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The French As Dostoevsky Saw Them

Renting an apartment in Paris was not a simple matter in 1947, but a good friend of mine, Nicolaus, had found one for us on the right bank, in a fussy building. I had brought a new Remington portable typewriter, which the landlady had absolutely demanded as a gift. She had to have the rent in dollars, too. Francs would not do. It was a steep rental. Nicolaus, however, said the apartment was worth the money. He knew Paris, and I took his word for it. Nicolaus spoke French perfectly. People from Indianapolis take to French quite naturally; I have observed this time and again. He was a perfect Frenchman, carried a pair of gloves and drove a French car. He was annoyed with me when I asked my landlady how one disposed of the garbage in this apartment. “In France,” he said to me severely, detaining me in the chilly dining-room, “no man would ask such a question. Garbage is not your concern. You are not supposed to know that garbage exists. Besides, ordures is not a nice word.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I suppose I shouldn’t have asked.”

The landlady now brought forth her inventaire. An amazing document! A catalogue of every object in the house, from the Chippendale chair to the meanest cup, fully and marvelously described in stiff, upright, copious letters. We started to go through the list, and moved from Madame’s room, a flapper’s boudoir of the ‘twenties, backwards to the kitchen. Madame read the description and displayed each article. “Dining room table. Style Empire. Condition excellent. Triangular scratch on left side. No other defect.” We finished in the kitchen with three lousy tin spoons.

“Ah,” said Nicolaus, “What a sense of detail the French have!”

I was less impressed, but one must respect respect itself and I did not openly disagree.

As soon as Madame left, I turned a somersault over the Chippendale chair and landed thunderously on the floor. This lightened my heart for a time, but in subsequent dealings with Madame and others in France I could not always recover my lightness of heart by such means.

Depressed and sunk in spirit, I dwelt among Madame’s works of art that cold winter of 1948. The city lay under perpetual fog and the smoke could not rise and flowed in the streets in brown and gray currents. An unnatural medicinal smell emanated from the Seine. Many people suffered from the grippe Espagnole—all diseases are apt to be of foreign origin—and many more from melancholy and bad temper. Paris is the seat of a highly developed humanity, and one thus witnesses highly developed forms of suffering there. Witnesses and sometimes, experiences. Sadness is a daily levy that civilization imposes in Paris. Gay Paris.? Gay, my foot! Mere advertising. Paris is one of the grimmest cities in the world. I do not ask you to take my word for it. Go to Balzac and Stendhal, to Zola, to Strindberg —to Paris itself. Nicolaus said the Parisians were celebrated for their tartness of character. He declared that it would be better for me to feel my way into it than to criticize it. Himself, he was a connoisseur of the Parisian temperament. I was lacking in detachment, he said. To this accusation I confessed and pleaded guilty. I was a poor visitor and, by any standard, an inferior tourist.

Once I tried to show a lady from Chicago the view of the Forum from the Tarpeian Rock. She had just arrived from Florence and was full of it; she would not stop talking of its wonders even when we were standing before the view. She annoyed me greatly and I said to myself, “Damn her! I know she’s been in Florence. I believe her. But now she’s on the Tarpeian Rock.” I said to her “Do you know what used to happen here.’” She seemed not to hear. She answered with a remark about the Signoria which, for a split second, made me want to throw her down like one of the malefactors of old. But I wronged her. How could she meditate upon the Forum when she had not yet absorbed the Signoria ?

But I was going to tell the story of my first reading of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

Myyoung son came down with themeasles. Our lanky doctor observed thatthe apartment was not nearly warm enough. “You must heat the boy’s room,” he said, and filled out a formal requisition for an emergency coal ration. I put on my coat and took the paper to the Mairie of our arrondissement, as instructed. There I sat and waited, as one waits in government offices the world over.

A large stained room. Shadows of chicken wire. Blinding lights. Several ladies at an official table, each of them the spit and image of Colette, their cheeks autumnally red, their heads bushy, small brown cigarette butts between their lips—no French civil servant who lacks a megot is an authentic officer of the state.

For an hour or two I waited my turn, and when it came I stated my case simply and presented the doctor’s note; I confidently expected to receive the coal order.

“Ah, non!” Colette number one told me. The doctor’s order was written upon one of his regular prescription blanks, whereas a special blank was provided for coal orders, very similar to but not identical with the prescription sort of blank. The real thing had perforations on the left side.

Didn’t the Mesdames believe that my order bore the doctor’s signature? Did they think that I had forged it? Not necessarily, said Colette number two. Nevertheless they could do nothing that was not in proper form. They could issue emergency coal rations solely upon presentation of the perforated fiche. The rougeole did not impress them, though I pride myself that I pronounced the word creditably. From the look on the face of Colette number three I knew that the coal would not be granted, and I made my way back to the dripping street telling myself in French that I would buy my coal on the black market.

It was on the same day that I found on one of the stands near the Chatelet a book of Dostoevsky called Le Bourgeois de Paris—the French title of Winter Notes—and I sat in the illegally heated room, in the odor of the paste my son was using on his paper dolls, and eagerly and sometimes wildly read it. Its prejudices ought to have offended me; instead I was unable to suppress certain utterances of satisfaction and agreement. I too was a foreigner and a barbarian from a vast and backward land. And one is more foreign in France than in other countries. Americans find it hard to believe that foreigners are unalterably foreign, for they have seen generations of immigrants who became Americans. Old cultures are impermeable and exclusive; none is more so than the French. I should like to make it dear that I had not heaped blame irrationally upon France. I said to myself often, “Because you have paid the price of admission and have come with your awkward affections in your breast and dollars in your pocket, do you expect these people to press you to their hearts, and to take you into their homes? You must try to appreciate the fact that they have other and more important concerns. Only three years ago Hitler was deporting thousands, shooting hostages. A war has been fought here, probably the most atrocious in history. And now the Communists are trying to drag France into Russia. America presses from the other side. Armies of tourists are pouring in. And must you interject your irrelevant self ?”

Yet as I read Winter Notes I realized that to foreign eyes the French in 1862 were not substantially different from those of 1948. The great wars had not wrought too many changes in them. If wars could bring substantial changes, would we not all be deeply altered. If death and suffering had the power to teach us, would we of this century not all be wiser than our fathers? Hard, stubborn man, alas, does not easily correct himself, forgets what he has felt and seen.

SOME of Dostoevsky’s strictures repelled me by their harshness. He is disagreeable as only a great radical can be. Recalling how evasive he had been when the Tsar’s soldiers killed Polish patriots, I disliked his Slavophile notions. And then, too, a Jewish reader can seldom forget his anti-Semitism.

It is, however, essential to remember that is was for his participation in the Petrashevsky “conspiracy” that Dostoevsky had been sent into exile. The idols of this immature and probably harmless group of young men were the French radicals—St. Simon, Fourier, and Sebastian Cabet among others. The group had given a banquet honoring Fourier’s birthday. Dostoevsky was therefore no ordinary Russian tourist in Paris. He had been condemned to death; the sentence had been commuted to Siberian exile; this exile had recently ended. For his adherence to French and Western ideas he had thus been severely penalized, and he proceeded, understandably enough, to examine the European right to teach and lead young Russians.

It would be naive not to assume that he had already judged Europe. It is not for his fairness that he is famous. Besides, it is not easy to blame him. But he had certainly formed his views of Europe beforehand; he was already under Slavophile influence, and in London he went to visit Herzen, the greatest of the Russian exiles in Europe. Some of Herzen’s views are reflected in these articles. Unfortunately for the betterment of mankind it is not always the fair minded who are in the right. Dostoevsky found what he needed in France, England, and Germany to support his prejudgments. Bourgeois France aroused his profoundest hatred. There is not a nation anywhere which does not contradict its highest principles in daily practice, but the French contradiction was in his eyes the worst because France presumed to offer the world intellectual and political leadership.

Examining the great slogans of the French Revolution, Dostoevsky declared that liberty in France was the possession of those who had a million francs:

Equality before the law as it is now put into practice, each Frenchman can and ought to consider a personal insult. What is left of the formula? Fraternity. Now this is a very curious item and, it must be admitted, still forms the chief stumbling block for the West.

The Westerner speaks of fraternity as of a great motivating force of humankind, and does not understand that it is impossible to obtain fraternity if it does not exist in reality. . . . But in French nature, and in Occidental nature in general, it is not present; you find there instead a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent, autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.

It is the Western form of individualism that offends Dostoevsky. He invokes a higher individualism to which the desire for fraternal love is natural, an individualism which is self-effacing and sacrificial:

Understand me: voluntary, fully conscious self-sacrifice utterly free of outside constraint, sacrifice of one’s entire self for the benefit of all, is in my opinion a sign of the supreme development of individuality, of its supreme power, absolute self-mastery and freedom of will.

Elsewhere, and especially in the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky asks the question that inevitably arises from this attitude:how Christian can a civilization be? And as an artist must, he answers with ever more profound questions. But this severity toward the French never relaxes. In the French bourgeois character he sees a betrayal of the greatest hopes of the modern age.

It is in Winter Notes that his antagonism toward the French first appears. It culminates in his wild satire of Bribri and Mabiche, a funny and also rather ugly affair. The social criticisms of novelists and poets often contain concealed assumptions. Poets wish to see a poetic principle in human action, but they are not always gratified at the effects of literature on social behavior. Dostoevsky abhors “literary” bourgeois motives and the idolatry of culture.

What happens when literature becomes part of the life of a nation ?

I myself did not know whether to cheer or weep when I saw posted in a station in Paris the announcement of a discussion of Racine by the police of the district. Flics! Cops! you see. And Racine! I must admit I gloated over this. Wonderful France where even the bulls enjoy sensibility. Yet the pervasiveness of literary interest was not always pleasant. My dentist wished earnestly to discuss a dull play of Camus called Les Justes and Sartre’s latest novel.

On the Boulevard St. Germain, a haberdashery featured silk scarves inscribed romantically with the names of Jean-Paul and Simone. Often Parisians struck me as behaving exactly like a huge cast of characters. Baudelaire complains in Mon Coeur Mis a Nu that everyone in France looks like Voltaire.

A great civilization always distinguishes, frames, sets apart, places an imprint of value upon its members. The Parisian face is thus framed, individually distinguished. The historic task of a civilization is to make the world again. To a Frenchman this French world is the world. In no other form is it conceivable. Do you want to see an Eskimo? Turn to the Encyclopedie Larousse. There you may see him as he is. He cannot be otherwise. On a fiercely hot day in Paris a storekeeper told me, “la chileur est plus brutale chez vous.” He had never been chez moi, but he had no need to leave Paris in order to know this.

But now the stable heavens have been torn asunder. Above is a chaos which French order cannot bear to see. The world has been expanded, horribly. Walls have fallen. The old stability has turned to bitter dust, and the Parisian countenance is filled with irony and with anger.

These are circumstances that bring out the deepest characteristics of a culture. Although we give exclusiveness as one of the criteria of culture, not all cultures are equally exclusive. Everywhere there are natural and human recognitions that supersede the cultural. It is the greater culture which allows the greatest latitude to certain natural human needs and simplicities.

Let it be remembered that it was as a journalist that Dostoevsky wrote these Winter Notes. The articles were published in a review called Vremya and were read by the majority of educated Russians. Our American journalism of today is quite different. Vast organizations prepare for us their version of things as they are abroad. For this purpose they employ numbers of former police-reporters. And when the stuff gathered by these reporters comes in, it is processed at the editorial desk. And then we are fed a homogeneous substance called information, created by experts, some of whom know how to simulate a personal manner. Rarely are talented and educated men permitted to convey in their own words their own sense of reality. No. If an activity is not, in our bureaucratic times, corporate, it is suspect.

What we read in our great newspapers and magazines is an artificial mixture concocted to appease our desire to be informed.

Winter Notes is often intemperate, worse than unfair and even frivolous. With his usual comic and cruel candor Dostoevsky concedes that his observations may be sour and jaundiced, and it is characteristic of him that he does not conceal his bias. For him this revelation of bias is a step toward the truth. “Good” principles tempt us to conceal ill-feeling and falsehood. Liberalism, whether it is Eastern or Western, is habitually deceitful. “Let us come forward as we are,” Dostoevsky is forever saying, “in our native crudity. No disguises.”

This is one of his important principles and he holds to it remarkably well. You may study his views of many topics in the huge, crazy, foaming, vengeful, fulminating book called A Writer’s Diary. In this collection of his journalistic writings he records repeatedly his growing bitterness toward Europe. Europeans cannot understand Russia, he says. Even those who attempt “to grasp our Russian essence” do so in vain; they “will long fail to comprehend. . ..”

Yet Dostoevsky considered himself a most practical Christian. The literary historian D. S. Mirsky speaks of “the rational and pragmatic nature of his Christianity.” A statement of this sort about a man who freely confessed his hatred of Frenchmen, Germans, and Poles, gives one pause. We are commanded by Christianity to love everyone. Non-Christians have long understood the difficulty of following this injunction literally. It is almost unnecessary to add that Christians have, too. If I employ the word “almost” it is because the mixture of nationalism and Christianity is not easy to comprehend. Was Dostoevsky able to love Russians more because he detested Germans? Is it perhaps necessary to fix a limit to the number of people one can try to love? It does not surprise modern readers, acquainted with twentieth-century psychology, that the power to hate increases the power to love also. The Duc de St. Simon said long ago that love and hate were fed by a single nerve. The same thought is expressed clearly enough by William Blake. Dostoevsky was not ignorant of it. But his personal opinions were not rational. As an artist he was both rational and wise.

An odd thing: when Dostoevsky was, toward the end of his career, corresponding with his friend the infamous reactionary Pobedonostyev, he referred once to a problem he was facing in the composition of The Brothers Karamazov. The chapters in which Ivan had doubted the existence of divine justice, indicted God, offered to return his “ticket” to the Creator, and narrated his fable of the Grand Inquisitor had just been completed. Through Father Zossima, Dostoevsky was about to begin to answer Ivan’s arguments and accusations. He hoped, he said, that he would be able to answer them artistically. To answer artistically is to do justice, to respect proportions and harmonies with which journalists and polemicists do not have to bother their heads. In the novel the writer cannot permit himself to be sour, jaundiced, cruel, intemperate and arbitrary. There savageries are tamed by truth.

Truth, said Tolstoy at the conclusion of Sebastopol, was the hero of his novel. In this, at any rate, the two masters of the Russian novel were in agreement.