So says the British writer Lucy Wadham, taking on a series of recent self-help books extolling the supposed virtues of French women:
Why has this publishing trend emerged over the past decade? Why, at a moment when French culture and ideas have never felt less influential in the world, are we being told to look to France for the answers to all our ills? Clearly, France, in our collective imagination, has become a nostalgic parody of itself. At the same time the French, all these writers agree, seem to have retained something that we’ve lost: a relatively healthy relationship to food, to our children, and to the opposite sex.
“A nostalgic parody of itself.” The line makes me think that we Americans want Paris to be the Paris of Hemingway and of Amélie. You can find that Paris, sort of. Well, not so much the Hemingway, but still, if you go there and if you squint, you can find it. It’s easier, I think, to find that than to find the Britain of Tolkien, Lewis, and the Inklings, which is what so many American Christians want to find. I remember reading Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy in my early 20s, the passages about how he and his young wife would host salons in their small Oxford apartment with C.S. Lewis and their Christian circle, sitting by the glowing hearth, talking about books. I thought, “That is the life!” The last time I was in Britain, I found myself in a small group of British Christians, who remarked that a certain kind of American Christian is always shocked to find that the Inklings’ Britain is no more.
Why do we seem to require these icons? Foreigners have them of us Americans too. Marlboro has sold billions of cigarettes with the American West icon, the Marlboro Man. I hold the French up as a lifestyle icon precisely because I admire their relationship to food, family, place, and pleasure (and I’m not at all talking about hedonism). The French, in ways that are important to me, know how to live the good life. From this side of the ocean, it’s easy to cherry-pick what I like about France, because I don’t have to endure the down side of French culture. I need France to be there — well, a certain idea of France — because I need to believe that it is possible to live well in those ways, no matter where you are, if you have the right ideals and intentions.
I have the same idea about Southern culture, and upheld it when I lived in the North, because that is the way things are done. Anyway, more Wadham:
Anthropologists often distinguish between what they term “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” Britain and America, according to this division, are predominantly guilt cultures while France is a shame culture, still steeped in notions of pride and honour. These ideals override those of truth-telling and transparency. In shame cultures, appearances are all-important (this might explain the elegant but highly conformist style and rigorous dress code so admired in French women) and there are dos and don’ts that serve as effective regulators and explain, perhaps, the relative ease with which French parents continue to bring up their children. You’ll often hear them simply telling their offspring that something (like throwing food) simply isn’t done: Ça se fait pas). Both parent and child internalise these norms and feel reassured by them.
By contrast, Britain and America’s Protestant heritage emphasises the individual’s conscience over the code. Social control is achieved, not through norms of behaviour but through the feelings of guilt triggered by an act of transgression. The internal policing inherent in our culture means that pleasure can easily become a trap. This explains the guilt that seems increasingly to surround certain foods. In America in particular, the excessive emphasis on diet has turned the eating of fatty foods—which French girls supposedly love—into a sin.
Down South, we are much more about the Code than are other Americans. I think this is probably less so today than it used to be, but it’s still there, and you can feel it in daily life. I’ve mentioned on this blog many times how difficult it is for me to hear a child address an adult by his or her first name, or to hear them speak to an adult in the same casual manner with which they address other children. Manners are morals here. This was how the Code was drilled into me, and brother, it is deep. Je ne regrette rien.
Many non-Southerners are often impressed by the beautiful manners Southern children have. But you can’t get those manners without also absorbing a certain hierarchical view of the world (it’s a hierarchy based not on social status, but of age; a child from a wealthy family had better address an adult from a poor family with the same yes-sir, yes-ma’am respect that he would use for his own parents). This is unacceptable to non-Southerners. Similarly, it seems that you can’t get that French woman mystique without also accepting certain ways of seeing the world and living in it — I’m talking about gender roles — that are unacceptable to most contemporary Anglo-Americans. It’s interesting to think about how modern egalitarianism and the social behaviors that emerge from it tend to flatten and drain everything. Edmund Burke, from Reflections On The Revolution In France:
The age of chivalry is gone. — That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold a generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, achieved defense of nations, the nurse of the manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness. . . .
But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland simulation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of her naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
We well know the problems with hierarchy, but why does egalitarianism produce so much ugliness and mediocrity? I think there’s an important distinction to be made, between harmony and uniformity. They are not the same thing.
Sorry, this post is all over the map. Sometimes these posts are the kitchen sink. You get what you pay for in these parts.
[H/T: Prufrock, to which you should subscribe (it’s free)]