The closest some of us get to France and its culture is the annual French Film Festival, which, along with its Italian equivalent, eclipsed last year’s indigenous fiasco.
This year’s collection of French films, which now tour the country, has been reduced to 21, while Italian has 22 (including some classics) but has expanded its theaters to 21. Both countries are providing support strong at promoting their national industries on the international stage, with the French also offering the free TV5 Monde streaming service.
But it’s not just films that make French culture relevant. The closest country to New Zealand is a French territory, while the Catholic religion was introduced by a French bishop.
For many, the appeal of Frenchness can be summed up in the phrase “Je ne sais quoi”. Simply put, it is a quality that cannot be adequately described or expressed.
The philosopher Ollivier Pourriol attempts a definition: “A mixture of noble arrogance and popular insolence, seriousness in light things and lightness in moments of great seriousness; in short, a desire for simplicity synonymous with both elegance and pleasure.
We find it in the French love of gastronomy; its political expression in liberty, equality and fraternity; the taste for beauty and gluttony; and an exceptional interest in philosophy and argument.
Pourriol was asked to write what he calls an “airport book” titled The The French art of not overdoing it (in French, Easy: The French art of succeeding without forcing). Born in 1971, he has written several novels and philosophical works (none translated into English).
The hardest part, he admits, was getting started. The French way means a lot, especially to foreigners for whom the book was not originally intended.
“If you try to define it too closely, you miss its essential quality, which is the ability to protect its mystery, and thus retain its appeal,” he writes. But the subject is not hard to believe for foreigners about the French; they have an ability to succeed where it is not related to the effort provided. On the contrary, success is noted by the absence of apparent effort.
Pourriol dives into history for an explanation. The 17the century, indeed, known in France under the name of Great Century of Louis XIV, when the qualities of ease in accomplishing something were admired at the royal court. This contrasts with the work ethic of the bourgeoisie and its belief that success is due to merit and not birth.
This “royal road” survived the Revolution and the destruction of the aristocracy after 1789 to become an admired feature of effortless Frenchness. Once this definition has been established, Pourriol develops with many examples from French culture. They include writers, artists and sculptors as well as actors, pianists and philosophers.
Besides creativity, tennis players, golfers, athletes, tightrope walkers and free divers are also important, as are activities such as horse riding, surfing, skiing and sailing.
Success in any of these areas requires talent and practice. But Pourriol sees the difference in how this is achieved as more than just an application. He discusses Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour thesis in Outliers as a failure in one respect: no amount of effort guarantees success.
Those who have other explanations. Top athletes talk about being “in the zone” or in a “state of grace”. They enter another level where their ability exceeds normal physical limits in ways they find difficult to explain.
Perhaps the most bizarre example, and on which Pourriol spends four pages, is the “French flair” in rugby as Blues raced from one end of Eden Park to the other to snatch victory for the All Blacks in the dying minutes of a contested Test on July 3, 1994.
For others, dependent on things beyond their control, it means going with the flow, whether it’s a wave, the wind, a horse or a ski slope. Pianist Hélène Grimaud calls it a “visit”. She refuses to do general rehearsals before performing a new work, preferring to let her play in tune, relying on her previous practice to get by.
Early in his career, actor Gérard Depardieu had English-speaking roles but did not understand the language. Instead, he paid more attention to the punctuation of what he said than to the meaning. When a director once explained the meaning of a dialogue, Depardieu said he froze and was initially unable to play the role.
The dangers of overthinking were enunciated by Descartes, the first modern French philosopher, although he spent much of his life (1596-1650) in the Dutch republic. His advice was to take an idea and stick to it. Preferably, your choice of an area to excel in should be something you really enjoy doing.
‘Call of the Wild’
Avoid things you’re not good at and let yourself be tempted by what Pourriol calls “the call of nature”. Jack London’s book of the same name is about a dog who wants to be the best on a sledding team because he likes it. The other dogs not so much. If you’re not good at math or cooking, don’t try to burn yourself out.
Descartes favored consistency in solving a problem and acted on his own advice. One was not to reveal too much information.
During his travels, he once asked German sailors to take him on a boat ride. Since he was wealthy, the sailors plotted how to steal him and dispose of him during the voyage. But Descartes did not reveal that he could understand German and worked out a plan to avoid being robbed and murdered. He exposed their scheming with threats that made them back down.
German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (above), one of Pourriol’s few non-French sources, also warned against overthinking. “When you feel like you have a problem, you have to stop thinking about it, otherwise you can’t get rid of it,” he wrote in his Secret notebookscompiled during World War I.
“You have to start thinking about the point where you can sit comfortably… Difficult problems have to be resolved before our eyes.”
Cut out a problem
Much earlier, Descartes sketched his method which announces the modern era of philosophy. Pourriol explains a key feature of the Cartesian method: “To solve a problem, you must first dissolve it and break into as many parts as possible what, at first glance, seems like an overwhelming mess.” To quote Descartes himself, it’s like the steps of a staircase, “there can’t be something so far away that you don’t reach it, or so hidden that you don’t discover it”.
This advice is exactly how tightrope walker Philippe Petit achieved his daring feats, literally one step at a time.
Jean Guitton, in intellectual work (Intellectual Work, but not translated into English), offers another variant. “The art of not even trying is to never let your will get irritated and tense…”
Finally, the armchair philosopher of the imagination, Gaston Bachelard, says that letting the mind wander allows you to “tonify your whole being without risking the muscular betrayal that comes from the usual gymnastic exercises”.
While Pourriol regards his modest tome of less than 200 pages as an “airport book” – short enough to last a plane trip – it is likely to whet the appetite for more demanding reading.
Of his many French sources, Pourriol lists 11 authors who have been translated into English. These include Bachelard, Petit and Grimaud, all mentioned or quoted above, as well as Descartes. Others include works by Michel de Montaigne, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stendhal and Simone Weill.
The French art of not overdoing itby Ollivier Pourriol (Books Profile).
Nevil Gibson is a former editor of NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.
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