Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Those Damnable French

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Plus)O, pity all ye the Anglophile who constantly finds reasons to admire the French!

My dear friend, Flicka, loves to quote from Alan Jacobs's The Narnian that recounts a young Jack Lewis declaring to his father, "I have a prejudice against the French."  Asked why,the four-year-old coolly replied, "If I knew why, it wouldn't be a prejudice."

The comic genius, Jerry Lewis

Why do we hate the French almost reflexively?  Well, the Brits have their own reasons, I am sure, but for Americans it is most likely because we have the idea that they hate us.  The only actual French person I've ever had any sort of extended, friendly acquaintance with was a lovely young lady named Audrey who was from Provence.  She assured me that the only French people who hate Americans are the Parisians and they hate everyone, including Provençals.  (She then went on to insist that Jerry Lewis was a comic genius, which I found almost too awesome for words.)

"The French are a smallish, monkey-looking bunch and not dressed any better, on average, than the citizens of Baltimore. True, you can sit outside in Paris and drink little cups of coffee, but why this is more stylish than sitting inside and drinking large glasses of whisky, I don't know."

—P. J. O'Rourke

It's fun to be anti-French.  No matter what your opinion on the Iraq War, you probably got a kick out of some of the barbs thrown at France's non-involvement with the coalition forces.  Calling them "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" was a snort-inducing one.  Or how about General Schwartzkopf's assertion that "going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion"?  Conan O'Brien quipped, "You know why the French don't want to bomb Saddam Hussein? Because he hates America, he loves mistresses and wears a beret. He is French, people!"  And Jay Leno threw in, "I don't know why people are surprised that France won't help us get Saddam out of Iraq. After all, France wouldn't help us get Hitler out of France either."  It's all in good fun, right François?  Hey, pass those Freedom Fries, will ya? (h/t)

But what to do, what to do when the French just start being a little too exceptional, a little too marvelous, a little too fascinating?  I've been wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth these past few weeks, because the stellar side of French culture has been revealed to me time and again.  And it hurts a little to confess that I have found oodles of delight and no little awe in the Gallic world even in realms I would not expect.

Manet's Olympia

I have long maintained that the best painters are, indeed, French.  Above me as I type is a large print of Manet's Olympia, every detail of her languorous repose a masterstroke.  And while Edouard is my favorite, so many other French painters also top my list: Ingres, Delacroix, Watteau, Fragonard, Caillebotte, Corot,  Degas and even, occasionally, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, and Renoir.


Despite their modern association with socialism and sloth, two of the geniuses of classic liberal economics are also, alas, French.  Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say are giants -- the former for his ability to translate economic theory into a fun, easily digested parable about The Law; the latter for his economic theorizing that led to, among other things, Say's Law (which my husband keeps trying to explain to me; but frankly, I'd rather have another drink and simply trust that Say is all they ahem say).  Not to mention that the whole term "laissez-faire" capitalism comes from an apocryphal story of 17th century French merchants and industrialists who, upon being asked by the Finance Minister what the government could do to help them, resoundingly answered, "Laissez-nous faire!"

Man on WireIn science, architecture, cuisine, fashion, the French have never failed to make their marks.  Stinkin' French even manage to write well, occasionally  the bastards.  Not that they can hold a candle to England's trove of literary lights . . . but still, their track record beats America's  so far.  As I said, I have been sadly reminded of the lovely side of France lately by several back-to-back encounters.  The first was the documentary film, Man on Wire.

The Red Balloon (Released by Janus Films, in association with the (The Criterion Collection)I so did not want to see this movie.  I pulled such a moue when it arrived from Netflix.  Dolefully, I moaned to Jason, "I do not want to see some fey Frenchie skedaddle between the Twin Towers.  Bleh."  I was wrong so very, very wrong.  This is a fabulous experience.  I defy anyone not to fall in love with Philippe Petit and his puckish face and exuberant attitude.  His quest to string a wire between the World Trade Center towers in New York City and dance upon the air between them is a testament to not only the indomitable spirit of man, but to a particularly French sense of whimsy.  You can only imagine that this is a man who grew up watching that utterly charming short film The Red Balloon.  To me, Monsieur Petit's insatiable yearning to conquer the towers has a spiritual kinship with the portrayal of Little Pascal's protection of and friendship with a sentient balloon.  Both are expressions of a particularly fragile and ephemeral sort of beauty and a playful homage to impracticality that is so foreign to we practical Americans, yet is strangely attractive, too.  Make of that what you will.

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the EnlightenmentThe second delightful, yet consternating, French intrusion into my life was reading Passionate Minds by David Bodanis.  I was pretty sure I would like the story (and with a subtitle that promised "sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world," how could I not?), but I was not anticipating or prepared to really like the main characters, scientist Emilie du Châtelet and the poet Voltaire.  Unfortunately, those crafty Frenchies won not only my sympathy, but my approbation, despite their combined numerous adulterous and even moderately incestuous cavortings.  There is an advantage to being French if you're going to act like a mink:  no Englishman or woman could get away with such goings on, both in their own eras or from an historical distance.  But with the French, you just wave a disparaging hand and move on.


What was so captivating about Emilie and Voltaire's love story was that it was about so much more than sex.  It was about friendship and companionship and respect.  It was about two people from vastly different backgrounds meeting with minds as well as bodies to the benefit of the life's work of both.  In Mr. Bodanis's telling, the story more than delivers on its palpitations-inducing subtitled promises; but, the fast pacing does not detract from the point of the title.  In its entirety, it is about passionate minds, but much like Philippe Petit it is also about indomitable spirits.  From the standpoint of Emilie du Châtelet, the life she was able to carve out for herself in the midst of a stunted environment for an intelligent woman is the heart of the story.  From Voltaire's standpoint, the tide of societal change which he helped to front is the heart.  And the two hearts beat as one.


Though sex is not the point of the story, it does help to bring it to its end.  When no longer sexually involved with Voltaire, Emilie took up with a much younger lover and became pregnant at the age of forty-two.  Pregnancy was fraught with danger at any time during the 18th century, but it was even more so when the mother was older.  Emilie, having a premonition about her death that seems more the end result of logic rather than a supernatural revelation, worked in haste to finish her life's masterwork, a translation and illumination of Newton's Principia, entitled, Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle de Newton, traduits du latin par Mme du Châtelet.  She finished the manuscript on August 30, 1749; she gave birth on September 3; she died on September 10.  Bodanis poignantly ends the main text of the book with this paragraph:

Voltaire was bereft: "I've lost the half of myself — a soul for which mine was made."  Months later, after Voltaire had abandoned Cirey [the country house they had shared] and moved back to Paris, Longchamp [his assistant] would find him wandering at night in the apartments he'd shared with Emilie, plaintively calling her name in the dark.  (p. 281)

Darn French making me cry with their romantic ways!

That same Flicka mentioned earlier confessed to me today that, deep down in the unexamined recesses of her soul, she fears that she, too, may have an affinity for the French.  In fact, she let it slip a while back that she would like to go to Paris someday.  And, I am beginning to suspect that I may have to go with her if only to visit the Musée d'Orsay and give some major props to my man Edouard.  It would even be worth it to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Parisian snootiness to enjoy a glass of red with my BFF while overlooking the Seine.  That will be a moment of eating crow, indeed; which, considering what sort of cooking goes on in France, will probably be covered in some sort of heavy cream sauce.



Anonymous said...

Another contemporary reason to give props to notre amis francais is Prez "Babe for a Wife" Sarkozy not knuckling under to the commie unions in (gasp) raising the retirement age to 62!! Sacre bleu! 62?? I am to work until I am - how you say - an old man?
I'd vote for Edith Piaf to be in your French Pantheon. Great way with a song that comes through even though she sings in French.
Love you,

Tom said...

I love The Red Balloon. Its one of my favorite movies.