There is no such thing as conversation,” Dame Rebecca West imperiously announced in The Harsh Voice (1935). “It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

West’s decree hasn’t stopped an exaltation of scholars from reifying the activity in recent years, even beatifying it as a saintly artifact of human culture.

Last year the Jewish Museum in New York mounted a stellar exhibition entitled “Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation” (with a catalog of the same name by Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun, published by Yale University Press). It explained how Jewish women from the 19th century on, like their 18th-century French predecessors once mocked by Molière as les précieuses, used fiercely engaged salon conversation as a liberation from intellectual and social constraints elsewhere.

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