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French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton

February 24, 2011 29 comments

French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton. (134 pages)

Edith Wharton had been living in France since twelve years when she wrote these articles about France in 1917. These essays were aimed at American readers and their purpose was to explain how French people behave and think.

When I started to read Edith Wharton’s book, I had two available options: either take her uncontrolled enthusiasm for France literally and shut the book immediately or try to catch whatever was relevant in her exposé. Here is what I mean with “uncontrolled enthusiasm”

 French people “have taste” as naturally as they breathe: it is not regarded as an accomplishment, like playing the flute.

Or

As life is an art in France, so woman is an artist. She does not teach man, but she inspires him. 

I laughed at the possibility of being anybody’s Muse and mused over my above mentioned options with this book. I chose to keep on reading, taking what I was reading “au second degré”, which means with some distance and not literally at all.

It also took me a while to figure out how I would write about this book. Though it’s rather short, there’s a lot of material in it. So I decided to give an idea of the general tone of her essays and then unleash some of the spontaneous comments that came to my mind when I was reading. It is what we call in French a “liste à la Prévert”, which means a random list of items with no particular sequence or obvious link between them. I’m not sure it’s of interest to anyone but me, though. Anyway, back to the book.  

After a brief introduction, Edith Wharton details in six chapters the main particularities of French ways.

  1. First Impressions

  2. Reverence

  3. Taste

  4. Intellectual Honesty

  5. Continuity

  6. The New Frenchwoman

She is well aware that writing about a people is tricky and begs the reader to accept the use of “Anglo-Saxon vs Latin” conventions as it is convenient. I will use them too, even if it is simplistic. Her main argument when comparing France to America is that France is an adult country whereas America is only a child. I first thought this statement ludicrous then recalled the childish “Freedom Fries” and revised my judgement. Then in each chapter, she explains how great the French are. That’s it, the general tone is of an undeserved and ridiculous great praise of France. I will not cover all the generalizations she wrote.

However, as I’m reading and writing in English, I was very interested in her conclusion, where she discusses the meaning “the four words that preponderate in French speech and literature”: Amour, Gloire, Plaisir, Volupté and how their immediate translation, Love, Glory, Pleasure, Voluptuousness doesn’t convey the same images and background than in French. I wish she had added Séduction to her list, I would have loved to read her take on this one. I’m not going to rephrase everything but I think it’s worth reading for someone who enjoys French literature and wants to understand it better. She has a point here and it was very educational for me. I’ve experienced difficulties to translate the concept of “pleasure” and the verb “jouir”, either in posts or in comments. Here is what Edith Wharton writes :

And from their freedom of view combined with their sensuous sensibility they have extracted the sensation they call “le plaisir,” which is something so much more definite and more evocative than what we mean when we speak of pleasure. “Le plaisir” stands for the frankly permitted, 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’s something that can be applied for very different situations such as enjoying the sun caressing your face, spending an afternoon with a good book, quietly walking in the nature and of course to sex. Is she right to say it’s a different meaning than “pleasure”?  

In some ways, her enthusiasm blurred her vision but she does have a point on several subjects I don’t know if I must rejoice that these things are still relevant one century after she wrote them. Perhaps it proves her right when she assesses that the French are conservative. I don’t pretend to hold the truth. This is only my opinion and it should be taken as such.

Let’s start by clichés: wine and relationships between men and women.

 About Wine.

Above all, the rich soil of France, so precious 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 voluntary sobriety and not legally enforced abstinence. All these gifts France had and the French intelligently cherished.

Um. Has she read Zola or was he too dirty? Sure binge drinking – now coming here too and regularly worrying the authorities – is not a French custom. But to say we don’t have any problem with alcoholism is wrong.

 About casual relationships between men and women.

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. (…) They define pornography as a taste for the nasty, and not as an interest in the natural.

I can’t tell how it is abroad but what she writes about us is probably true. Take our presidents. One apparently died in action, meaning here, not arms at the ready but between the arms of his mistress. Another had a secret family. The current one got a divorce and married a former model when he’s still in charge. And no one is shocked.

About jokes about the relations between the sexes, sure, we have a lot of them. But I never considered this as a French thing. Should I?

As for the latest part, pornography, I’m sure comparing the rating of films regarding the age of the audience would be fascinating. Which makes me think I’ve always been astonished by the “explicit lyrics” stickers put on CDs in American stores.

About Theatre and Cinema.

“What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

This is exactly the sentence I was looking for to explain why Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas would have had another ending if it had been shot in America. But I’d rather talk about “Hollywood films” vs “Indie films”, whatever their nationality.

About L’Académie Française and the fight for French language.

And Richelieu and the original members of the Academy had recognised from the first day that language was the chosen vessel in which the finer life of a nation must be preserved.

The Academy still exists and is still in charge with inventing new French words to address to new realities. Our government advertises about the proper way to say in French foreign words, mostly coming from the English. I blogged about that once here. I’m not sure that we keep a proper balance  between “preserved” and “kept in mothballs”, though.

 About Americans and Art.

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 abridgements) that prevents the development of a real artistic sensibility in our eager and richly endowed race.

Whereas I don’t agree with her on the last part of her statement and reject the word “race”, I chose this quote because it reminded me of the discussion about creative writing Max started on his blog. Somehow, Edith Wharton shows that a fertile soil for those classes has been there in America for a while.

In addition, when I first read it, I also thought about our position named “cultural exception” and the way our government usually refuses to consider art as any consumer goods in trade agreements.

About morality.

It distinguishes, implicitly if not outspokenly, between the wrong that has far-reaching social consequences 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.

This reminded me I discussion I’ve had with Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers on Madame Bovary. She asked me if it was taught in school and wondered how teachers would handle the moral/ethical issues in it with school kids”. My answer was “This is a very Anglo-Saxon question! For me, and I believe for a French, it’s not a moral or ethical question. It’s a personal matter. It’s private and unique as these people are unique.”

I couldn’t properly explain why “private” was the word that came to my mind. Edith Wharton has put words on this. Emma’s cheating on Charles has no consequences for the society. It is sure a misfortune for Charles but I can’t blame her or judge her – Flaubert doesn’t either. It’s a “sin against a private person”. Teaching about this can’t have consequences on the morality of the students. There is nothing subversive in openly talking about cuckooed Charles in class.

That’s also why we don’t care about our presidents being faithful to their spouse – I was about to write “wives” but let’s be optimistic, someday a woman will be president – or not. 

Women, men and business.

In small businesses the woman is always her husband’s book keeper or clerk, or both; above all, she is his business adviser. France, as you know, is held up to all other countries as a model of thrift, of wise and prudent saving and spending.”

This hasn’t changed and I see it everyday at work. Is that something really French? After the divorce rate exploded and left women working with their husbands without any money, the law was changed to give them a status. It is aimed at protecting women and giving them social protection and a retirement pension if they get a divorce after working “for free” in their husband’s business.

The second part explains our incomprehension regarding junk bonds and the sub-primes crisis in America and also strikes against any attempt to change the retirement system to an Anglo-Saxon one, ie with money invested in the stock markets.

 Leisure.

This point assured, they want only enough leisure and freedom from material anxiety to enjoy what life and the arts of life offer. This absence 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 France. (…) 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 pursuing whatever trade or art he is engaged in.

In presidential election of 1997, one of the slogans was “Work more to earn more.” OK, the candidate pushing that slogan won the election and put it into practice as soon as he could. He increased the possibility of doing overtime hours, allowed retired persons to work. It doesn’t seem to be a success. People would rather work less and earn less than lose free time. Somehow I thought it was a new tendency coming from a general eagerness for leisure. So I was surprised to discover this in Wharton’s little book.

 Fortunately, everything is not as perfect as she says.

 About the status of the Frenchwoman.

The French wife has less legal independence than the American or English wife, and is subject to a good many legal disqualifications from which women have freed themselves in other countries.

At least, some critic. Yes French women had to wait until 1944 to have the right to vote, years after American women (1919), British women (1928) or Brazilian ones (1932)

About politeness at tourists.

The complaint of Anglo-Saxons that, in travelling in France, they see little of the much-vaunted French courtesy, is not unjustified. 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 notably thrifty they are cautious about spending it on strangers.

I’m sorry to say this hasn’t changed much. Stand in a street in San Francisco with a map and someone will come and help you. Do the same thing in Paris and see how long you wait until someone finally comes by you. I promise I don’t leave tourists in distress whenever I meet some.

In the end, she can’t avoid caricature, but it’s difficult to avoid short-cuts, clichés and generalizations in that matter. She’s really carried away by her enthusiasm, which is harmful to her thoughts. Most of the compliments are really undeserved. I far from agree with everything she says but it was interesting and thought-provoking anyway. So I’m glad I’ve read it.

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