Edith Wharton

Reverence

“Take care! Don’t eat blackberries! Don’t you know they’ll give you the fever?”

Any American soldier who stops to fill his cap with the plump blackberries loading the hedgerows of France is sure to receive this warning from a passing peasant.

Throughout the length and breadth of France, the most fruit-loving and fruit-cultivating of countries, the same queer conviction prevails, and year after year the great natural crop of blackberries, nowhere better and more abundant, is abandoned to birds and insects because in some remote and perhaps prehistoric past an ancient Gaul once decreed that “blackberries give the fever.”

An hour away, across the Channel, fresh blackberries and blackberry-jam form one of the staples of a great ally’s diet; but the French have not yet found out that millions of Englishmen have eaten blackberries for generations without having “the fever.”

Even if they did find it out they would probably say: “The English are different. Blackberries have always given us the fever.” Or the more enlightened might ascribe it to the climate: “The air may be different in England. Blackberries may not be unwholesome there, but here they are poison.”

There is not the least foundation for the statement, and the few enterprising French people who have boldly risked catching “the fever” consume blackberries in France with as much enjoyment, and as little harm, as their English neighbors. But one could no more buy a blackberry in a French market than one could buy the fruit of the nightshade; the one is considered hardly less deleterious than the other.

The prejudice is all the queerer because the thrifty, food-loving French peasant has discovered the innocuousness of so many dangerous-looking funguses that frighten the Anglo-Saxon by their close resemblance to the poisonous members of the family. It takes a practiced eye to distinguish cepes and morilles from the deadly toadstool; whereas the blackberry resembles nothing in the world but its own luscious and innocent self. Yet the blackberry has been condemned untried because of some ancient taboo that the French peasant dares not disregard.

Taboos of this sort are as frequent in France as the blackberries in the hedges, and some of them interfere with the deepest instincts of the race.

Take, for instance, the question of dinner-giving. Dining is a solemn rite to the French, because it offers the double opportunity of good eating and good talk, the two forms of aesthetic enjoyment most generally appreciated. Everything connected with dinner-giving has an almost sacramental importance in France. The quality of the cooking comes first; but, once this is assured, the hostess’ chief concern is that the quality of the talk shall match it. To attain this, the guests are as carefully chosen as boxers for a championship, their number is strictly limited, and care is taken not to invite two champions likely to talk each other down.

The French, being unable to live without good talk, are respectful of all the small observances that facilitate it. Interruption is considered the height of discourtesy; but so is any attempt, even on the part of the best talkers, to hold the floor and prevent others from making themselves heard. Share and share alike is the first rule of conversational politeness, and if a talker is allowed to absorb the general attention for more than a few minutes it is because his conversation is known to be so good that the other guests have been invited to listen to him. Even so, he must give them a chance now and then, and it is they who must abstain from taking it, and must repeatedly let him see that for once they are content to act as audience. Moreover, even the privileged talker is not allowed to dwell long on any one topic, however stimulating. The old lady who said to her granddaughter: “My dear, you will soon learn that an hour is enough of anything” would have had to reduce her time-limit to five minutes if she had been formulating the rules of French conversation.

In circles where interesting and entertaining men are habitually present the women are not expected to talk much. They are not, of course, to sit stupidly silent; responsiveness is their role, and they must know how to guide the conversation by putting the right question or making the right comment. But above all they are not to air their views in the presence of men worth listening to. The French care passionately for ideas, but they do not expect women to have them, and since they never mistake erudition for intelligence (as we uneducated Anglo-Saxons sometimes do) no woman can force her way into the talk by mere weight of book-learning. She has no place there unless her ideas, and her way of expressing them, put her on an equality with the men; and this seldom happens. Women (if they only knew it!) are generally far more intelligent listeners than talkers; and the rare quality of the Frenchwoman’s listening contributes not a little to the flashing play of French talk.

Here, then, is an almost religious ritual, planned with the sole purpose of getting the best talk from the best talkers; but there are two malicious little taboos that delight in upsetting all these preparations. One of them seems incredibly childish. It is a rule of French society that host and hostess shall sit exactly opposite each other. If the number at table is uneven, then, instead of the guests being equally spaced, they will be packed like sardines about one half the board, and left on the other with echoing straits between them thrown.

If the number is such that, normally seated, with men and women alternating, a lady should find herself opposite the hostess, that unthinkable sacrilege must also be avoided, and three women be placed together on one side of the table, and three men on the other. This means death to general conversation, for intelligent women will never talk together when they can talk to men, or even listen to them; so that the party, thus disarranged, resembles that depressing dish, a pudding in which all the plums have run into one corner.

The plums do not like it either. The scattered affinities grope for each other and vainly seek to reconstitute a normal pudding. The attempt is always a failure, and the French hostess knows it; yet many delightful dinners are wrecked on the unrelenting taboo that obliges host and hostess to sit exactly opposite each other.

“Precedence” is another obstacle to the realization of the perfect dinner. Precedence in a republic—! It is acknowledged to be an absurd anomaly except where official rank is concerned; and though its defenders argue that it is a short-cut through many problems of vanity and amour-propre it might certainly be disregarded to the general advantage whenever a few intelligent people have been brought together, not to compare their titles but to forget them.

But there it is. The French believe themselves to be the most democratic people in the world and they have some of the democratic instincts, though not as many as they think. But an Academician must sit on his hostess’ right, unless there is a Duke or an Ambassador or a Bishop present; and these rules, comic enough where peer meets prelate, become more humorous (and also grow more strict) when applied to the imperceptible differences between the lower degrees of the immense professional and governmental hierarchy.

But again—there it is. A hostess whose papa helped to blow up the Tuileries or pull down the Vendome column weighs the relative claims of two Academicians (always a bad stumbling block) as carefully as a duchess of the old regime, brought up to believe in the divine right of Kings, scrutinizes the genealogy of her guests before seating them. And this strict observance of rules is not due to snobbishness; the French are not a snobbish people. It is part of les bienseances, of the always-have-beens; and there is a big bullying taboo in the way of changing it.

In England, where precedence has, at any rate, the support of a court, where it is, so to speak, still a “going concern,” and works automatically, the hostess, if she is a woman of the world, casts it to the winds on informal occasions; but in France there is no democratic dinner-table over which it does not permanently hang its pall.

II

It may seem curious to have chosen the instance of the blackberry as the text of a homily on “Reverence.” Why not have substituted as a title “Prejudice” or simply “Stupidity?”

Well—”Prejudice” and “Reverence” oftener than one thinks, are overlapping terms, and it seems fairer to choose the one of the two that is not what the French call “pejorative.” As for “Stupidity”—it must be remembered that the French peasant thinks it incredibly stupid of us not instantly to distinguish a mushroom from a toadstool, or any of the intermediate forms of edible funguses from their death-dealing cousins. Remember that we Americans deprive ourselves of many delicious dishes, and occasionally hurry whole harmless families to the grave, through not taking the trouble to examine and compare the small number of mushrooms at our disposal; while the French avoid blackberries from a deep and awesome conviction handed down from the night of history.

There is the key to my apologue. The French fear of the blackberry is not due to any lack of curiosity about its qualities, but to respect for some ancient sanction which prevents those qualities from being investigated.

There is a reflex of negation, of rejection, at the very root of the French character: an instinctive recoil from the new, the untasted, the untested, like the retracting of an insect’s feelers at contact with an unfamiliar object; and no one can hope to understand the French without bearing in mind that this unquestioning respect for rules of which the meaning is forgotten acts as a perpetual necessary check to the idol-breaking instinct of the freest minds in the world.

It may sound like a poor paradox to say that the French are traditional about small things because they are so free about big ones. But the history of human societies seems to show that if they are to endure they must unconsciously secrete the corrective of their own highest qualities.

“Reverence” may be the wasteful fear of an old taboo; but it is also the sense of the preciousness of long accumulations of experience. The quintessential is precious because whatever survives the close filtering of time is likely to answer to some deep racial need, moral or aesthetic. It is stupid to deprive one’s self of blackberries for a reason one has forgotten; but what should we say of a people who had torn down their cathedrals when they ceased to feel the beauty of Gothic architecture, as the French had ceased to feel it in the seventeenth century?

The instinct to preserve that which has been slow and difficult in the making, that into which the long associations of the past are woven, is a more constant element of progress than the Huguenot’s idol-breaking hammer.

Reverence and irreverence are both needed to help the world along, and each is most needed where the other most naturally abounds.

In this respect France and America are in the same case. America, because of her origin, tends to irreverence, impatience, to all sorts of rash and contemptuous short-cuts; France, for the same reason, to routine, precedent, tradition, the beaten path. Therefore it ought to help each nation to apply to herself the corrective of the other’s example; and America can profit more by seeking to find out why France is reverent, and what she reveres, than by trying to inoculate her with a flippant disregard of her own past. The first thing to do is to try to find out why a people, so free and active of thought as the French, are so subject to traditions that have lost their meaning.

The fundamental cause is probably geographical. We Americans have hitherto been geographically self-contained, and until this war did away with distances. We were free to try any social and political experiments we pleased, without, at any rate, weakening ourselves in relation to our neighbors. To keep them off we did not even have to have an army!

France, on the contrary, has had to fight for her existence ever since she has had any. Of her, more than of any other great modern nation, it may be said that from the start she has had, as Goethe puts it, to “reconquer each day the liberty won the day before.”

Again and again, in the past, she has seen her territory invaded, her monuments destroyed, her institutions shattered; the ground on which the future of the world is now being fought for is literally the same as that Catalaunian plain (the “Camp de Chalons”) on which Attila tried to strangle France over fourteen hundred years ago.

In the year 450 all Gaul was filled with terror; for the dreaded Attila, with a host of strange figures, Huns, Tartars, Teutons, head of an empire of true barbarians, drew near her borders. Barbarism … now threatened the world. It had levied a shameful tribute on Constantinople; it now threatened the farthest West. If Gaul fell, Spain would fall, and Italy, and Rome; and Attila would reign supreme, with an empire of desolation, over the whole world.*

“The whole world” is a bigger place nowadays, and “farthest West” is at the Golden Gate and not at the Pillars of Hercules; but otherwise might we not be reading a leader in yesterday’s paper?

Try to picture life under such continual menace of death, and see how in an industrious, intelligent and beauty-loving race it must inevitably produce two strong passions:

Pious love of every yard of the soil and every stone of the houses.

Intense dread lest any internal innovations should weaken the social structure and open a door to the enemy.

There is nothing like a Revolution for making people conservative; that is one of the reasons why, for instance, our Constitution, the child of Revolution, is the most conservative in history. But, in other respects, why should we Americans be conservative? To begin with, there is not much as yet for us to “conserve” except a few root-principles of conduct, social and political; and see how they spring up and dominate every other interest in each national crisis.

In France it is different. The French have nearly two thousand years of history and art and industry and social and political life to “conserve”; that is another of the reasons why their intense intellectual curiosity, their perpetual desire for the new thing, is counteracted by a clinging to rules and precedents that have often become meaningless.

III

Reverence is the life-belt of those whose home is on a raft, and Americans have not pored over the map of France for the last four years without discovering that she may fairly be called a raft. But geographical necessity is far from being the only justification of reverence. It is not chiefly because the new methods of warfare lay America open to the same menace as continental Europe that it is good for us to consider the meaning of this ancient principle of civilized societies.

We are growing up at last; and it is only in maturity that a man glances back along the past, and sees the use of the constraints that irritated his impatient youth. So with races and nations; and America has reached the very moment in her development when she may best understand what has kept older races and riper civilizations sound.

Reverence is one of these preserving elements, and it is worthwhile to study it in its action in French life. If geographical necessity is the fundamental cause, another, almost as deep-seated, is to be found in the instinct of every people to value and preserve what they have themselves created and made beautiful. In Selden’s “Table-talk” there is told the story of a certain carver of idols. Being a pious man he had always worshipped his own idols till he was suddenly called upon to make one in great haste, and, no other wood being available, had to cut down the plum-tree in his own garden and make the image out of that.

He could not worship the plum-tree idol, because he knew too much about the plum tree. That, at least, is Selden’s version; but how little insight it shows into human processes! Of course, after a time, the carver came to worship the plum-tree idol, and to worship it just because he had grown the tree and carved the image, and it was therefore doubly of his making. That is the very key to the secret of reverence; the tenderness we feel for our own effort extending to respect for all human effort.

America is already showing this instinct in her eagerness to beautify her towns, and to preserve her few pre-Revolutionary buildings, that small fragment of her mighty European heritage.

But there are whole stretches of this heritage that have been too long allowed to run to waste: our language, our literature, and many other things pertaining to the great undefinable domain of Taste. A man who owns a vast field does not care for that field half as much when it is a waste as after he has sweated over its furrows and seen the seeds spring. And when he has turned a bit of it into a useless bright flower garden he cares for that useless bit best of all.

The deeper civilization of a country may to a great extent be measured by the care she gives to her flower-garden, the corner of her life where the supposedly “useless” arts and graces flourish. In the cultivating of that garden France has surpassed all modern nations; and one of the greatest of America’s present opportunities is to find out why.

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MLA Citation

Wharton, Edith. “Reverence.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Mar 2015. 26 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/wharton/reverence/>.

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