Symposium on the Saint Lawrence: A tribute to Wednesday Night

By Kimon Valaskakis on December 27, 2010

In Plato’s original symposium which took place in the house of the tragedian Agathon, seven Greek philosophers compared thoughts and experiences on the subject of love (Eros, Agape but primarily love of wisdom which is the etymological meaning of philosophy itself).  This started a long historical tradition of erudite discussions over the dinner table (and was probably even the precursor of the modern day business lunch).

In the 16th century, the French introduced the notion of salons litteraires where ideas and theses were presented in an informal manner and discussed between men and women of letters. This led to the creation of the Encyclopédie of the 18th century, the clubs politiques at the time of the French Revolution and beyond, and the present propensity for forums, discussion clubs, breakfast meetings etc.

The Nicholsons Wednesday Night Salon, by its longevity (over thirty years) and its informality has contributed to the intellectual life of English speaking Montreal and has become a useful sounding board of ideas, before they are presented to a wider, more critical audience.  But, in addition, with its active website and the diligent efforts of both co hosts David and Diana Nicholson, the Wednesday Night deliberations have become, food for thought for a much larger public, courtesy of Google and modern technology.

I have had the pleasure of attending and participating (armed with my own propaganda in favor of better global governance), in the Wednesday Night Salon for twenty of its thirty years. It was, an off and on participation, since being present every week, other than by the most faithful, would be defeating the purpose of cross fertilization through diversity. Some scarcity is needed to create value. There is a danger in overexposure.  

At the beginning, I was reluctant to attend because I belonged  to the Society for the Abolition of Wednesdays, a fact I have managed to hide from the Nicholsons for all these years. The Society for the Abolition of Wednesdays claims that a four day week is best. 10 hours of work on Monday and Tuesday then Wednesday off and then another 10 hours on Thursday and Friday before the weekend. Thus, with the prospect f never having to work more than two days in a row, productivity could become maximal.

The revolt against the mediocrity of mid-week by abolishing it all together turned out to be unnecessary When I realized that the abolition of working Wednesdays would be fully compatible with the informal atmosphere of the Nicholson’s Salon, I joined with enthusiasm.  In time I was even elevated to the lofty title of O.W.N, (Officer of Wednesday Night), a sort of ‘senate’ appointment in the Wednesday Night community, usually entitling me to a front bench position at the table, a prized privilege which was much appreciated for an essayist and the propagandist that I really am.

What has the Wednesday Night salon brought to me over the years : much food for thought, lasting friendships, convivial exchanges, learning about things I would not usually care to investigate and the opportunity to test new ideas. The latter fulfilled then the same functions as the French literary salon.

Conducted by the inimitable David Nicholson and his lovely and erudite wife Diana, the Symposium on the Saint Lawrence was rarely focused for longer than fifteen minutes on any one issue. But, paradoxically, that is what made its charm. It was, in its 33 Rosemount Incarnation a precursor of surfing the internet where hyperlinks take us on all sorts of interesting tangents. It was also like the front page of a newspaper, where political news stand in apposition with sports results, local events, and miscellaneous scandals. Who wants coherence on the Front Page ?

The Wednesday Night Symposium Incarnation One was pure serendipity.  It must be remembered that Serendipity is a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated. The word has been voted as one of the ten English words that were hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. However, due to its sociological use, the word has been imported into many other languages. The first noted use of this word was by Horace Walpole (1717–1792). In a letter to Mann  he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of"

Discovery by accident was, for me, the underlying theme of Wednesday Night 1.0. The Symposium on the Saint Lawrence version 2.0 is likely to be quite different. Because of the smaller venue, it will have to be more focused with fewer hyperlinks but with more sustained repartees and rejoinders, perhaps closer in this sense, to the original platonic symposium with its seven members than the wider literary salons of Madame de Recamier. There is a trade off here : less free and relaxed learning but perhaps a greater probability of finding meaningful solutions to today’s problems and bridging the gap between thought and action.

Whatever it is, I hope to continue to be part of it and to maintain my ‘senate’ appointment and the perks which come with it -  among which are closer access to the peanuts and to the red wine – privileges inaccesible to the unfortunate back benchers...

All the Best then to Haddon Hall, Worthy Daughter of 33 Rosemount Avenue. Count me in.


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