Edith Wharton.

French ways and their meaning online

. (page 2 of 7)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 2 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


could buy the fruit of the nightshade; the
one is considered hardly less deleterious than
the other.



22 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

The prejudice is all the queerer because the
thrifty, food-loving French peasant has dis-
covered the innocuousness of so many dan-
gerous-looking funguses that frighten the
Anglo-Saxon by their close resemblance to the
poisonous members of the family. It takes a
practised eye to distinguish cepes and morilles
from the deadly toadstool ; whereas the black-
berry resembles nothing in the world but its
own luscious and innocent self. Yet the black-
berry has been condemned untried because of
some ancient taboo that the French peasant
dares not disregard.

Taboos of this sort are as frequent in France
as the blackberries in the hedges, and some of
them interfere with the deepest instincts of
the race.

Take, foi instance, the question of dinner-
giving. Dining is a solemn rite to the French,
because it offers the double opportunity of
good eating and good talk, the two forms of
aesthetic enjoyment most generally appre-
ciated. Everything connected with dinner-



REVERENCE 23



giving has an almost sacramental importance
in France. The quality of the cooking comes
first; but, once this is assured, the hostess' chief
concern is that the quality of the talk shall
match it. To attain this, the guests are as care-
fully chosen as boxers for a championship,
their number is strictly limited, and care is
taken not to invite two champions likely to
talk each other down.

The French, being unable to live without
good talk, are respectful of all the small ob-
servances that facilitate it. Interruption is
considered the height of discourtesy; but so is
any attempt, even on the part of the best talk-
ers, to hold the floor and prevent others from
making themselves heard. Share and share
alike is the first rule of conversational polite-
ness, and if a talker is allowed to absorb the
general attention for more than a few minutes
it is because his conversation is known to be
so good that the other guests have been invited
to listen to him. Even so, he must give them
a chance now and then, and it is they who



24 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

must abstain from taking it, and must re-
peatedly let him see that for once they are
content to act as audience. Moreover, even
the privileged talker is not allowed to dwell
long on any one topic, however stimulating.
The old lady who said to her granddaughter:
"My dear, you will soon learn that an hour is
enough of anything" would have had to re-
duce her time-limit to five minutes if she had
been formulating the rules of French conver-
sation.

In circles where interesting and entertain-
ing men are habitually present the women are
not expected to talk much. They are not, of
course, to sit stupidly silent, responsiveness
is their role, and they must know how to guide
the conversation by putting the right question
or making the right comment. But above all
they are not to air their views in the presence
of men worth listening to. The French care
passionately for ideas, but they do not expect
women to have them , and since they never
mistake erudition for intelligence (as we un-



REVERENCE



educated Anglo-Saxons sometimes do) no
woman can force her way into the talk by
mere weight of book-learning. She has no
place there unless her ideas, and her way of
expressing them, put her on an equality with
the men; and this seldom happens. Women
(if they only knew it!.) are generally far more
intelligent listeners than talkers; and the rare
quality of the Frenchwoman's listening con-
tributes not a little to the flashing play of
French talk.

Here, then, is an almost religious ritual,
planned with the sole purpose of getting the
best talk from the best talkers; but there are
two malicious little taboos that delight in up-
setting all these preparations.

One of them seems incredibly childish. It
is a rule of French society that host and
hostess shall sit exactly opposite each other.
If the number at table is uneven, then, instead
of the guests being equally spaced, they will
be packed like sardines about one half the



26 FRENCH WAYS. AND THEIR MEANING

board, and left on the other with echoing
straits between them thrown.

If the number is such that, normally seated,
with men and women alternating, a lady
should find herself opposite the hostess, that
unthinkable sacrilege must also be avoided,
and three women be placed together on one
side of the table, and three men on the other.
This means death to general conversation, for
intelligent women will never talk together
when they can talk to men, or even listen to
them; so that the party, thus disarranged, re-
sembles that depressing dish, a pudding in
which all the plums have run into one corner.

The plums do not like it either. The scat-
tered affinities grope for each other and vainly
seek to reconstitute a normal pudding. The
attempt is always a failure, and the French
hostess knows it; yet many delightful dinners
are wrecked on the unrelenting taboo that
obliges host and hostess to sit exactly opposite
each other.

"Precedence" is another obstacle to the real-



REVERENCE 27



isation of the perfect dinner. Precedence in
a republic ! It is acknowledged to be an
absurd anomaly except where official rank is
concerned; and though its defenders argue
that it is a short-cut through many problems
of vanity and amour-propre it might certainly
be disregarded to the general advantage when-
ever a few intelligent people have been
brought together, not to compare their titles
but to forget them.

But there it is. The French believe them-
selves to be the most democratic people in the
world and they have some of the democratic
instincts, though not as many as they think.
But an Academician must sit on his hostess'
right, unless there is a Duke or an Ambassa-
dor or a Bishop present; and these rules,
comic enough where peer meets prelate, be-
come more humorous (and also grow more
strict) when applied to the imperceptible dif-
ferences between the lower degrees of the im-
mense professional and governmental hier-
archy.



28 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

But again there it is. A hostess whose
papa helped to blow up the Tuileries or pull
down the Vendome column weighs the rela-
tive claims of two Academicians (always a
bad stumbling block) as carefully as a duchess
of the old regime, brought up to believe in the
divine right of Kings, scrutinises the gene-
alogy of her guests before seating them. And
this strict observance of rules is not due to
snobbishness; the French are not a snobbish
people. It is part of les bienseances, of the
always-have-beens ; and there is a big bullying
taboo in the way of changing it.

In England, where precedence has, at any
rate, the support of a court, where it is, so to
speak, still a "going concern," and works au-
tomatically, the hostess, if she is a woman of
the world, casts it to the winds on informal oc-
casions; but in France there is no democratic
dinner-table over which it does not perma-
nently hang its pall.



REVERENCE 29



ii

It may seem curious to have chosen the in-
stance of the blackberry as the text of a homily
on "Reverence." Why not have substituted as
a title "Prejudice" or simply "Stupidity"?

Well "Prejudice" and "Reverence," of-
tener than one thinks, are overlapping terms,
and it seems fairer to choose the one of the two
that is not what the French call "pejorative."
As for "Stupidity" it must be remembered
that the French peasant thinks it incredibly
stupid of us not instantly to distinguish a
mushroom from a toadstool, or any of the in-
termediate forms of edible funguses from
their death-dealing cousins! Remember that
we Americans deprive ourselves of many de-
licious dishes, and occasionally hurry whole
harmless families to the grave, through not
taking the trouble to examine and compare
the small number of mushrooms at our dis-
posal; while the French avoid blackberries
from a deep and awesome conviction handed
down from the night of history.



30 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

There is the key to my apologue. The
French fear of the blackberry is not due to
any lack of curiosity about its qualities, but to
respect for some ancient sanction which pre-
vents those qualities from being investigated.

There is a reflex of negation, of rejection,
at the very root of the French character: an
instinctive recoil from the new, the untasted,
the untested, like the retracting of an insect's
feelers at contact with an unfamiliar object;
and no one can hope to understand the French
without bearing in mind that this unquestion-
ing respect for rules of which the meaning is
forgotten acts as a perpetual necessary check
to the idol-breaking instinct of the freest
minds in the world.

It may sound like a poor paradox to say
that the French are traditional about small
things because they are so free about big ones.
But the history of human societies seems to
show that if they are to endure they must
unconsciously secrete the corrective of their
own highest qualities.



REVERENCE 3 1



"Reverence" may be the wasteful fear of an
old taboo; but it is also the sense of the pre-
ciousness of long accumulations of experience.
The quintessential is precious because what-
ever survives the close filtering of time is
likely to answer to some deep racial need,
moral or aesthetic. It is stupid to deprive
one's self of blackberries for a reason one has
forgotten ; but what should we say of a people
who had torn down their cathedrals when
they ceased to feel the beauty of Gothic archi-
tecture, as the French had ceased to feel it in
the seventeenth century?

The instinct to preserve that which has been
slow and difficult in the making, that into
which the long associations of the past are
woven, is a more constant element of pro-
gress than the Huguenot's idol-breaking
hammer.

Reverence and irreverence are both needed
to help the world along, and each is most
needed where the other most naturally
abounds.



32 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

In this respect France and America are in
the same case. America, because of her ori-
gin, tends to irreverence, impatience, to all
sorts of rash and contemptuous short-cuts;
France, for the same reason, to routine, prece-
dent, tradition, the beaten path. Therefore it
ought to help each nation to apply to herself
the corrective of the other's example; and
America can profit more by seeking to find out
why France is reverent, and what she reveres,
than by trying to inoculate her with a flippant
disregard of her own past.

The first thing to do is to try to find out
why a people, so free and active of thought as
the French, are so subject to traditions that
have lost their meaning.

The fundamental cause is probably geo-
graphical. We Americans have hitherto been
geographically self-contained, and until this
war did away with distances we were free to
try any social and political experiments we
pleased, without, at any rate, weakening our-
selves in relation to our neighbours. To keep



REVERENCE 33



them off we did not even have to have an
army!

France, on the contrary, has had to fight
for her existence ever since she has had any.
Of her, more than of any other great modern
nation, it may be said that from the start she
has had, as Goethe puts it, to "reconquer each
day the liberty won the day before."

Again and again, in the past, she has seen
her territory invaded, her monuments de-
stroyed, her institutions shattered; the ground
on which the future of the world is now being
fought for is literally the same as that Cata-
launian plain (the "Camp de Chalons") on
which Attila tried to strangle France over
fourteen hundred years ago. "In the year
450 all Gaul was rilled with terror; for the
dreaded Attila, with a host of strange figures,
Huns, Tartars, Teutons, head of an empire
of true barbarians, drew near her borders.
Barbarism . . . now threatened the world.
It had levied a shameful tribute on Constanti-
nople; it now threatened the farthest West



34 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

If Gaul fell, Spain would fall, and Italy,
and Rome; and Attila would reign supreme,
with an empire of desolation, over the whole
world."*

"The whole world" is a bigger place now-
adays, and "farthest West" is at the Golden
Gate and not at the Pillars of Hercules; but
otherwise might we not be reading a leader in
yesterday's paper?

Try to picture life under such continual
menace of death, and see how in an indus-
trious, intelligent and beauty-loving race it
must inevitably produce two strong passions:

Pious love of every yard of the soil and
every stone of the houses.

Intense dread lest any internal innovations
should weaken the social structure and open a
door to the enemy.

There is nothing like a Revolution for mak-
ing people conservative; that is one of the rea-
sons why, for instance, our Constitution, the
child of Revolution, is the most conservative

*Kitchin: "History of France," vol. I.



REVERENCE 35



in history. But, in other respects, why should
we Americans be conservative? To begin
with, there is not much as yet for us to "con-
serve" except a few root-principles of con-
duct, social and political; and see how they
spring up and dominate every other interest
in each national crisis!

In France it is different. The French have
nearly two thousand years of history and art
and industry and social and political life to
"conserve" ; that is another of the reasons why
their intense intellectual curiosity, their per-
petual desire for the new thing, is counteracted
by a clinging to rules and precedents that have
often become meaningless.

Ill

Reverence is the life-belt of those whose
home is on a raft, and Americans have not
pored over the map of France for the last four
years without discovering that she may fairly
be called a raft. But geographical necessity is
far from being the only justification of rever-



36 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

ence. It is not chiefly because the new meth-
ods of warfare lay America open to the same
menace as continental Europe that it is good
for us to consider the meaning of this ancient
principle of civilised societies.

We are growing up at last; and it is only
in maturity that a man glances back along
the past, and sees the use of the constraints
that irritated his impatient youth. So with
races and nations; and America has reached
the very moment in her development when she
may best understand what has kept older races
and riper civilisations sound.

Reverence is one of these preserving ele-
ments, and it is worth while to study it in its
action in French life. If geographical neces-
sity is the fundamental cause, another, almost
as deep-seated, is to be found in the instinct
of every people to value and preserve what
they have themselves created and made beau-
tiful.

In Selden's "Table-talk" there is told the
story of a certain carver of idols. Being a



REVERENCE 37



pious man he had always worshipped his own
idols till he was suddenly called upon to make
one in great haste, and, no other wood being
available, had to cut down the plum-tree in
his own garden and make the image out of
that.

He could not worship the plum-tree idol,
because he knew too much about the plum-
tree. That, at least, is Selden's version; but
how little insight it shows into human pro-
cesses! Of course, after a time, the carver
came to worship the plum-tree idol, and to
worship it just because he had grown the
tree and carved the image, and it was there-
fore doubly of his making. That is the very
key to the secret of reverence; the tenderness
we feel for our own effort extending to re-
spect for all fine human effort.

America is already showing this instinct
in her eagerness to beautify her towns, and to
preserve her few pre-Revolutionary buildings
that small fragment of her mighty Euro-
pean heritage.



38 FRENCH WAYS AM) THEIR MEANING

But there are whole stretches of this heri-
tage that have been too long allowed to run to
waste : our language, our literature, and many
other things pertaining to the great undefin-
able domain of Taste.

A man who owns a vast field does not care
for that field half as much when it is a waste
as after he has sweated over its furrows and
seen the seeds spring. And when he has
turned a bit of it into a useless bright flower-
garden he cares for that useless bit best of all.

The deeper civilisation of a country may
to a great extent be measured by the care she
gives to her flower-garden the corner of her
life where the supposedly "useless" arts and
graces flourish. In the cultivating of that
garden France has surpassed all modern na-
tions; and one of the greatest of America's
present opportunities is to find out why.



Ill

TASTE



FRENCH taste? Why, of course ev-
erybody knows all about that! It's
the way the women put on their hats,
and the upholsterers drape their curtains.

Certainly why not?

The artistic integrity of the French has led
them to feel from the beginning that there is
no difference in kind between the curve of a
woman's hat-brim and the curve of a Rodin
marble, or between the droop of an uphol-
sterer's curtain and that of the branches along
a great avenue laid out by Le Notre.

It was the Puritan races every one of them
non-creative in the plastic arts -who decided
that "Art" (that is, plastic art) was some-
thing apart from life, as dangerous to it as

30



40 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

Plato thought Poets in a Republic, and to be
tolerated only when it was so lofty, unap-
proachable and remote from any appeal to
average humanity that it bored people to
death, and they locked it up in Museums to
get rid of it.

But this article is headed "Taste," and taste,
whatever it may be, is not, after all, the same
thing as art. No; it is not art but it is the
atmosphere in which art lives, and outside of
which it cannot live. It is the regulating prin-
ciple of all art, of the art of dress and of
manners, and of living in general, as well as
of sculpture or music. It is because the
French have always been so innately sure of
this, that, without burdening themselves with
formulas, they have instinctively applied to
living the same rules that they applied to ar-
tistic creation.

ii

I remember being told when I was a young
girl: "If you want to interest the person you



TASTE 41

are talking to, pitch your voice so that only
that one person will hear you."

That small axiom, apart from its obvious
application, contains nearly all there is to say
about Taste.

That a thing should be in scale should be
proportioned to its. purpose is one of the
first requirements of beauty, in whatever or-
der. No shouting where an undertone will
do; and no gigantic Statue of Liberty in but-
ter for a World's Fair, when the little Wing-
less Victory, tying on her sandal on the Acrop-
olis, holds the whole horizon in the curve of
her slim arm.

The essence of taste is suitability. Divest
the woid of its prim and priggish implica-
tions, and see how it expresses the mysterious
demand of eye and mind for symmetry, har-
mony and order.

Suitability fitness is, and always has
been, the very foundation of French stand-
ards. Fitness is only a contraction of fitting-
ness; and if any of our American soldiers in



42 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

France should pause to look up at the narrow
niches in the portal of a French cathedral, or
at the group of holy figures in the triangle or
half-circle above, they are likely to be struck
first of all by the way in which the attitude
of each figure or group is adapted to the space
it fills.

If the figure is cramped and uncomfortable
if the saint or angel seems to be in a strait-
jacket or a padded cell then the sculptor
has failed, and taste is offended. It is essen-
tial that there should be perfect harmony be-
tween the natural attitude of the figure and
the space it lives in that a square saint should
not be put in a round hole. Range through
plastic art, from Chaldaea to France, and you
will see how this principle of adaptation has
always ruled composition.

m

It is the sense of its universal applicability
that makes taste so living an influence in
France. French people "have taste" as nat-



TASTE 43

urally as they breathe: it is not regarded as
an accomplishment, like playing the flute.

The universal existence of taste, and of the
standard it creates it insists on explains
many of the things that strike Americans on
first arriving in France.

It is the reason,- for instance, why the
French have beautiful stone quays along the
great rivers on which their cities are built,
and why noble monuments of architecture,
and gardens and terraces, have been built
along these quays. The French have always
felt and reverenced the beauty of their rivers,
and known the value, artistic and hygienic, of
a beautiful and well-kept river-front in the
heart of a crowded city.

When industrialism began its work of dis-
figurement in the great cities of the world,
long reaches of the Thames were seized upon
by the factory-builder, and London has only
by a recent effort saved a short stretch of her
river front; even so, from the Embankment,



44 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

whether at Westminster or Chelsea, one looks
across at ugliness, untidiness and squalor.

When industrialism came to the wise old
Latin cities Paris, Lyons, Bordeaux, Flor-
ence their river banks were already firmly
and beautifully built up, and the factory-
chimneys had to find a footing in the outskirts.
Any American with eyes to see, who compares
the architectural use to which Paris has put
the Seine with the wasteful degradation of
the unrivalled twin river-fronts of New York,
may draw his own conclusions as to the sheer
material advantage of taste in the creation of
a great city.

Perhaps the most curious instance of taste-
blindness in dealing with such an opportunity
is to be found in Boston, where Beacon Street
calmly turned its wealthy back to the bay,
and fringed with clothes-lines the shores that
might have made of Boston one of the most
beautifully situated cities in the world. In
this case, industry did not encroach or slums
degrade. The Boston aristocracy appro-



TASTE 4$

priated the shore of the bay for its own resi-
dential uses, but apparently failed to notice
that the bay was there.

Taste, also the recognition of a standard
explains the existence of such really na-
tional institutions as the French Academy, and
the French national theatre, the Theatre Fran-
c.ais. The history of the former, in particular,
throws a light on much that is most distinc-
tively French in the French character.

It would be difficult for any one walking
along the Quai Malaquais, and not totally
blind to architectural beauty, not to be
charmed by the harmony of proportion and
beauty of composition of a certain building
with curved wings and a small central dome
that looks across the Seine at the gardens of
the Louvre and the spires of Saint Germain
1'Auxerrois.

That building, all elegance, measure and
balance, from its graceful cupola to the stately
stone vases surmounting the lateral colonnades
that building is the old "College des Quatre



46 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

Nations," the Institute of France, and the
home of the French Academy.

In 1635, at a time when France was still
struggling with the heavy inheritance of feu*
dalism, a bad man and great statesman, the
mighty Cardinal Richelieu, paused in his long
fight with the rebellious vassals of the crown
to create a standard of French speech: "To
establish the rules of the language, and make
French not only elegant, but capable of deal-
ing with the arts and sciences."

Think of the significance of such an act at
such a moment! France was a welter of polit-
ical and religious dissension; everything in
the monarchy, and the monarchy itself, was in
a state of instability. Austria and Spain
menaced it from without, the great vassals
tore it asunder from within. During the
Great Assizes of Auvergne some of the most
powerful of these nobles were tried, punished
and stripped of their monstrous privileges;
and the record of their misdeeds reads like a



TASTE 47

tale of Sicilian brigandage and Corsican ven-
detta.

Gradually the iron hand of Richelieu drew
order a grim pitiless order out of this unin-
habitable chaos. But it was in the very thick


2 4 5 6 7

Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 2 of 7)