TL;DR — French people are miserable. We like it that way. I confirm that it is all true.
Romantic miserabilism was experienced as a form of pleasure. “Melancholy”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is the happiness of being sad.” It was treated as a noble state, a higher aesthetic condition. “I do not pretend that joy cannot be allied with beauty,” wrote Baudelaire in his diary. “But I do say that joy is one of its most vulgar ornaments; whereas melancholy is, as it were, its illustrious companion.” Much of this tradition is firmly fixed in today’s French mind.
Indeed, the left-bank literary clique led by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which gravitated to the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Près, adopted ennui as a way of life as well as a philosophy.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote, channelling Tolstoy and Emilie du Châtelet before him: “Les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire.”
Translation: “Happy people have no (hi)story.” The sentence has practically gained common expression status, and it is uttered to every French teenager at our first heartbreak.
“The rationalist tradition makes us sceptical; we exist through criticism,” argues Monique Canto-Sperber, a philosopher and director of Paris Sciences et Lettres, an elite university.
In French schools, for example, the tradition is for teachers to grade harshly, and praise with excessive moderation. (…) The idea is that all children can always do better. The result is a lack of what the French, borrowing English syntax, call “la positive attitude”.
Fact, fact, fact.
The French, wrote a helpful official guide for British servicemen heading to France for the 1944 liberation offensive, “enjoy an intellectual argument more than we do. You will often think that two Frenchmen are having a violent quarrel when they are simply arguing some abstract point.”
A cliché, you say? Just ask Jason. He calls it daily life.
But all of this, the writer insightfully notes, comes with a side of fierce, secular, republican idealism, and the recent realisation that France may just be “a country like any other”:
Thanks to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the 1789 revolution, the concept of progress towards an ideal society has, despite periodic turmoil and bloodshed, been a powerful narrative in the French mind. The best embodiment of this is the French declaration of human rights. Unlike the American declaration of independence in 1776, which guaranteed the rights of all Americans, the French version 13 years later guaranteed the rights of all mankind.
Left-wing French intellectuals never quite got over the failed revolutionary promise of the May ’68 student uprising, nor their disillusion at the declining influence of French thought from the 1980s onwards. Others struggled to reconcile French values with the country’s darker moments, notably under occupation.
But never mind. We French are also masters at pairing our misery with the best cheeses and wines:
France does not wear its gloom like a dreary accessory. On the contrary, its culture delights in elegance, sensuality, quality and form: the exquisite hand-stitching on the haute-couture dress; the immaculately glazed tartes aux framboises lined up in the pâtisserie window.
And, what is more, we know how to put this misery to good, creative use:
Both cinema’s New Wave and French literary theory were born of critical reconstruction of what came before.
— Thanks to Eric, from NYC.