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An essay by Henry James


Title:     France
Author: Henry James [More Titles by James]

I think that if there is a general ground in the world, on which an appeal might be made, in a civilised circle, with a sense of its being uttered only to meet at once and beyond the need of insistence a certain supreme recognition and response, the idea of what France and the French mean to the educated spirit of man would be the nameable thing. It would be the cause uniting us most quickly in an act of glad intelligence, uniting us with the least need of any wondering why. We should understand and answer together just by the magic of the mention, the touch of the two or three words, and this in proportion to our feeling ourselves social and communicating creatures--to the point, in fact, of a sort of shame at any imputation of our not liberally understanding, of our waiting in any degree to be nudged or hustled. The case of France, as one may hold it, where the perceptive social mind is concerned and set in motion, is thus only to be called exquisite--so far as we don't seem so to qualify things down. We certainly all feel, in the beautiful connection, in two general ways; one of these being that the spring pressed with such happy effect lifts the sense by its mere vibration into the lightest and brightest air in which, taking our world all round, it is given to our finer interest about things to breathe and move; and the other being that just having our intelligence, our experience at its freest and bravest, taken for granted, is a compliment to us, as not purely instinctive persons, which we should miss, if it were not paid, rather to the degree of finding the omission an insult.

Such, as I say, is our easy relation to the sound of a voice raised, even however allusively and casually, on behalf of that great national and social presence which has always most oppositely, most sensibly, most obsessively, as I surely may put it, and above all most dazzlingly, neighboured and admonished us here: after such a fashion as really to have made the felt breath of its life, across an interval constantly narrowing, a part of our education as distinguished from our luck. Our luck in all our past has been enormous, the greatest luck on the whole, assuredly, that any race has ever had; but it has never been a conscious reaction or a gathered fruition, as one may say; it has just been a singular felicity of position and of temperament, and this felicity has made us observe and perceive and reflect much less than it has made us directly act and profit and enjoy: enjoy of course by attending tremendously to all the business involved in our position. So far as we have had reactions, therefore, they have not sprung, when they have been at all intensified, from the extraordinary good fortune of our state. Unless indeed I may put it that what they have very considerably sprung from has been exactly a part of our general prodigy--the good fortune itself of our being neighboured by a native genius so different from our own, so suggestive of wondrous and attaching comparisons, as to keep us chronically aware of the difference and the contrast and yet all the while help us to see into them and through them.

We were not, to all appearance, appointed by fate for the most perceptive and penetrative offices conceivable; so that to have over against us and within range a proposition, as we nowadays say, that could only grow more and more vivid, more and more engaging and inspiring, in the measure of our growth of criticism and curiosity, or, in other words, of the capacity just to pay attention, pay attention otherwise than by either sticking very fast at home or inquiring of the Antipodes, the Antipodes almost exclusively--what has that practically been for us but one of the very choicest phases of our luck aforesaid, one of the most appraisable of our felicities? the very one, doubtless, that our dissimilarity of temperament and taste would have most contradictiously and most correctively prescribed from the moment we were not to be left simply to stew in our juice! If the advantage I so characterise was to be in its own way thoroughly affirmative, there was yet nothing about it to do real or injurious violence to that abysmal good nature which sometimes strikes me as our most effective contribution to human history. The vision of France, at any rate, so close and so clear at propitious hours, was to grow happily illustrational for us as nothing else in any like relation to us could possibly have become. Other families have a way, on good opportunity, of interesting us more than our own, and here was this immense acquaintance extraordinarily mattering for us and at the same time not irritating us by a single claim of cousinship or a single liberty taken on any such score. Any liberties taken were much rather liberties, I think, of ours--always abounding as we did in quite free, and perhaps slightly rough, and on the whole rather superficial, movement beyond our island circle and toward whatever lay in our path. France lay very much in our path, our path to almost everything that could beckon us forth from our base--and there were very few things in the world or places on the globe that didn't so beckon us; according to which she helped us along on our expansive course a good deal more, doubtless, than either she or we always knew.

All of which, you see, is but a manner of making my point that her name means more than anything in the world to us but just our own. Only at present it means ever so much more, almost unspeakably more, than it has ever done in the past, and I can't help inviting you to feel with me, for a very few moments, what the real force of this association to which we now throb consists of, and why it so moves us. We enjoy generous emotions because they are generous, because generosity is a noble passion and a glow, because we spring with it for the time above our common pedestrian pace--and this just in proportion as all questions and doubts about it drop to the ground. But great reasons never spoil a great sympathy, and to see an inspiring object in a strong light never made any such a shade less inspiring. So, therefore, in these days when our great neighbour and Ally is before us in a beauty that is tragic, tragic because menaced and overdarkened, the closest possible appreciation of what it is that is thereby in peril for ourselves and for the world makes the image shine with its highest brightness at the same time that the cloud upon it is made more black. When I sound the depth of my own affection so fondly excited, I take the like measure for all of us and feel the glad recognition I meet in thus putting it to you, for our full illumination, that what happens to France happens to all that part of ourselves which we are most proud, and most finely advised, to enlarge and cultivate and consecrate.

Our heroic friend sums up for us, in other words, and has always summed up, the life of the mind and the life of the senses alike, taken together, in the most irrepressible freedom of either--and, after that fashion, positively lives for us, carries on experience for us; does it under our tacit and our at present utterly ungrudging view of her being formed and endowed and constantly prompted, toward such doing, on all sorts of sides that are simply so many reasons for our standing off, standing off in a sort of awed intellectual hush or social suspense, and watching and admiring and thanking her. She is sole and single in this, that she takes charge of those of the interests of man which most dispose him to fraternise with himself, to pervade all his possibilities and to taste all his faculties, and in consequence to find and to make the earth a friendlier, an easier, and especially a more various sojourn; and the great thing is the amiability and the authority, intimately combined, with which she has induced us all to trust her on this ground. There are matters as to which every set of people has of course most to trust itself, most to feel its own genius and its own stoutness--as we are here and all round about us knowing and abiding by that now as we have never done. But I verily think there has never been anything in the world--since the most golden aspect of antiquity at least--like the way in which France has been trusted to gather the rarest and fairest and sweetest fruits of our so tremendously and so mercilessly turned-up garden of life. She has gardened where the soil of humanity has been most grateful and the aspect, so to call it, most toward the sun, and there, at the high and yet mild and fortunate centre, she has grown the precious, intimate, the nourishing, finishing things that she has inexhaustibly scattered abroad. And if we have all so taken them from her, so expected them from her as our right, to the point that she would have seemed positively to fail of a passed pledge to help us to happiness if she had disappointed us, this has been because of her treating us to the impression of genius as no nation since the Greeks has treated the watching world, and because of our feeling that genius at that intensity is infallible.

What it has all amounted to, as I say, is that we have never known otherwise an agent so beautifully organised, organised from within, for a mission, and that such an organisation at free play has made us really want never to lift a finger to break the charm. We catch at every turn of our present long-drawn crisis indeed that portentous name: it's displayed to us on a measureless scale that our Enemy is organised, organised possibly to the effect of binding us with a spell if anything could keep us passive. The term has been in a manner, by that association, compromised and vulgarised: I say vulgarised because any history of organisation from without and for intended aggression and self-imposition, however elaborate the thing may be, shows for merely mechanical and bristling compared with the condition of being naturally and functionally endowed and appointed. This last is the only fair account of the complete and perfect case that France has shown us and that civilisation has depended on for half its assurances. Well, now, we have before us this boundless extension of the case, that, as we have always known what it was to see the wonderful character I speak of range through its variety and keep shining with another and still another light, so in these days we assist at what we may verily call the supreme evidence of its incomparable gift for vivid exhibition. It takes our great Ally, and her only, to be as vivid for concentration, for reflection, for intelligent, inspired contraction of life toward an end all but smothered in sacrifice, as she has ever been for the most splendidly wasteful diffusion and communication; and to give us a view of her nature and her mind in which, laying down almost every advantage, every art and every appeal that we have generally known her by, she takes on energies, forms of collective sincerity, silent eloquence and selected example that are fresh revelations--and so, bleeding at every pore, while at no time in all her history so completely erect, makes us feel her perhaps as never before our incalculable, immortal France.

[The end]
Henry James's essay: France