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French ways and their meaning online

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to the end for the principles she has always
lived for. Such she is to-day; such are the
millions of men- who have spent their best
years in her trenches, and the millions of
brave, uncomplaining, self-denying mothers
and wives and sisters who sent them forth
smiling, who waited for them patiently and
courageously, or who are mourning them si-
lently and unflinchingly, and not one of whom,
at the end of the most awful struggle in his-
tory, is ever heard to say that the cost has been
too great or the trial too bitter to be borne.

No one who has seen Frenchwomen since
the war can doubt that their great influence
on French life, French thought, French imag-
ination and French sensibility, is one of the
strongest elements in the attitude that France
holds before the world to-day.


ONE of the best ways of finding out
why a race is what it is, is to pick out
the words that preponderate in its
speech and its literature, and then* try to define
the special meaning it gives them.

The French people are one of the most
ascetic and the most laborious in Europe;
yet the four words that preponderate in
French speech and literature are: Glory, love,
voluptuousness, and pleasure. Before the
Puritan reflex causes the reader to fling aside
the page polluted by this statement, it will be
worth his while to translate these four words
into la gloire, I'amour, la volupte, le plaisir,
and then (if he knows French and the French
well enough) consider what they mean in the


language of Corneille and Pascal. For it
must be understood that they have no equiva-
lents in the English consciousness, and that, if
it were sought to explain the fundamental dif-
ference between the exiles of the Mayflower
and the conquerors of Valmy and Jena, it
would probably best be illustrated by the to-
tally different significance of "love and glory"
and "amour et gloire."

To begin with "la gloire": we must resign
ourselves to the fact that we do not really
know what the French mean when they say
it what, for instance, Montesquieu had in
mind when he wrote of Sparta: "The only
object of the Lacedaemonians was liberty, the
only advantage it gave them was glory." At
best, if we are intelligent and sympathetic
enough to have entered a little way into the
French psychology, we know that they mean
something infinitely larger, deeper and sub-
tler than we mean by "glory." The proof is
that the Anglo-Saxon is taught not to do great
deeds for "glory," while the French, unsur-


passed in great deeds, have always avowedly
done them for "la gloire."

It is obvious that the sense of duty has a
large part in the French conception of glory:
perhaps one might risk defining it as duty with
a panache. But that only brings one to an-
other untranslatable word. To put a panache
a plume, an ornament on a prosaic deed is
an act so eminently French that one seeks in
vain for its English.equivalent; it would verge
on the grotesque to define "la gloire" as duty
wearing an aigrette! The whole conception
of "la gloire" is linked with the profoundly
French conviction that the lily should be
gilded; that, however lofty and beautiful a
man's act or his purpose, it gains by being per-
formed with what the French (in a word
which for them has no implication of effemi-
nacy) call "elegance." Indeed, the higher,
the more beautiful, the gesture or the act, the
more it seems to them to call for adornment,
the more it gains by being given relief. And
thus, by the very appositeness of the word


relief, one is led to perceive that "la gloire" as
an incentive to high action is essentially the
conception of a people in whom the plastic*
sense has always prevailed. The idea of "dy-
ing in beauty" certainly originated with the
Latin race, though a Scandinavian play-
wright was left, incongruously enough, to find
a phrase for it.

The case is the same with "love" and
''amour"; but here the difference is more visi-
ble, and the meaning of "amour" easier to
arrive at. Again, as with "gloire," the con-
tent is greater than that of our "love."
"Amour," to the French, means the undivided
total of the complex sensations and emotions
that a man and a woman may inspire in each
other; whereas "love," since the days of the
Elizabethans, has never, to Anglo-Saxons,
been more than two halves of a word one
half all purity and poetry, the other all pruri-
ency and prose. And gradually the latter half
has been discarded, as too unworthy of asso-
ciation with the loftier meanings of the word,


and "love" remains at least in the press and
in the household a relation as innocuous, and
as undisturbing to social conventions and busi-
ness routine, as the tamest ties of consan-

Is it not possible that the determination to
keep these two halves apart has diminished
the one and degraded the other, to the loss of
human nature in the round? The Anglo-
Saxon answer is, of course, that love is not li-
cense; but what meaning is left to "love" in a
society where it is supposed to determine mar-
riage, and yet to ignore the transiency of sex-
ual attraction? At best, it seems to designate
a boy-and-girl fancy not much more mature
than a taste for dolls or marbles. In the light
of that definition, has not license kept the bet-
ter part?

It may be argued that human nature is ev-
erywhere fundamentally the same, and that,
though one race lies about its deepest impulses,
while another speaks the truth about them, the
result in conduct is not very different Is


either of these affirmations exact? If human
nature, at bottom, is everywhere the same, such
deep layers of different habits, prejudices, and
beliefs have been formed above its founda-
tion that it is rather misleading to test resem-
blances by what one digs up at the roots. Sec-
ondary motives of conduct are widely diver-
gent in different countries, and they are the
motives that control civilised societies except
when some catastrophe throws them back to
the state of naked man.

To understand the difference between the
Latin and the Anglo-Saxon idea of love one
must first of all understand the difference be-
tween the Latin and Anglo-Saxon conceptions
of marriage. In a society where marriage is
supposed to be determined solely by recipro-
cal inclination, and to bind the contracting
parties not only to a social but to a physical
lifelong loyalty, love, which never has ac-
cepted, and never will accept, such bonds, im-
mediately becomes a pariah and a sinner.
This is the Anglo-Saxon point of view. How


many critics of the French conception of love
have taken the trouble to consider first their
idea of marriage?

Marriage, in France, is regarded as
founded for the family and not for the hus-
band and wife. It is designed not to make two
people individually happy for a longer or
shorter time, but to secure their permanent
well-being as associates in the foundation of
a home and the procreation of a family. Such
an arrangement must needs be based on what
is most permanent in human states of feeling,
and least dependent on the accidents of beauty,
youth, and novelty. Community of tradition,
of education, and, above all, of the parental
feeling, are judged to be the sentiments most
likely to form a lasting tie between the aver-
age man and woman; and the French mar-
riage is built on parenthood, not on passion.

An illustration of the radical contradiction
between such a view of marriage and that of
the English races is found In the following ex-


tract from a notice of a play lately produced
(with success) in London:

"After two months of marriage a young girl
discovers that her husband married her be-
cause he wanted a son. That is enough. She
will have no more to do with him. So he goes
off to fulfil a mining engagement in Peru, and
she hides herself in the country. . . ."

It would be impossible to exaggerate the be-
wilderment and disgust with which any wife
or husband in France, whether young or mid-
dle-aged, would read the cryptic sentences I
have italicised. "What," they would ask,
"did the girl suppose he had married her for?
And what did she want to be married for?
And what is marriage for, if not for that?"

The French bride is no longer taken from
a convent at sixteen to be flung into the arms
of an unknown bridegroom. As emancipa-
tion has progressed, the young girl has been
allowed a voice in choosing her husband; but
what is the result? That in ninety-nine cases
out of a hundred her choice is governed by the


same considerations. The notion of marriage
as a kind of superior business association,
based on community of class, of political and
religious opinion, and on a fair exchange of
advantages (where one, for instance, brings
money and the other position), is so ingrained
in the French social organisation that the mod-
ern girl accepts it intelligently, just as her
puppet grandmother bowed to it passively.

From this important act of life the notion
of love is tacitly excluded; not because love is
thought unimportant, but on account of its
very importance, and of the fact that it is not
conceivably to be fitted into any stable asso-
ciation between man and woman. It is be-
cause the French have refused to cut love in
two that they have not attempted to subordi-
nate it to the organisation of the family. They
have left it out because there was no room for
it, and also because it moves to a different
rhythm, and keeps different seasons. It is be-
cause they refuse to regard it either as merely
an exchange of ethereal vows or as a sensual


gratification; because, on the contrary, they
believe, with Coleridge, that

"All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame,"

that they frankly recognise its right to its own
place in life.

What, then, is the place they give to the dis-
turbing element? They treat it the answer
might be as ihe poetry of life. For the
French, simply because they are the most real-
istic people in the world, are also the most ro-
mantic. They have judged that the family
and the state cannot be built up on poetry, but
they have not felt that for that reason poetry
was to be banished from their republic. They
have decided that love is too grave a matter
for boys and girls, and not grave enough to
form the basis of marriage; but in the rela-
tions between grown people, apart from their
permanent ties (and in the deepest conscious-
ness of the French, marriage still remains in-


dissoluble) , they allow it, frankly and amply,
the part it furtively and shabbily, but no less
ubiquitously, plays in Puritan societies.

It is not intended here to weigh the relative
advantages of this view of life and the other;
what has been sought is to state fairly the rea-
sons why marriage, being taken more seriously
and less vaguely by the French, there remains
an allotted place for love in their more pre-
cisely ordered social economy. Nevertheless,
it is fairly obvious that, except in a world
where the claims of the body social are very
perfectly balanced against those of the body
individual, to give such a place to passion is
to risk being submerged by it. A society
which puts love beyond the law, and then pays
it such heavy toll, subjects itself to the most
terrible of Camorras.


The French are one of the most ascetic races
in the world; and that is perhaps the reason
why the meaning they give to the word "vo-


lupte" is free from the vulgarity of our "vo-
luptuousness." The latter suggests to most
people a cross-legged sultan in a fat seraglio;
"volupte" means the intangible charm that
imagination extracts from things tangible.
"Volupte" means the "Ode to the Nightin-
gale" and the "Ode to a Grecian Urn;" it
means Romeo and Juliet as well as Antony
and Cleopatra. But if we have the thing, one
may ask, what does the word matter? Every
language is always losing word-values, even
where the sense of the word survives.

The answer is that the French sense of
"volupte" is found only exceptionally in the
Anglo-Saxon imagination, whereas it is part
of the imaginative make-up of the whole
French race. One turns to Shakespeare or
Keats to find it formulated in our speech;
in France it underlies the whole view of life.
And this brings one, of course, to the inevi-
table conclusion that the French are a race of
creative artists, and that artistic creativcness
requires first a free play of the mind on all

the facts of life, and secondly the sensuous sen-
sibility that sees beyond tangible beauty to the
aura surrounding it.

The French possess the quality and have al-
ways claimed the privilege. And from their
freedom of view combined with their sensu-
ous sensibility they have extracted the sensa-
tion they call "le plaisir," which is something
so much more definite and more evocative
than what we mean when we speak of pleas-
ure. "Le plaisir" stands for the frankly per-
mitted, the freely taken, delight of the senses,
the direct enjoyment of the fruit of the tree
called golden. No suggestions of furtive vice
degrade or coarsen it, because it has, like love,
its open place in speech and practice. It has
found its expression in English also, but only
on the lips of genius: for instance, in the
"bursting of joy's grape" in the "Ode to
Melancholy" (it is always in Keats that one
seeks such utterances) ; whereas to the French
it is part of the general fearless and joyful con-
tact with life. And that is why it has kept its


finer meaning, instead of being debased by in-


The French are passionate and pleasure-
loving; but they are above all ascetic and la-
borious. And it is only out of a union of
these supposedly contradictory qualities that
so fine a thing as the French temperament
could have come.

The industry of the French is universally
celebrated; but many even among their own
race might ask what justifies the statement
that they are ascetic. The fact is, the word,
which in reality indicates merely a natural in-
difference to material well-being, has come,
in modern speech, to have a narrower and a
penitential meaning. It is supposed to imply
a moral judgment, whereas it refers only to
the attitude taken toward the creature com-
forts. A man, or a nation, may wear home-
spun and live on locusts, and yet be immod-
eratelv addicted to the lusts of the eve and


of the flesh. Asceticism means the serene
ability to get on without comfort, and comfort
is an Anglo-Saxon invention which the Latins
have never really understood or felt the want
of. What they need (and there is no relation
between the needs) is splendour on occasion,
and beauty and fulness of experience always.
They do not care for the raw material of sen-
sation: food must be exquisitely cooked, emo-
tion eloquently expressed, desire emotionally
heightened, every experience must be trans-
muted into terms of beauty before it touches
their imagination.

This fastidiousness, this tendency always to
select and eliminate, and refine their sensa-
tions, is united to that stoic indifference to
dirt, discomfort, bad air, damp, cold, and
whatever Anglo-Saxons describe as "incon-
venience" in the general organisation of life,
from the bathroom to the banking system,
which gives the French leisure of spirit for
enjoyment, and strength of heart for war. It
enables, and has always enabled, a people ad-


dieted to pleasure and unused to the disci-
pline of sport, to turn at a moment's notice
into the greatest fighters that history has
known. All the French need to effect this
transformation is a "great argument;" once
the spring of imagination touched, the body
obeys it with a dash and an endurance that
no discipline, whether Spartan or Prussian,
rtver succeeded in outdoing.

This fearless and joyful people, so ardently
individual and so frankly realistic, have an-
other safeguard against excess in their almost
Chinese reverence for the ritual of manners.
It is fortunate that they have preserved,
through every political revolution, this sense
of the importance of ceremony, for they are
without the compensating respect for the
rights of others which eases intercourse in
Anglo-Saxon countries. Any view of the
French that considers them as possessing the
instinct of liberty is misleading; what they
have always understood is equality a differ-
ent matter and even that, as one of the most


acute among their recent political writers has
said, "on condition that each man commands."
Their past history, and above all the geo-
graphical situation which has conditioned it,
must be kept in view to understand the French
indifference to the rights of others, and the
corrective for that indifference which their ex-
quisite sense of sociability provides.

For over a thousand years France has had
to maintain herself in the teeth of an aggres-
sive Europe, and to do so she has required a
strong central government and a sense of so-
cial discipline. Her great kings were forever
strengthening her by their resistance to the
scattered feudal opposition. Richelieu and
Louis XIV finally broke this opposition, and
left France united against Europe, but de-
prived of the sense of individual freedom, and
needing to feel the pressure of an "administra-
tion" on her neck. Imagination, intellectual
energy, and every form of artistic activity,
found their outlet in social intercourse, and


France created polite society one more work
of art in the long list of her creations.

The French conception of society is hierar-
chical and administrative, as her government
(under whatever name) has so long been.
Every social situation has its appropriate ges-
tures and its almost fixed vocabulary, and
nothing, for example, is more puzzling to
the French than the fact that the English, a
race whose civilisation they regard as in some
respects superior to their own, have only two
or three ways of beginning and ending their

This ritual view of politeness makes it dif-
ficult of application in undetermined cases,
and therefore it often gets left out in emer-
gencies. The complaint of Anglo-Saxons that,
in travelling in France, they see little of the
much-vaunted French courtesy, is not unjus-
tified. The French are not courteous from
any vague sense of good-will toward mankind ;
they regard politeness as a coin with which
certain things are obtainable, and being no-


tably thrifty they are cautious about spending
it on strangers. But the disillusion of the
traveller often arises in part from his own ig-
norance of the most elementary French forms:
of the "Bon jour, Madame," on entering and
leaving a shop, of the fact that a visitor should
always, on taking leave, be conducted to the
outer door, and a gentleman (of the old
school) bidden not to remain uncovered when
he stops to speak to a lady in the street; of
the "Merci" that should follow every service,
however slight, the "Apres vous" which makes
way, with ceremonious insistence, for the per-
son who happens to be entering a door with
one. In these respects, Anglo-Saxons, by their
lack of "form" (and their lack of perception) ,
are perpetually giving unintentional offence.
But small social fashions are oddly different
in different countries and vary absurdly in suc-
ceeding generations. The French gentleman
does not uncover in a lift or in a museum, be-
cause he considers these places as public as the
street; he does not, after the manner of the


newest-of-all American, jump up like a Jack-
in-the-box (and remain standing at attention)
every time the woman he is calling on rises
from her seat, because he considers such gym-
nastics fatal to social ease; but he is shocked
by the way in which Americans loll and
sprawl when they are seated, and equally be-
wildered by their excess of ceremony on some
occasions, and their startling familiarity on

Such misunderstandings are inevitable be-
tween people of different speech and tradi-
tions. If French and Americans are both (as
their newspapers assure us) "democratic," it
gives a notion of how much the term covers!
At any rate, in the older race there is a tradi-
tion of trained and cultivated politeness that
flowers, at its best, into a simplicity demo-
cratic in the finest sense. Compared to it, our
politeness is apt to be rather stagy, as our ease
is at times a little boorish.



It will be remembered that Paolo and
Francesca are met by Dante just beyond
the fatal gateway, in what might be called
the temperate zone of the infernal regions.
In the society of dangerously agreeable fel-
low-sinners they "go forever on the accursed
air," telling their beautiful tale to sympathis^
ing visitors from above; and as, unlike th&
majority of mortal lovers, they seem not to
dread an eternity together, and as they feel
no exaggerated remorse for their sin, their
punishment is the mildest in the poet's list of
expiations. There is all the width of hell
between the "Divine Comedy" and the "Scar-
let Letter"!

Far different is the lot of the dishonest man
of business and of the traitor to the state. For
these two offenders against the political and
social order the ultimate horrors of the pit are
reserved. The difference between their fate
and that of the lovers is like that between the


lot of an aviator in an eternally invulnerable
aeroplane and of a stoker in the burning hold
of an eternally torpedoed ship. On this dis-
tinction between the two classes of offences
the antilegal and the antisocial the whole
fabric of Latin morality is based.

The moralists and theologians of the Mid-
dle Ages, agitated as no other age has been
by the problem of death and the life after
death, worked out the great scheme of moral
retribution on which the "Divine Comedy"
is based. This system of punishment is the
result of a purely Latin and social concep-
tion of order. In it individualism has no
place. It is based on the interests of the fam-
ily, and of that larger family formed by the
commune or the state; and it distinguishes,
implicitly if not outspokenly, between the
wrong that has far-reaching social conse-
quences and that which injures only one or
two persons, or perhaps only the moral sense
of the offender.

The French have continued to accept this


classification of offences. They continue to
think the sin against the public conscience far
graver than that against any private person.
If in France there is a distinction between
private and business morality it is exactly the
reverse of that prevailing in America, and
the French conscience rejects with abhor-
rence the business complaisances which the
rigidly virtuous American too often regards
as not immoral because not indictable. "Busi-
ness" tends everywhere to subdue its victims
to what they work in, and it is not meant to
suggest that every French financier is irre .
proachable, or that France has not had mart?
than her share of glaring financial scandals,
but that among the real French, uncontam-
inated by cosmopolitan influences, and espe-
cially in the class of small shopkeepers and in
the upper bourgeoisie, business probity is
higher, and above all more sensitive, than in
America. It is not only, or always, through
indolence that France has remained back-
ward in certain forms of efficiency.


It would be misleading to conclude that
this sensitiveness is based on a respect for the
rights of others. The French, it must be re-
peated, are as a race indifferent to the rights
of others. In the people and the lower middle
class (and how much higher up!) the tradi-
tional attitude is: "Why should I do my
neighbour a good turn when he may be getting
the better of me in some way I haven't found
out?" The French are not generous, and they
are not trustful. They do not willingly credit
their neighbours with sentiments as disinter-
ested as their own. But deep in their very
bones is something that was called "the point
of honour" when there was an aristocracy to

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonFrench ways and their meaning → online text (page 6 of 7)