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a new country, plunged in the struggle with
material necessities, to create an art of her
own, or to have acquired familiarity enough
with the great arts of the past to feel the need
of them as promoters of enjoyment, or to un-
derstand their value as refining and civilising
influences. But America is now ripe to take
her share in the long inheritance of the races
she descends from; and it is a pity that just
at this time the inclination of the immense
majority of Americans is setting away from all
real education and real culture.

Intellectual honesty was never so little iiv
respect in the United States as in the years be-
fore the war. Every sham and substitute for
education and literature and art had steadily
crowded out the real thing. "Get-rich-quick"
is a much less dangerous device than "get-
educated-quick," but the popularity of the
first has led to the attempt to realise the sec-
ond. It is possible to get rich quickly in a
country full of money-earning chances; but
there is no short-cut to education.



Perhaps it has been an advantage to the
French to have had none of our chances of
sudden enrichment. Perhaps the need of ac-
cumulating money slowly leads people to be
content with less, and consequently gives them
more leisure to care for other things. There
could be no greater error as all Americans
.know than to think that America's ability to
make money quickly has made her heedless of
other values; but it has set the pace for the
pursuit of those other values, a pursuit that
l^ads to their being trampled underfoot in the
general rush for them.

The French, at any rate, living more slowly,
have learned the advantage of living more
deeply. In science, in art, in technical and
industrial training, they know the need of tak-
ing time, and the wastefulness of superficial-
i'y. French university education is a long
and stern process, but it produces minds ca-
pable of more sustained effort and a larger
range of thought than our quick doses of learn-
ing. And this strengthening discipline of the


mind has preserved the passion for intellec-
tual honesty. No race is so little addicted to
fads, for fads are generally untested proposi-
tions. The French tendency is to test every
new theory, religious, artistic or scientific, in
the light of wide knowledge and experience,
and to adopt it only if it stands this scrutiny.
It is for this reason that France has so few
religions, so few philosophies, and so few
quick cures for mental or physical woes. And
it is for this reason also that there are so few
advertisements in French newspapers.

Nine-tenths of English and American ad-
vertising is based on the hope that some one
has found a way of doing something, or curing
some disease, or overcoming some infirmity,
more quickly than by the accepted methods.
The French are too incredulous of short-cuts
and nostrums to turn to such promises with
much hope. Their unshakeable intellectual
honesty and their sound intellectual training
lead them to distrust any way but the strait
and narrow one when a difficulty is to be mas-


tered or an art acquired. They are above all
democratic in their steady conviction that
there is no "royal road" to the worth-while
things, and that every yard of the Way to
Wisdom has to be travelled on foot, and not
spun over in a joy-ride.




'AVE you ever watched the attempt of
any one who does not know how to
draw to put down on paper the
roughest kind of representation of a house or
a horse or a human being?

The difficulty and perplexity (to any one
not born with the drawing instinct) caused
by the effort of reproducing an object one can
walk around are extraordinary and unex-
pected. The thing is there, facing the
draughtsman, the familiar everyday thing
and a few strokes on paper ought to give at
least a recognisable suggestion of it.

But what kind of strokes ? And what curves
or angles ought they to follow? Try and see

for yourself, if you have never been taught



to draw, and if no instinct tells you how. Evi-
dently there is some trick about it which must
be learned.

It takes a great deal of training and obser-
vation to learn the trick and represent recog-
nisably the simplest three-dimensional thing,
much less an animal or a human being in
movement. And it takes a tradition too: it
presupposes the existence of some one capable
of handing on the trick, which has already
been handed on to him.

Thirty thousand years ago or perhaps
more there were men in France so advanced
in observation and training of eye and hand
that they could represent fishes swimming in
a river, stags grazing or fighting, bison charg-
ing with lowered heads or lying down and
licking their own shoulders could even rep-
resent women dancing in a round, and long
lines of reindeer in perspective, with horns
gradually diminishing in size.

It is only twenty years ago that the first
cavern decorated with prehistoric paintings


was discovered at Altamira, in north-western
Spain. Its discoverer was regarded with sus-
picion and contempt by the archaeologists of
the period : they let him see that they thought
him an impostor and he died without having
been able to convince the learned world that
he had not had a hand in decorating the roof
of the cave of Altamira with its wonderful
troops of inter-glacial animals. But ten or
twelve years later the discovery of similar
painted caves in all directions north and south
of the Pyrenees at last vindicated Senor Sau-
tola's sincerity, and set the students of civilisa-
tion hastily revising their chronologies; and
since then proofs of the consummate skill of
these men of the dawn have been found on the
walls of caves and grottoes all over central and
southern France, throughout the very region
where our American soldiers have been camp-
ing, and where our convalescents are now
basking in the warm Mediterranean sun.

The study of prehistoric art is just begin-
ning, but already it has been found that draw-


ing, painting and even sculpture of a highly
developed kind were practised in France long
before Babylon rose in its glory, or the foun-
dations of the undermost Troy were laid. In
fact, all that is known of the earliest historic
civilisations is recent in date compared with
the wonderful fore-shortened drawings and
clay statues of the French Stone Age.

The traces of a very ancient culture discov-
ered in the United States and in Central
America prove the far-off existence of an ar-
tistic and civic development unknown to the
races found by the first European explorers.
But the origin and date of these vanished
societies are as yet unguessed at, and even were
it otherwise they would not count in our ar-
tistic and social inheritance, since the English
and Dutch colonists found only a wilderness
peopled by savages, who had kept no link of
memory with those vanished societies. There
had been a complete break of continuity.



In France it was otherwise.

Any one who really wants to understand
France must bear in mind that French culture
is the most homogeneous and uninterrupted
culture the world has known. It is true that
waves of invasion, just guessed at on the verge
of the historic period, must have swept aw r ay
the astounding race \vho adorned the caves of
central and south-western France \vith draw-
ings matching those of the Japanese in sup-
pleness and audacity; for after that far-off
flowering time the prehistorian comes on a
period of retrogression when sculptor and
draughtsman fumbled clumsily with their im-
plements. The golden age of prehistory was
over. Waves of cold, invasions of savage
hordes, all the violent convulsions of a world
in the making, swept over the earliest France
and almost swept her away: almost, but not
quite. Soon, Phoenicia and Greece were to
reach her from the south, soon after that Rome
was to stamp her once for all with the stamp


of Roman citizenship; and in the intervals
between these events the old, almost vanished
culture doubtless lingered in the caves and
river-beds, handed on something of its great
tradition, kept alive, in the hidden nooks
which cold and savages spared, little hearths
of artistic vitality.

It would appear that all the while people
went on obscurely modelling clay, carving
horn and scratching drawings on the walls of
just such river-cliff houses as the peasants of
Burgundy live in to this day, thus nursing
the faint embers of tradition that were to leap
into beauty at the touch of Greece and Rome.
And even if it seems fanciful to believe that
the actual descendants of the cave-painters
survived there can be little doubt that their
art, or its memory, was transmitted. If even
this link with the past seems too slight to be
worth counting, the straight descent of French
civilisation from the ancient Mediterranean
culture which penetrated her by the Rhone
and Spain and the Alps would explain the


ripeness and the continuity of her social life.
By her geographic position she seemed des-
tined to centralise and cherish the scattered
fires of these old societies.

What is true of plastic art must of course
be true of the general culture it implies. The
people of France went on living in France,
surviving cataclysms, perpetuating traditions,
handing down and down and down certain
ways of ploughing and sowing and vine-dress-
ing and dyeing and tanning and working and
hoarding, in the same valleys and on the same
river-banks as their immemorially remote

Could anything be in greater contrast to
the sudden uprooting of our American an-
cestors and their violent cutting off from all
their past, when they set out to create a new
state in a new hemisphere, in a new climate,
and out of new materials?

How little the old peasant-tradition of ru-
ral England lingered among the uprooted col-
onists, who had to change so abruptly all their


agricultural and domestic habits, is shown in
the prompt disappearance from our impov-
erished American vocabulary of nearly all
the old English words relating to fields and
woods. What has become, in America, of the
copse, the spinney, the hedgerow, the dale,
the vale, the weald? .We have reduced all tim-
ber to "woods," and, even that plural appear-
ing excessive, one hears Americans who ought
to know better speak of "a woods," as though
the familiar word has lost part of its meaning
to them.

This instance from our own past to which
might be added so many more illustrating the
deplorable loss of shades of difference in our
blunted speech will help to show the con-
trast between a race that has had a long con-
tinuance and a race that has had a recent be-

The English and Dutch settlers of North
America no doubt carried many things with
them, such vital but imponderable things as
prejudices, principles, laws and beliefs. But


even these were strangely transformed when
at length the colonists emerged again from the
backwoods and the bloody Indian warfare.
The stern experience of the pioneer, the neces-
sity of rapid adaptation and of constantly im-
provised expedients, formed a far different
preparation from that dogged resistance to
invasion, that clinging to the same valley and
the same river-cliff, that have made the
French, literally as well as figuratively, the
most conservative of western races. They also
had passionate convictions and fierce wants,
like other peoples trying to organise them-
selves; but the idea of leaving France in order
to safeguard their convictions and satisfy their
wants would never have occurred to the
French Huguenots if the religious wars of the
sixteenth century and the Revocation of the
Edict of Nantes had not made France literally
uninhabitable. The English Puritans left
England only to gain greater liberty for the
independent development of their peculiar
political and religious ideas; they were not


driven out with fire and sword as the Hugue-
nots were driven from France.

Why, then, one wonders, did the French
people cling to France with such tenacity
since none are more passionate in their con-
victions and prejudices where anything short
of emigration is concerned? They clung to
France because they loved it, and for such
sentimental fidelity some old underlying eco-
nomic reason usually exists. The map of
France, and the climate of France, show what
the reason was. France, as her historians
have long delighted to point out, is a country
singularly privileged in her formation, and
in the latitude she occupies. She is magnifi-
cently fed with great rivers, which flow where
it is useful for commerce and agriculture that
they should flow. The lines of her mountain-
ranges formed natural ramparts in the past,
and in the south and south-west, serve as great
wind-screens and sun-reflectors, creating al-
most tropic corners under a temperate lati-
tude. Her indented coast opens into many ca-


pacious and sheltered harbours, and the
course of the Gulf Stream bends in to soften
the rainy climate of her great western penin-
sula, making Brittany almost as warm as the
sunnier south.

Above all, the rich soil of France, so pre-
cious for wheat and corn-growing, is the best
soil in the world for the vine; and a people
can possess few more civilising assets than the
ability to produce good wine at home. It is
the best safeguard against alcoholism, the best
incentive to temperance in the manly and
grown-up sense of the word, which means vol-
untary sobriety and not legally enforced ab-

All these gifts France had and the French
intelligently cherished. Between the Swiss
snows and the icy winter fogs of Germany on
the one side, and the mists and rain and per-
petual dampness of England on the other, her
cool mild sky shot with veiled sunlight over-
hung a land of temperate beauty and temper-
ate wealth. Farther north, man might grow


austere or gross, farther south idle and im-
provident: France offered the happy mean
which the poets are forever celebrating, and
the French were early aware that the poets
were right.


Satisfaction with a happy mean implies the
power to choose, the courage to renounce.

The French had chosen: they chose France.
They had to renounce; and they renounced

Staying in France was not likely to make
any man inordinately rich in his life-time;
forsaking France to acquire sudden wealth
was unthinkable. The Frenchman did not de-
sire inordinate wealth for himself, but he
wanted, and was bound to have, material se-
curity for his children. Therefore the price to
be paid for staying at home, and keeping one's
children with one (an absolute necessity to the
passionately tender French parent), was per-
petual, sleepless, relentless thrift. The money


necessary to security had to be accumulated
slowly and painfully, so the Frenchman
learned to be industrious, and to train his
children to industry; and that money had to
be kept fast hold of, since any profitable in-
vestment meant Risk.

Risk and Adventure were the two dreaded
enemies that might, at a stroke, deprive one
of the bliss of living in France, or of the mod-
icum of well-being necessary to live there in
comfort, as the unluxurious French under-
stand it. Against Risk and Adventure, there-
fore, it is the French parent's duty to warn
and protect his children. Brought up in this
atmosphere of timidity and distrust of the un-
known, generation after generation of young
Frenchmen became saturated with the same
fears; and those among them who tried to
break through the strong network of tradition,
and venture iheir inheritance or their lives in
quest of new things, were restrained by the
fierce conservatism of the women and the in-
sinuating tyranny of French family life.


It is useless to deny that, to Anglo-Saxon
eyes, the niggardliness of the French is their
most incomprehensible trait. The reluctance
to give, the general lack of spontaneous and
impulsive generosity, even in times of such
tragic appeal as the war has created, have
too often astonished- and pained those who
most admire the French character to be passed
over in any frank attempt to understand it.

During the most cataclysmic moments of
the war, when it seemed that a few days or
weeks might bring the world crashing down
in ruins, and sweep away all that made life
tolerable and material ease a thing worth con-
sidering even then (though one could of
course cite individual cases of the noblest gen-
erosity), the sense of the imprudence of un-
calculated generosity still prevailed, and in
France money never poured forth for the re-
lief of suffering as it did in England.

The same clinging to tradition and fear of
risk which make prudence almost a vice in
the French are not applied only to money-


saving. The French too often economise
manners as they do francs. The discovery is
disillusionising until one goes back to its
cause, and learns to understand that, in a so-
ciety based on caution, and built about an old
and ineradicable bureaucracy, obsequiousness
on the one side is sure to breed discourtesy on
the other.

No one knows more than the French about
good manners: manners are codified in
France, and there is the possibility of an in-
sult in the least deviation from established
procedure, such as using the wrong turn in
signing a note, as, for example, putting
"Agreez, Monsieur" where "Veuillez agreer,
Monsieur" is in order, or substituting "senti-
ments distingues" for "haute consideration."
Unfortunately, in the process, the forms of
courtesy have turned into the sharp-edged me-
tallic counters of a game, instead of being a
spontaneous emission of human kindliness.

The French are kind in the sense of not be-
ing cruel, but they are not kindly, in the sense


of diffused benevolence which the word im-
plies to Anglo-Saxons. They are passionate
and yet calculating, and simple uncalcu-
lated kindliness the vague effusion of good-
will toward unknown fellow-beings does not
enter into a plan of life which is as settled,
ruled off and barricaded as their carefully-
measured and bounded acres. It savours too
much of Adventure, and might lead one into
the outer darknesses of Risk.

If one makes such a criticism to a French
friend, in any candid discussion of race-differ-
ences, the answer is always: "Of course you
Anglo-Saxons are more generous, because you
are so much richer."

But this explanation, though doubtless sin-
cere, is not exact. We are more generous not
because we are richer, but because we are so
much less afraid of being poor; and if we are
less afraid of being poor it is due to the fact
that our ancestors found it much easier to
make money, not only because they were more

willing to take risks, but because more oppor-
tunities came in their way.

Once these arguments are balanced, it be-
comes easier to allow for French caution, and
to overlook it in favour of those other quali-
ties which their way of life has enabled the
French to develop.


First among these qualities is the power of
sustained effort, and the sense of its need in
any worth-while achievement.

The French, it has already been pointed
out, have no faith in short-cuts, nostrums or
dodges of any sort to get around a difficulty.
This makes them appear backward in the
practical administration of their affairs; but
they make no claim to teach the world practi-
cal efficiency. What they have to teach is
something infinitely higher, more valuable,
more civilising: that in the world of ideas, as
in the world of art, steady and disinterested
effort alone can accomplish great things.


It may seem, from what has been said in an
earlier part of this chapter, as though the
French were of all people the most interested,
since questions of money so constantly preoc-
cupy them. But their thoughts are not occu-
pied with money-making in itself, as an end
worth living for, but only with the idea of
having money enough to be sure of not losing
their situation in life, for themselves or their
children; since, little as they care to rise in
the world, they have an unspeakable terror of
falling, based partly, no doubt, on the pitiful
fate, in France, of those who do fall. This
point assured, they want only enough leisure
and freedom from material anxiety to enjoy
\vhat life and the arts of life ofTer. This ab-
sence of financial ambition should never be
lost sight of: it is not only the best clue to the
French character, but the most useful lesson
our own people can learn from contact with

The requirements of the average French-
man in any class are surprisingly few, and the


ambition to "better" himself socially plays a
very small part in his plans. What he wants
is leisure to enjoy the fleeting good things of
life, from which no one knows better how to
extract a temperate delight, and full liberty
of mind to discuss general ideas while pur-
suing whatever trade or art he is engaged in.
It may seem an exaggeration to ascribe such
aspirations to the average man of any race;
but compared with other peoples the distin-
guishing mark of the Frenchman of all classes
is the determination to defend his own leisure,
the taste for the free play of ideas, and the
power to express and exchange views on ques-
tions of general interest.

Great shrewdness and maturity of judgment
result from this tendency to formulate ideas:
it is unusual to hear a French peasant or
working man express an opinion on life that
is not sagacious. Human nature is a subject
of absorbing interest to the French, and they
have, to use their own phrase, "made the tour
of it," and amply allowed for it in all their


appreciations of life. The artless astonish-
ment of the northern races in the face of the
oldest of human phenomena is quite incom-
prehensible to them.

This serenity and maturity of view is the
result of an immensely old inheritance of cul-
ture; and the first lesson it teaches is that
Rome was not built in a day.

Only children think that one can make a
garden with flowers broken from the plant;
only inexperience imagines that novelty is al-
ways synonymous with improvement. To go
on behaving as if one believed these things,
and to foster their belief in others, is to en-
courage the intellectual laziness which rapid
material prosperity is too apt to develop. It
is to imprison one's self in a perpetual imma-
turity. The French express, perhaps uncon-
sciously, their sense of the weight of their own
long moral experience by their universal com-
ment on the American fellows-in-arms whose
fine qualities they so fully recognise. "Ce sont
dcs enfants they are mere children!" is what


they always say of the young Americans: say
it tenderly, almost anxiously, like people pas-
sionately attached to youth and to the young,
but also with a little surprise at the narrow
surface of perception which most of these
young minds offer to the varied spectacle of
the universe.

A new race, working out its own destiny in
new conditions, cannot hope for the moral and
intellectual maturity of a race seated at the
cross-roads of the old civilisations. But
America has, in part at least, a claim on the
great general inheritance of Western culture.
She inherits France through England, and
Rome and the Mediterranean culture,
through France. These are indirect and re-
mote sources of enrichment; but she has di-
rectly, in her possession and in her keeping,
the magnificent, the matchless inheritance of
English speech and English letters.

Had she had a more mature sense of the
value of tradition and the strength of con-
tinuity she would have kept a more reverent


hold upon this treasure, and the culture won
from it would have been an hundredfold
greater. She would have preserved the lan-
guage instead of debasing and impoverishing
it; she would have learned the historic mean-
ing of its words instead of wasting her time in-
venting short-cuts in^spelling them; she would

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 4 of 7)