Q&A: Tili Boon Cuillé

Structuring the art of conversation

By Liam Otten

Tili Boon Cuillé, PhD, associate professor of French and affiliate faculty in comparative literature, the humanities and the performing arts — all in Arts & Sciences — hosting the 18th-century Interdisciplinary Salon last month. Cuillé has led the salon, with co-convener Rebecca Messbarger, since 2002. For the past two years, it has received a Faculty Seminar Grant from the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences. PHOTO BY WHITNEY CURTIS.

You coordinate the 18th-century Interdisciplinary Salon, a monthly seminar at which faculty and visiting scholars discuss works-in-progress. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for the group?

Our salon is modeled on the classic 18th-century salons in France and Italy. These were gatherings of philosophers, historians, mathematicians, natural scientists and other intellectuals. They were hosted by salonnières, usually noblewomen, who opened up their residences for long afternoon talks.

How structured was the Parisian salon? Because of the domestic setting, I think there’s a tendency to see them as informal events.

Well, attendees still wore wigs and powder, but it wasn’t just a cocktail party. We have records from the salonnières, including their preparatory notes. “Ask X about his publication,” “Put in a good word for Y.” They were structuring the art of conversation.

The salon also had political overtones.

Yes, it came to be seen as a model for republican society. The tenor was constructive and collaborative, rather than oppositional. It opened new lines of communication between speaker and audience, and was governed by the laws of polite conversation.

The salon also gave women access to an education they would not otherwise receive. Françoise de Graffigny, who wrote Letters of a Peruvian Woman — one of the most successful novels of her time — was a celebrated salonnière and greatly admired by Rousseau and Diderot. The essayist, playwright and novelist Germaine de Staël, who also emerges from salon culture, became the primary vehicle for importing German philosophy and aesthetics into France.

So let’s talk about the campus salon.

Our group was founded by my colleague Rebecca Messbarger, professor of Italian. It brings together scholars from various disciplines, including French, German, Italian, English, music, performing arts, history, art history and philosophy. We meet about once a month and are comprised of members from Washington University, St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

How is the conversation structured?

Each time we meet, one volunteer presents a work-in-progress. It might be a two-page overview, it might be a 45-page draft. Copies are circulated in advance, so members arrive with questions, with suggestions, and with a sense of their own discipline’s take on the issue. Many successful grant proposals, articles and even books have emerged from this group.

Do things ever get contentious?

Rarely! The tenor is rigorous but also collegial and constructive — the ideal combination, really. Presenters are able to vet questions that, coming from an academic journal, might be formulated in much more contentious terms. That’s when egos get destroyed, and when the piece risks ending up on the cutting room floor.

Here, you’re face-to-face, which encourages people to be generous scholars.

You’ve led the group since 2002. Have you gone through the wringer yourself?

Yes, absolutely. When I first arrived on campus, in 2000, I presented the first chapter of my book, Narrative Interludes: Musical Tableaux in Eighteenth-Century French Texts. Salon members told me that I needed an introduction defining the conception of the musical tableau.

So let’s talk about your scholarship. What is a musical tableau?

Basically, this is a performance within a text. It has a lot of affinities with a play-within-a-play, but it’s frequently constituted as one character watching or listening to a performance by another. I was specifically interested in looking at what is unleashed in such scenes — what’s happening visually, what’s happening musically, what’s happening in terms of textual form. How is the author experimenting with non-linguistic forms of expression, which were thought to be more powerful and authentic than language?

But this is more than just a formal device.

That’s right. Narrative Interludes is divided into two parts. In the first, I look at a group of male authors who participated in the 18th-century “Opera Quarrels,” which were sparked, in part, by Rousseau’s statements about the limitations of the French language. I then look at some of the women authors who were inspired by Rousseau’s texts but felt excluded by his positions on gender. I look at how they construct musical tableaux that specifically counter Rousseau’s critique.

What are you working on these days?

I recently co-edited a volume on Germaine de Staël with Karyna Szmurlo, professor of French at Clemson University, entitled Staël’s Philosophy of the Passions: Sensibility, Society, and the Sister Arts. It will be released later this year as part of the Transits series from Bucknell University Press.

My current manuscript, Divining Nature: French Ventures in Fiction, Imagery, and Stagecraft, juxtaposes the revolution in the natural sciences with works by composers, artists and authors, rather than treating them as separate domains. The first chapter, for example, looks at the Comte de Buffon, who set out to write an exhaustive description of nature, and the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who sought to stage nature in his operas. The affinities in their projects are legion.

It’s interesting how porous the lines between disciplines could be.

Absolutely. I justify my interdisciplinary approach by noting that I’m working on a pre-disciplinary time period. It precedes the 19th-century breakdown into fields. Eighteenth-century philosophers were also scientists and authors. The notion of experimentation carried across from natural history to the arts. For us to talk about these things separately is artificial and anachronistic.

One last question. You have two children — Elena, 8, and Rémi, 4. What kinds of stories do you read to them?

It’s funny, a lot of the texts I work with are metatexts, or texts that recognize their own status as texts. And one of the first books I gave Elena was The Phantom Tollbooth, which was a favorite from my own youth. It’s set in a world in which things that happen linguistically are literalized.

If you jump to conclusions, you actually jump.

Liam Otten
Art News Director
(314) 935-8494