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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

32. European Sociability

Texte intégral

1Louis-Antoine Caraccioli describes in his treatise Paris, the Model of Foreign Nations, or French Europe, how the model of French sociability through conversation has contributed to civilising all of Europe.

On the Mind of Society

2That affable and easy disposition, which gains trust and is well liked in all countries, is not given to all men. I know only of the Italians, the French and perhaps the Swedish who have it in themselves to approach those they meet, and who speak to them willingly.

3Europeans, almost all of them reserved, have only become communicative since they adopted French manners. In years gone by, an incredible effort was required to squeeze just one word out of an Englishman. Always convinced that his interlocutor was trying to catch him out, he would search for the shortest monosyllable to wrench himself out of such an awkward situation, and he repaid everyone who tried to converse with him in this way.

4But it was an entirely different case when one went to his country. He no longer recognised people who had been extremely polite towards him. What a century! Everything has changed, the Dutch speak, and the English welcome foreigners.

5By dint of hearing the French chatter, others copy them without realising. Moreover, because they are naturally inquisitive and curious, the French frequently ask so many questions that, willingly or not, their interlocutors are forced to respond. Through this process, tongues have been loosened, and now the art of conversation is known everywhere in Europe.

6These are no longer the days of men spending an entire day smoking together, without uttering a single word. Dutch smoking parlours have become almost as noisy as if they were full of Frenchmen, and German inns, where one would formerly receive only a strained response, now often have hosts who will mutter a few sentences, and even manage some compliments.

7I admit that the Frenchman has a tendency to intervene in discussions; that often, without knowing those standing before him, he speaks to them; even asks them questions, and that he seeks to become the friend of all humankind. But is that not better than being a morose character, with the air of a statue escaped from a Mausoleum; or a man who always believes himself to be in enemy territory, and who fears compromising himself, even when only talking about the rain? I prefer a giddy, babbling creature to a cynic who does not say a word; I’d dine with my parrot just as gladly as I’d dine with a strange fellow who only unclenches his teeth to put food in his mouth.

8What is more pleasant for a man who travels, than meeting people who discuss various events with him, who tell him the news of the day, who tell him the stories from the day before, and who declare themselves to be his friends, his brothers, from the moment they chance upon each other? […]

9We like to fancy the whole world as one and the same family, as fulfilling the same objectives and reaching the same goal, via their various occupations and their different tastes. In that sense we would say that there is only one mind, only one soul, and only one being.

10Not fifty years ago a Frenchman introducing himself in some assembly, whether in Genoa or in London, would come across as a true lunatic. His free demeanour, his natural conversation would revolt people who knew only how to be serious. But now that we know the value of society, we no longer pass such baseless judgements. What was then taken as folly now passes as gaiety.

11The art of conversation has always been France’s favourite science: the French would sooner not exist, than not speak; and I do not feel that they are wrong, since word and thought are essentially what distinguish men from animals.

12The laws of conversation being to not dwell on any one subject, but to pass lightly from one topic to another, without effort and without affectation; to know how to speak of frivolous and serious matters; to remember that every exchange is a distraction, and not a bout of fencing; a game and not a study, the French are more proficient than any other nation at this type of exercise.

13[…] There is nothing more delightful than knowing how to hold polite, gentle, light-hearted conversation, and it is a pleasure that today we find all over Europe. In Germany, and most of all in Italy, we mingle at gatherings where the soul is at ease, where the mind takes flight, where Minerva jests, where Venus moralises, where the Graces and the Muses fence beautifully; the Frenchman is happy there, for he finds Paris again, he finds himself again.

14The Englishman, too, is acquiring this amiability, which is so interesting and so natural; today he does not even wish to be suspected of being distant and aloof. One might say that he is ashamed of ever having been so. The odds are that after the metamorphoses that we are seeing, he will finally be persuaded that amusement is not to be found in having feasts from the morning until the evening, or in giving in to immoderate raptures.

15Following the example set by France, Europeans no longer converse as before, only to argue and to make a weapon out of erudition. Controversy is left to the schoolroom, and pedants are excluded from good company, where there are no longer theses to defend.

16Louis-Antoine Caraccioli,
Paris, the Model of Foreign Nations, or French Europe (1777).

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