EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the March 27, 2006, issue of National Review.
Tom Wolfe spelled it tawk (rhymes with Noo Yawk). Talk is one of our exports, like oil or terror. From Damon Runyon to Delmore Schwartz to Al Sharpton to Howard Stern, New York is the city of yakkers and jivers. But can we talk in any structured way, or to any purpose? Can we hold salons?
The salon, or the discussion club, or the dining club, flourished in Boston before it appeared here. Charles Francis Adams belonged to one, as did the late George Apley. I imagine New York caught up with the custom when it surpassed Boston and Philadelphia as the intellectual, as well as commercial, capital of the nation. Running a salon should be the easiest thing in the world: the great ideas, the news of the day, a pinch of malice, twelve tongues, and you’re off. But, having passed through a number of such groups over the years, a few of which fell silent, I can testify that good talk is harder than it looks.
Ideas may be disembodied, shimmering Platonic forms, but we are corporeal, and talk must have a time and place. People have to assemble periodically. In these regimented days, it’s not possible to meet more than once a month, but anything less frequent loses the pleasure of repetition. The monthly meeting is the rent we owe goodness, truth, and liveliness. There also has to be a local habitation. Since we talk with our mouths, eating and drinking are natural accompaniments, which means the location will be someone’s dining room, a club, or a restaurant or bar. The place has to be chosen with some care. I once belonged to a salon which died largely because it met in an inferior Indian restaurant. The food should not be too good, or inflow will become more important than outflow; yet it cannot be emetic.
There must be next to no discussion of business. Salons must be like the old British regime of Hong Kong–a paternalistic free-for-all, with no politics and few laws. The point is to not talk about the group itself; if our own business consumes us, then we fall into the boredom of post-modernity. . . .
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