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lay exclusive claim to it, but that has, in
reality, always permeated the whole fabric
of the race. It is just as untranslatable as the
"panache" into which it has flowered on so
many immortal battle-fields; and it regulates
the conscience of one of the most avaricious
and least compassionate of peoples in their
business relations, as it regulated the conduct



146 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

in the field of the knights of chivalry and of
the parvenu heroes of Napoleon.

It all comes back, perhaps, to the extraor-
dinarily true French sense of values. As a
people, the French have moral taste, and an
ear for the "still small voice" ; they know what
is worth while, and they despise most of the
benefits that accrue from a clever disregard
of their own standards. It has been the fash-
ion among certain of their own critics to in-
veigh against French "taste" and French
"measure," and to celebrate the supposed
lack of these qualities in the Anglo-Saxon
races as giving a freer play to genius and a
larger scope to all kinds of audacious enter-
prise. It is evident that if a new continent
is to be made habitable, or a new prosody to
be created, the business "point of honour" in
the one case, and the French Academy in the
other, may seriously hamper the task; but in
the minor transactions of commerce and cul-
ture perhaps such restrictive influences are



CONCLUSION



worth more to civilisation than a mediocre
license.



Many years ago, during a voyage in
the Mediterranean, the yacht on which I
was cruising w r as driven by bad weather
to take shelter in a 'small harbour on the
Mainote coast. The country, at the time, was
not considered particularly safe, and before
landing we consulted the guide-book to see
what reception w r e were likely to meet with.

This is the answer we found: "The inhabi-
tants are brave, hospitable, and generous, but
fierce, treacherous, vindictive, and given to
acts of piracy, robbery, and wreckage."

Perhaps the foregoing attempt to define
some attributes of the French character may
seem as incoherent as this summary. At any
rate, the endeavour to strike a balance be-
tween seemingly contradictory traits disposes
one to indulgence toward the anonymous stu-
dent of the Mainotes.



148 FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

No civilised race has gone as unerringly as
the French toward the natural sources of en-
joyment; none has been so unashamed of
instinct. Yet none has been more enslaved
by social conventions, small complicated ob-
servances based on long-past conditions of life.
No race has shown more collective mag-
nanimity on great occasions, more pettiness
and hardness in small dealings between indi-
viduals. Of no great people would it be truer
to say that, like the Mainote tribesmen, they
are generous and brave, yet fierce and vindic-
tive. No people are more capable of impro-
vising greatness, yet more afraid of the least
initiative in ordinary matters. No people are
more sceptical and more religious, more real-
istic and more romantic, more irritable and
nervous, yet more capable of a long patience
and a dauntless calm.

Such are the deductions which the foreign
observer has made. It would probably take
kinship of blood to resolve them into a harmo-
nious interpretation of the French character.



CONCLUSION 149



All that the looker-on may venture is to say:
Some of the characteristics I have noted seem
unamiable, others dangerously disintegrating,
others provokingly unprogressive. But when
you have summed up the whole you will be
forced to conclude that as long as enriching
life is more than preserving it, as long as cul-
ture is superior to business efficiency, as long
as poetry and imagination and reverence are
higher and 'more precious elements of civilisa-
tion than telephones or plumbing, as long as
truth is more bracing than hypocrisy, and wit
more wholesome than dulness, so long will
France remain greater than any nation that
has not her ideals.

Once again it must be repeated that the best
answer to every criticism of French weakness
or French shortcomings is the conclusive one:
Look at the results! Read her history, study
her art, follow up the current of her ideas;
then look about you, and you will see that the
whole world is full of her spilt glory.

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