A Defense Strategy

Now, “Frenchness” may seem to be an intolerably vague idea, and it smells of related notions like Volksgeist that have acquired a bad odor since ethnography became polluted with racism in the 1930s. Nonetheless, an idea may be valid even if it is vague and has been abused in the past. Frenchness exists….[I]t is a distinct cultural style; and it conveys a particular view of the world—a sense that life is hard, that you had better not have any illusions about selflessness in your fellow men, that clear-headedness and quick wit are necessary to protect what little you can extract from your surroundings, and that moral nicety will get you nowhere. Frenchness makes for ironic detachment. It tends to be negative and disabused. Unlike its Anglo-Saxon opposite, the Protestant ethic, it offers no formula for conquering the world. It is a defense strategy, well suited to an oppressed peasantry or an occupied country. […] The world is made for knaves and fools, they say: better to be a knave than a fool.

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.

Generally, the Romanian does not believe in people’s kindness; he does not have an idyllic and sentimental outlook on life. Sometimes, the very idea he forms about people, tainted by suspicion and mistrust, has something pessimistic about it. He sees first an enemy in the person he meets and only after he has known him well does he grant him confidence, but never completely. […] This aspect of his character can easily be explained by the century-old life of sufferings and exploitations he has felt. The soul of a permanently oppressed, lied to and disillusioned people cannot breed sentimental or idyllic humanitarianism, nor trust in people and their kindness.

Mihai D. Ralea, The Romanian Phenomenon.

 

 

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