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FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING***


E-text prepared by Mary Glenn Krause, Martin Pettit, and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net) from page images
generously made available by Internet Archive (https://archive.org)



Note:



FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING

by

EDITH WHARTON

Author of "The Reef," "Summer," "The Marne" and
"The House of Mirth"


[Illustration: PPpublisher's logo]






D. Appleton and Company
New York London
1919

Copyright, 1919, by
D. Appleton and Company

Copyright, 1918, 1919, by
International Magazine Company

Printed in the United States Of America




PREFACE


This book is essentially a desultory book, the result of intermittent
observation, and often, no doubt, of rash assumption. Having been
written in Paris, at odd moments, during the last two years of the war,
it could hardly be more than a series of disjointed notes; and the
excuse for its publication lies in the fact that the very conditions
which made more consecutive work impossible also gave unprecedented
opportunities for quick notation.

The world since 1914 has been like a house on fire. All the lodgers are
on the stairs, in dishabille. Their doors are swinging wide, and one
gets glimpses of their furniture, revelations of their habits, and
whiffs of their cooking, that a life-time of ordinary intercourse would
not offer. Superficial differences vanish, and so (how much oftener) do
superficial resemblances; while deep unsuspected similarities and
disagreements, deep common attractions and repulsions, declare
themselves. It is of these fundamental substances that the new link
between France and America is made, and some reasons for the strength of
the link ought to be discoverable in the suddenly bared depths of the
French heart.

There are two ways of judging a foreign people: at first sight,
impressionistically, in the manner of the passing traveller; or after
residence among them, "soberly, advisedly," and with all the vain
precautions enjoined in another grave contingency.

Of the two ways, the first is, even in ordinary times, often the most
fruitful. The observer, if he has eyes and an imagination, will be
struck first by the superficial dissemblances, and they will give his
picture the sharp suggestiveness of a good caricature. If he settles
down among the objects of his study he will gradually become blunted to
these dissemblances, or, if he probes below the surface, he will find
them sprung from the same stem as many different-seeming characteristics
of his own people. A period of confusion must follow, in which he will
waver between contradictions, and his sharp outlines will become blurred
with what the painters call "repentances."

From this twilight it is hardly possible for any foreigner's judgment to
emerge again into full illumination. Race-differences strike so deep
that when one has triumphantly pulled up a specimen for examination one
finds only the crown in one's hand, and the tough root still clenched in
some crevice of prehistory. And as to race-resemblances, they are so
often most misleading when they seem most instructive that any attempt
to catch the likeness of another people by painting ourselves is never
quite successful. Indeed, once the observer has gone beyond the happy
stage when surface-differences have all their edge, his only chance of
getting anywhere near the truth is to try to keep to the traveller's
way, and still see his subject in the light of contrasts.

It is absurd for an Anglo-Saxon to say: "The Latin is this or that"
unless he makes the mental reservation, "or at least seems so to me";
but if this mental reservation is always implied, if it serves always as
the background of the picture, the features portrayed may escape
caricature and yet bear some resemblance to the original.

Lastly, the use of the labels "Anglo-Saxon" and "Latin," for purposes of
easy antithesis, must be defended and apologised for.

Such use of the two terms is open to the easy derision of the scholar.
Yet they are too convenient as symbols to be abandoned, and are safe
enough if, for instance, they are used simply as a loose way of drawing
a line between the peoples who drink spirits and those who drink wine,
between those whose social polity dates from the Forum, and those who
still feel and legislate in terms of the primæval forest.

This use of the terms is the more justifiable because one may safely
say that most things in a man's view of life depend on how many thousand
years ago his land was deforested. And when, as befell our forbears, men
whose blood is still full of murmurs of the Saxon Urwald and the forests
of Britain are plunged afresh into the wilderness of a new continent, it
is natural that in many respects they should be still farther removed
from those whose habits and opinions are threaded through and through
with Mediterranean culture and the civic discipline of Rome.

One can imagine the first Frenchman born into the world looking about
him confidently, and saying: "Here I am; and now, how am I to make the
most of it?"

The double sense of the fugacity of life, and of the many and durable
things that may be put into it, is manifest in every motion of the
French intelligence. Sooner than any other race the French have got rid
of bogies, have "cleared the mind of shams," and gone up to the Medusa
and the Sphinx with a cool eye and a penetrating question.

It is an immense advantage to have the primæval forest as far behind one
as these clear-headed children of the Roman forum and the Greek
amphitheatre; and even if they have lost something of the sensation
"felt in the blood and felt along the heart" with which our obscurer
past enriches us, it is assuredly more useful for them to note the
deficiency than for us to criticise it.

The French are the most human of the human race, the most completely
detached from the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy world in which
trees and animals talked to each other, and began the education of the
fumbling beast that was to deviate into Man. They have used their longer
experience and their keener senses for the joy and enlightenment of the
races still agrope for self-expression. The faults of France are the
faults inherent in an old and excessively self-contained civilisation;
her qualities are its qualities; and the most profitable way of trying
to interpret French ways and their meaning is to see how this long
inheritance may benefit a people which is still, intellectually and
artistically, in search of itself.

HYÈRES, FEBRUARY, 1919.




CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE
PREFACE v

I. FIRST IMPRESSIONS 3

II. REVERENCE 20

III. TASTE 39

IV. INTELLECTUAL HONESTY 57

V. CONTINUITY 76

VI. THE NEW FRENCHWOMAN 98

VII. IN CONCLUSION 122


NOTE. - In the last two chapters of this book I have incorporated,
in a modified form, the principal passages of two articles
published by me respectively in _Scribner's Magazine_ and in the
_Ladies' Home Journal_, the former entitled "The French as seen by
an American" (now called "In Conclusion"), the other "The New
Frenchwoman."




FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING




I

FIRST IMPRESSIONS


I

Hasty generalisations are always tempting to travellers, and now and
then they strike out vivid truths that the observer loses sight of after
closer scrutiny. But nine times out of ten they hit wild.

Some years before the war, a French journalist produced a "thoughtful
book" on the United States. Of course he laid great stress on our
universal hustle for the dollar. To do that is to follow the line of
least resistance in writing about America: you have only to copy what
all the other travellers have said.

This particular author had the French gift of consecutive reasoning, and
had been trained in the school of Taine, which requires the historian to
illustrate each of his general conclusions by an impressive array of
specific instances. Therefore, when he had laid down the principle that
every American's ruling passion is money-making, he cast about for an
instance, and found a striking one.

"So dominant," he suggested, "is this passion, that in cultivated and
intellectual Boston - the Athens of America - which possesses a beautiful
cemetery in its peaceful parklike suburbs, the millionaire money-makers,
unwilling to abandon the quarter in which their most active hours have
been spent, have created for themselves a burying-ground in the centre
of the business district, on which they can look down from their lofty
office windows till they are laid there to rest in the familiar noise
and bustle that they love."

This literal example of the ruling passion strong in death seems to
establish once for all the good old truth that the American cares only
for money-making; and it was clever of the critic to find his instance
in Boston instead of Pittsburg or Chicago. But unfortunately the
cemetery for which the Boston millionaire is supposed to have abandoned
the green glades of Mount Auburn is the old pre-revolutionary grave-yard
of King's Chapel, in which no one has been buried since modern Boston
began to exist, and about which a new business district has grown up as
it has about similar carefully-guarded relics in all our expanding
cities, and in many European ones as well.

It is probable that not a day passes in which the observant American new
to France does not reach conclusions as tempting, but as wide of the
mark. Even in peace times it was inevitable that such easy inferences
should be drawn; and now that every branch of civilian life in France is
more or less topsy-turvy, the temptation to generalise wrongly is one
that no intelligent observer can resist.

It is indeed unfortunate that, at the very moment when it is most
needful for France and America to understand each other (on small
points, that is - we know they agree as to the big ones) - it is
unfortunate that at this moment France should be, in so many
superficial ways, unlike the normal peace-time France, and that those
who are seeing her for the first time in the hour of her trial and her
great glory are seeing her also in an hour of inevitable material
weakness and disorganisation.

Even four years of victorious warfare would dislocate the machinery of
any great nation's life; and four years of desperate resistance to a foe
in possession of almost a tenth of the national territory, and that
tenth industrially the richest in the country, four such years represent
a strain so severe that one wonders to see the fields of France tilled,
the markets provided, and life in general going on as before.

The fact that France is able to resist such a strain, and keep up such a
measure of normal activity, is one of the many reasons for admiring her;
but it must not make newcomers forget that even this brave appearance of
"business as usual" does not represent anything resembling the
peace-time France, with her magnificent faculties applied to the whole
varied business of living, instead of being centred on the job of
holding the long line from the Yser to Switzerland.

In 1913 it would have been almost impossible to ask Americans to picture
our situation if Germany had invaded the United States, and had held a
tenth part of our most important territory for four years. In 1918 such
a suggestion seems thinkable enough, and one may even venture to point
out that an unmilitary nation like America, after four years under the
invader, might perhaps present a less prosperous appearance than France.
It is always a good thing to look at foreign affairs from the home
angle; and in such a case we certainly should not want the allied
peoples who might come to our aid to judge us by what they saw if
Germany held our Atlantic sea-board, with all its great cities, together
with, say, Pittsburg and Buffalo, and all our best manhood were in a
fighting line centred along the Ohio River.

One of the cruellest things about a "people's war" is that it needs,
and takes, the best men from every trade, even those remotest from
fighting, because to do anything well brains are necessary, and a good
poet and a good plumber may conceivably make better fighters than
inferior representatives of arts less remote from war. Therefore, to
judge France fairly to-day, the newcomer must perpetually remind himself
that almost all that is best in France is in the trenches, and not in
the hotels, cafés and "movie-shows" he is likely to frequent. I have no
fear of what the American will think of the Frenchman after the two have
fraternized at the front.


II

One hears a good deal in these days about "What America can teach
France;" though it is worth noting that the phrase recurs less often now
than it did a year ago.

In any case, it would seem more useful to leave the French to discover
(as they are doing every day, with the frankest appreciation) what they
can learn from us, while we Americans apply ourselves to finding out
what they have to teach us. It is obvious that any two intelligent races
are bound to have a lot to learn from each other; and there could hardly
be a better opportunity for such an exchange of experience than now that
a great cause has drawn the hearts of our countries together while a
terrible emergency has broken down most of the surface barriers between
us.

No doubt many American soldiers now in France felt this before they left
home. When a man who leaves his job and his family at the first call to
fight for an unknown people, because that people is defending the
principle of liberty in which all the great democratic nations believe,
he likes to think that the country he is fighting for comes up in every
respect to the ideal he has formed of it. And perhaps some of our men
were a little disappointed, and even discouraged, when they first came
in contact with the people whose sublime spirit they had been admiring
from a distance for three years. Some of them may even, in their first
moment of reaction, have said to themselves: "Well, after all, the
Germans we knew at home were easier people to get on with."

The answer is not far to seek. For one thing, the critics in question
knew the Germans at home, _in our home_, where they had to talk our
language or not get on, where they had to be what we wanted them to
be - or get out. And, as we all know in America, no people on earth, when
they settle in a new country, are more eager than the Germans to adopt
its ways, and to be taken for native-born citizens.

The Germans in Germany are very different; though, even there, they were
at great pains, before the war, not to let Americans find it out. The
French have never taken the trouble to disguise their Frenchness from
foreigners; but the Germans used to be very clever about dressing up
their statues of Bismarck as "Liberty Enlightening the World" when
democratic visitors were expected. An amusing instance of this kind of
camouflage, which was a regular function of their government, came
within my own experience in 1913.

For the first time in many years I was in Germany that summer, and on
arriving in Berlin I was much struck by the wonderful look of municipal
order and prosperity which partly makes up for the horrors of its
architecture and sculpture. But what struck me still more was the
extraordinary politeness of all the people who are often rude in other
countries: post-office and railway officials, customs officers,
policemen, telephone-girls, and the other natural enemies of mankind.
And I was the more surprised because, in former days, I had so often
suffered from the senseless bullying of the old-fashioned German
employé, and because I had heard from Germans that state paternalism had
become greatly aggravated, and that, wherever one went, petty
regulations were enforced by inexorable officials.

As it turned out, I found myself as free as air, and as obsequiously
treated as royalty, and I might have gone home thinking that the German
government was cruelly maligned by its subjects if I had not happened to
go one evening to the Opera.

It was in summer, but there had been a cold rain-storm all day, and as
the Opera House was excessively chilly, and it was not a full-dress
occasion, but merely an out-of-season performance, with everybody
wearing ordinary street clothes, I decided to keep on the light silk
cloak I was wearing. But as I started for my seat I felt a tap on my
shoulder, and one of the polite officials requested me to take off my
cloak.

"Thank you: but I prefer to keep it on."

"You can't; it's forbidden. _Es ist verboten._"

"Forbidden? Why, what do you mean?"

"His Majesty the Emperor forbids any lady in the audience of the Royal
and Imperial Opera House to keep on her cloak."

"But I've a cold, and the house is so chilly - - "

The polite official had grown suddenly stern and bullying. "Take off
your cloak," he ordered.

"I won't," I said.

We looked at each other hard for a minute - and I went in with my cloak
on.

When I got back to the hotel, highly indignant, I met a German Princess,
a Serene Highness, one of the greatest ladies in Germany, a cousin of
his Imperial Majesty.

I told her what had happened, and waited for an echo of my indignation.

But none came. "Yes - I nearly always have an attack of neuralgia when I
go to the Opera," she said resignedly.

"But do they make you take your cloak off?"

"Of course. It's the Emperor's order."

"Well - I kept mine on," I said.

Her Serene Highness looked at me incredulously. Then she thought it
over and said: "Ah, well - you're an American, and American travellers
bring us so much money that the Emperor's orders are never to bully
them."

What had puzzled me, by the way, when I looked about the crowded Opera
House, was that the Emperor should ever order the ladies of Berlin to
take their cloaks off at the Opera; but that is an affair between them
and their dressmaker. The interesting thing was that the German Princess
did not in the least resent being bullied herself, or having neuralgia
in consequence - but quite recognised that it was good business for her
country not to bully Americans.

That little incident gave me a glimpse of what life in Germany must be
like if you are a German; and also of the essential difference between
the Germans and ourselves.

The difference is this: The German does not care to be free as long as
he is well fed, well amused and making money. The Frenchman, like the
American, wants to be free first of all, and free anyhow - free even when
he might be better off, materially, if he lived under a benevolent
autocracy. The Frenchman and the American want to have a voice in
governing their country, and the German prefers to be governed by
professionals, as long as they make him comfortable and give him what he
wants.

From the purely practical point of view this is not a bad plan, but it
breaks down as soon as a moral issue is involved. They say corporations
have no souls; neither have governments that are not answerable to a
free people for their actions.


III

This anecdote may have seemed to take us a long way from France and
French ways; but it will help to show that, whereas the differences
between ourselves and the French are mostly on the surface, and our
feeling about the most important things is always the same, the
Germans, who seem less strange to many of us because we have been used
to them at home, differ from us totally in all of the important things.

Unfortunately surface differences - as the word implies - are the ones
that strike the eye first. If beauty is only skin deep, so too are some
of the greatest obstacles between peoples who were made to understand
each other. French habits and manners have their roots in a civilisation
so profoundly unlike ours - so much older, richer, more elaborate and
firmly crystallised - that French customs necessarily differ from ours
more than do those of more primitive races; and we must dig down to the
deep faiths and principles from which every race draws its enduring life
to find how like in fundamental things are the two people whose
destinies have been so widely different.

To help the American fresh from his own land to overcome these initial
difficulties, and to arrive at a quick comprehension of French
character, is one of the greatest services that Americans familiar with
France can render at this moment. The French cannot explain themselves
fully to foreigners, because they take for granted so many things that
are as unintelligible to us as, for instance, our eating corned-beef
hash for breakfast, or liking mustard with mutton, is to them. It takes
an outsider familiar with both races to explain away what may be called
the corned-beef-hash differences, and bring out the underlying
resemblances; and while actual contact in the trenches will in the long
run do this more surely than any amount of writing, it may nevertheless
be an advantage to the newcomer to arrive with a few first-aid hints in
his knapsack.

The most interesting and profitable way of studying the characteristics
of a different race is to pick out, among them, those in which our own
national character is most lacking. It is sometimes agreeable, but
seldom useful, to do the reverse; that is, to single out the weak
points of the other race, and brag of our own advantages. This game,
moreover, besides being unprofitable, is also sometimes dangerous.
Before calling a certain trait a weakness, and our own opposite trait a
superiority, we must be sure, as critics say, that we "know the
context"; we must be sure that what appears a defect in the character of
another race will not prove to be a strength when better understood.

Anyhow, it is safer as well as more interesting to choose the obviously
admirable characteristics first, and especially those which happen to be
more or less lacking in our own national make-up.

This is what I propose to attempt in these articles; and I have singled
out, as typically "French" in the best sense of that many-sided term,
the qualities of _taste_, _reverence_, _continuity_, and _intellectual
honesty_. We are a new people, a pioneer people, a people destined by
fate to break up new continents and experiment in new social
conditions; and therefore it may be useful to see what part is played in
the life of a nation by some of the very qualities we have had the least
time to acquire.




II

REVERENCE


I

"Take care! Don't eat blackberries! Don't you know they'll give you the
fever?"

Any American soldier who stops to fill his cap with the plump
blackberries loading the hedgerows of France is sure to receive this
warning from a passing peasant.

Throughout the length and breadth of France, the most fruit-loving and
fruit-cultivating of countries, the same queer conviction prevails, and
year after year the great natural crop of blackberries, nowhere better
and more abundant, is abandoned to birds and insects because in some
remote and perhaps prehistoric past an ancient Gaul once decreed that
"blackberries give the fever."

An hour away, across the Channel, fresh blackberries and blackberry-jam
form one of the staples of a great ally's diet; but the French have not
yet found out that millions of Englishmen have eaten blackberries for
generations without having "the fever."

Even if they did find it out they would probably say: "The English are
different. Blackberries have always given _us_ the fever." Or the more
enlightened might ascribe it to the climate: "The air may be different
in England. Blackberries may not be unwholesome there, but here they are
poison."

There is not the least foundation for the statement, and the few
enterprising French people who have boldly risked catching "the fever"
consume blackberries in France with as much enjoyment, and as little
harm, as their English neighbours. But one could no more buy a
blackberry in a French market than one could buy the fruit of the
nightshade; the one is considered hardly less deleterious than the
other.

The prejudice is all the queerer because the thrifty, food-loving
French peasant has discovered the innocuousness of so many
dangerous-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 cèpes and morilles from the deadly toadstool; whereas
the blackberry resembles nothing in the world but its own luscious and


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