The Real Paris. Ii
WHOEVER lives long enough in Paris will find that its real attraction is not the variety of its amusements, but the pervading feeling which he must experience there, that he is in the thickest of French life, whether literary or artistic, political or moral. Literature is the passion of French people, and whatever French education may be, it certainly trains the boys to rise above commonplace interests.
J. J. Weiss tells us in his fascinating volume, Le Theatre et les Moeurs, how he heard John Lemoinne — then a famous political writer and member of the French Academy — recall how near a revolt his class at the College Stanislas was on the day after the first performance of Hernani, because the professor, who had seen the play, spoke slightingly of Hugo. These boys were only thirteen years old. Things have not changed. Read out a few stanzas with real harmony or true feeling in them to a class of French boys, or tell them about the inspiration of a Lamartine or a Musset, or about the methods of composition of some great writers, or contrast Racine, whom they worship, with Shakespeare, who has to be gradually revealed to them — you will see bright eyes and thrilled countenances. The very mention of artistic beauty will invariably awaken attention.
Now, the background of French literature is Paris, and to most provincial boys who are reading for the baccalaureat, Paris means the enchanting city where great men have flourished. I know of one who, the first time he visited Notre Dame, paid little attention to the monument, though he felt the thousand influences emanating from its beauty, but stood a long time on the threshold, looking at the pulpit from which Bossuet and Lacordaire had preached, and imagining in endless procession the great men who had crossed the very stone on which he stood. The distinction of intellectual superiority is more fascinating to the French than worldly success, wealth, or power may be to other nations; and it is a fact that, at the very moment when some people may imagine the newly-arrived student a prey to dissipation, he is spending his leisure seeking illustrious people, prowling round the theatres to see famous dramatic authors, or patiently standing under the drafty arches of the Institute on a Thursday afternoon, to see the last Academician walk in.
The Quartier Latin is still full of literary cafes, like the Cafe de la Source or La Closerie des Lilas, where the elements of poetic beauty are endlessly reconsidered, where the bases of new but final systems are laid, and where dozens of magazines to support them are started. The passionate devotion to beauty which caused the commotion incident on the production of Hernani, to which I referred above, is as alive to-day as ninety years ago. The present writer saw with his own eyes, a short time before the war, two or three hundred Racinians, with eggs and baked apples, — the time-honoured literary handgrenades, — awaiting the moment when a lecturer, who was known to speak disrespectfully of Racine and his adherents, should come out of the Odeon.
Art has seldom excited these violent feelings, but, as the number of painters and sculptors increases in the Montparnasse neighborhood, the expression of their opinions becomes more public and decided; and the many Americans who have studied at the ficole des BeauxArts, or in the Grande Chaumiere ateliers, can testify to the impassioning nature of artistic conversations.
As for politics, students have reveled in them for five generations, and they are not likely to relax their interest. There were indeed in the last ten or twelve years small fractions which pretended to be as much above politics as most French people think they are above politicians, and declared Nick Carter or Jack Johnson and the happenings at the Velodrome of far greater consequence than the proceedings of the Chamber of Deputies; but this attitude was forced and did not convince everybody. Once or twice, particularly when a certain professor intimately connected with a political party publicly denied that Jeanne d’Arc was more than a name embellished later by a legend, the would-be sportsmen promptly dropped their impassibility and appeared in the streets with the caps and big sticks pertaining to solemn occasions.
Besides, politics, which had gradually come in the last decade, largely through the influence of the Ecole des Sciences Politiques, to be the discussion, not of partisan theories, but of the relations of France with her friends or enemies, are sure to show this feature more and more markedly after the war, and will be little else than an aspect of patriotism.
Inclined as the French are, sometimes in an excessive degree, to theories and speculations, they are not merely intellectual, and only a superficial acquaintance with them can lead to the belief that they take little or no interest in moral issues. Remember that France was for many centuries a Catholic country, one might say the Catholic country; that the faith of the Middle Ages found its highest expression in the cathedrals and the crusades which are specifically French; that Jeanne d’Arc is representative of her nation as well as of her epoch, and that mysticism of the rarest description flourished on French soil. Religion does not easily perish when it has been planted so deep.
It is true that French politics have long been so clumsily anti-clerical (contrast Italy) as frequently to seem atheistical; and it is a fact that barely half the French population takes any practical account of religion. The religious waves which surprise the visitor to Anglo-Saxon countries so much, the American and English interest in all that relates to the invisible, even when it takes the form of an ephemeral curiosity or a fad, do not exist in France, because religion with French people invariably goes back to Catholicism, and Catholicism does not admit of novelties; so religion there frequently appears to the casual observer as a creed long since emptied of its living sense, or as a mechanical habit. This arises from the tendency, almost universal with non-Catholics, to regard the laity alone as the mirror of religious feeling in any country, and, except in rare and very noble exceptions, to look upon the clergy as mere professionals.
But it is not so in France. Thousands and thousands of young men who, in America or England, would go in for altruistic work and would give the impression that the spirit of the Gospel is wonderfully alive in those countries, are leading the lives of the recluse or of the unnoticed parish priest. It is the same with women. Parisian society, certainly appears frivolous, but many thousands of young women belonging to it are seen there no more because they have vanished in convents. Visible or not, these exceptional Christians are the sons and daughters of France.
But religion does not appear only in people who give up everything for it. Religious movements of rare intensity have been seen among the laity. For the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, nominally under the influence of Chateaubriand and the Romanticists, but in reality owing to deeper and simpler causes, France shook off the incredulity of the preceding age, and went back to a mediaeval devotion remarkably free from any ritualistic or reactionary admixture. The much more recent movement known as the Sillon movement was a return to the Gospel, with a passion for all that is legitimate in modern thought. And has not the present war shown that numberless officers and soldiers found the source of their capacity for sacrifice in faith? Indeed, I have never been able to hear the French flippantly mentioned as ungodly, without conjuring up in my mind the numberless homes where belief is the background of every action and the solid base of conjugal or filial love, and without wondering at the levity which denies or ignores it, simply because Voltaire, the naturalist writers, semi-educated atheists, and moneymaking theatrical managers have succeeded in achieving loud success.
In fact, aversion to religious practice is nearly always a misunderstanding: the idea of God is wrecked in the disaster of a philosophy from which it is perfectly independent, or the Church is made to suffer for prejudices she has long outgrown. Were it not for this confusion of issues, there would probably be in France a smaller amount of materialism than elsewhere; for idealism in some form or other is visible in most Frenchmen, and readers of this magazine, in which M. Barres’s paper on the spirituality of French soldiers first appeared, must be convinced of it. Tolstoism, Nietzscheism, the blend of Epicurism and Stoic fortitude in Maeterlinck’s doctrines, and, finally, Americanism and Dilettantism, which successively took the fancy of the public before the vital contest between patriots and internationalists engrossed universal attention, did so only because they were explanations of the world intimately connected with a rule of life, and were, after all, substitutes for religion.
The idealistic tendency of the French is visible even in their conversation. Their gift as conversationalists is well known and has frequently been described. Madame de Stael analyzes it, with the fondness of an adept, in twenty passages of her works. To-day the longing for something more substantial than brilliance inclines us to see the other side of the medal and to point out the defects which accompany it. It is not denied that French people feel too much pleasure in talking, that they sometimes put off serious affairs for the enchantment of discussing them, and that’ Do it now ’ is frequently forgotten for ‘Talk it out first.’ Frenchmen will prolong a conversation long after everything has been said, in the more or less conscious hope that somebody will sum it up in an epigram, in one of those highly polished speeches which have the unexpectedness of the solution of a riddle, and at the same time delight the mind as a work of art might do; above all, it is only too true that the French — high or low, and the fault is glaring in their Parliaments — seldom take the trouble to carry into effect the resolutions which to other people would seem inevitably to follow the conclusions drawn from the discussion. I have often heard admirable debates teeming with pregnant things, from which an American, with his national taste for betterment and reforms, would derive light enough and energy enough for years of social work; with the French who took part in them, they were only a mental exercise, with the underlying belief that truth always works its way, and somebody cannot but be found who will accomplish what seems so evidently reasonable.
But, in spite of this barrenness, it must be admitted that the conversation of the French gives a high idea of their mental and moral character. Englishmen who love humor are not witty; exceptions make you feel almost uncomfortable, until you discover that the person is an Irishman; they hate bookish topics too, and they are especially averse to showing their feelings or expressing themselves with undue eloquence. They love honest fun when they are lazy, and honest facts when they are energetic. They want to be sure about their data, mistrust words, and leave it to their common sense and their taste for fair play to steer them clear of wrong steps or wrong imaginings, so long as they see things with completeness and accuracy.
On the contrary, the Frenchman will show himself in the smoking-room what another man would appear only in his public speeches; he has a preference for the highest topics of philosophy, politics, or morals, and he approaches them by their noblest sides, warming up to his subject and not shrinking from rhetorical or poetic language. He deals with every question as if it were of vital interest to him to see all its aspects. Taine accuses him of being on the lookout for formulas rather than for the reality of things, and it is a fact that generalizations seem attractive to him; but here Taine, as we often do, saddles his own fault on his countrymen. The truth is, that the French handle and rehandle, turn inside out, scan and scrutinize questions, in the honest desire not to leave a corner of them unexplored, not to be deceived by appearances ; and they often succeed in throwing pure light upon them. In fact, French conversation is what French literature frequently appears to be—a sometimes heartless, sometimes impassioned analysis, but tending constantly to clarity, and carried on in perfect sincerity and absolute disinterestedness.
The conclusion of all this must be that there is certainly enough in Paris that is good and of good repute, for American parents not to be afraid to see their sons go there. I feel sure that the young men will be happy, too. To begin with, a great many of them will have known France before, under circumstances which neither the French nor themselves can ever forget. Their week-end trips will be to quaint old towns which they will have learned to love while camping in their vicinity; or to tragic cities like Rheims, or Amiens, which they will have defended at the risk of their lives, and where their voice will have better claims to be heard than that of many natives. Then they will find Paris full of their own countrymen, thousands of whom lived there before the war and never dreamed of going back to America until they had done their bit, which often meant doing wonders; while thousands of others came over at various stages of the war, and filled every place with the renown of American intelligence and generosity.
But even if Paris should lose all these well-wishers, or if the student had never set foot on French soil before, he would not feel a stranger. In spite of deep differences in their way of seeing life and using it, the Americans and the French show curious similarities. Whatever the reason may be, probably from the strong proportion of Celtic blood in the veins of Americans, the two peoples exhibit resemblances which strike all observers. A friend of mine recently asked a French soldier on leave how he liked the Americans whom he saw at the front. The man fumbled a while for adequate expression, but finally concluded with marked emphasis, ‘C’est des hommes tout-a-fait comme nous!'
On the other hand, French visitors to America invariably record their surprise at the features which American and French conversation have in common. Eloquence and pathos seem rather superfluous luxuries in a New York as well as in a London drawing-room, but emotion and the free expression of feeling are not banished from American conversation, wit is as frequent as humor, brightness is a requisite, freedom from prejudice, or even traditionalism, is a principle, satire does not offend, and a curiosity as to all kinds of intellectual issues is habitual even in women, perhaps chiefly in women.
It is not astonishing, therefore, that Americans in Paris should become so French that the adaptation is sometimes mystifying. A reviewer — who probably would not have regarded St. Gaudens as an American — once upbraided the present writer for including Griffin and Stuart Merrill in a list of French poets. Yet, what else are they? and who, meeting the former would dream that he was not born French until he was pleased to say so? This is not a mere question of appropriating the language, which most Americans find easy; neither is it the society man’s or woman’s delight in annexing the more showy sides of a civilization. This flexibility may be charming in men from whom it is not expected, but I have sometimes deplored it in the many American women who, having become French by marriage, wed even French prejudices; it is a way of looking at things from a thoroughly French point of view, or a capacity for seeing the subtlest French nuances, which people apparently nearer of kin, Italians for instance, never acquire.
American artists — there are hundreds in Paris, and the École des BeauxArts might easily be said to be an American institution — are hardly regarded as foreigners: the effort would be too great. Their very talent, invariably making for quiet distinction rather than for the display of force, is French. Was not Whistler a perfect Parisian? Many American artists speak French among themselves, because their mind is full of associations which make that medium a necessity. The same thing might be said of American literary men or women who have their homes in France. The author of Ethan Frome is also the author of Sous la Neige, which no translator could have written as well. Henry James would never have been so subtly analytical, had it not been for a French culture which he had the coquetry not to display, but which is felt in every page. And apart from artists or writers who may be supposed to be exceptionally receptive, I have already seen young American officers, nay, American privates, whom a few months at Fontainebleau or in the Foreign Legion, or in the ambulances at the front, had made delightfully French in smile, gesture, and intention, even when their tongue was still American.
I have no doubt that the Sorbonne Association of American Students will not appear much more foreign than the Provencal, Breton, or Alsatian associations. Nobody, of course, would advise young men from the United States not to be anxious to be a great deal together, or to preserve their national characteristics. Mr. Whitney Warren will have to build for them a Maison Americaine, as it will be called, which will be in the purest spirit of eighteenthcentury gracefulness, and will teach the Paris Municipal Council what is meant by a French style of architecture; it will be by far the best-equipped European sample of its kind, and the students will be proud of it and happy in it; it will be a headquarters of sports, a renowned altruistic centre, of course, with a glow of Christian feeling over it which will be worth many sermons.
But this home will only help the young American through his first trying weeks, and it will not prevent him from merging into the busy university, even the busy Paris life. He will find welcoming comrades, many of whom will have been his fellow soldiers, and homes which will have learned to receive a guest, or rather will have unlearned the old French belief that the essence of home-life is Spanish privacy; and he will find welcoming professors. The Sorbonne, which used to be all brain, has acquired a heart in the past fifteen years; there is a family feeling about it; and I was not a little surprised, a year or two ago, to find it alive and cherished in an English women’s university. In short, Paris is ready for that give-and-take spirit which is the soul of social relations, and nobody will appreciate it more than the American undergraduate.
I was coming back from America in the autumn of 1908, when I made on the boat the acquaintance of two American students, one an architect, the other a painter, who had been in Paris a few years. It was my first visit to the United States, and I was wondering whether the sight of low-lying Cherbourg would make me feel the agony of joy which I had noticed in many passengers on my ship as we entered New York Bay. I must admit that it did not. The sound of my native language and the appearance of careless freedom about the harbor, and shortly afterwards the vision of a Normandy village in its plenteous orchards, did give me a pleasant sense of proprietorship, but no enthusiasm.
But it was not so with my two companions. The moment the train moved out of Cherbourg station, — a wretched train, with no dining-car, no drinking water, and no light until we got to an enterprising junction, — they took their station in the corridor, and began to love everything they saw flashing past, interlarding their English with a lot of excellent French which they had never let me hear till then; and, as we went on, looking more French from minute to minute. At Caen they had commented in artists’ language and professional mimicry on the wonderful sky-line we could see, as if they knew the place by heart, which they probably did; and it was the same every time we passed a church or a chateau worth remark.
But when we approached Paris, —it was then dark, — and the Paris glow filled the heavens, and the Paris lights on Montmartre Hill lent a glamour to the Seine, these young men forgot my and the other passengers’ presence and even existence; they waved their hats out of the window at mysterious presences, they shouted and sang, and they stamped with the excess of joy, crying in French to a tune of their own, ‘ Voila Paris! Voila Paris! ’
I have never forgotten that scene of mad delight. At the moment, it made me feel melancholy, for these young men seemed to get more out of beloved Paris than I did myself. But I remembered days when the sight of the Paris lights would have thrown me — did throw me — into the same excitement, and I found pleasure and a subject for hope in this astonishing appreciation of my native country by Americans. This pleasure and hope I have never felt more keenly than to-day.