French Ways and Their Meaning - Edith Wharton - E-Book

French Ways and Their Meaning E-Book

Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton

French Ways and Their Meaning

 
EAN 8596547250210
DigiCat, 2022 Contact: [email protected]

Table of Contents

PREFACE
I FIRST IMPRESSIONS
I
II
III
II REVERENCE
I
II
III
III TASTE
I
II
III
IV
IV INTELLECTUAL HONESTY
I
II
III
V CONTINUITY
I
II
III
IV
VI THE NEW FRENCHWOMAN
VII IN CONCLUSION
I
II
III
IV
V

PREFACE

Table of Contents

This book is essentially a desultory book, the result of intermittent observation, and often, no doubt, of rash assumption. Having been written 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 the excuse for its publication lies in the fact that the very conditions which made more consecutive work impossible also gave unprecedented opportunities for quick notation.

The world since 1914 has been like a house on fire. All the lodgers are on the stairs, in dishabille. Their doors are swinging wide, and one gets glimpses of their furniture, revelations of their habits, and whiffs of their cooking, that a life-time of ordinary intercourse would not offer. Superficial differences vanish, and so (how much oftener) do superficial resemblances; while deep unsuspected similarities and disagreements, deep common attractions and repulsions, declare themselves. It is of these fundamental substances that the new link between France and America is made, and some reasons for the strength of the link ought to be discoverable in the suddenly bared depths of the French heart.

There are two ways of judging a foreign people: at first sight, impressionistically, in the manner of the passing traveller; or after residence among them, "soberly, advisedly," and with all the vain precautions enjoined in another grave contingency.

Of the two ways, the first is, even in ordinary times, often the most fruitful. The observer, if he has eyes and an imagination, will be struck first by the superficial dissemblances, and they will give his picture the sharp suggestiveness of a good caricature. If he settles down among the objects of his study he will gradually become blunted to these dissemblances, or, if he probes below the surface, he will find them sprung from the same stem as many different-seeming characteristics of his own people. A period of confusion must follow, in which he will waver between contradictions, and his sharp outlines will become blurred with what the painters call "repentances."

From this twilight it is hardly possible for any foreigner's judgment to emerge again into full illumination. Race-differences strike so deep that when one has triumphantly pulled up a specimen for examination one finds only the crown in one's hand, and the tough root still clenched in some crevice of prehistory. And as to race-resemblances, they are so often most misleading when they seem most instructive that any attempt to catch the likeness of another people by painting ourselves is never quite successful. Indeed, once the observer has gone beyond the happy stage when surface-differences have all their edge, his only chance of getting anywhere near the truth is to try to keep to the traveller's way, 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 as the background of the picture, the features portrayed may escape caricature and yet bear some resemblance to the original.

Lastly, the use of the labels "Anglo-Saxon" and "Latin," for purposes of easy 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 safe enough if, for instance, they are used simply as a loose way of drawing a line between the peoples who drink spirits and those who drink wine, between those whose social polity dates from the Forum, and those who still feel and legislate in terms of the primæval forest.

This use of the terms is the more justifiable because one may safely say that most things in a man's view of life depend on how many thousand years ago his land was deforested. And when, as befell our forbears, men whose blood is still full of murmurs of the Saxon Urwald and the forests of Britain are plunged afresh into the wilderness of a new continent, it is natural that in many respects they should be still farther removed from those whose habits and opinions are threaded through and through with Mediterranean culture and the civic discipline of Rome.

One can imagine the first Frenchman born into the world looking about him confidently, and saying: "Here I am; and now, how am I to make the most of it?"

The double sense of the fugacity of life, and of the many and durable things that may be put into it, is manifest in every motion of the French intelligence. Sooner than any other race the French have got rid of bogies, have "cleared the mind of shams," and gone up to the Medusa and the Sphinx with a cool eye and a penetrating question.

It is an immense advantage to have the primæval forest as far behind one as these clear-headed children of the Roman forum and the Greek amphitheatre; and even if they have lost something of the sensation "felt in the blood and felt along the heart" with which our obscurer past enriches us, it is assuredly more useful for them to note the deficiency than for us to criticise it.

The French are the most human of the human race, the most completely detached from the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy world in which trees and animals talked to each other, and began the education of the fumbling beast that was to deviate into Man. They have used their longer experience and their keener senses for the joy and enlightenment of the races still agrope for self-expression. The faults of France are the faults inherent in an old and excessively self-contained civilisation; her qualities are its qualities; and the most profitable way of trying to interpret French ways and their meaning is to see how this long inheritance may benefit a people which is still, intellectually and artistically, in search of itself.

Hyères, February, 1919.

FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

IFIRST IMPRESSIONS

Table of Contents

I

Table of Contents

Hasty generalisations are always tempting to travellers, and now and then they strike out vivid truths that the observer loses sight of after closer scrutiny. But nine times out of ten they hit wild.

Some years before the war, a French journalist produced a "thoughtful book" on the United States. Of course he laid great stress on our universal hustle for the dollar. To do that is to follow the line of least resistance in writing about America: you have only to copy what all the other travellers have said.

This particular author had the French gift of consecutive reasoning, and had been trained in the school of Taine, which requires the historian to illustrate each of his general conclusions by an impressive array of specific instances. Therefore, when he had laid down the principle that every American's ruling passion is money-making, he cast about for an instance, and found a striking one.

"So dominant," he suggested, "is this passion, that in cultivated and intellectual Boston—the Athens of America—which possesses a beautiful cemetery in its peaceful parklike suburbs, the millionaire money-makers, unwilling to abandon the quarter in which their most active hours have been spent, have created for themselves a burying-ground in the centre of the business district, on which they can look down from their lofty office windows till they are laid there to rest in the familiar noise and bustle that they love."

This literal example of the ruling passion strong in death seems to establish once for all the good old truth that the American cares only for money-making; and it was clever of the critic to find his instance in Boston instead of Pittsburg or Chicago. But unfortunately the cemetery for which the Boston millionaire is supposed to have abandoned the green glades of Mount Auburn is the old pre-revolutionary grave-yard of King's Chapel, in which no one has been buried since modern Boston began to exist, and about which a new business district has grown up as it has about similar carefully-guarded relics in all our expanding cities, and in many European ones as well.

It is probable that not a day passes in which the observant American new to France does not reach conclusions as tempting, but as wide of the mark. Even in peace times it was inevitable that such easy inferences should be drawn; and now that every branch of civilian life in France is more or less topsy-turvy, the temptation to generalise wrongly is one that no intelligent observer can resist.

It is indeed unfortunate that, at the very moment when it is most needful for France and America to understand each other (on small points, that is—we know they agree as to the big ones)—it is unfortunate that at this moment France should be, in so many superficial ways, unlike the normal peace-time France, and that those who are seeing her for the first time in the hour of her trial and her great glory are seeing her also in an hour of inevitable material weakness and disorganisation.