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of the conflict that he seemed to feel the need
of creating, then and there, some fixed princi-
ple of civilised life, some kind of ark in which
thought and taste and "civility" could take
shelter. It was as if, in the general upheaval,
he wished to give stability to* the things which
humanise and unite society. And he chose
"taste" taste in speech, in culture, in man-
ners, as the fusing principle of his new

The traditional point of view of its founder
has been faithfully observed for nearly three
hundred years by the so-called "Forty Im-
mortals," the Academicians who throne under
the famous cupola. The Academy has never
shrunk into a mere retreat for lettered pedan-
try: as M. Saillens says in his admirable little
book, "Facts about France": "The great ob-


ject of Richelieu was national unity," and
"The Forty do not believe that they can keep
the language under discipline by merely pub-
lishing a Dictionary now and then (the first
edition came out in 1694). They believe that
a standard must be set, and that it is for them
to set it. Therefore the Academy does not
simply call to its ranks famous or careful
writers, but soldiers as well, bishops, scien-
tists, men of the world, men of social rank, so
as to maintain from generation to generation a
national conservatory of good manners and
good speech."

For this reason, though Frenchmen have
always laughed at their Academy, they have
always respected it, and aspired to the distinc-
tion of membership. Even the rebellious
spirits who satirise it in their youth usually
become, in maturity, almost too eager for its
recognition; and, though the fact of being an
Academician gives social importance, it
would be absurd to pretend that such men as
Pasteur, Henri Poincare, Marshal Joffre,


sought the distinction for that reason, or that
France would have thought it worthy of their
seeking if the institution had not preserved
its original significance.

That significance was simply the safe-
guarding of what the French call les choses
de I' esprit; which cannot quite be translated
"things of the spirit," and yet means more
nearly that than anything else. And Riche-
lieu and the original members of the Acad-
emy had recognised from the first day that
language was the chosen vessel in which the
finer life of a nation must be preserved.

It is not uncommon nowadays, especially in
America, to sneer at any deliberate attempts
to stabilise language. To test such criticisms it
is* useful to reduce them to their last conse-
quence which is almost always absurdity. It
is not difficult to discover what becomes of a
language left to itself, without accepted
standards or restrictions; instances may be
found among any savage tribes without fixed
standards of speech. Their language speedily


ceases to be one, and deteriorates into a mud-
dle of unstable dialects. Or, if an instance
nearer home is needed, the lover of English
need only note what that rich language has
shrunk to on the lips, and in the literature, of
the heterogeneous hundred millions of Ameri-
can citizens who, without uniformity of tra-
dition or recognised guidance, are being suf-
fered to work their many wills upon it.

But at this point it may be objected that,
after all, England herself has never had an
Academy, nor could ever conceivably have
had one, and that whatever the English of
America has become, the English of England
is still the language of her great tradition,
with perfectly defined standards of taste and

England is England, as France is France:
the one feels the need of defining what the
other finds it simpler to take for granted.
England has never had a written Constitu-
tion; yet her constitutional government has
long been the model of free nations. Eng-


land's standards are all implicit. She does
not feel the French need of formulating and
tabulating. Her Academy is not built with
hands, but it is just as powerful, and just as
visible to those who have eyes to see; and
the name of the English Academy is Usage.


I said just now: "If any of our American
soldiers look up at the niches in the portal
of a French cathedral they are likely to be
struck first of all by" such and such things.

In our new Army all the arts and profes-
sions are represented, and if the soldier in
question happens to be a sculptor, an archi-
tect, or an art critic, he will certainly note
what I have pointed out; but if he is not a
trained observer, the chances are that he will
not even look up.

The difference is that in France almost ev-
ery one has the seeing eye, just as almost every
one has the hearing ear. It is not a platitude,
though it may be a truism, to say that the


French are a race of artists : it is the key that
unlocks every door of their complex pyschol-
ogy, and consequently the key that must be
oftenest in the explorer's hand.

The gift of the seeing eye is, obviously, a
first requisite where taste is to prevail. And
the question is, how is the seeing eye to be ob-
tained? What is the operation for taste-
blindness? Or is there any; and are not some
races the artistically non-creative born as
irremediably blind as Kentucky cave-fishes?

The answer might be yes, in the case of
the wholly non-creative races. But the men
of English blood are creative artists too;
theirs is the incomparable gift of poetic ex-
pression. And any race gifted with one form
of artistic originality is always acutely appre-
ciative of other cognate forms of expression.
There has never been a race more capable
than the English of appreciating the great
plastic creators, Greece, Italy and France.
This gift of the critical sense in those artii
wherein the race does not excel in original ex-


pression seems an inevitable by-product of its
own special endowment. In such races taste-
blindness is purely accidental, and the opera-
tion that cures it is the long slow old-fash-
ioned one of education. There is no other.

The artist races are naturally less dependent
on education: to a certain degree their in-
stinct takes the place of acquired discrimina-
tion. But they set a greater store on it than
any other races because they appreciate more
than the others all that, even to themselves,
education reveals and develops.

It is just because the French are naturally
endowed with taste that they attach such im-
portance to cultivation, and that French stand-
ards of education are so infinitely higher and
more severe than those existing in Anglo-
Saxon countries. We are too much inclined
to think that we have disposed of the matter
when we say that, in our conception of life,
education should be formative and not in-
structive. The point is, the French might re-
turn, what are we to be formed for? And, in


any case, they would not recognise the an-
tithesis, since they believe that, to form, one
must instruct: instruct the eye, the ear, the
brain, every one of those marvellous organs of
sense so often left dormant by our Anglo-
Saxon training.

It used to be thought that if savages ap-
peared unimpressed by the wonders of occi-
dental art or industry it was because their
natural hauteur would not let them betray
surprise to the intruder. That romantic illu-
sion has been dispelled by modern investiga-
tion, and the traveller now knows that the sav-
age is unimpressed because he does not see the
new things presented to him. It takes the
most complex assemblage of associations,
visual and mental, to enable us to discover
what a picture represents: the savage placed
before such familiar examples of the graphic
art as 'The Infant Samuel" or "His Master's
Voice" would not see the infant or the fox-
terrier, much less guess what they were sup-
posed to be doing.


As long as America believes in short-cuts
to knowledge, in any possibility of buying
taste in tabloids, she will never come into her
real inheritance of English culture. A gen-
tleman travelling in the Middle West met a
charming girl who was a "college graduate."
He asked her what line of study she had se-
lected, and she replied that she had learnt
music one year, and languages the next, and
that last year she had "learnt art.' 1

It is the pernicious habit of regarding the
arts as something that can be bottled, pickled
and absorbed in twelve months (thanks to
"courses," summaries and abridgments) that
prevents the development of a real artistic sen-
sibility in our eager and richly endowed race.
Patience, deliberateness. reverence: these are
the fundamental elements of taste. The
French have always cultivated them, and it is
as much to them as to the eagle-flights of
genius that France owes her long artistic su-

From the Middle Aires to the Revolution


all the French trade-guilds had their travel-
ling members, the "Compagnons du Tour de
France." Not for greed of gold, but simply
from the ambition to excel in their own craft,
these "companions," their trade once learned,
took their staves in hand, and wandered on
foot over France, going from one to another
of the cities where the best teachers of their
special trades were to be found, and serving
an apprenticeship in each till they learned
enough to surpass their masters. The "tour
de France" was France's old way of acquiring
"Efficiency"; and even now she does not be-
lieve it can be found in newspaper nostrums.





MOST people, in their infancy, have
made bogeys out of sofa-pillows
and overcoats, and the imaginative
child always comes to believe in the reality
of the bogey he has manufactured, and to-
ward twilight grows actually afraid of it.

When I was a little girl the name of Horace
Greeley was potent in American politics, and
some irreverent tradesman had manufactured
a pink cardboard fan (on the "palmetto" mod-
el) which represented the countenance of
the venerable demagogue, and was sur-
rounded with a white silk fringe in imitation
of his hoary hair and "chin-beard." A
Horace Greeley fan had long been knocking
about our country-house, and was a familiar
object to me and to my little cousins, when



one day it occurred to us to make a bogey
with my father's overcoat, put Mr. Greeley's
head on top, and seat him on the verandah
near the front door.

When we were tired of playing we started
to go in; but there on the threshold in the
dusk sat Mr. Greeley, suddenly transformed
into an animate and unknown creature, and
dumb terror rooted us to the spot. Not one
of us had the courage to demolish that super-
natural and malevolent old man, or to dash
past him into the house and oh, the relief it
was when a big brother came along and re-
duced him into his constituent parts!

Such inhibitions take the imagination far
back to the childhood of the human race,
when terrors and taboos lurked in every bush;
and wherever the fear of the thing it has
created survives in the mind of any society,
that society is still in its childhood. Intellec-
tual honesty, the courage to look at things as
they are, is the first test of 'mental maturity.
Till a society ceases to be afraid of the truth in


the domain of ideas it is in leading-strings,
morally and mentally.

The singular superiority of the French has
always lain in their intellectual courage.
Other races and nations have been equally dis-
tinguished for moral courage, but too often it
has been placed at the service of ideas they
were afraid to analyse. The French always
want to find out first just what the concep-
tions they are fighting for are worth. They
will not be downed by their own bogeys, much
less by anybody else's. The young Oedipus
of Ingres, calmly questioning the Sphinx, is
the very symbol of the French intelligence;
and it is because of her dauntless curiosity that
France is of all countries the most grown up.

To persons unfamiliar with the real French
character, this dauntless curiosity is supposed
to apply itself chiefly to spying out and dis-
cussing acts and emotions which the Anglo-
Saxon veils from publicity. The French view
of what are euphemistically called "the facts
of life" (as the Greeks called the Furies the


"Amiable Ones") is often spoken of as though
it were inconsistent with those necessary ele-
ments of any ordered society that we call
purity and morality. Because the French talk
and write freely about subjects and situations
that Anglo-Saxons, for the last hundred years
(not before), have agreed not to mention, it is
assumed that the French gloat over such sub-
jects and situations. As a matter of fact, they
simply take them for granted, as part of the
great parti-coloured business of life, and no
more gloat over them (in the morbid intro-
spective sense) than they do over their morn-
ing coflee.

To be sure, they do "gloat" over their cof-
fee in a sense unknown to consumers of liquid
chicory and health-beverages: they "gloat,"
in fact, over everything that tastes good, looks
beautiful, or appeals to any one of their acute
and highly-trained five senses. But they do
this with no sense of greediness or shame or
immodesty, and consequently without morbid-
ness or waste of time. They take the normal


pleasures, physical and aesthetic, "in their
stride," so to speak, as wholesome, nourishing,
and necessary for the background of a labori
ous life of business or study, and not as sub-
jects for nasty prying or morbid self-examina-

It is necessary for any one who would judge
France fairly to get this fundamental differ-
ence fixed in his mind before forming an opin-
ion of the illustrated "funny papers," of the
fiction, the theatres, the whole trend of French
humour, irony and sentiment. Well-meaning
people waste much time in seeking to prove
that Gallic and Anglo-Saxon minds take the
same view of such matters, and that the Vie
Parisienne, the "little theatres" and the light
fiction of France do not represent the average
French temperament, but are a vile attempt
(by foreign agents) to cater to foreign por-

The French have always been a gay and
free and Rabelaisian people. They attach a
great deal of importance to love-making, but


they consider it more simply and less solemnly
than we. They are cool, resourceful and
merry, crack jokes about the relations between
the sexes, and are used to the frank discussion
of what some one tactfully called "the opera-
tions of Nature." They are puzzled by our
queer fear of our own bodies, and accustomed
to relate openly and unapologetically the
anecdotes that Anglo-Saxons snicker over pri-
vately and with apologies. They define por-
nography as a taste for the nasty, and not as
an interest in the natural. But nothing would
be more mistaken than to take this as proving
that family feeling is less deep and tender in
France than elsewhere, or the conception of
the social virtues different. It means merely
that the French are not frightened by the
names of things ; that they dislike what \ve call
coarseness much less than what they call
pruriency; and that they have too great a faith
in the fundamental life-forces, and too much
tenderness for the young mother suckling her
baby, for Daphnis and Chloe in the orchard


at dawn, and Philemon and Baucis on their
threshold at sunset, not to wonder at our being
ashamed of any of the processes of nature.

It is convenient to put the relations between
the sexes first on the list of subjects about
which the French and Anglo-Saxon races
think and behave differently, because it is the
difference which strikes the superficial ob-
server first, and which has been most used in
the attempt to prove the superior purity of
Anglo-Saxon morals. But French outspoken-
ness would not be interesting if it applied only
to sex-questions, for savages are outspoken
about those, too. The French attitude in that
respect is interesting only as typical of the gen-
eral intellectual fearlessness of France. She
is not afraid of anything that concerns man-
kind, neither of pleasure and mirth nor of
exultations and agonies.

The French are intrinsically a tough race:
they are careless of pain, unafraid of risks,
contemptuous of precautions. They have no
idea that life can be evaded, and if it could be


they would not try to evade it. They regard
it as a gift so magnificent that they are ready
to take the bad weather with the fine rather
than miss a day of the golden year.

It is this innate intellectual honesty, the spe-
cific distinction of the race, which has made it
the torch-bearer of the world. Bishop But-
ler's celebrated: "Things are as they are and
will be as they will be" might have been the
motto of the French intellect. It is an axiom
that makes dull minds droop, but exalts the
brain imaginative enough to be amazed before
the marvel of things as they are.


Mr. Howells, I fcel sure, will forgive me
if I quote here a comment I once heard him
make on theatrical taste in America. We had
been talking of that strange exigency of the
American public which compels the dramatist
(if he wishes to be played) to wind up his
play, whatever its point of departure, with the
"happy-ever-after" of the fairy-tales; and I


had remarked that this did not imply a prefer-
ence for comedy, but that, on the contrary, our
audiences want to be harrowed (and even
slightly shocked) from eight till ten-thirty,
and then consoled and reassured before eleven.

"Yes," said Mr. Howells; "what the Amer-
ican public wants is a tragedy with a happy

What Mr. Howells said of the American
theatre is true of the whole American attitude
toward life.

"A tragedy with a happy ending" is exactly
what the child wants before he goes to sleep:
the reassurance that "all's well with the
world" as he lies in his cosy nursery. It is a
good thing that the child should receive this
reassurance; but as long as he needs it he re-
mains a child, and the world he lives in is a
nursery-world. Things are not always and
everywhere well with the world, and each man
has to find it out as he grows up. It is the
finding out that makes him grow, and until he


has faced the fact and digested the lesson he is
not grown up he is still in the nursery.

The same thing is true of countries and peo-
ples. The "sheltered life," whether of the
individual or of the nation, must either have
a violent and tragic awakening or never
wake up at all. The keen French intelligence
perceived this centuries ago, and has always
preferred to be awake and alive, at whatever
cost. The cost has been heavy, but the results
have been worth it, for France leads the world
intellectually just because she is the most
grown up of the nations.

In each of the great nations there is a small
minority which is at about the same level of
intellectual culture; but it is not between these
minorities (though even here the level is per-
haps higher in France) that comparisons may
profitably be made. A cross-section of aver-
age life must be taken, and compared with the
same average in a country like ours, to under-
stand why France leads in the world of ideas.

The theatre has an importance in France


which was matched only in the most glorious
days of Greece. The dramatic sense of the
French, their faculty of perceiving and enjoy-
ing the vivid contrasts and ironies of daily
life, and their ability to express emotion where
Anglo-Saxons can only choke with it, this in-
nate dramatic gift, which is a part of their
general artistic endowment, leads them to at-
tach an importance to the theatre incompre-
hensible to our blunter races.

Americans new to France, and seeing it first
in war-time, will be continually led to over-
look the differences and see the resemblances
between the two countries. They will notice,
for instance, that the same kind of people who
pack the music-halls and "movie-shows" at
home also pack them in France. But if they
will take a seat at the one of the French na-
tional theatres (the Theatre Franqais or the
Odeon) they will see people of the same level
of education as those of the cinema-halls en-
joying with keen discrimination a tragedy by
Racine or a drama of Victor Hugo's. In


America the "movie" and music-hall audi-
ences require no higher form of nourishment.
In France they do, and the Thursday mat-
inees in theatres which give the classic drama
are as packed as the house where "The Mys-
teries of New York" are unrolled, while on
the occasion of the free performances given
on national holidays in these theatres a line
composed of working-people, poor students
and all kinds of modest wage-earners forms
at the door hours before the performance be-

The people who assist at these great tragic-
performances have a strong enough sense ox
reality to understand the part that grief and
calamity play in life and in art: they feel
instinctively that no real art can be based on
a humbugging attitude toward life, and it is
their intellectual honesty which makes them
exact and enjoy its fearless representation.

It is also their higher average of education,
of "culture" it would be truer to say, if the
word, with us, had not come to stand for the


pretence rather than the reality. Education
in its elementary sense is much more general
in America than in France. There are more
people who can read in the United States; but
what do they read? The whole point, as far
as any real standard goes, is there. If the abil-
ity to read carries the average man no higher
than the gossip of his neighbours, if he asks
nothing more nourishing out of books and the
theatre than he gets in hanging about the store,
the bar and the street-corner, then culture is
bound to be dragged down to him instead of
his being lifted up by culture.


The very significance the note of ridicule
and slight contempt which attaches to the
word "culture" in America, would be quite
unintelligible to the French of any class. It
is inconceivable to them that any one should
consider it superfluous, and even slightly
comic, to know a great deal, to know the best


in every line, to know, in fact, as much as pos-

There are ignorant and vulgar-minded peo-
ple in France, as in other countries; but in-
stead of dragging the popular standard of cul-
ture down to their own level, and ridiculing
knowledge as the affectation of a self-con-
scious clique, they are obliged to esteem it, to
pretend to have it, and to try and talk its lan-
guage which is not a bad way of beginning
to acquire it.

The odd Anglo-Saxon view that a love of
beauty and an interest in ideas imply effem-
inacy is quite unintelligible to the French; as
unintelligible as, for instance, the other notion
that athletics make men manly.

The French would say that athletics make
men muscular, that education makes them effi-
cient, and that what makes them manly is their
general view, of life, or, in other words, the
completeness of their intellectual honesty.
And the conduct of Frenchmen during the
last four and a half years looks as though there


were something to be said in favour of this

The French are persuaded that the enjoy-
ment of beauty and the exercise of the critical
intelligence are two of the things best worth
living for; and the notion that art and knowl-
edge could ever, in a civilised state, be re-
garded as negligible, or subordinated to
merely material interests, would never occur
to them. It does not follow that everything
they create is beautiful, or that their ideas are
always valuable or interesting; what matters
is the esteem in which the whole race holds
ideas and their noble expression.

Theoretically, America holds art and ideas
in esteem also; but she does not, as a people,
seek or desire them. This indifference is
partly due to awe : America has not lived long
at her ease with beauty, like the old European
races whose art reaches back through an un-
broken inheritance of thousands of years of
luxury and culture.

It would have been unreasonable to expect

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 3 of 7)