Attempting to Lose (and then Rediscovering) My American Identity
For a good amount of time it was my dream to go to Paris and be mistaken for a Parisian. This dream was basically the result of restlessness caused by the imminent end of high school and my desire to escape what I saw as the absurd, constant stream of political squabbles present in the United States (did I really want to live in a country that took Sarah Palin’s opinion seriously?). I imagined myself in every stereotypical Parisian location—sitting at a café, book and coffee in hand, presumably wearing something striped—to cope with these things. I desperately wanted to lose my identity as an American; however, I had not considered what losing that identity meant, nor had I been able to pinpoint exactly what attracted me to Paris. What would it mean to be mistaken for a Parisian? This seminar has allowed me to figure out exactly what I saw in Paris that I could not see in the United States. I have found that my perceptions of France have not really changed; however, my view of the country is now more nuanced and I can now put words to what I desired. My perception of the United States has changed slightly; the seminar allowed me to figure out my qualms about the United States but also helped me recognize more of the intricacies of American culture. I am still open to the idea of being an expatriate; ultimately, though, our readings and discussions have helped me figure out that an American identity is irrevocable.
Essentially, my desire to be mistaken for a Parisian is me wanting to be seen as having taste. As Edith Wharton describes in French Ways and Their Meanings, the French are endowed with the “seeing eye” and the “hearing ear” (51). The French appreciate culture and beauty in a way that Americans generally do not. Their appreciation for both is evident in every aspect of French life. Wharton states that the “French are a race of artists” (French Ways 52). Before taking the seminar, I recognized this statement to be true. I noted the difference in appreciation for beauty and culture when visiting Paris for the first time. Even the French public transportation system demonstrates the importance placed on beauty; the black and blue BART logo of my public transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area is in no way comparable to the Metro signs influenced by Art Nouveau. Wharton’s usage of the term “taste” for this appreciation for beauty and culture allowed me to figure out exactly what I wanted when I thought about living in Paris and being mistaken for a Parisian.
Before taking this seminar, I did not recognize that the tendency to choose practicality over beauty was one aspect of the American character preventing the United States from achieving the same level of appreciation for art and culture. The difference between the French and Americans is not the result of a lack of appreciation for beauty on the part of the Americans, but rather is the result of the American preference for practicality. This sense of practicality is presented in a number of texts; Tocqueville first brings it up in Democracy in America. Tocqueville states that Americans will create not for the sake of creating something beautiful but because it is useful. Richard Kuisel reiterates this idea in Seducing the French: “Vercors noted that it was too early for these pioneers to prize the beautiful because they were still immersed in the useful” (Kuisel 118). Since the formation of the United States, Americans have placed more emphasis on practicality than on aesthetic beauty and culture. In Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, Undine displays this kind of American practicality. When she and her French husband Raymond run out of money, Undine suggests selling the tapestries in Raymond’s family’s home. Although Undine’s ridiculously extravagant spending habits are a major reason for her and Raymond’s debt, in this specific example, Undine is demonstrating American practicality. Her idea to sell the tapestries is very practical. Selling something expensive, regardless of the history surrounding the object, when one needs money, is a very practical, very American thing to do.
Undine’s failure to recognize the value of the tapestries is an example of another reason for my desire to leave the United States and move to Paris. Americans do not understand and appreciate art and culture in the way the French do. In many of the texts we have looked at, Americans are repeatedly presented as faking knowledge of culture and, essentially, trying to display French taste. When they go to Paris, Americans may end up falling into what is basically a replica of American society, or, in an attempt to show they belong, they may end up trying to imitate French culture and taste. Undine epitomizes the first idea by repeatedly leaving her French husband to spend time with Americans at the Nouveau Luxe. The latter possibility is demonstrated in the movie The Moderns. The character Bertram Stone tries to look cultured by buying art; however, he shows he lacks taste by stating that if he paid less, “would be less beautiful” (The Moderns). Americans lack the kind of appreciation for art and culture the French have, and American attempts to create this kind of appreciation often fall flat.
Ironically, it was one of the last “texts” we looked at that changed my perception of the United States and France. The presentation of Americans and French in Le Divorce changed my opinions about Americans and French. While watching the movie, I found myself critiquing the French more than the Americans. There was great contrast between the French and the Americans in the movie; the French were very aristocratic while the Americans were much more bohemian. While in past texts I enjoyed the emphasis placed on the intricacies of French culture, those presented in the movie seemed irrelevant and, frankly, kind of annoying. For example, the French mother’s comment about Roxy’s lack of sugar cubes was unnecessarily insulting. On the other hand, I viewed the American family in a mostly positive light. Although they did have flaws, the Americans generally appeared much more progressive than the French. For example, like Roxy, I was surprised to learn that in France, a woman must wait a certain amount of time to get remarried after a divorce while a man can remarry immediately. I identified more with the American attitude toward family life than the French attitude. Le Divorce ultimately made me okay with my inability to lose my identity as an American because I was able to see Americans in a more positive light.
Overall, my perceptions of France and the United States have not drastically changed. I admire aspects of both cultures. The various texts we have examined present the French as appreciative of art, culture, and tradition and Americans as practical. Ultimately I still desire to live in Paris, but I can do so without completely abandoning my American identity.
Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, 1835.
Edith Wharton. French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919.
Edith Wharton. The Custom of the Country, 1913.
Le Divorce. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory and directed by James Ivory. Fox