Tag Archives: English vs French

More Gushing Enthusiasm

Another exhibit in the Chronicles of Gallic Effusiveness, previously addressed here.  This one comes from Proust’s second volume.  The young narrator has been to see the great Berma performing Racine.  It was the realization of a hotly cherished dream, but he was more impressed with the bit parts played by secondary actresses than by Berma herself.  Until, that is, he reads the following review and revises his memory of the experience accordingly:

The performance of Phedre, given this afternoon before an enthusiastic audience which included the foremost representatives of the artistic and critical world, was for Mme Berma, who played the heroine, the occasion of a triumph as brilliant as any that she has known in the course of her phenomenal career…It constituted the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art which it has been the privilege of our generation to witness.

I was surprised to see that Eric Hoffer in his unpublished notebooks (h/t Patrick Kurp) comments on the phenomenon:

It is the Frenchman’s readiness to exaggerate that is at the root of his intellectual lucidity and also of his capacity for acknowledging merit.  The English were not afraid to exaggerate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were then not far behind the French in the lucidity of their thinking… There is hardly a single instance of cultural vigor marked by moderation of expression.

Precisely what Hoffer meant by ‘lucidity,’ I’m not sure.  But if the French have a greater capacity for acknowledging merit it may be because they were relatively less infected by the leprous touch of Calvin, the idolatrous fandoms of whose English disciples were checked by the assurance that even the most accomplished among them were, after all, totally depraved in flesh and spirit.  Hoffer’s date for the decline in English intellectual vigor coincides well enough with the Puritan Revolution.
A capacity for sustained enthusiasm may also explain why so many of the English-speaking world’s former celebrities retire to France.  They know that among their Gallic admirers they’ll never have to stoop to touring Indian casinos and small-town community centers for rent money and faint echoes of the adulation they enjoyed in their prime.


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Winiwarter - Japonais

When French was still lingua franca, you couldn’t get very far in education until you had learned to read it.  That was back in the Jurassic, of course.  But being a monoglot of the Anglicized Age, even when your native glot is the mono in every actual and virtual direction, a lack of French can still exclude you from certain categories of knowledge.

Consider the curious photograph above.  I don’t recall where I found it, but I understand the subject to be a Belgian by the name of Hans de Winiwarter (1875-1949).  That he was a great fancier of things Japanese is obvious.  In a memoir titled Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books, Herman Liebaers, formerly of the Royal Library of Belgium and Marshall of the Royal Household to King Baudouin I, describes cataloging the deceased Winiwarter’s collection of Japanese books and art prints.  But unless I learn to read French, it seems, I’m excluded from easy (i.e. Google) access to any more of Winiwarter’s biography beyond the odd suggestion that he was also the same scientist who in 1912 estimated the number of chromosomes in male guineas pigs to be 47 (the correct number being 46). 

How to translate the dreamy look in Winiwarter’s eyes and reconcile the collector of Japanese curiosities with the counter of cavia porcellus chromosomes?  I don’t know.  It’s apparently a closely guarded francophone secret.

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