The Real Paris. I
IT is unlikely that there will be many American students in the German universities after the war. A feeling of comradeship is as essential to university life as to camp or barrack life, and no American young man could hope to have it at Bonn or Jena any more than at the Potsdam Military Academy. Not that I deprecate careful study of Germany by men especially equipped for such investigations. Scientists, technicians, administrators, and soldiers, belonging to all the nations now at war with Germany, ought, the moment war is over, to devote months and, if necessary, years to a minute study of the miracles of organization which enabled our enemy to keep alive during the first three years of the war. Such a lesson cannot be wasted.
But an investigation of this kind ought to be made by men whose moral and intellectual training is complete, not by easily dazzled boys. A man of forty can pay a tribute of sincere admiration to a method, and yet feel no respect for its inventor if he is only ingenious and not moral. Organization, system, the careful husbanding of effort or material, these are, after all, mere recipes, and a sound judgment can regard recipes only in the light of utility; but the juvenile, as well as the semieducated mind, seldom escapes the temptation to bow to them as if they were philosophies.
How many an intellect has been blinded to the inadequacy of German literary methods by their apparent thoroughness in minor details! This semblance of perfection acts upon the young and unthinking almost as inevitably as genius. I met a refugee from Amiens, a patriotic Frenchman, who seemed frequently to forget that his town had been robbed of two million francs by a German general in 1914, merely because, on two occasions, he had seen subordinates of this blackmailer inquire of shopkeepers whether they had not been cheated by German soldiers: integrity in a matter of a few francs melted his heart and caused him to overlook immorality on a large scale.
Many things in Germany used to have the same effect: erudition would conceal the lack of taste and insight, organization did duty for idealism, kindness of the most trivial description veiled unscrupulous policies, and with many people, music covered as many sins as charity is said to do. Let Germany be a field of research as much as it deserves to be, but it must not be a centre of upbringing again till it becomes evident that the German has grown capable of distinguishing between right and wrong in the dealings of his own country, and does not sell his soul for efficiency.
So the young Americans who used to flock to Heidelberg, Munich, or Berlin will seek other seats of learning, and a glance at the map is enough to convince us that they can hardly go elsewhere than to England or France, although Salamanca, or Rome, or Naples, or Padua, or, in some cases, the Swiss universities, and in time, no doubt, Louvain, might prove not a little satisfactory. But where should the students go who will decide for France? To nineteen Americans in twenty, France is synonymous with Paris, and what American mother thinks of Paris without misgiving? Even the war will not change this feeling, for American soldiers are severely — and, on the whole, wisely — kept away from Paris.
Of course, there are eighteen state and two Catholic universities in France besides that of Paris, and before the war there used to be hundreds of foreign undergraduates in some of them, especially Nancy, which affords exceptional facilities for technical training, and, unexpectedly enough, far-away littie Grenoble among her mountains. No doubt, imagination left to itself will always conjure up the cafés of the Latin Quarter, the glaring, alluring boulevards, and the disquieting Montmartre haunts, whenever Paris is mentioned; whereas the name of Grenoble will recall pure air and an innocent life under an Italian sky, and Nancy will be the embodiment of the Lorrainer’s intelligence, thrift, and industry. Yet, all the time, there will be in the mind, thus occupied, the constantly recurring regret: what a pity that Paris should be so wicked!
I am surprised that American parents who had visited, not, of course, Heidelberg, but Munich or, above all, Berlin, could send their sons there without any anxiety. Music, no doubt. As a matter of fact, the intensity of nightlife in the German towns, and the licentiousness of theatres under a pretense of artistic freedom, ought to have given food for a great deal of thought. Indeed, there was little difference between the doubtful attractions of Berlin and the dangers of Paris. In either place temptation was coarse and inelegant and entirely beneath the average son of decent people; but the name of Paris would confer a dashing irresistibility upon what in Berlin could only appear vulgar, so that, after all, Berlin looked the less dangerous place. There is a great deal in names.
My opinion is that American students who do not happen to have a special reason for selecting a provincial university ought to go to Paris; and my reason is that nowhere will they find so much indifference to dangerous amusements, and, if they are properly guided during the first months of their residence, so much that goes to make an atmosphere of unparalleled idealism in Parisian circles. This is no paradox, but the mere recognition of a fact; and this fact has struck every man who, like the present writer, has been enabled to watch the career of Frenchmen from their arrival in Paris till their maturity.
Only four years ago this statement would have been met in America with a skeptical and possibly a sarcastic smile. I remember reading American reviews of Mr. Barrett Wendell’s book on France, which were certainly amusing, but were fair neither to Mr. Barrett Wendell nor to France. The average American had evidently a totally different impression of Paris from that of the distinguished professor. But they were wrong and the professor was right.
Most Americans came to Europe with a clear and distinct idea that they came there only to amuse themselves, to have a good time; and whatever good time they might have in London or in Germany, — which it had become fashionable in the last decade to visit regularly, — they most certainly approached Paris in the spirit in which the tired business man at home goes to a musical comedy. They spent their rather short mornings in shops, paying for what took their wives’ fancy, or accumulating the presents which were the ransom of a trip to Europe; they lunched at the Café de Paris, and haunted the boulevards or the fashionable quarters till dinner-time. In the evening they did not go to the opera, because they had been once before and it was really too poor after New York, which, in many respects, was true; they did not go to the Théâtre-Français, or even to the Gymnase, because they did not know the language; they went to the FoliesBergères, or to the queer Montmartre places; and the night before leaving, they went to the Cafe d’Harcourt in the Quart ier Latin, because they had been told they must not miss that. They came home disappointed when they had not been shocked; ashamed, and pretending not to be, when the evening had been a bit too successful. This would last a fortnight or so, with the subconsciousness that, when they should see God’s own country again, and the big buildings and the purifying doors of the office, it would not matter much. It was in this way that Paris got her bad name.
As a matter of fact, every Parisian knows that the Montmartre places are nothing else than what they appear in the vitriolic etchings of La Tour-Lautrec, namely, vulgar decoys for inexperienced foreigners or materialistic provincials, owned, arranged, and managed by people who have a clear knowledge of the exceeding simplicity of man’s instincts, and who only hesitate between making their fortune through a shebeen or through a hair-dye. Even the professionally sensual would be afraid of passing for green apprentices, if they were seen there except on two or three dates famous on the viveur’s calendar; and they give lustre to their lives by other methods equally simple and equally monotonous, which you will find described at great length in Lavedan’s or Donnay’s books.
I know that many well-wishers, or even admirers of France, who realize that Paris is not entirely comprised between the MouHn-Rouge and the rue de la Paix, are, however, worried by the notion that the French stage and French literature give much the same idea of French morality, as the pleasure haunts of Paris.
I am ready to admit anything concerning the French stage. I remember Matthew Arnold’s famous — if decidedly overrated — essay on the appearance of Sarah Bernhardt in London forty years ago, and I agree with him that nine French plays in ten are written for the vulgar personage whom he cannot find words to describe in his own language and calls l’homme sensuel moyen. I detest the cheap cleverness and low appeal of many French plays; I hate the silly preëminence that most newspapers, and consequently their readers, give to the stage, to actresses, actors, managers, and, more remotely, to dramatic writers. I am convinced that the false emotionalism, the shallow sentimentalism, the taste for gaudy writing prevailing in the penny newspapers and frequently obscuring serious national issues, can be traced from the journal to the theatre.
But what of that? Does anybody who knows the real state of affairs imagine that the French stage is French? It has long ceased to be. All the prominent managers, actors, and actresses are Jews; and while I am aware that many Jews living in France have done remarkably well during the war, and while I think that a book which was written about them ought to have had more success, I cannot help feeling that the Jewish influence is not good. Greed and vanity are its mainsprings, materialism invariably goes with it, and the sentimentalism, attitudinizing, and meretriciousness generally, whichch I deplore, have been created by the unusual admiration of the Romanticist of low degree and the Jewish actress of whatever degree, including Rachel herself. There was no trace of it in French literature before the nineteenth century; and any visitor who has a chance to meet enough specimens of undoubted origin becomes convinced that it is not indigenous.
As for French literature, it takes remarkable ignorance or remarkable impudence to condemn it wholesale as immoral. The literary history of the past twenty-five years in France shows a continuous ascent toward all noble ideals, whether purely artistic or ethical; the only writer of distinction whose influence must be admitted to be hurtful, is Anatole France, and how many people read him because of his charming style or because of the humanitarian spirit pervading Crainquebille, and look upon the writer’s laxity only as a sort of literary artifice? The manliness of most contemporary works worth reading is especially striking in those of the younger generation, which has waived the declamation of the Romanticists, knows the value of words, and lets us see its moral principles without any of the unnatural shame that was once the fashion.
Foreign readers have been frequently deceived by the outspokenness of French writers into imagining that, having no restraint in their language, they and their readers must have no restraint in their lives. It is a mistake. Outspokenness belongs to certain people or to certain countries, as it has belonged to certain epochs. There is a lack of taste or refinement, no doubt, in people who shrink from no subject and purposely use coarse language. But the rather low habit does not necessarily entail low principles. Soldiers in barracks, — good honest souls, — or artists in ateliers, — many of them very near the simplicity of primitives, — use Rabelaisian language without having coarse natures. There are silences which cover more thought than effusive speech, and hypocrisy is not a mere word. I have often felt that the brutal way in which many Frenchmen allude to the relations between sexes is either a pose, or a cultivated habit, — so frequent among physicians and artists, — or a concealed effort to escape from imaginations which are not least tyrannical when they are apparently ignored.
Finally, it should be added that French literature, even the École naturaliste, always protested against the charge of moral laxity: I need only recall celebrated pages by Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Zola. The latter lived the life of the most respectable bank-clerk, and his moral principles were rather unexpectedly extolled by the whole universe at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.
I know how easy it is to plead that a writer is not immoral the moment he makes up his mind to be true to life, as even the description of vice bears its own lesson, and there is no fundamental difference between Miss Edgeworth and Zola. But there is frequently more than that pagan teaching in French books. They are sincere enough not to conceal the disgust which inevitably goes along with an empty life. The gay volumes of ‘ Gyp,’ Lavedan, or Donnay, and the files of La Vie Parisienne are full of this satiety. Jules Lemaître, the typical dilettante, who seemed to understand everything and condone everything, often concludes his smiling essays with words which, truly interpreted, are Pascal modernized. French literature at its worst never was hypocritical and never went out of its way to prove, in the German or Scandinavian manner, that we are living fully when we are only living loosely. It is always useful to express with all possible lucidity ideas which, at some time or other, have unfortunately been questioned.
But I know that most Americans had no need of the foregoing explanations. One event took place since 1914 which has thrown dazzling light over France and her children, and will probably stay in the memory of the world as long as the perfection of the seventeenth century or the genius of Napoleon. A member of the French military mission to Russia tells us that, while waiting at some little station of the Trans-Siberian railway, he saw three soldiers stop in front of him and consult in whispers, after which one of them, coming forward, saluted, and, pointing at the officer, said the only French word he knew: ‘Verdun!’
There never was a finer tribute, and poetry, history, and all the fine arts will never find anything more expressive than this homage of the ignorant and humble, represented by an almost speechless Siberian private.
It will be to the eternal credit of America that she did not wait until her declaration of war to be in the war. The hereditary longing to be of use, to do something for somebody, which is the characteristic of American men and women, even of the apparently thoughtless, drove thousands and thousands of them out of their homes, to hospitals, field-ambulances, camps, or railway canteens, hostels for refugees, foodor clothes-distributing offices, to places of all kinds, the unexpected names of which show the inventiveness of Christian charity when allied to American ingenuity. These battalions of helpers or comforters have all come to know France intimately, and in their minds an idea of the Frenchman has been formed, not one lineament of which recalls, however remotely, the Parisian boulevardier once regarded as typically French. Officers by the hundreds may live in these people’s memories; gentlemen who lived and died more simply than their biographers generally write. But to the American who has lived the war with us, the typical Frenchman is the poilu.
And what is a poilu? A humble man, who, one July afternoon in 1914, left at two hours’ notice his Parisian shop or workshop, or his ripe wheat-fields, or his ripening vines, for a military dépôt he had never liked and had managed to tolerate only because soldiering, and all things soldierly, are lovable to the Frenchman, and take on a halo in his imagination; was packed to the Belgian frontier; made the acquaintance of danger under all its forms; fought; hungered — hungered and thirsted — for days; knew the trenches when they were in t heir crudest novelty and worse than the badger’s hole; got wounded, and lay for hours, sometimes days, where he had fallen, or crawled miles to a hurried surgeon, and to the torturing goods-trucks, pompously labeled sanitary trains; got well, and went back to the dépôt, and then back to the front and to fighting or being shelled; and so on during four years, with the everdisappointed certainty that ‘next winter must be the last,’ or that the imminent coming in of this or that nation must bring the end.
Who has not seen in the vicinity of the Paris stations his solid figure, — the notion of short, delicate Frenchmen has died out with many others, — made to look balloon-like by an accumulation of round things, sacks, helmets, drinking flasks, or rolled-up blankets on his shoulders and hips, slowly balancing itself along the foot-path? Nobody shows him much sympathy now that his appearance has become familiar, and his face exhibits as much surprise as delight when the passer-by presents him with a trifle. Whether one sees him thus in the busy street, or in the trains, or in the hospitals, he strikes one by that very quality which foreigners used to deny Frenchmen: patience, allenduring patience, which never-ceasing grumbling saves from the reproach of German apathy. His stoicism expects nothing, — for unless he happens to be very poor, he has the national aversion to parting with money and understands it in others, — but thousands of American women who now know him well, know also how grateful he is for sympathy, and how expressive he can be in his recognition of it, without ever giving a woman the least fear that he might become unduly warm.
Who could believe that such a man, invariably true to himself in millions of specimens, can be the product of an effeminate or degenerate nation? How clearly it appears to anybody who really sees the inside of things that a country or a nation must not be judged by the froth of its civilization in big towns, by its histrions, any more than by its professional politicians! The truth is that poor families are trained to patience by the traditions of the soil, rich ones by the austerity of French schools, — often, too, by the old French notion that true religion lies in the capacity for silent suffering, — and what the soil only does for some, and the school for others, the army does for all. There is no French mother who would say, I did not rear my son to make him a soldier. Frenchwomen know too well what the regiment does for their sons, and how a few months of the military life makes men of them, and at the same time gives them a gentleness, nay, a childlikeness, which they did not show two years before, as if their souls were going back to innocence while their bodies display the robustness of manhood. How often the present writer has been delighted to find a charmingly sincere, almost naïve man in a young soldier, who acted the grown-up person in a sickening manner the last time he saw him!
American mothers will find many beautiful things in their boys which were not there when they kissed them good-bye. War is hateful, but the capacity for self-sacrifice, self-discipline, and self-simplifying, which it creates or develops, is a wonderful thing.
All those sides of the French temperament are now known to Americans, and one can write about French ideals and say that they frequently find their home in Paris, without conjuring up the unpleasant vision of raised eyebrows and a hardly suppressed smile.
It is remarkable that Paris is the only capital in the whole world that is and has been for centuries the chief seat of national education. London, New York or Boston, Berlin or Leipzig, Rome or Milan, Madrid or Barcelona, may be great literary or scientific centres. They are not, or have only recently become, university centres. The names traditionally attached to the notion of learning are those of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, Bonn and Jena, Padua and Salamanca.
In France, Poitiers and Orleans have long ceased to be, while Lille, Nancy, and Montpellier are still far from being, the rivals of Paris. Paris, from the thirteenth century, was what it still is known to be, even to people who are too busy elsewhere to visit the Sorbonne, the city of students par excellence. A whole quarter of the town, from the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviéve to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, is inhabited by book-devouring youths. The chief lycees, — Louis le Grand, SaintLouis, Henri Quatre, — and the College Stanislas are there, yearly pouring out their best scholars into the Sorbonne, the École Normale, the Medical School, the Law School, the École des Hautes-Études, the École des Chartes, the renowned, exclusive, and well-nigh inaccessible École Polytechnique, the two Écoles des Mines, the Observatoire, the École des Sciences Politiques, the École des Beaux-Arts, or the École d’Architecture, all of which are also there. Many thousand young men live in that not very large district, and give it its physiognomy, filling its streets with their belief in life and in themselves, filling with clamor at certain hours the Place du Panthéon, so dignified and still, or adding a distinctive human element to the Luxembourg Garden, the Odéon bookstalls, and even, when some illustrious man departs for his long home in the Cimetière Montparnasse, to the stately double porch of Saint-Sulpice.
And what are these young men doing? It is difficult to know in what stage of life the French, who in some imaginations were the incarnation of naughtiness, were supposed to be. To look upon the very young as prematurely old and degenerate is a cruelty of which I do not think any American was ever capable. But it is a fact that the name of the Quartier Latin, which to the French means madcap merriment, with a rather austere background of libraries and lecturing halls, used to mean to many foreigners an untimely initiation into life. Henry Mürger’s Vie de Bohème, which only professional historians of French literature now read, and which the cheapest reprints have not been able to revive, is still alive abroad, and has helped to spread many a false notion. Murger’s étudiants have long joined his grisettes, the very name of whom sounds as oldfashioned as a spinet, and bohemianism is quite as antiquated. Nine Paris students in ten have to work hard; and what with examinations, and the facilities for week ends at home, — Mürger’s is a pre-railway book, — or unexpected visits from fathers, and the growing habit of early fiançaiUes, even the tenth man can hardly live a life of undisturbed dissipation.
Of course there is a defect in French methods, which results in obvious danger. The French lycée, conceived by Napoleon as a semi-military school, with the reveille at five o’clock in the morning, over ten hours’ work and not quite two hours’ recreation a day, and with the constant supervision of masters, cannot be said to prepare the boy for freedom as the English or American methods do. In his last July at school the French lad of seventeen or eighteen is not allowed to go out alone to buy tennis-balls; in November of the same year he is in lodgings in the Quartier Latin, comes home as early or as late as he pleases, dines where his fancy takes him, goes to lectures or shirks them — in short, is his own master.
How different the life at Oxford or Yale! There the undergraduate lives a full life, no doubt, one which he always looks back to with regret when it is over, and which the outsider, like myself, who has seen it hundreds of times in imagination and once or twice in reality, envies as if he had been deprived of something he was entitled to; but it is a school life all the same. Books and sport are its chief elements, and books and sport are not life. The Anglo-Saxon universities stand apart, away from the passions, excitement, and bitterness of the world, but also away from its teaching. It has always seemed to me that the natural continuation of an Oxford college is an Oxfordshire vicarage, with its unvarying routine, peaceful library, outdoor pursuits, and meditativeness bordering on reverie. The moral hygiene one learns there, as well as the beautiful mental culture which accompanies it, seems to demand solitude as its proper environment. Excitement and fermentation, on the contrary, do not belong to it. There a debating society is the nearest approach to the passionate impulse which in 1830 threw the École Polytechnique cadets into the Revolution, to the wonderment and admiration of their West Point brethren; and this is a mild approach, unless one lives in beautifully organized countries, truly made for happiness, as England and America were before this war threw its shadow over the world.
On the other hand, who will deny that it is a terrible trial for a boy to have his choice between the two paths of Hercules before he has fully realized how much moral principles mean to his development, and just when his curiosity is the keenest? It would be absurd to shut one’s eyes to the danger, but it would be unwise to exaggerate it. This is one of the many cases in which an ounce of experience is worth pounds of logic, and the testimony of witnesses is the only seasonable answer to a question.
The present writer has known and followed through their lives a great many young men. He remembers very few who were completely wrecked by the change from the incessant surveillance of French schools to the unlimited freedom of the Sorbonne. He also remembers very few who were not tried by it. Curiosity and the longing to assert their newly won independence takes the young men to every place where they are not desired to go, and the results are sometimes fatal. But with the average lad provided with sound principles — the son of a man about town is, of course, poorly equipped — the issue is generally less untoward.
It is the fashion nowadays to speak of a youth of eighteen as if he were a child, and of a man of thirty-five as if he were yet growing. The ancients had no such ideas, and it has taken the lack of seriousness of the past three or four generations to spread them as they are. I often remember with pleasure a reference of Guy Patin — the charming literary physician of the seventeenth century — to a Monsieur Lenglet, a man of twenty-six, professor of rhetoric at the Collège d’Harcourt, Rector of the Paris University. Guy Patin says a man of twenty-six, as he might have said a man of forty-six: there is not the least intention of contrasting this man’s years with his high position. William Pitt was not supposed, either, to be a crude youth, and the French Revolutionists — most of them men between twenty-five and thirty-five— were never taxed with immaturity.
We think of all men who are not elderly as if they were young men, liable to the mistakes of young men, and this not infrequently leads them to act as if they really were very young men. But most lads of seventeen are clear about their ethical code, and who is there who has gathered some experience, and has not found that the possibility of foregoing the cleanliness of their souls is more unpleasant to them than to most of their seniors? As a matter of fact, we often find that these same Paris haunts which are so attractive to gray-haired leisure leave young Frenchmen remorseful or disgusted. I have never heard a student mention a Montmartre revue, except with the contempt which its stupidity and vulgar appeal deserve, and I have more than once seen a young man transformed into a man by his first contact with repulsive artificialities.
(To be concluded)