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« How Modern Painting Became A Secular Religion | Main | Froggytime 2 -- Frenchwomen »

May 10, 2004


Dear Friedrich --

I'm having another one of my Froggy moments -- a stretch when, without having consciously intended it, I find myself in the midst of a lot of French, or France-related, art and culture. I stumble into these episodes regularly. It's been more than 30 years since I spent a high-school year (and a college summer) in France, and lord knows I don't ever need to revisit that country. But I guess my stay had its effect.

Here are my current Froggy culture toys:

  • Pascal's great Pensees. Pascal makes the most plausible and attractive case for Christianity that I've ever read, er, heard (I'm going through the book on audiotape; it can be rented here). What's most fabulous about the book, IMHO, is the coexistence of Pascal's clear and mild writing style, the grace of his thought processes, and the man's deep convictions. Moving and beautiful.

  • Gilbert Adair's novel about Parisian cinephilia circa 1968, The Dreamers, which was kinda-sorta the basis for the recent Bertolucci movie that Turbokitty and I rapped about in this posting here. I like the book -- it's very smart and peculiar -- and will blog about it soon. I know there must be someone somewhere who's got some interest in this book and what I have to say about it. No? Yes?

  • I'm halfway through showing The Wife a Froggy movie I love, the cheerfully perverse gay chamber dramedy Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which Francois ("Swimming Pool") Ozon adapted from an early Fassbinder play. (I blogged about this movie when I first watched it here.) Those curious about the pleasures of le cinema francais could do a lot worse than order this beauty up from Netflix. It's got many of the French cinema's virtues: it's small and witty, spontaneous yet formal. Some tips for those just getting started. Pay attention to the framing choices Ozon makes: when and how characters move on and offscreen, and moments when inside-the-camera-frame frames (doorways, windows) are introduced. Watch the way Ozon orchestrates his simple yet intense color palette. It's based on eggshell blue and rust -- and doesn't that make the occasional intrusion of dull green and black super-eloquent? Marvel at the quality of light; young as he is, Ozon is a master at using light to bring out contrasts in textures, as well as the translucency of flesh. I was about to type something like "Mid-Americans queasy about seeing men kiss might want to take a pass" when it occurred to me that red-blooded he-men who dig the adorable and sensual Ludivine Sagnier will probably never find a better chance than "Water Drops" to enjoy her charms. Gay film that it is, it's also a sexily rewarding film for hetero hunks. Quel paradoxe!

  • I just finished Annie Ernaux's exquisite (or precious, depending on whether you like it or not, and I do), abstract/existential having-an-affair novel, er, text, Simple Passion (which is buyable here). Is it essay, memoir, fiction, or philosophy? Whatever it is, it's basically Marguerite Duras Lite -- tastey, stylish, and very, very short.

  • I've enjoyed Debra Olliviers' spunky, smart, fun and helpful Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. First-class fluff, and highly recommended for those who want to understand the French (and who find Adam Gopnik annoying). It's buyable here.

  • I'm partway through Georges Simenon's procedural Monsieur Monde Vanishes. I confess that the first few times I read Simenon, he left me cold and bewildered. The books seemed fumbling and skimpy. They were so ... so nothing. Then I gave him one final try, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- I got hooked by the nothingness. The making-it-up-as-he-goes-along quality of his books now strikes me as fascinating on-the-page drama. Nothing seems to stop Simenon from typing on: not lack of content, not imaginative exhaustion, nothing. Will his invention catch up to his typing fingers? It's an odd kind of suspense, but it's genuine nonetheless. I now consider Simenon a unique giant (of a sophisticated-primitive sort), and his books among the most peculiar and enjoyable lit artifacts I know of. Note: I'd never claim they're great novels. No, they're sui generis something-or-others.

But for the moment -- thoroughly immersed as I am in Frogginess -- what I most want to scribble down are a few thoughts about the French generally. First things first: I'm happy to bitch about the French along with every other regular-guy American. Lordy, can they be annoying or what?

Now, have I established sufficient regular-guy credentials?

Because I also gotta be honest and admit that, for better or worse, I owe most of my interest in the arts to the French. I was kinda/sorta/dimly/cluelessly interested in the arts before visiting France, but it was in France that the arts came into focus for me. Heck, it was in France that language came into focus for me. I'd never given English much thought until I had a good, if ineffectual, wrestle with French. (I can still read and understand French pretty well, BTW. But you don't want to be in the same room with me these days when I try to speak French. Scarey!)

Another thing we populist-bloggers like to do is to praise something populist -- yo! real-people pleasures! -- and contrast it with something French. To praise "Speed," for instance, at the expense of pretentious arty crap, exemplified by teeny-tiny French films where all the characters do is smoke and talk. Remember that line about "My Night at Maud's": "It's like watching paint dry." Wasn't it spoken by Gene Hackman's character in "Night Moves"?

However much I'd like to share that particular "yo!" with everyone else, I can't. I liked "Speed" a lot. But if I never see another action-adventure or sci-fi film, that'd be too soon for me. I wouldn't, though, want to have to do without small French movies -- especially the ones that are full of good French actresses. (I tend to find French men rather ridiculous.) I'm seldom happier than I am at a movie that consists of cafe chatter, weekends in the country, and seductive philosophical nonsense. Despairing/rhapsodic (and preferably kinky) sex is always appreciated too; these being French films, such sex is seldom in short supply.

Hey, some good-enough recent small French flix: Venus Beauty Institute; Isabelle Huppert in The School of Flesh; and Nathalie Baye -- who'd have thought it? -- in Une Affaire Pornographique. Those with stronger stomachs might want to risk the horrifying Irreversible too. (I blogged about "Irreversible" here.)

Set a small French film on the beach or in the South of France, add a murder or two -- I'm thinkin' One Deadly Summer or Year of the Jellyfish -- and I'll not only see this film twice in a theater; I'll watch it a half a dozen times on video, and then buy a copy for the joy of keeping it on my DVD shelf.

OK, blush, shucks: I admit it. The French art/porn novella (or film) of philosophy, sex, and despair is my very favorite narrative genre of all. Bring more such on!

I suspect that the reason why France had such an impact on me and my tastes is simple: it's because Culture and Pleasure are such big things for the French. They're subjects that aren't kept under Puritanical wraps; instead, they're constantly out there, acknowledged, discussed, pursued, and relished. In many ways, there's (or at least there was back in my time) a cultural consensus that art (conceived of in a rather strict sense) and pleasure (conceived of in a very broad sense) are the points of life.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with a wide range of French people -- some rich ones, some middle-class ones, and some poor and working-class ones. And it was striking how similar their convictions about Culture were, and how similar their ideas of Pleasure were too. The Good Life? Coffee, wine, cheese; sparkling cities; good cars; witty conversation, flirtation, fashion; travel and time in the country; picnics; film and lit; and especially food and l'amour ... Rich or poor, all the French people I encountered shared the same taste-set. They worked with different budgets -- and the Frenchpeople I knew were all really, really tight with a franc. But you didn't deny yourself the pleasures. What would be the point of doing such a thing? Work was important, money was important -- but far more important was having some perspective on these banal concerns. (I recall that even discussing work past a certain point was frowned on.) Living well (l'art de vivre), on the other hand -- ah, now that's what it's all about.

This approach to life came as a shock to a hayseed-ish teenage boy from the vanilla American provinces. It came as an affront, even. I mean, Gosh, how about ... well, "fun"? Which, being in France, I was now forced to think of as "fun, in the American sense." The French were so rigid, so uptight, so traditional, so set in their ways. Yet ... Well, darn it, they certainly seemed to get a lot out of their lives.

I looked back on America -- so full of freedom, wide-open spaces, opportunities, and goofy cultural products -- and it now seemed to me to be full of people flailing about, looking for guidance, and crazy with confusion and cluelessness: "I'm free, I've got some money and a nice car and a shopping mall nearby. So why am I jittery, tense, and fat?" Even today, Americans seem to me to lurch from short-lived enthusiasm to short-lived enthusiasm. And we're so (pleasingly, hilariously, tragically) literal and earnest.

The French, on the other hand, were seldom frantic: the spiritual-aesthetic-sensual flailing-about that's such a standard part of the American scene was barely visible at all in France. I witnessed no nervous eating and very little American-style "addictive" behavior of any kind. Even the drunks seemed to be acting the way they did because they were freely chosing to. The French seemed, in other words, to connect to something-or-other that settles and pleases. Life may be going well or going poorly; we often have no control of such things. But life for the French was always a deep and rich thing, and always to be experienced soulfully. (Not that the French are a tribe of enlightened Tibetan lamas, by the way -- anything but.)

It occurs to me that we might as well admit that one reason the French irk us so much is that they genuinely are onto something. If we Anglos feel looked-down on by the Froggies, it's partly because they're so annoyingly snobbish, sure. And, y'know, screw 'em for that. But why not allow too as to how they're onto something worthwhile that we're clueless about?

I blogged long ago about the French here. A few more thoughts have occurred to me since, which I'm thrilled to bore you with now. So here they are:

    Michael Blowhard's EZ, Out-of-Date, and Wildly-Overgeneral Four-Step Program for Understanding the French.

  • Understand that "Being French" is the whole point of being French. The key to understanding the French, IMHO, is understanding how rewarding the French find "Being French" to be. Hard though it is for an American to believe, the French wake up in the morning and look forward to a full day's-worth of Being French. They go through the day Being French with great relish. They re-charge at night so that they can spend the following day Being French.

    In a posting a while ago, I asked, "Given that French culture is much more traditional and rigid than American culture is, why hasn't feminism become in France anything like the force it is in the States?" I've come to think that the answer is: because Frenchwomen enjoy Being Frenchwomen. They don't have the same cosmic complaints about their fate that some American women have. Perhaps action needs to be taken to open up the job market -- fine, then let us take such action. But no one is going to stop a Frenchwoman from enjoying the god-given pleasure of Being a Frenchwoman. Which, of course, includes the pleasure of men -- the whole French rigmarole of affairs, of heartbreak and yearning, of wearing boots and makeup, of exploring one's sensuality, and of giving oneself over to higher forces of eroticism. Being a Frenchwoman may be a strict vocation, but it delivers. It delivers spiritual rewards, sensual rewards, funky rewards. It's an endlessly fascinating and rewarding fate. Frenchwomen look with pity on American women, whom they see as missing the point of being a woman (let alone being alive) entirely.

  • The French are onto something worthy of respect, and it's called pleasure. They're virtuosos of a certain kind of pleasure. And, OK, it's not the world's only form of pleasure, and it ain't the pinnacle of all civilization, as the French seem to enjoy imagining. But it's still an impressive thing. The French are very good at maximizing what I like to think of as life-is-worth-living units. That's partly where their famous air of self-satisfaction comes from -- they're doing pretty well for themselves in the life-is-worth-living sweepstakes.

    What's the nature of French pleasure? For one thing, it's of course famously sensual. And it certainly has a distinctive character. French pleasure has a lot to do with experiences that are both simple yet dolled-up, refined yet earthy, spare yet opulent, precise yet complex. You use high-quality ingrediants; you distill them to an intense essence; you make big, bold, simple-seeming choices; and you always keep your flavors clean and distinct.

    As this list of adjectives suggests, the French pleasure-science also has to do with a love for -- or at least an appreciation of -- contradictions and paradoxes. (It can also seem quite cold-blooded and cruel -- think foie gras.) Americans aren't great with contradictions. We want life to make sense, and behave. So we rush to "resolve" contradictions -- so we can thereby get on with ... well, what? Er, having fun, I guess. Or maybe working, or getting ahead. (Subject for future blog posting: the American religion of having fun, working, and getting ahead.)

    The French response to paradox and contradiction is ... curiosity. The Frenchperson will take note of a contradiction as if of something ... interesting. And perhaps, if the moment is propitious, he or she will take the time to sink into the lusciousness of the swirling mixed-up nature of Being itself, there to savor its unique and fleeting qualities. What is this rush to "resolve"? To resolve what? Life itself? Mais non! Life is not to be resolved! It is to be lived!

    Incredibly codified though their way of life is, it pays off. Frenchpeople move more slowly than Americans do. They deliberate more carefully. And they're more prone than we are to judge and act according to personal and aesthetic criteria. One of the more widely-noticed qualities about French culture is its openness to a wide variety of feminine beauty. How odd we are in America, non? So much freedom -- yet American women and girls all seem to aspire to a tiny number of models of attractiveness. (I remember being struck, during a week in Vegas, by how many fab women were there -- but also by how almost every one of them was doing her best to look like the same archetypal expensive hooker.) France? They're into finding and enjoying the unique qualities une femme already has. Define beauty for yourself! Relish a woman's actual perfume! Hey, gals, here's a classic old French beauty tip: take the feature you are most ill at ease about and don't conceal it: emphasize it instead. Wear your uniqueness proudly.

  • The French aren't afraid of personal preference. They revel in it, actually. The French ego is quite a sight to behold. The next time you're among some Frenchies, take note of how often they begin sentences with "Moi, je ... ("Me, I ...") While I can't take Descartes terribly seriously as a philosopher, I do find his thinking enlighteningly symptomatic of the French character. "I think, therefore I am" -- who but a Frenchman would ever dream of formulating such a sentence? "Moi, je, moi, je ...." (I'd never dare.) Attached as they are to their egos, the French sometimes rise up like peacocks, and sometimes fall into catatonic despair. But a Frenchperson's ego is always at the center of his or her thoughts. Downside: good lord, can't they turn it off? Upside: well, they do take the trouble to create interesting selves.

    Personally, I find this ego-trumpeting annoying and horrifying. But I've also learned to marvel at it and enjoy it too. For all our individualism, we Americans can be terribly meek about asserting our deep preferences. We seem to think of our tastes not as expressions of who and what we are on the deepest level, but as mere personality-ornaments. So we often capitulate where matters of beauty and pleasure are concerned.

    We let economics make a lot of our decisions, for instance. Perhaps that's a function of the American Dream. We strain at the bit; we want to get ahead, and we demand value for our money. An example: did you happen to read the comments on my posting about Timothy Taylor's immigration facts? Smart, good-hearted, interesting, etc. But also very American. Why? Because the point of my posting was that Timothy Taylor -- who is as non-partisan and well-meaning an intelligent economist as you could hope for -- concluded that, economically, the question of high-or-low immigration rates was a wash. According to Taylor-the-economist, immigration policy has to be arrived at on bases that are other than economic. Yet the conversation in the Comments turned quickly into a debate about the economics of immigration rates. Amazing: even when a decision can't be based on economic/efficiency factors, we still seem to feel compelled to look to those factors not just for guidance but for answers.

    There's also the question of different codes, different sets of rules, different modes of behavior. We Americans don't seem to shift gears very easily. Biz people often bring what works for them at the office into their political attitudes, even into their behavior at home. Many lefties try to live out their political principles in their personal lives -- "the personal is the political" and all that. None of us seem to know how to conduct a love affair.

    Maybe as a consequence, many Americans lurch back and forth between letting efficiency dictate our choices and going on irrational buying-and-spending binges. We buy the house with the most square feet for the bucks, then wonder why it never quite feels like home. (And we quickly resolve the problem by deciding that our decision will prove its worth when we trade up. We never quite get where we think we want to go, do we?) We buy junk food in bulk, then wonder why we have trouble keeping the fat off. Inevitably, we make vows to get control of our lives. We throw out our nonsense possessions and put ourselves on a diet -- only to wind up deeper in debt, more confused and fatter than we were. Then we console ourselves with more of the same.

    Why do we so often behave our way into these predicaments? I sometimes wonder if it's because we're afraid of letting go of our aspirations. Many Americans hold on with amazing tenacity to their dreams of fame, wealth, etc. Perhaps they fear that letting go of the striving, if only for a few minutes, would doom them to failure; maybe they fear they'd miss their one chance at the jackpot. At other times I think that the reason is simply that we're clueless. Perhaps we just don't know better. We have our one way of doing things, and we have nothing else to fall back on. Your thoughts here?

    Anyway: the French as I knew them had no such difficulties. The Frenchperson considers him/herself quite the interesting and unique creature. Necessarily so -- being interesting is a part of Being French! So his or her choices need to live up to this conception. The thought of basing a personal choice on anything but distinctive personal preference? Degrading. Absurd. Anglo-Saxon. Le style est l'homme meme!

    So, for a Froggy, it's not just OK to shift gears occasionally; it's compulsory. (It follows that it's also compusory to develop an interesting set of tastes. Hence the importance in French life of aesthetics, a subject all Froggies seem to consider themselves specialists in. Pleasure, after all, is another field that has its own set of rules.) What works for family may not be the right approach for business. What works for efficiency may make no sense where art is concerned. It's up to moi to put it together as je see fit: Moi, je ... [Fill in the blank: adore table tennis, want to live in an old house, find fulfillment weeping over a lost love ...]

    Does this mean that a Froggy self morphs po-mo-style from moment to moment and from situation to situation? Certainement pas -- the bulletproof French ego sees the Frenchperson through all such situations. Why abandon the self? Why attempt to conform? No, it just seems to be a fact that the French self is such a confident, glorious thing that it refuses be defined by one simple set of rules. One set of rules? Childish. Naive. Life is not like that.

  • Don't take French philosophy seriously. This bears repeating in slightly different form:


    It can help to ask what the social function of doing philosophy is. In the Anglo world, we tend to think of philosophy as a field of intellectual inquiry rather like science or economics. It's a pursuit of the Truth that might, with luck, throw off some practical benefits.

    Philosophy in France plays a very different role. With a couple of great exceptions (Montaigne, Pascal), French philosophy is, IMHO, best understood as a cross between a hyperrefined entertainment form, and an industry for the supplying of fodder for cafe-and-flirtation chatter. Take French philosophy straight and you're likely to wind up doing something stupid like destroying a department of English, or maybe even ruining your own life.

    The French would never make such a mistake; after all, nothing -- not even philosophy -- can distract them from the pursuit of Being French. In fact, part of Being French is enjoying phillosophical chitchat, the more fashionable the better. We may not have much patience with it, but the French love the spectacle of radical posturing. We tend to engage with the substance of a radical position. For the French, the attitudinizing is the point. It adds spice to life; it's sexy intellectual titillation, akin to leafing through a provocative fashion magazine. That strange, nonsensical combo of rhapsodizing, fantasizing, and the stirring-up of logical pirouettes? All the French do it -- it's like a national sport, or a much-loved form of performance art. Eh bien: and with what exactly do you fill up chat time at the cafe, with friends, or in the boudoir?

    French philosophy? Well, it gives the French something sophisticated-seeming to say (and to gab about) as they go about the genuinely serious business of Being French.

Open secret: while we love explanations, the French don't. The English, for instance, have a great tradition of explaining subjects for the educated general audience. The French have no such thing. The French love savoring life, and since there's no real explanation for what's inevitably experiential, they disdain the very idea of explanation. Tch! One simply experiences! And one simply knows!

(Incidentally, do you giggle as much as I do over how seriously some American academics take contempo French philosophy? American academics: the ultimate suckers.)

Ask a Frenchperson once too often for an explanation and you're liable to wind up with a lot of French philosophy all over you. And a French-philosophy mess can take hours to clean up.



UPDATE: Thanks to Tatyana, who points out this good/smart/fun/informative posting-plus-commentsfest on the theme of "what's great about the French" over at Brian's Culture Blog, here.

posted by Michael at May 10, 2004


Very nice. Two things: it's hard for me to imagine Montaigne otherwise than as a a cross between a hyperrefined entertainment form, and an industry for the supplying of fodder for cafe-and-flirtation chatter, though he's no doubt the best there has ever been at that form. That's a little smaller than this objection (to your statement that while we love explanations, the French don't): that there is a whole series of small French paperbacks called (speaking of Montaigne) Que sais-je?, and it has volumes dealing with all topics under the sun, from quantum physics to linguistics to Islamic architecture, and they're all exactly 128 pages and clearly, interstingly written, just right for popular dissemination of ideas. Can you think of anything similar for U.S. or U.K. readers? As far as I can tell, we're left to our own devices and the internet, which doesn't always supply our needs.

Thanks for the post though, it is quite a work.

Posted by: PF on May 11, 2004 03:13 AM

Je dois certainement étudier le français, car je serai un étudiant des mathématiques cette chute.

Ok, so I cheated and used some help with that one...but I will have to study french again (it's been what, over 11 years since I last spoke it?)

A mathmatician without French is a much more severe situation than, oh, a fish without a bicycle.

Much, much worse than that! :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 11, 2004 05:28 AM

Oh, I wish I were in Paris! The clear solution to our immigration problem is to admit many, many more Frenchmen. I like Chinatowns and Little Italys, but I'd really like a Little France in my town.

Posted by: Agricola on May 11, 2004 08:06 AM

With the frogs it's all about Le Style. If you've got it (and boy do they got it!) nothing else matters. You don't have to make sense. If you don't?! Down! All the way down! You are outre.
But it's a brittle way of life. Which brings me to Monsieur Monde Vanishes. If I remember it correctly it's about a member of the haute bourgeoise who decides to drop out, and flees his refined Paris arrondisment for the back alleys of Marseille. What Simenon conveys so strongly is the tremendous tiredness that had built up in this member of the haute bourgeoise club. The front that he had had to keep up all those years. The relief at joining the gutter world. So maybe that's the cost of all that Le Style.

Posted by: ricpic on May 11, 2004 08:25 AM

I only spent time in college in three French places: Paris and Aix en Provence and Nice. I had one of the funnest single dinners with several classmates of mine in an all-you-can-eat place on the Left Bank---and, trust me, this was NOTHING like all-you-can-eat in the U.S.--it was absolutely delicious and accompanied by wine every step of the way. Too bad I can't remember the name. I found that thinking about "style"---and discovering some of it---was just inevitable. Both Paris and Aix are just beautiful, you can't be unaware of beauty there. And beauty is fun and pleasurable. And feeling fun and pleasurable makes you start looking at your haircut. (It does--trust me). And then you walk off the beach in Nice and point to the picture where she has the big swirl of bangs over her eyes and say--can I get that? It just happens. The best part of beauty---and I mean beautiful flowers, beautiful buildings and streets, not just "beautiful people"--is that it stimulates so many other good feelings. In fact, for me, speaking so little French, the people were beside the point. The streets and the pastries, and, yes, the Eiffel Tower, were the zip.

Posted by: annette on May 11, 2004 09:19 AM

I only spent time in college in three French places: Paris and Aix en Provence and Nice. I had one of the funnest single dinners with several classmates of mine in an all-you-can-eat place on the Left Bank---and, trust me, this was NOTHING like all-you-can-eat in the U.S.--it was absolutely delicious and accompanied by wine every step of the way. Too bad I can't remember the name. I found that thinking about "style"---and discovering some of it---was just inevitable. Both Paris and Aix are just beautiful, you can't be unaware of beauty there. And beauty is fun and pleasurable. And feeling fun and pleasurable makes you start looking at your haircut. (It does--trust me). And then you walk off the beach in Nice and point to the picture where she has the big swirl of bangs over her eyes and say--can I get that? It just happens. The best part of beauty---and I mean beautiful flowers, beautiful buildings and streets, not just "beautiful people"--is that it stimulates so many other good feelings. In fact, for me, speaking so little French, the people were beside the point. The streets and the pastries, and, yes, the Eiffel Tower, were the zip.

Posted by: annette on May 11, 2004 09:19 AM

I'm about to dash off to work, and will read your interesting-looking post as soon as I can.

But first--fortunate you!! A whole year in the Hexagon!

Would you mind telling us where you stayed? Partly in Paris no doubt, but anywhere else?

(I usually spend a few days in Paris, then rent a car and head for the rest of the country. Alas, I only have a so-so reading knowledge of the language and miss a lot of what you might have picked up by speaking and undertanding it.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 11, 2004 09:35 AM

Thanks very much for the post - very elegant and arguably quite French itself.
What you wrote about the French attitude reminds me of Harold Bloom's saying: 'there is no Truth. There is only the Self.' FWIW I found a similar attitude in Italy. Or maybe that's only my Anglo-Saxon take on them and they are ultimately mysterious.
Don't you think that you might be underplaying the cynicism that comes with it all, though? In Candide Voltaire describes a character who has everything but finds all pleasure empty.
Annette's conclusion - love France, indifferent towards the French - is one that a lot of English travellers have also come to.

Posted by: Steve Kingston on May 11, 2004 09:40 AM

I'm suprised you didn't mention Francoise Sagan, who, I believe published her first (and quite controversial, for the time) novel, "Bonjour, Tristesse", which, I believe, was published the year Colette died. Sagan introduced us to the sensual delights of the South-Of-France before Eric Rohmer did. Ah, smell those ocean breezes! Delight in admiring those scantily-clad young beach girls!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on May 11, 2004 01:25 PM

Quel Coincidence! Just an hour ago I read this in a piece about video game journalists at a trade show, by Tim Rodgers:

In the little arcade in Little Tokyo’s rotting Mitsuwa Plaza, I saw three French game journalists watching a fourth French game journalist who was beating the hell out of a Taiko no Tatsujin machine. He was beating that drum with absolutely no rhythm. He was beating it with the biggest grin on his face. He was also beating the wrong drum. He’d put the credit into the second-player slot. He was supposed to be beating the drum on the right. It took him until near the end of the song to switch over to the other drum. One of his buddies had to look at the screen, and tell him, hey, you’re not doing anything in the game; you’re just listening to music and hitting a drum that makes no sound.

Seems tangentially significant, no?

Posted by: Nate on May 11, 2004 01:52 PM

All of the above in your original article(except philosophy chapter); and the exception has to do, in my opinion, with one more characteristic quality I'd like to add: perfectionism. But than the term is understood - and practised- differently with French.
Striving to perfection is a process for French, and is enjoyed along the way, resulting in - often justly- self-congratulation on the result, whereas for Americans the process is prosaic vehicle for glorious result (which is often associated with reward) and has to be speed up thru with utmost efficiency. I think that's why French writers and philosophers polish their thoughts and sentences to the most economic and brilliant form: they enjoy the process of turning hard rock into diamond as much as the diamond itself.

I had a classmate in my rendering class, a French women older than me and with no prior painting experience (and I was typically the oldest in my design school classes, FIT being my second full college) and her "aquarelles" were usually the best in class (and we had majority of very patient Chinese and Korean students). Every time she finished particularly difficult and precise distinction of colors she complemented herself in quarter tones, which amused me to no end at the time.
BTW, in this old thread there are more interesting opinions/variations on the topic. (I hope Brian wouldn't mind)

Posted by: Tatyana on May 11, 2004 01:59 PM

So does this entire "being French" is-ness extend to Quebec also?

Much of what has been complained about America in this France/America compare/constrast seems to come from the Puritan work-ethic, which is the basis of the American Dream. France doesn't suffer from the same kind of get-ahead stress we do because they never had to suffer under Puritanism. I may not be completely knowledgeable about my French history or French Protestantism, but it seems like they didn't have much of that hogwash, as if they just abandonned Catholicism along with the monarchy and just never picked it up again in ernest. Lucky bastards.

Posted by: Sam on May 11, 2004 05:25 PM

Okay, I'm back from work and I read the post: fascinating.

I find particularly intriguing the idea that the French do not take philisophes and their ideas as seriously as we "bifstek" types usually think.

On the other hand, the French can get serious about business and technology if they put their minds to it. France was world leader in automobile technology from the early 1890s till maybe the Great War. Ditto aviation from around 1908 well into the war.

More recently we have the example of Avions Marcel Dassault, which developed world-class combat aircraft on unusually fast timelines and a small engineering staff beginning in the late 1940s.

Could it be that they are something like the English, accomplishing serious things without giving the appearance of expending a lot of effort?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 11, 2004 07:54 PM

PF -- Thanks, and thanks for pointing out the "Que Sais-Je" series. Does it really explain things? As I knew 'em, the French had an amazing knack for clarity of presentation (at least where some things were concerned. But the clarity didn't seem to have anything to do with explanation. Still, I haven't known the place for years and years and maybe they're changing. But yeah, explanation does seem to be a big characteristics, at least of the Brit and American publishing worlds. Quite striking, the prevalance of series like the DK imprint in England, or the "For Dummies" series in America. We seem to love having things explained for us. Any idea why? Are we enthusiastic lifelong learners? Do we fantasize about transforming our lives? On the other hand, why are the French less crazy than we are about having things explained for them?

David -- Do math jocks really need French that badly? And explain very, very slowly -- I'm math-impaired (and even math-history-impaired) to the max.

Agricola -- A little Paris sounds pretty nice. They'd show us lots of worthwhile things about food, boutiques, style, cafes .... A lot of American cities could use such a neighborhood!

Ricpic -- 'It doesn't have to make sense," you write, and that's so key. What's a little sense, when you've got wine, l'amour, and style? Like you, I find a lot of French life pretty grim, and Simenon's certainly fabulous at suggesting what it's like. Much as I admired (and would like to think I learned from) their pleasure ethic, boy did a lot of how they lived not appeal. Authoritarian and just plain unkind in ways that'd be considered scandalous in the States, for one thing.

Annette -- That's a great evocation of what it's like being there, and how it affects many people, thanks. It seems to open many people's senses and pleasure centers, doesn't it? And that can be hard to explain to people who haven't had the experience. Whoops, there's that "explanation" thing again ...

Steve -- Yeah, it's often too bad about the French. They can be such a drag that you wind up wondering how they ever managed to create such gorgeous places and towns (and art and cuisine, etc). I did love the mini taste I got of life circa 1972 in Provence, though. Warm, lovely people, half Italian-seeming, half-French seeming. I wonder sometimes why I never made a serious try to wind up living there. I wonder too whether it bears any resemblance these days to what it was like 30 years ago.

Michael S. -- Good to see you again! And yeah, Sagan was a real icon, wasn't she? At least for Americans learning about France, and French-style pleasure. We had a lot to learn from the French in those years. Funny how young people don't look to the French any more. Any idea why? Is it because we've become so much more sexually open than we once were? Although, as I'd guess you and I would agree, although we do aggressive "sexiness" nonstop these days, we still seem to miss the point of real eroticism ...

Nate -- That's hilarious, thanks. And it reminds me of how bad French pop music can be -- just about the worst, although I know hipsters love to love ye-ye music in their semi-ironic way. You've got me remembering a few parties I attended there. At the time, and where I was (Brittany), the French kids were all dancing twirly-"Grease"-style couples dancing. Even I picked up a few of the moves, which was lots of fun. It was striking how badly most of the guys danced, where a fair number of the girls really moved pretty well. I suppose that's always the case, though I wonder if it might not be the case that French guys have an especially lousy sense of rhythm. And of course I always cut girls more slack -- they're just be definition more fun and more charming to watch.

Tatyana -- What a neat picture of your French classmate. Perfectionism as a process -- that's a nifty way to charaterize it too. And a love of precision, no? That Ozon movie I was describing is a real miracle of precision -- one hyper-precise moment after another, with all the emotions (many of them super-complex) put on display like jewels ...

Sam -- I wish I knew Quebec! Certainly a lot of Canada seems to think of Montreal as a sophisticated, Gallic city -- but already I'm over my head and should shut up. I did read a few French-Canadian novels, which seemed eager to spell out just how miserable French-Canadian life could be. And French Catholicism as I knew it in Brittany in the '70s really was a tight, chilly thing. They didn't have Puritanism. But they did have guilt. I remember a poster that was slapped everywhere. It showed a starving Biafran (I believe) child, and the headline/caption was something like, "How can you be happy so long as a single child is dying of hunger?" Never saw any such thing in the States, that's for sure. But at 50, raised a Protestant, I feel like I'm just beginning to understand guilt, whether of the Catholic or Jewish variety. My wife, raised a Catholic, doesn't believe me when I tell her I have no instinctive sense of (or experience of) guilt, but it's true. Now shame -- shame I know quite well ...

Donald -- Where do you get in France? And are you a regular visitor? I've only been back a few times since my student years -- never felt the need, really, though I should stop grandstanding and start thinking about it again. Did French art (or at least the French way of thinking about art) have much of an effect on you? And how do the French manage to get anything done, fixated as they are on coffee, chitchat, etc? It's a puzzle.

FWIW, a friend in Paris tells me that as far as she can tell the French have pretty much tossed a lot of French traditions. Mothers no longer raise daughters who know instinctively how to cook, for instance. My friend's theory is that the French have stopped being French, and are now simply Americans who are 20 years behind actual Americans. I hope it's not true...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2004 10:55 PM

Michael, well, depends...but there is a lot of hard core original math that's been written in French. How the hell else, for one example, could one follow Poincaré? Mandelbrot?

But it's not needed, German or Latin would get you a bunch of primary sources in math too. But my areas of interest have many French authors.

Sure, the equations will be the same regardless of the language of the text around and in between them...but that doesn't mean you'll always be able to follow what they're doing that allows the next step without the commentary.

Fortunately for my minor in quantum physics, almost all of the German physicists wrote in English (woot!)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 12, 2004 02:21 AM

It's not just their philosophers that French people don't take as seriously as we do. It's their politicians and their government as well.

When we are paying attention (which is not very often) they support their government, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to spite us. When we are not looking, which is most of the time, they are more disgusted with their government than we are with ours. More disgusted because in their case they are stuck with it (the elite rules in France and the alternation of the main parties means next to nothing at all).

The village I used to live in near Aix consistently elected a communist mayor - the sole reason for doing so was to give the finger to both of the main political parties.

Posted by: JK on May 12, 2004 11:26 AM

"I suppose that's always the case, though I wonder if it might not be the case that French guys have an especially lousy sense of rhythm."

Hmmm, I thought French men were supposed to be great lovers?

You also mentioned that mothers no longer raise daughters who know instinctively how to cook. Since when did anyone ever know "instinctively" how to cook?

Posted by: annette on May 12, 2004 12:40 PM

Annette, apparently, this trend is not hot news in France, hence- The Jacques Papin'Cooking Show, where every episode is scripted around the Great Jacques correcting his sloppy daughter mistakes (who by this time and at the ripe age of 35 should know the dried pasta goes into BOILING water - at the very least)... Even though the show's American, the trend is French.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 12, 2004 02:28 PM

You could substitute "French" with "Texan," "Mexican," "Californian," or, come to think of it, just about any other distinctive type of woman, and with only a few adjustments all of the four steps would apply. They are all enthusiastically happy to be from where they're from, all proud of what makes their culture distinctive, all into the subtle idiosyncracies of their forms of pleasure, style, personal preferences, and none of them take French philosophers seriously. The four-step program is more a description of pride in one's culture, the in-groups and the out-groups, with a focus on what we men notice from the outside: the sauciness of the women among them who are beautiful.

Posted by: froth on May 12, 2004 06:19 PM

When comparing culture in France and the USA I thought about differences in economic security and cultural history and their affect on social mores. USA was settled by people seeking material prosperity and religious freedom. If you live here now and you are not pursuing wealth or involved with church you better enjoy your crappy job and sports/sitcoms because there isn’t much else happening (unless you have very successful, established parents). There is still a frontier-settler mentality in America where everyone will pull together if they have to but otherwise we keep our distance. This is a response to the diversity which is part of our heritage. We handle diversity much better than the French though at the expense of a broad culture that connects everyone. My impression is that the French also benefit from a nanny state that serves as a rich parent backing everyone up. So yes, put together the settled nanny state and the lack of diversity and you can field deep cultural traditions. And from this firmer ground you can take extravagant philosophy/sexual forays without the same risks of losing your footing.

“Puritanical wraps” can be very functional for getting ahead in America and may also be the reason some our forefathers got driven out of France in the first place. In some ways we are still pioneers in a big country, developing new land and settling in. As a sensually-aware person I get sick of the bottom line mentality of our fastfood economic culture. It seems like there was a time Americans were more self-conscious in comparing themselves to beautiful European standards. Then sometime between WWI and WWII we seemed to lose our interest in European culture and our appearance to Europe. Now it's all about the money and things we have that they don't. There was still some cultural cross-over with the Beatles and New Wave but now it seems like we are totally separate. Wasn't that the point of multiculturalism, to destroy our ties with Europe? Can you imagine multiculturalism being taught in French schools?

Michael, for your French files here is a post exploding the common belief that the French are not fighters (just lovers):

Posted by: Mr Chips on May 15, 2004 06:31 PM

Froth -- That's true. And Texan and Californian women do have that kind of pizazz too, don't they.

Mr. Chips -- What a brilliant analysis/evocation/whatever. Many thanks for it, as well as for the link.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2004 07:11 PM

I would have never even thought about it except for the BLOWHARDS. Vous êtes trop provocateur.

Posted by: Mr Chips on May 16, 2004 01:36 PM

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