Movies, politics, sex ...
All over America, people are talking about subjects like these. They are expressing opinions and exchanging ideas they got from books and magazines and getting exasperated when others disagree with them-just as if they were on television. Only they're not! They're ordinary people sitting in each other's living rooms, living out every man's fantasy of being Mort Kondracke, every woman's dream of being Sally Jessy Raphael. They're part of the craze that's sweeping the middle class from Stamford to Santa Monica: saloning.
Yes, 200 years after its heyday in the great drawing rooms of Paris, the salon has been reborn, offering high-minded citizens the opportunity for congenial discussion of important topics of the day. In the endless search for an activity that journalists can call "the sex of the '90s," conversation is suddenly hot--medically risk-free, requiring no special equipment or software, cheaper than exchanging messages by fax. And if some of the topics would have baffled the crowd that used to gather around Mme. de Stael--the Tao of Winnie the Pooh, the importance of composting--others are as timeless as anything Voltaire had to say. "The college girl and Estelle keep bringing up sex," says Frank Landfield, a California artist and woodworker who runs a monthly salon in the remote San Jacinto Mountains that draws members who drive as much as four hours for half that amount of talk. "We haven't gotten to that subject yet, but I think we're going to."
Salons have been reinvented many times over the centuries, notably by Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s, and simultaneously by Dorothy Parker and her friends at the Algonquin Round Table. Even today, ambitious hostesses in New York or Washington recognize that running a "salon" has loads more cachet than throwing a " party," and doesn't require nearly as much drugs. But the notion of mass-marketing the concept belongs to Eric Utne, founder and editor of the countercultural digest the Utne Reader. Utne's approach was considerably more businesslike than the ancien regime's system of choosing by acclamation a single grande dame to run the nation's intellectual life for as long as she could afford the catering bills. A year ago Utne invited its readers to return a coupon if they wished to join a salon of like-minded subscribers in their area. More than 8,000 (out of a circulation of 260,000) responded. The magazine grouped them by ZIP code into about 500 clusters of a dozen or more, sent out lists of names and phone numbers, and let matters take their course. Based on a sampling in and around Utne's home territory in Minneapolis, Griff Wigley, the magazine's official "salon keeper," estimates that as many as half of these groups got off the ground, enlivening living rooms in places as diverse as Dayton, Tacoma and Amherst with discussions of . . . . . . Alternative communal lifestyles, contemporary spirituality, politics, movies, sex . . .
" People need an opportunity to talk about the things they care about," Utne says. "You don't know what you think or believe until you get involved in a discussion." All true, as the people who run computer bulletin boards, telephone talk lines and radio calling shows--not to speak of saloons--already knew. None of these, though, has the cachet of following in the footsteps of Dorothy Parker. Utne seems to have tapped a deep wellspring of loathing for the intellectual barrenness of many American cities. "We were all somewhat unhappy about living in Stamford, so we all complain about it," says Gary Dunn, a direct marketer of mutual funds who helped organize an Utne salon in that Connecticut suburb last summer. " San Antonio is an intellectual wasteland, and this was a fabulous opportunity to meet others of a like mind," Andrea Ptak-Williams wrote the magazine. Says Dr. Michael Kreutzer, a resident psychiatrist at UCLA: "I'm here [in a salon] because Los Angeles is a sick cesspool of a city."
The astute reader will observe that as an epigram, that doesn't exactly measure up to Gertrude Stein's famous remark about Oakland, Calif ("there's no there there"). Membership in a salon does not automatically turn a systems analyst into a philosopher, and whatever quips are being coined in the living rooms of Tacoma and Dayton these days are going pretty much unrecorded by posterity. A discussion of masculine and feminine identity at the Hancock Park, Calif, salon elicited the observation that "there are men who want subservient, docile vegetables and there are women who are signing up to be subservient, docile vegetables. " At a discussion of workplace safety a woman recounted her bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, and everyone was sympathetic, but then a businessman complained about government regulations and people agreed with him too. But the point of the Utne salons is not to get quoted in Liz Smith, it's to have a sensible discussion of . . .
Vegetarianism, death, sex, movies, politics . . .
"It's sort of a way to be in touch and aware without being on campus," explains Barry Tavlin, of the Hancock Park group. " We did this when we were young, when we were figuring out who we were and what we believed." For Utne, the salon is more than a diversion; it's the beginning of a social movement, a renewal of American democracy through participatory debate. " We're not just trying to promote our magazine and make money," says Wigley. "We believe in our heart and soul that this is good for people, for the community and for the globe." That may be true; salons, after all, gave birth to the Enlightenment and all the blessings that flowed from it.
Of course, history shows that for every Voltaire there have been a dozen Geraldos.