I got my answer to why it seems so much easier to have your thoughts run amok here in France, especially in Paris, and having that experience be exhilarating instead of burdensome. It has to do with an atmosphere that permeates the city and most times, the people. There is a lightness to being that seems to elude us in the US.
I went to a luncheon yesterday where I heard Walter Wells, former editor of The International Herald Tribune and co-author of Dangerous De-Liasions , speak to the (not-so) Junior Guild of the American Cathedral here in Paris. It was interesting to be in a room where, one, I was the only brown-skinned person and two, most gathered were Americans who have lived in Paris or France for at least a number of years, if not decades. So the nature of questions were very interesting, ranging from the obvious love-hate relationship of the two nations, to editorship, the stereotypes we box each other into and even retirement in France.
The one remark Mr. Wells made that struck me and made the whole room roar in agreement was when he said one main difference between Americans and the French was that the latter seemed to know no guilt over pleasure. Where we cower, they embrace it as de la maniere normale; where we turn away in guilt, they celebrate it almost as a national treasure! Why the extreme difference in attitude and behavior? It was suggested to me that perhaps it is the Puritan background of Americans at large; another suggested altruism as a co-culprit.
What is Puritanism? According to Henry Warner Bowden, ‘Puritans’ was the name given in the 16th century to the more extreme Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church; they wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. In the 17th century many Puritans emigrated to the New World, where they sought to found a holy Commonwealth in New England. Puritanism remained the dominant cultural force in that area well into the 19th century. In addition to believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and the complete dependence of human beings on divine grace for salvation, they also stressed the importance of personal religious experience.
In that belief, that all of mankind is depraved, is the key to the guilt over pleasure issue, I believe. If man is depraved, sex and sensuality have to be the ringleaders of this sinful debaucherous circus that man has no seeming control over. Sensual desire was not condoned; sex was merely the responsibility given by God to procreate and multiply. To want it just proved their point of man’s depravity. Never mind the fact that God instituted sex and said it was not good for man to be alone. Or that right smack in the middle (ok, middle-ish) of the Bible is the Song of Solomon, a somewhat explicit poem of a couple of lovers out of wedlock. If a child is not allowed to read a work by Anais Nin, then how do we condone or explain the Song of Solomon? What of the many examples in the Bible of the great fathers of faith and even the man after God’s own heart, King David, being very sexual or conducting themselves in a manner that is, to put it mildly, non-prudish?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as 1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others 2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species. I assume the ‘altruism’ being connected to our lack of easiness with sexuality,that it is the second definition that comes into play. I just don’t get that. How can it possibly be that seeking pleasure (the behavior) is not beneficial to myself? That I am somehow sacrificing myself at the altar of altruism for another’s benefit?
Walking through galleries and art museums these past weeks, I have noticed that not one depiction of a lovers’ bed was potrayed by the masters as neatly made. In the mess of the unmade bed lay the story of passion that had unfolded and desires fulfilled. In the languid forms of the bodies, lay the knowledge of energies spent. Also look at the fascination of mankind with ancient sculptures as seen in the Louvre and D’orsay museums. The allure of Venus de Milo as the embodiment of all that is feminine is partly due to the sensuous unfolding of her robe. Odalisque by Ingres, also at the Louvre, among countless others show that men and women are sensual beings. Marlene Dietrich once said that a man would prefer to come home to an unmade bed and a happy woman than a neatly made bed and an angry woman.
My unmade bed will no longer be a shame. It is thus because I am a happy woman.