attracted many peculiar, interesting people into her ambit. Now, I live in the isolation of suburbia, many states away. My circle of friends is slight, my circle of kindred spirits smaller yet. Over the past decade I’ve wondered how I might go about assembling a similar salon. As much as anything else, this led me to start blogging, to take a few, uncertain steps toward thinking in public.
Umberto Eco, in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, writes about the process of constructing his novel:
After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore, those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
[. . .]
What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.
With every post we take another step toward creating our own ideal readers, trying to find those who want to play the same games. The Republic of Letters (as fine a provisional name as any) is aimed at a particular disjunction of characteristics, a certain type of thinker and reader who dreams of colloquy with those of like mind.
Of course, the Venn diagrams never align perfectly. Indulge in too much non-compatible bathos and you risk reducing your ideal readership to one: yourself.
Memos for the New Salon
In a collection of undelivered lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino expounded on five of the six characteristics that he most admired in writing: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. Perhaps a consideration of these can help us in plotting out what this nascent salon might look like.
Gawain writes of sprezzatura, of learning worn lightly, of studious unprofessionality. This points to an important aspect of the Republic: it is not a professional society. Failure to obtain professional-level knowledge in a particular domain should not be a bar to entry
One rarely hears the term ‘intelligent layman’ these days, and ‘generalist’ tends to imply ‘dilettante’. One of the fundamental skills required is appreciation. Through this, we can strive for the elevation of mind that comes from having a really good conversation: inspiration, a spur to continue one’s own learning, the pleasures of philosophy and of having one’s philosophy challenged.
Perhaps there’s another aspect, as well. There’s something to aim for beyond the mere odor of learning; the goal of this society (and its proceedings, whatever form they may take) should not be to clothe itself with Literature as decoration, as mere signifier of erudition or plumage for the dances of mating and pecking order.
Perhaps this is not a natural stopping point, but I shall publish this as it stands and pause for reflection. In the next essay of this series, I’ll continue with a consideration of Calvino’s five remaining characteristics, and perhaps move on to some thoughts about intellectual game-playing.