French Culture: The American Roadblock
Before taking this seminar, I had been exposed to French life repeatedly. My French mother and my American father met in Paris, and over the years, I have gotten to know the city rather well. From time spent there, I really felt as though I knew how both the city of Paris and the French themselves functioned for the most part. I came into this seminar with a pretty sound understanding of what the French call la mentalité française and of French idealism in today’s world, or so I thought. My goal for this seminar was not really to learn more about French culture, but rather to see what Americans had, over the years, to say about that culture – what they were most curious about and how they would react in France to very French differences in everyday life. I was very eager to see what characteristics and customs would be designated as “French” – and why these were often so difficult for Americans to deal with in France. My in-class analysis of this question centered on very common subjects such as meals, leisure, and family. In this course, I learned to appreciate the historical and cultural values behind those differences that I have experienced myself in France and which I have taken for granted for so many years. I am now able to more easily understand what I was always seeing. Because of this course I learned why certain French traditions and habits exist and why they are often so difficult for Americans to deal with. Though we can acknowledge French differences for what they are, I am starting to see why, historically, Americans have always been drawn to Paris and why adapting to Paris has, historically, never been easy for them to really pull off. The course addressed this question: why do perceptions of France so entice and then so disarm so many Americans? It is a really interesting topic for novelists, poets, movie-makers, revolutionaries, fugitives, and all sorts of other Americans, including myself.
Cultural paradigms matter because they tell us much about how we became who we are. Take the concept of dinner. It means two very different things to the French and the Americans. The Americans see it as a meal to nourish yourself. Dinner was always very different for me compared to my friends. My friends would have their dinner at around six every night; most of the time they would eat alone or with one other family member, often with a TV blaring in the background. There was nothing attached to it. The meal was just sustenance. For the French, dinner is a time to come around the table, talk, and savor a well-constructed meal. Wherever taken, my dinners were elaborate, never taken on the fly. I would wait every night until eight or nine to eat dinner. It was not that people weren’t hungry, but rather that we had to wait for everyone before we could eat dinner. I had never thought anything of it. It just became habit to eat dinner at that time.
This fall, Edith Wharton’s French Ways and Their Meaning explained to me why this is so. Wharton illustrates how the French organize their more formal dinners. She talks about the rule of French society where the hostess and host must sit across from each other no matter what. In the film Le Divorce, we see the grandmother place everyone around the table while making sure that she and her brother sit opposite each other. She also explains the essence of the meal that is being served to them. It is so much more than just food on the table. The French take pride, she says, in how their dinners are composed; and the composition includes not only the final product but also the food preparation, the aesthetics of the table, the choice of wines, and not least the quality of the accompanying conversation. In Le Divorce, we watch table companions talk about the scandal of the American senator, each speaking in turn to give a considered opinion on the matter. A divorce is a rupture of something sacred. Wharton suggests that any altering of the rituals of the formal meal would be a divorce of sorts, a rupture of something sacred. Can an American in France fully comprehend the meanings and importance of these rituals?
I was surprised that classmates called such a simple and innocent thing as preparing a dinner French, but the more we talked about it, the more I became aware this was true. To the French, every detail concerning the dinner is filled with meaning and therefore matters – these details are subject to ancient, unspoken, but well understood social codes. Unraveling these codes is at the heart of Wharton’s work, and it was very useful to me personally. As often as I have had dinner with my French family, I had never acknowledged the importance and unvarying nature of all the small details that go into a dinner. Wharton unlocks this and allows for a deeper analysis of the phenomenon of the French meal. I realized, through her works, that all of these rituals explain French dinners as a form of good manners and taste, another important structural underpinning of French society.
Taste is something that the French command with ease. As Edith Wharton explains in French Ways and Their Meaning, “[Taste] is the atmosphere in which art lives, and outside of which it cannot live” (40). For the French, taste is both visible and innate; it is not just outward appearance but it is the art of knowing how things are and how things are done – and always in a French manner. It is learned but it cannot be acquired expressly. I have always looked at the French as the reference in matters of taste and custom. And I believe that it is true that they do have a knack for living life as if living was in itself a form of art. The French simply have a better understanding of what is more fitting. Wharton described it this way: “French people ‘have taste’ as naturally as they breathe” (43).
But the counterpoint to this would be that for the French a breach of taste is catastrophic; it is another instance of a rupturing divorce with a pre-ordained and natural and sacred order of things. Americans in France do not possess the hidden code that comes with and from French society. This can make Americans intrusive, discomforting, and uncomfortable. Wharton’s Americans in The Custom of the Country, like Undine Spragg and Elmer Moffatt, are so busy becoming more powerful and making money that they are not able to see the beauty in the small things that go into a life tastefully conducted. Wharton explains that the English (representing here advanced European culture generally) are creative poets and that America has the potential to rise to this blessed state of civilized tastefulness if they really work at it. Wharton, though, believes that “[a]s long as America believes in short-cuts to knowledge, in any possibility of buying taste in tabloids, she will never come into her real inheritance of English culture” (55). Wharton (and therefore this course) provides a rational explanation for why France can be a difficult place for Americans to navigate: France’s obsession with taste basically comes from a respect for artfulness, understatement, form and beauty, and none of these speak naturally to the American condition.
Americans may be well-schooled, but the French, I have learned, take their education from a wider source of life experiences. Schools matter, of course, but a true education comes from so much more: their family, their history, their conversation, their leisure, their cuisine, their customs, their faith (though often unpracticed), their soil. Expectations for a French education are in some ways higher than that of an Anglo-Saxon one because education involves a process of continuing refinement over a lifetime. (Contrast this to the American ideal of going to a good school in order to get a good job – and make a lot of money.). Within limits, the French are more apt to explore and cultivate non-materialistic experiences in life. Wharton explains that the French learn to train the eye, the ear, and the brain so that they are able to garner a stronger sense of taste. They are not afraid to learn something new, even if it is not connected to the American notion of direct return on investment. This can lead to greater acceptance of the eccentric and off-beat and eventually to greater tolerance. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the French were very racially tolerant. In The Josephine Baker Story, we see how the French were very welcoming of blacks, especially if they had something to teach the French. Josephine Baker came to Paris as an unknown black dancer who was just happy to be accepted as a human being and not to be dismissed on account of her skin color. During the rehearsals, Baker did not want to wear a certain costume because she did not want to be portrayed as savage for fear she would be stereotyped as she had been in America. Once she performed, though, France fell in love with her because she was showing them a new art form, le jazz hot, which they had not yet seen before. Her music, dance and style – once scorned in America – expanded their realm of experience in the world. France’s acceptance was an exercise in tolerance and a form of education that would contribute to their ability to find beauty in unconventional places. Wharton said, “If the ability to read carries the average man no higher than the gossip of his neighbors, if he asks nothing more nourishing out of books and the theatre . . . then culture is bound to be dragged down to him instead of his being lifted up by culture” (69). I now understand that the French journey to “cultiver son jardin” is uncompromising – educational and cultural standards are set very high – and unending. As Wharton says, “it is that France is what she is because every Frenchman and every Frenchwoman takes time to live, and has an extraordinarily clear and sound sense of what constitutes real living” (110). More so than the Americans, the French are able to extend their taste and culture through their eagerness to learn and fully experience what the world has to offer.
But as noted above, there are limits. In France, it was never a case of “anything goes.” Some bedrock values have to be preserved. And as we saw in a number of our texts this term, Americans in France would often have no idea where those limits lay. Social drinking in France is laden with unspoken cultural boundaries, and it is in this domain that Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night provides a brilliant example of the phenomenon of Americans overstepping French limits. Like many Americans before and after him, Diver found life in France intoxicating. Diver’s drinking started off sociably enough, but he did not know when to stop. We saw this most vividly in the scene where Diver gets rip-roaring drunk at a formal gathering with friends. He allows his mouth to run wild with his true sentiments concerning the guests around him. Getting sloppy drunk in America is one thing – it can be ugly, funny, or scary – but in France it can be destructively revealing.
This term also brought to me an appreciation for the history of how the French see us. In the 1970s, American modernism started to gain a substantial foothold in France. But France was not ready to embrace American models of efficiency; the French worried that American technological advances would take away from their capacity to absorb and appreciate artistic beauty. The French way of life would be threatened, and possibly damaged, if forced to confront and absorb American manners. Though Wharton is correct when she says that Americans’ thirst for money has not made them less caring for other values, it is true that this desire has created America’s priorities for them. For a number of reasons, the France of the 1970s felt as though it was losing its moral and intellectual center. In his book Le Défi Américain, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber warned France that America was subjugating Europe and that France had to act immediately if she wanted to compete on an equal footing with the Americans. In Seducing the French, Richard Kuisel explains how in light of American modernism France came to lose a measure of her cultural identity. Driven by the idea of not being left behind, many influential French thinkers feared that France would either let America persist in cultural vandalism or force the French nation to join the postindustrial race for wealth and influence. In this latter case, France would have to Americanize anyway. Kuisel states that the French wanted to “borrow [from America] if we must; but find another path to development than the one blazed by America” (208). The French way would be to borrow from, but not slavishly emulate, the American model. I found it very interesting to see Kuisel’s detailed explanation for what is in essence France’s love-hate relationship with America and Americans – yet another phenomenon that I have seen often enough but never closely analyzed, until this term.
France is often presented as a place where one can find himself, where you can be you. France moves slowly; there is so much time for leisure that you have the time to think and experience. As Dick Diver discovers in Tender Is the Night, France allows one the leisure to dabble experientially, to try things that may not have been tried before. The effect can be intoxicating but, as with any intoxication, there is a harsh return to the world after indulgence. I think this course has shown me that France is difficult for Americans because life there seems light and airy; it is like joining a party. But this lightness of being does cover a whole framework of codes, rituals, and mind-sets which when confronted by the visiting American can be totally disorienting. Dick Diver’s mistakes are a prime example of this. Paris is great place to visit, a great place to live, but it ain’t easy. And now I have a better feeling for why.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night, 1933.
Kuisel, Richard. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization, 1993.
Le Divorce. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory and directed by James Ivory. Fox Searchlight Pictures and Merchant Ivory/Radar Picture Production, 2003.
Servan-Schreiber, Jean-Jacques. Le Défi Américain, 1967.
Wharton, Edith. French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919.
———-. The Custom of the Country, 1913.