Tag Archives: Gallic Effusiveness

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I was surprised to see that Eric Hoffer in his unpublished notebooks (h/t Patrick Kurp) comments on the phenomenon: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

Solon famously recommended calling no man happy until he was dead.  It’s just as advisable, I think, not to call him great.  There are some compliments that should only be paid after the object of admiration is safely deceased.  Otherwise it gets embarrassing.

Consider the biographical note written by Cécile Buffet for Alain Planes’ Harmonia Mundi CD, Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2.  Planes is a gifted pianist and (to judge by his photograph) he’s been on this planet much longer than I have, so it’s only right that his accomplishments are noted.  Buffet’s fawning idolatry, however, is too much:

A great lover and connoisseur of painting, no less learned in his passion for poetry, Alain Planes enjoys a career in his own image: right from the start he has followed the path of life rather than the siren songs of a glory that demands too many compromises. 

From a mother with an artistic temperament…he has inherited and retained fervent humility and disinterestedness of gesture.  In the end it is this that creates style – rigor is of little use without grace.

The man is still alive, for God’s sake.  Let’s not jinx him by smothering any perfectly adequate virtues he may posses with so much saccharine flattery.  If Plaines is as humble and disinterested as Buffet claims, he can only blush at this.  But then, did he have no say at all in the liner notes for his own CD?  No one should take himself this seriously.

Perhaps it’s just Gallic effusiveness.  I ought to be happy, I suppose, for the opportunity to be mildly scandalized, and for the laughs:

There is in him something of a curious blend of Proust and Wilde.  With the first he shares his relationship with time, profound, expanded, Schubertian.  With the second, a certain intellectual dandyism, a form of refined cynicism that nonetheless does not sacrifice tenderness.

Thankfully it’s the Expanded Schubertian and not the Intellectual Dandy that comes through in Planes’ music.  But if there is a bit of Wilde about him, it might serve as inoculation against his admirers’ excesses.  “Praise makes me humble,” Wilde once wrote, “but when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.”

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