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    Ch. 6: The Tone of France

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    Chapter 6
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    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
    Chapter 6
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