French Ways and Their Meaning
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Title: French Ways and Their Meaning
Author: Edith Wharton
Release Date: August 28, 2018 [eBook #57786]
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AND THEIR MEANING
AND THEIR MEANING
AUTHOR OF "THE REEF," "SUMMER," "THE MARNE" AND
"THE HOUSE OF MIRTH"
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
NEW YORK LONDON
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1918, 1919, by
INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
This book is essentially a desultory book, the result of intermittentobservation, and often, no doubt, of rash assumption. Having beenwritten in Paris, at odd moments, during the last two years of the war,it could hardly be more than a series of disjointed notes; and theexcuse for its publication lies in the fact that the very conditionswhich made more consecutive work impossible also gave unprecedentedopportunities for quick notation.
The world since 1914 has been like a house on fire. All the lodgers areon the stairs, in dishabille. Their doors are swinging wide, and onegets glimpses of their furniture, revelations of their habits, andwhiffs of their cooking, that a life-time of ordinary intercourse wouldnot offer. Superficial differences vanish, and so (how much oftener) dosuperficial resemblances; while deep [Pg vi]unsuspected similarities anddisagreements, deep common attractions and repulsions, declarethemselves. It is of these fundamental substances that the new linkbetween France and America is made, and some reasons for the strength ofthe link ought to be discoverable in the suddenly bared depths of theFrench heart.
There are two ways of judging a foreign people: at first sight,impressionistically, in the manner of the passing traveller; or afterresidence among them, "soberly, advisedly," and with all the vainprecautions enjoined in another grave contingency.
Of the two ways, the first is, even in ordinary times, often the mostfruitful. The observer, if he has eyes and an imagination, will bestruck first by the superficial dissemblances, and they will give hispicture the sharp suggestiveness of a good caricature. If he settlesdown among the objects of his study he will gradually become blunted tothese dissemblances, or, if he probes below the surface, he[Pg vii] will findthem sprung from the same stem as many different-seeming characteristicsof his own people. A period of confusion must follow, in which he willwaver between contradictions, and his sharp outlines will become blurredwith what the painters call "repentances."
From this twilight it is hardly possible for any foreigner's judgment toemerge again into full illumination. Race-differences strike so deepthat when one has triumphantly pulled up a specimen for examination onefinds only the crown in one's hand, and the tough root still clenched insome crevice of prehistory. And as to race-resemblances, they are sooften most misleading when they seem most instructive that any attemptto catch the likeness of another people by painting ourselves is neverquite successful. Indeed, once the observer has gone beyond the happystage when surface-differences have all their edge, his only chance ofgetting anywhere near the truth is[Pg viii] to try to keep to the traveller'sway, and still see his subject in the light of contrasts.
It is absurd for an Anglo-Saxon to say: "The Latin is this or that"unless he makes the mental reservation, "or at least seems so to me";but if this mental reservation is always implied, if it serves always asthe background of the picture, the features portrayed may escapecaricature and yet bear some resemblance to the original.
Lastly, the use of the labels "Anglo-Saxon" and "Latin," for purposes ofeasy antithesis, must be defended and apologised for.
Such use of the two terms is open to the easy derision of the scholar.Yet they are too convenient as symbols to be abandoned, and are safeenough if, for instance, they are used simply as a loose way of drawinga line between the peoples who drink spirits and those who drink wine,between those whose social polity dates from the Forum, and those whostill feel and legislate in terms of the primæval forest.
This use of the terms is the more justifiable because one may safelysay that most things in a man's view of life depend on how many thousandyears ago his land was deforested. And when, as befell our forbears, menwhose blood is still full of murmurs of the Saxon Urwald and the forestsof Britain are plunged afresh into the wilderness of a new continent, itis natural that in many respects they should be still farther removedfrom those whose habits and opinions are threaded through and throughwith Mediterranean culture and the civic discipline of Rome.
One can imagine the first Frenchman born into the world looking abouthim confidently, and saying: "Here I am; and now, how am I to make themost of it?"
The double sense of the fugacity of life, and of the many and durablethings that may be put into it, is manifest in every motion of theFrench intelligence. Sooner than any other race the French have got ridof bogies, have "cleared the mind of shams," and gone[Pg x] up to the Medusaand the Sphinx with a cool eye and a penetrating question.
It is an immense advantage to have the primæval forest as far behind oneas these clear-headed children of the Roman forum and the Greekamphitheatre; and even if they have lost something of the sensation"felt in the blood and felt along the heart" with which our obscurerpast enriches us, it is assuredly more useful for them to note thedeficiency than for us to criticise it.
The French are the most human of the human race, the most completelydetached from the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy world in whichtrees and animals talked to each other, and began the education of thefumbling beast that was to deviate into Man. They have used their longerexperience and their keener senses for the joy and enlightenment of theraces still agrope for self-expression. The faults of France are thefaults inherent in an old and excessively self-contained civilisation;her qualities are its qualities; and[Pg xi] the most profitable way of tryingto interpret French ways and their meaning is to see how this longinheritance may benefit a people which is still, intellectually andartistically, in search of itself.
Hyères, February, 1919.
|VI.||The New Frenchwoman||98|
Note.—In the last two chapters of this book I have incorporated,in a modified form, the principal passages of two articlespublished by me respectively in Scribner's Magazine and in theLadies' Home Journal, the former entitled "The French as seen byan American" (now called "In Conclusion"), the other "The NewFrenchwoman."
AND THEIR MEANING
I FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Hasty generalisations are always tempting to travellers, and now andthen they strike out vivid truths that the observer loses sight of aftercloser scrutiny. But nine times out of ten they hit wild.
Some years before the war, a French journalist produced a "thoughtfulbook" on the United States. Of course he laid great stress on ouruniversal hustle for the dollar. To do that is to follow the line ofleast resistance in writing about America: you have only to copy whatall the other travellers have said.
This particular author had the French gift of consecutive reasoning, andhad been trained in the school of Taine, which requires the historian toillustrate each of his general conclusions by an impressive array ofspecific [Pg 4]instances. Therefore, when he had laid down the principle thatevery American's ruling passion is money-making, he cast about for aninstance, and found a striking one.
"So dominant," he suggested, "is this passion, that in cultivated andintellectual Boston—the Athens of America—which possesses a beautifulcemetery in its peaceful parklike suburbs, the millionaire money-makers,unwilling to abandon the quarter in which their most active hours havebeen spent, have created for themselves a burying-ground in the centreof the business district, on which they can look down from their loftyoffice windows till they are laid there to rest in the familiar noiseand bustle that they love."
This literal example of the ruling passion strong in death seems toestablish once for all the good old truth that the American cares onlyfor money-making; and it was clever of the critic to find his instancein Boston instead of Pittsburg or Chicago. But unfortunately thecemetery for which the Boston millionaire[Pg 5] is supposed to have abandonedthe green glades of Mount Auburn is the old pre-revolutionary grave-yardof King's Chapel, in which no one has been buried since modern Bostonbegan to exist, and about which a new business district has grown up asit has about similar carefully-guarded relics in all our expandingcities, and in many European ones as well.
It is probable that not a day passes in which the observant American newto France does not reach conclusions as tempting, but as wide of themark. Even in peace times it was inevitable that such easy inferencesshould be drawn; and now that every branch of civilian life in France ismore or less topsy-turvy, the temptation to generalise wrongly is onethat no intelligent observer can resist.
It is indeed unfortunate that, at the very moment when it is mostneedful for France and America to understand each other (on smallpoints, that is—we know they agree as to the big ones)—it isunfortunate that at this [Pg 6]moment France should be, in so manysuperficial ways, unlike the normal peace-time France, and that thosewho are seeing her for the first time in the hour of her trial and hergreat glory are seeing her also in an hour of inevitable materialweakness and disorganisation.
Even four years of victorious warfare would dislocate the machinery ofany great