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One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. -Nietzsche

  April 8, 2008

At Peace with France

The French are unconcerned with trifles. No wonder they are called anti-American. The French live relaxed, prepared, realistically, and do not easily tolerate fools. When they find something distasteful, they simply reject it and refuse to participate in its schemes.

French culture is perhaps most famous for Voltaire, but still produces disagreeable geniuses like Michel Foucault: part libertine excess, part begrudged revenger, part revolutionary, part saint, part cynic -- a mass of energized contradictions coming together to unseat historically repeated lies. A personality as rich with flaws as with gifts, but most of all: a personality! Not a flaccid academic cliche repeater, not an interchangeable ideologue, not a pale imitator. Foucault is like a close friend about whom you can appreciate what is special while overlooking his faults.

Ambassadors to the arts also remind us of France's cultural appreciation and cultivation. Upon first seeing Renaud and Gautier Capuçon perform enthusiastically with the National Symphony, I was overjoyed to see that music was still alive and had living representatives. In France, high standards still produce superior results.

The creation of ballet is quintessentially French. Who else would undertake a study of forms, determine those that are most beautiful, demand prolonged training, total attention to detail, and to do so with such sensitivity that all agree on the supreme result? Witness Russia becoming aware of ballet, quickly understanding its value, and becoming its champion as if it was their own. In ballet, the abstract French mind pursues a strange but beautiful mission and grants itself absolute permission to refine its vision into a perfection of its inspired dream. It is this spirit of grand voyage we can love about the French.

I've previously dismissed southern Europeans as impossible because they are prone to fits of emotive fluctuating character. One moment they are swept away by love, then betrayal, then hope, then rage -- and ultimately all imagined without any actual rational basis. Northern Europeans expect less and are content with less, not falling too low when disappointment appears or being very elated by a temporary triumph; tending to be self-sufficient in inspiration, friends, and thought, but also often seeming dry or cold to the uninitiated. Still it is wisest to dismiss the rabble and crazies of all populations. We should look instead at the best examples of a people and seek to understand the greatness of their character and creations.

We could learn a lot by becoming more French, more contemplative, more appreciative.


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