On the French Method of Crossing the Street

It is by observing some of the most trivial acts of human beings that we understand the most divine, and by appreciating the simplest works of God that we love the most complex. Thus poets and scientists alike have reached often the astounding principles that underlie the universal drama, as it is called, by the sudden consideration of a falling apple, a bouncing lid on a teakettle, a flower in a crannied wall. Why this should be so, I leave to those minds who have no bread and butter to earn. I am content to note the fact and profit by it.

I had long puzzled over the contradictory text of Tertullian: ‘Credibile est, quia ineptum est . . . certum est, quia impossibile est.’ To be sure, I would never admit to my friends that it puzzled me; to them I said it was sublime and hence mysterious; in the classroom I smiled with an insouciance found only in the hearts of those who have solved the riddle of the universe. I feel that I understand Tertullian better than he understood himself. For the passage from the up-stream sidewalk of the Pont Neuf to the downstream side-walk, at any time of day, — if actually accomplished, — belongs to that class of events properly called miraculous, whose existence depends, not only on their absurdity, but on their impossibility.

A Frenchman who wishes to cross the street never looks up and down, to see if the current of traffic is stilled. He knows that he would be wasting time. He pays no attention: he starts in and walks across. When he comes to a taxicab, he makes his way around it, or he lets it make its way around him. He looks out for himself, and the taxi looks out for itself. Thus both parties are placed on an equal basis; no class-privileges are involved; and the democratic rule of tolerance and fair play is exercised at all times. At this very minute, there are three bicycles, an omnibus, a delivery wagon, five taxicabs, two hacks, four push-carts, seven old women, nine soldiers, three children, five cripples, four errand-boys, one postman, and thirty-four pairs of young lovers in the street between the Quai des Orfèvres and the Quai de Conti; and all are pursuing their ends at any speed pleasing to them, and succeeding very satisfactorily. And on the curbstone stand an American major and colonel, both of whom, my field-glasses tell me, wear the D.S.C. ribbon, helpless, nervously waiting for that moment, which will never come, when the traffic will stop and the tides roll back to let the chosen cross.

There is something very significant in this turmoil. To an American it seems like a veritable chaos; as a matter of fact, I believe it is that deeper harmony which philosophers speak of sometimes, which reconciles the contradictions in things and makes the absurd the probable. As Plotinus says in the Ninth Book of the Sixth Ennead: ‘Whosoever thinks that things are governed by chance and by caprice ... is very far removed from God.’ No, it is not good luck alone which guides these people through the labyrinth: it is an intelligence like that which keeps the atoms moving in their smaller but no less crowded world, an intelligence which in America has been replaced by the ‘traffic cop.'

A traffic cop, when you come to speculate on his being, is an insult to the human spirit. In intention, he is put there to do good; in effect, he does harm. He is meant to save lives by regulating traffic; but he breeds in the soul of man a cowardice which makes him lower than a taxicab, which kills what is manly in him. What does it avail a man to cross the street at the price of his soul? ‘There is a double death,’ says Porphyry in the ninth paragraph of his Opinions, ' one of which is known to all, whereby the body is loosed from the soul; the other is the death of philosophers, where the soul is loosed from the body. Nor does one always follow the other.’ It is this first death which our traffic cops prevent; indeed, it is the only one they appreciate. But they do not know that by their sedulous care of the body they are preparing it for that very divorce from the soul which they are trying to avoid. The Frenchman who is allowed to mingle courageously with the fearful instruments of bodily death is educating his soul for a freedom which he could never attain through the cares of another. The loosing of the soul from the body is realized every minute beneath my windows and the equestrian statue of Henri IV. ‘Certum est, quia impossibile est.’

We Americans have been very obstinate about this matter of traffic in France, and on the bridge which spans the Gironde at Bordeaux have instituted a system of regulations which would be tragic if it worked. Fortunately, the system is not to stem the flow, but to guide it; not to hold it up for those who would cross, but to keep it on those sides of the street to which American custom has assigned it. When we crossed the bridge before this innovation, our car would often be surrounded by a drove of pigs being driven to market, impeded in its progress by a reflective ox-cart. But I had learned that oxen are no match for a Cadillac in speed, and that it is very expensive to disregard a drove of pigs. And so I would lean back in the car and give myself over to the mixture of sounds that stirred about me: the cries of the drovers, the honk of the automobile horn, the cracking of long whips, the shouts of newspaper-venders, the clanging of electric-car bells, all harmonized by the strangeness of things that are foreign.

And then, one day, we arrived to find all this in confusion. Ropes had been strung to divide the bridge into alleys; marines dressed like M.P.’s were on guard to chase traffic into the right alley. Needless to say, none of these obedient marines spoke French; none was aggressive in showing his love for the French soul. There was utter Bedlam everywhere. A man would arrive with six sheep and a barking, frisking dog. He would try to cross the bridge. Out would dash a marine and try to direct him into the proper alley. But, alas, a wagon loaded with fagots and drawn by two horses not hitched abreast would have already started over. And the poor sheep-man would have to keep his sheep from under the wheels of a thousand vehicles, whizzing here and there, until he could take his turn. As a consequence, the traffic crawled over in two streams; but the ends were so jammed with swearing, cursing, yelling, barking, shrieking, yelping, mooing, lowing, braying, desperate, bewildered, frightened, and thoroughly demoralized men, women,animals,and vehicles, that one preferred infinitely to swim the river rather than attempt the bridge.

A specious order was obtained from this experiment, but all the pleasure of crossing the bridge was gone. Of course, it might have been different. For after a man has been sufficiently operated by his government, he is unhappy without its ministration. Thus, in a town in Germany, where I happened to be playing the rôle of cunning old Fury, the Burgomaster was miserable when I told him that during the American occupation he would be left to his own initiative, so far as was consistent with our interests. The scheme did n’t work: he had to have a superior, and was paralyzed when given the use of his limbs — or mayhap they had atrophied. A superior was furnished.

Now, the spirit of the Parisian needs no superior. Like all liberal minds, his is capable of making choices. And his is furthermore capable of changing its choices. There are two characteristics which I never found in Germany. I found that my Germans would do fairly well what they were told to do; that, if one made up their minds for them, they were not difficult to handle; but I never found one of them who could make up his own mind. They live according to their place in a hierarchy; they work like trained animals. A German would never attempt to cross the Pont Neuf. He would begin on one side and walk to the end; and having reached the end, would turn round and come back. He would argue that sidewalks were meant to be walked on by human beings, and that hence human beings should walk on sidewalks; and that anyone who attempted to cross the street where no crossing was labeled was a pig-hound and had best be fined. Of such is the Kingdom of Wilhelm. You will notice that their new republic is still an empire. They cannot choose.

The same freedom of thought which prevents the existence of traffic cops in Paris caused the erection in the very heart of the city of a monument from ancient Egypt, a monument whose inscription only the erudite can read, but whose symbolism in this most modern of places is irresistible. A Frenchman to whom I expressed my views on the subject agreed that it was a proper symbol for Paris life; for what is an obelisk, he said, but a phallos? He was an amusing man; but he came from Lyons, and hence cannot be said to understand the capital. The reason why the obelisk is so well placed is not his at all, but its simplicity of form and rigidity of pose. For were I to look for one thing which expressed the spirit of this splendid city better than another, I would seek it, not on the boulevards or at Montmartre, but in the Sorbonne and in the cold drama of the seventeenth century. I know that this would be a hopelessly fragmentary expression of what France and Paris mean; but it would be a fragment much more significant than any other. For the Sorbonne offers in its curriculum, not everything that was ever known, but those things which certain wise men think worth knowing; and the drama of the seventeenth century presents, not all the emotions experienced by man, but only those which certain intelligent artists think worth exhibiting in public, arranged in a manner best fitted to exhibit them. It is, in other words, the human power of choice in action; it is the Frenchman crossing the crowded street and choosing his own path.