Sunday, August 30, 2015

Etiquette and "Thinking French"

Manners are a form of human progress; man in the twentieth century has not only reached the moon, he is advanced to the stage where spitting is considered indecent.

"Another treatise on savoir-faire defines manners prettily as the 'fusion of the movements of the mind and the heart.' Manners, it goes on, are a form of human progress; man in the twentieth century has not only reached the moon, he has advanced to the stage where spitting is considered indecent. There have, of course, been regressions, as when Edward VII made eating asparagus with one's fingers fashionable. 

But politeness is not restricted to table manners. There is, for instance, the politeness of the bed. On his wedding night, the husband should, like *Renan, 'masturbate in the bathroom so as not to pester his bride.' This mixture of the practical and romantic is the mark of a people who have managed to combine the  unashamed celebration of instinct with a multitude of small, complicated observances.
Victorian asparagus server ~ It was Edward VII who made eating asparagus with one's fingers fashionable. 
More than the mechanical practice of etiquette, politeness in its highest form is a state of mind, a path to virtue, a philosophical system which teaches how to cushion the rude shocks of life. It permits, in French society, what Henry James calls 'the inarticulate murmur of urbanity.' At its most refined, it is a cross between Confucian politeness based on mastery over oneself and the maieutic system of Plato, in which ideas are brought out through questioning.  It postulates that the oblique is better than the direct. If someone tells you what you already know, appear grateful. Never say 'you misunderstood me,' but 'I explained myself badly.' 

When someone asks about your health, it is to be told 'I am well, thank you,' and not to be given a medical bulletin. This was Swann's great mistake. Never praise too highly and never condemn outright. Do not say 'de Gaulle's speech was terrible,' but 'too much had been expected of the speech for it to be anything but disappointing.' The goal of conversation is to sustain a high level of urbanity. It is less important to be good or moral or honest than to be well brought up. This is an attempt to salvage order and cohesion in social relations, and it is also protection against intimacy, for it encourages and maintains a minimal distance even between close friends.
Ernest Renan, French philosopher, historian, and scholar of religion, a leader of the school of critical philosophy in France • 1823 —1892
The observance of the proprieties forbids the investigation of motives. As Chamfort said: 'I have renounced the friendship of two men; the first because he never spoke to me of himself and the second because he never spoke to me of myself.' This form of courtesy becomes second nature, remembered in the most extreme moments. The Marquis de Montaignac, competing in the first French automobile race, doffed his hat while passing another car near Perigueux, sideswiped it, and landed in a ditch. His dying words: 'I excuse you entirely, you are not to blame, it was I who struck you, please accept my most heartfelt apologies.'

Modern life seems less and less suited to such exacting standards, and in recent years, France has singled itself out as the country where motorists are most violent to one another. The reverse of politesse is a rudeness that quickly escalates to violence and homicide. The same people who once considered it essential to wear hats so they could doff them, now kill one another over parking space." From Sanche de Gramont's, 1969 "The French - Portrait of a People"

*Ernest Renan, French philosopher, historian, and scholar of religion, a leader of the school of critical philosophy in France • 1823 —1892


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