Many have asked why I like the French so much; to them, my love of “the French” seems inexplicable. After all, I don’t speak the language well which partly explains why, when in France, I associated almost exclusively with English ex-pats who regarded me as one of their own.
I find most French intellectualism to be shallow and pretentious; French philosophy, morbid and vacuous. And French politics is a mess. Complaining about political circumstances is a national past-time in France; these wasted words could — in my opinion — be translated into action. But nothing gets done. Nothing changes … until revolution. Protesting-qua-protesting is a time-wasting cultural steam-valve that hinders progress without forwarding it. Frankly, the French could use a dollop of my American “can-do-ism” because they tend to be dilettantes about important ideas that undergird their society and personal relationships. They blab atheistically without considering God’s workings in France, the recent diminution of their culture, finding and giving love beyond it’s most shallow expressions, exploring aesthetic sensibilities such as the old idea of beauty, the moral significance of deep relationships, etc.
Still, I love the French. I really do. Too much, perhaps.
Perhaps my love of the French is comparative? For example, the Italians I’ve known are too emotional and demonstrative for my taste. When with Italians or even Spaniards, I find myself withdrawing, watching, cringing and smiling, but not participating. I’m too reserved for them. Too quiet. Too intact.
North of the Alps, the Scandinavians — from whom I’m partly genetically derived — depress me. I’m not sure why (lack of sunlight?) but though I look very Scandinavian, I don’t feel comfortable among them and never have. I need high culture, conversation, books and fewer primary colours … more subtlety. I need the tones and tints of good thinking. Even laughter. Having said this, Kierkegaard is one of my favorite philosophers and he’s a Dane.
The Germans, in spite of their philosophical proclivities, also have never pulled strongly at my heart strings. I’m not sure they are able to pull at each other’s hearts, these days. Sturm und Drang has come and gone. Enough said.
I’ve always felt comfortable with the English from whom I’m also genetically derived. They can be good conversationalists. Have you noticed that only a few people know how to talk? This is tragic. A good conversation with a gabby, honest and articulate person, one who is not cleverly self-disguised or cagey, is as precious as gold. But the Brits play games with words. They don’t say what they mean but talk around the point, often because they’re not sure what that point is. They’re wonderfully good with words, but not as good with the substance behind those words.
(I remember one of my profs, years ago, telling me that though the Germans had a lot to say, they were unable to say it; conversely, though the English had less to say, they could speak marvelously about nothing.)
When a person gets past the age of fifty, or so, whatever has been done so far in his or her life reveals itself in conversation. Those who are great conversationalists not only have had interesting experiences but have grown through those experiences: they have ruminated on those experiences, contextualized them, and allowed themselves to be changed by them. But it is the case, sadly, that many people who have great experiences are deepened by them. Thus, my selfish little life quest is to find and enjoy the few “big” people who are getting bigger, the ones who both have had interesting experiences as well as thought deeply about those experiences.
What’s a big person, you ask? Well, big people are observant and highly sensitive to ideas, culture and the various nuances in the thought and creation of others. They’re reflective as well as self-reflective. They don’t just encounter a circumstance, idea or emotion, but make something of it. They keep growing throughout life. Bigness, by definition, expands.
Lets circle back to the French. I love their conversation culture. They have a coffee-shop and people-watching bent which exists in other places — among Turkish men, for example — but which in France is identity-forming. They love to argue politics and though most don’t do it well, a minority are truly fascinating. They love to wax philosophically; again, only a few do it well, but that’s the human condition isn’t it? Many are called, few are chosen!
To find the golden nugget of a big person, I am looking within and for a culture that has more than the expected percentage of these jewels. Such a culture also creates dross, but, again, that’s just the way it is. I can’t adequately express how much joy I get when I meet a jewel of a big person. This person is usually well-educated and an avid reader, but not always. It’s more than this. A big person has a mind which is curious and expansive, one unafraid and willing to be foolish. It’s a mind found in all social classes, though easier to locate in the higher classes. It’s a brave mind. A daring one. A mind that enjoys the ideas of others more than his or her own. To be big, a person much be able to listen intently to, and learn from, the soft rattles of another person’s mind at work or play. Few do this well.
And so, to continue with these crude and grossly unfair national generalizations, the English tend to listen to themselves, not others; they love to hear themselves spill clever words: the French are better at listening to others but can only slowly express what they think; they are not as articulate. It takes many words to express an idea among the French — a clever bon mot does the trick in England. Personally, I’d much rather wait for the forming idea than snicker at a clever witticism. Patience is a virtue after all.
Yet, I’m worried. What I love may be disappearing. As the deeper aspects of French culture diminish via immigration, bureaucratization and secularization, the French cling to it’s shallower aspects, the superficial stuff. I suppose this is happening all over the West — it signals a loss of purpose and identity, a lack of an undergirding faith and an intending loss of values. It’s a consequence of secularism, though unbelievers scoff at this — they simply can’t see their own complicity or how culture necessarily rests on a foundation of religion. In France and among the French, in America and in all of the West, that cultural bedrock has softened. Our cultures rest on sand.
I want to slip into a rock-solid pocket of France. I want the real French people, that is. I want to align my heart and the rest of the life with people and a person able to grok who they/he deeply are.
In Christian terms, I’m looking for the remnant.
You know, the cultural survivors.
“What do you have against America,” some people have asked me. My response is short: “Nothing.”
I’m not fighting my own country or in any way putting it down. I think, however, that the elitists who run the United States are despicable, incompetent and are quickly ruining what’s left of America. Though you may think America is in a better position than most European countries, I respectfully disagree. American depth was once formed by survival needs, hyper-locality and faith. At that time, America was strong. Today’s depthlessness has shown itself to be easy to subvert. Immigration … internationalism … secularism … these “isms” have destroyed America. Since American roots were shallow to begin with — my country is young and malleable — it’s destruction was quick and thorough.
The America I grew up in is gone.
I’m very close to one of my children, my oldest son, who wants to leave this country as soon as he makes gazillions which he’ll probably do in short order. He wants to start a family and have lots of kids, although at other times, he says he’s going to remain single and childless! He is quite certain, however, that he does NOT want to raise a family in the United States. The women here are comped and slutty, he says, without acknowledging his own philandering. America is too invasive. Too liberty-clawing. He abhors the boorish greed and pervasive immorality of American political culture and doesn’t want his family to marinate in such a dangerous place.
So, he’s looking around for a new home country, as am I for different reasons. If my son’s desires suggest what’s to come, the best of America, it’s most talented entrepreneurs, at least, are leaving.
Do I think America will revive and restore itself?
No, sadly. It’s too far gone.
I do think, however, that the long cultural and faith roots of France COULD, perhaps, God willing, grow deeply again. France COULD be saved if the stars align, maybe not France as a country, but French culture.
A French remnant may start again.