Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 6: The Tone of France


Nobody now asks the question that so often, at the beginning of the
war, came to me from the other side of the world: "_What is France
like?"_ Every one knows what France has proved to be like: from
being a difficult problem she has long since become a luminous
instance.

Nevertheless, to those on whom that illumination has shone only from
far off, there may still be something to learn about its component
elements; for it has come to consist of many separate rays, and the
weary strain of the last year has been the spectroscope to decompose
them. From the very beginning, when one felt the effulgence as the
mere pale brightness before dawn, the attempt to define it was
irresistible. "There _is_ a tone--" the tingling sense of it was in
the air from the first days, the first hours--"but what does it
consist in? And just how is one aware of it?" In those days the
answer was comparatively easy. The tone of France after the
declaration of war was the white glow of dedication: a great
nation's collective impulse (since there is no English equivalent
for that winged word, _elan_ ) to resist destruction. But at that
time no one knew what the resistance was to cost, how long it would
have to last, what sacrifices, material and moral, it would
necessitate. And for the moment baser sentiments were silenced:
greed, self-interest, pusillanimity seemed to have been purged from
the race. The great sitting of the Chamber, that almost religious
celebration of defensive union, really expressed the opinion of the
whole people. It is fairly easy to soar to the empyrean when one is
carried on the wings of such an impulse, and when one does not know
how long one is to be kept suspended at the breathing-limit.

But there is a term to the flight of the most soaring _elan_. It is
likely, after a while, to come back broken-winged and resign itself
to barn-yard bounds. National judgments cannot remain for long above
individual feelings; and you cannot get a national "tone" out of
anything less than a whole nation. The really interesting thing,
therefore, was to see, as the war went on, and grew into a calamity
unheard of in human annals, how the French spirit would meet it, and
what virtues extract from it.

The war has been a calamity unheard of; but France has never been
afraid of the unheard of. No race has ever yet so audaciously
dispensed with old precedents; as none has ever so revered their
relics. It is a great strength to be able to walk without the
support of analogies; and France has always shown that strength in
times of crisis. The absorbing question, as the war went on, was to
discover how far down into the people this intellectual audacity
penetrated, how instinctive it had become, and how it would endure
the strain of prolonged inaction.

There was never much doubt about the army. When a warlike race has
an invader on its soil, the men holding back the invader can never
be said to be inactive. But behind the army were the waiting
millions to whom that long motionless line in the trenches might
gradually have become a mere condition of thought, an accepted
limitation to all sorts of activities and pleasures. The danger was
that such a war--static, dogged, uneventful--might gradually cramp
instead of enlarging the mood of the lookers-on. Conscription, of
course, was there to minimize this danger. Every one was sharing
alike in the glory and the woe. But the glory was not of a kind to
penetrate or dazzle. It requires more imagination to see the halo
around tenacity than around dash; and the French still cling to the
view that they are, so to speak, the patentees and proprietors of
dash, and much less at home with his dull drudge of a partner. So
there was reason to fear, in the long run, a gradual but
irresistible disintegration, not of public opinion, but of something
subtler and more fundamental: public sentiment. It was possible that
civilian France, while collectively seeming to remain at the same
height, might individually deteriorate and diminish in its attitude
toward the war.

The French would not be human, and therefore would not be
interesting, if one had not perceived in them occasional symptoms of
such a peril. There has not been a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman--save
a few harmless and perhaps nervous theorizers--who has wavered about
the military policy of the country; but there have naturally been
some who have found it less easy than they could have foreseen to
live up to the sacrifices it has necessitated. Of course there have
been such people: one would have had to postulate them if they had
not come within one's experience. There have been some to whom it
was harder than they imagined to give up a certain way of living, or
a certain kind of breakfast-roll; though the French, being
fundamentally temperate, are far less the slaves of the luxuries
they have invented than are the other races who have adopted these
luxuries.

There have been many more who found the sacrifice of personal
happiness--of all that made life livable, or one's country worth
fighting for--infinitely harder than the most apprehensive
imagination could have pictured. There have been mothers and widows
for whom a single grave, or the appearance of one name on the
missing list, has turned the whole conflict into an idiot's tale.
There have been many such; but there have apparently not been enough
to deflect by a hair's breadth the subtle current of public
sentiment; unless it is truer, as it is infinitely more inspiring,
to suppose that, of this company of blinded baffled sufferers,
almost all have had the strength to hide their despair and to say of
the great national effort which has lost most of its meaning to
them: "Though it slay me, yet will I trust in it." That is probably
the finest triumph of the tone of France: that its myriad fiery
currents flow from so many hearts made insensible by suffering, that
so many dead hands feed its undying lamp.

This does not in the least imply that resignation is the prevailing
note in the tone of France. The attitude of the French people, after
fourteen months of trial, is not one of submission to unparalleled
calamity. It is one of exaltation, energy, the hot resolve to
dominate the disaster. In all classes the feeling is the same: every
word and every act is based on the resolute ignoring of any
alternative to victory. The French people no more think of a
compromise than people would think of facing a flood or an
earthquake with a white flag.

Two questions are likely to be put to any observer of the struggle
who risks such assertions. What, one may be asked, are the proofs of
this national tone? And what conditions and qualities seem to
minister to it?

The proofs, now that "the tumult and the shouting dies," and
civilian life has dropped back into something like its usual
routine, are naturally less definable than at the outset. One of the
most evident is the spirit in which all kinds of privations are
accepted. No one who has come in contact with the work-people and
small shop-keepers of Paris in the last year can fail to be struck
by the extreme dignity and grace with which doing without things is
practised. The Frenchwoman leaning in the door of her empty
_boutique_ still wears the smile with which she used to calm the
impatience of crowding shoppers. The seam-stress living on the
meagre pay of a charity work-room gives her day's sewing as
faithfully as if she were working for full wages in a fashionable
_atelier_, and never tries, by the least hint of private
difficulties, to extract additional help. The habitual cheerfulness
of the Parisian workwoman rises, in moments of sorrow, to the finest
fortitude. In a work-room where many women have been employed since
the beginning of the war, a young girl of sixteen heard late one
afternoon that her only brother had been killed. She had a moment of
desperate distress; but there was a big family to be helped by her
small earnings, and the next morning punctually she was back at
work. In this same work-room the women have one half-holiday in the
week, without reduction of pay; yet if an order has to be rushed
through for a hospital they give up that one afternoon as gaily as
if they were doing it for their pleasure. But if any one who has
lived for the last year among the workers and small tradesmen of
Paris should begin to cite instances of endurance, self-denial and
secret charity, the list would have no end. The essential of it all
is the spirit in which these acts are accomplished.

The second question: What are the conditions and qualities that have
produced such results? is less easy to answer. The door is so
largely open to conjecture that every explanation must depend
largely on the answerer's personal bias. But one thing is certain.
France has not achieved her present tone by the sacrifice of any of
her national traits, but rather by their extreme keying up;
therefore the surest way of finding a clue to that tone is to try to
single out whatever distinctively "French" characteristics--or those
that appear such to the envious alien--have a direct bearing on the
present attitude of France. Which (one must ask) of all their
multiple gifts most help the French today to be what they are in
just the way they are?

_Intelligence!_ is the first and instantaneous answer. Many French
people seem unaware of this. They are sincerely persuaded that the
curbing of their critical activity has been one of the most
important and useful results of the war. One is told that, in a
spirit of patriotism, this fault-finding people has learned not to
find fault. Nothing could be more untrue. The French, when they have
a grievance, do not air it in the _Times:_ their forum is the cafe
and not the newspaper. But in the cafe they are talking as freely as
ever, discriminating as keenly and judging as passionately. The
difference is that the very exercise of their intelligence on a
problem larger and more difficult than any they have hitherto faced
has freed them from the dominion of most of the prejudices,
catch-words and conventions that directed opinion before the war.
Then their intelligence ran in fixed channels; now it has overflowed
its banks.

This release has produced an immediate readjusting of all the
elements of national life. In great trials a race is tested by its
values; and the war has shown the world what are the real values of
France. Never for an instant has this people, so expert in the great
art of living, imagined that life consisted in being alive.
Enamoured of pleasure and beauty, dwelling freely and frankly in the
present, they have yet kept their sense of larger meanings, have
understood life to be made up of many things past and to come, of
renunciation as well as satisfaction, of traditions as well as
experiments, of dying as much as of living. Never have they
considered life as a thing to be cherished in itself, apart from its
reactions and its relations.

Intelligence first, then, has helped France to be what she is; and
next, perhaps, one of its corollaries, _expression_. The French are
the first to laugh at themselves for running to words: they seem to
regard their gift for expression as a weakness, a possible deterrent
to action. The last year has not confirmed that view. It has rather
shown that eloquence is a supplementary weapon. By "eloquence" I
naturally do not mean public speaking, nor yet the rhetorical
writing too often associated with the word. Rhetoric is the
dressing-up of conventional sentiment, eloquence the fearless
expression of real emotion. And this gift of the fearless expression
of emotion--fearless, that is, of ridicule, or of indifference in
the hearer--has been an inestimable strength to France. It is a sign
of the high average of French intelligence that feeling well-worded
can stir and uplift it; that "words" are not half shamefacedly
regarded as something separate from, and extraneous to, emotion, or
even as a mere vent for it, but as actually animating and forming
it. Every additional faculty for exteriorizing states of feeling,
giving them a face and a language, is a moral as well as an artistic
asset, and Goethe was never wiser than when he wrote:

"A god gave me the voice to speak my pain."

It is not too much to say that the French are at this moment drawing
a part of their national strength from their language. The piety
with which they have cherished and cultivated it has made it a
precious instrument in their hands. It can say so beautifully what
they feel that they find strength and renovation in using it; and
the word once uttered is passed on, and carries the same help to
others. Countless instances of such happy expression could be cited
by any one who has lived the last year in France. On the bodies of
young soldiers have been found letters of farewell to their parents
that made one think of some heroic Elizabethan verse; and the
mothers robbed of these sons have sent them an answering cry of
courage.

"Thank you," such a mourner wrote me the other day, "for having
understood the cruelty of our fate, and having pitied us. Thank you
also for having exalted the pride that is mingled with our
unutterable sorrow." Simply that, and no more; but she might have
been speaking for all the mothers of France.

When the eloquent expression of feeling does not issue in action--or
at least in a state of mind equivalent to action--it sinks to the
level of rhetoric; but in France at this moment expression and
conduct supplement and reflect each other. And this brings me to the
other great attribute which goes to making up the tone of France:
the quality of courage. It is not unintentionally that it comes last
on my list. French courage is courage rationalized, courage thought
out, and found necessary to some special end; it is, as much as any
other quality of the French temperament, the result of French
intelligence.

No people so sensitive to beauty, so penetrated with a passionate
interest in life, so endowed with the power to express and
immortalize that interest, can ever really enjoy destruction for its
own sake. The French hate "militarism." It is stupid, inartistic,
unimaginative and enslaving; there could not be four better French
reasons for detesting it. Nor have the French ever enjoyed the
savage forms of sport which stimulate the blood of more apathetic or
more brutal races. Neither prize-fighting nor bull-fighting is of
the soil in France, and Frenchmen do not settle their private
differences impromptu with their fists: they do it, logically and
with deliberation, on the duelling-ground. But when a national
danger threatens, they instantly become what they proudly and justly
call themselves--"a warlike nation"--and apply to the business in
hand the ardour, the imagination, the perseverance that have made
them for centuries the great creative force of civilization. Every
French soldier knows why he is fighting, and why, at this moment,
physical courage is the first quality demanded of him; every
Frenchwoman knows why war is being waged, and why her moral courage
is needed to supplement the soldier's contempt of death.

The women of France are supplying this moral courage in act as well
as in word. Frenchwomen, as a rule, are perhaps less instinctively
"courageous," in the elementary sense, than their Anglo-Saxon
sisters. They are afraid of more things, and are less ashamed of
showing their fear. The French mother coddles her children, the boys
as well as the girls: when they tumble and bark their knees they are
expected to cry, and not taught to control themselves as English and
American children are. I have seen big French boys bawling over a
cut or a bruise that an Anglo-Saxon girl of the same age would have
felt compelled to bear without a tear. Frenchwomen are timid for
themselves as well as for their children. They are afraid of the
unexpected, the unknown, the experimental. It is not part of the
Frenchwoman's training to pretend to have physical courage. She has
not the advantage of our discipline in the hypocrisies of "good
form" when she is called on to be brave, she must draw her courage
from her brains. She must first be convinced of the necessity of
heroism; after that she is fit to go bridle to bridle with Jeanne
d'Arc.

The same display of reasoned courage is visible in the hasty
adaptation of the Frenchwoman to all kinds of uncongenial jobs.
Almost every kind of service she has been called to render since the
war began has been fundamentally uncongenial. A French doctor once
remarked to me that Frenchwomen never make really good sick-nurses
except when they are nursing their own people. They are too
personal, too emotional, and too much interested in more interesting
things, to take to the fussy details of good nursing, except when it
can help some one they care for. Even then, as a rule, they are not
systematic or tidy; but they make up for these deficiencies by
inexhaustible willingness and sympathy. And it has been easy for
them to become good war-nurses, because every Frenchwoman who nurses
a French soldier feels that she is caring for her kin. The French
war-nurse sometimes mislays an instrument or forgets to sterilize a
dressing; but she almost always finds the consoling word to say and
the right tone to take with her wounded soldiers. That profound
solidarity which is one of the results of conscription flowers, in
war-time, in an exquisite and impartial devotion.

This, then, is what "France is like." The whole civilian part of the
nation seems merged in one symbolic figure, carrying help and hope
to the fighters or passionately bent above the wounded. The
devotion, the self-denial, seem instinctive; but they are really
based on a reasoned knowledge of the situation and on an unflinching
estimate of values. All France knows today that real "life" consists
in the things that make it worth living, and that these things, for
France, depend on the free expression of her national genius. If
France perishes as an intellectual light and as a moral force every
Frenchman perishes with her; and the only death that Frenchmen fear
is not death in the trenches but death by the extinction of their
national ideal. It is against this death that the whole nation is
fighting; and it is the reasoned recognition of their peril which,
at this moment, is making the most intelligent people in the world
the most sublime.

THE END

Edith Wharton

Sorry, no summary available yet.