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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Bollettino

“I was expressing my aversion to disputes: Mr. Hume, who very gratefully admires the tone of Paris, having never known any other tone, said with great surprise, "Why, what do you like, if you hate both disputes and whist?" – Horace Walpole


Indeed, after pouring out the vials about the War, I am feeling rather disgusted with dispute myself.

Walpole wrote this in a letter in the high summer of the enlightenment, visiting Paris in the summer of 1765. He professed to love France, but wished he could “wash it” – having a very Anglo Saxon aversion to filth. He was amused that the French were in the midst of one of their crazes, this one for things anglais – such as Hume, who was (much to Hume’s own surprise) being made much of. Walpole was the son of the Prime Minister who pretty much made Whiggism the cultural default in England; he was, therefore, naturally averse to Hume’s quirky toryism, and makes various catty remarks about his History in his letters. He is also shocked by the French licence in dispute. For instance, here he is dining with some of the nobility:

“The French affect philosophy, literature, and free-thinking: the first
never did, and never will possess me; of the two others I have long been
tired. Free-thinking is for one's self, surely not for society; besides
one has settled one's way of thinking, or knows it cannot be settled,
and for others I do not see why there is not as much bigotry in
attempting conversions from any religion as to it. I dined to-day with a
dozen _savans_, and though all the servants were waiting, the
conversation was much more unrestrained, even on the Old Testament, than
I would suffer at my own table in England, if a single footman was
present.”

The concern for the footman is such an authentic English note that it is hard not to laugh – and Walpole, who was a sly correspondent, perhaps intended to raise that laugh. On the other hand, the concern with the moral well being of the servants, while having a conservative side, also has an egalitarian side – a concern for what the servants think. And there is the English sense of proportion. The sense of proportion is a sense for the frame of things, ossifying into a sense that the things and the frame under which they are perceived be so organically united that another frame, another perspective, is, trivially, perverse, and, persisted in, a sort of treason to nature:

“What strikes me the most upon the whole is, the total difference of
manners between them and us, from the greatest object to the least.
There is not the smallest similitude in the twenty-four hours. It is
obvious in every trifle. Servants carry their lady's train, and put her
into her coach with their hat on. They walk about the streets in the
rain with umbrellas to avoid putting on their hats; driving themselves
in open chaises in the country without hats, in the rain too, and yet
often wear them in a chariot in Paris when it does not rain. The very
footmen are powdered from the break of day, and yet wait behind their
master, as I saw the Duc of Praslin's do, with a red pocket-handkerchief
about their necks. Versailles, like everything else, is a mixture of
parade and poverty, and in every instance exhibits something most
dissonant from our manners. In the colonnades, upon the staircases, nay
in the antechambers of the royal family, there are people selling all
sorts of wares. While we were waiting in the Dauphin's sumptuous
bedchamber, till his dressing-room door should be opened, two fellows
were sweeping it, and dancing about in sabots to rub the floor.”

Dancing about in sabots! One can imagine Pasolini being utterly delighted by that image -- the Pasolini who signed off his darkest film, Salo, with the image of two fascist lads doing a brief two step. It would be interesting to compare Walpole’s letters from France – which were private letters to friends, but written with such talent that you know Walpole knew they would be passed around – with Voltaire’s letters from England – letters, of course, only formally, since they were meant to be chapters in a book. There is something so deeply, culturally foreign, to the Anglo, and eventually the American mind, to the kind of gesture implied by the servants dancing in their sabots. In Hume’s correspondence, which the invaluable Library of Liberty has put on line, there is a footnote about the Anglomania of the time that points to the other side of the story:

… the first Lord Holland [visited Paris about this time]. 'The French concluded that an Englishman of his reputation must be a philosopher, and must be admired. It was customary with him to doze after dinner, and one day at a great entertainment he happened to fall asleep. " Le voilà!" says a Marquis, pulling his neighbour by the sleeve, "Le voilà qui pense!"'

Although Hume was at political odds with Walpole – for interesting reasons that I’d like to get into some time – he shared the spirit of witty negligence out of which Walpole created his persona as letter writer. In 1765, Hume was earning a lot of money from the sale of his History. In fact, when his publisher urged him to write another volume, going from 1688 into the present, Hume made the classic reply: “I’m too old, too fat, too lazy and too rich” to attempt it.

1765 was a year before Hume’s quarrel with Rousseau. Hume’s reception in philosophic circles that were in love – love at a distance – with English liberty is a curious thing. At home, Hume was known for his partiality against the ‘friends of liberty’, as the inheritors of the Glorious Revolution liked to style themselves. It is easy to forget that Hume was a Scot. For him, the heirs of the Glorious Revolution were the presbytery. From that point of view, it is easy to see how he took a rather jaundiced view of the Puritans. Add to which the considerable part played in Hume’s life by the imp of the perverse. It isn’t that his skepticism wasn’t serious – Hume’s seriousness wasn’t serious. Which is why LI loves him.

Hume’s enjoyment of Paris was augmented by his sense that he was living at a cultural moment. Here is an extract from a letter to his friend, Strahan:

“…there is a general Tranquillity establishd in Europe2; so that we have nothing to do but cultivate Letters: There appears here a much greater Zeal of that kind than in England3; but the best & most taking works of the French are generally publishd in Geneva or Holland, and are in London before they are in Paris4…. I have not lost view of continuing my History6. But as to the Point of my rising in Reputation, I doubt much of it7: The mad and wicked Rage against the Scots, I am told, continues and encreases, and the English are such a mobbish People as never to distinguish. Happily their Opinion gives me no great Concern.8”

This was the era, you will remember, of the Scots favorites of George III. In consequence, the Scots were no favorites of the London mob. But otherwise, in Hume’s view, and the view of his friends like Smith and Robertson, civilization was undoubtedly improving. And, when one comes to think of it, the Scot in Hume would be much more at home in Paris, at this time, then the Briton in Walpole.

There’s a footnote in Hume’s correspondence that quotes that unutterably miserable traitor to the philosophe cause, Grimm. Grimm, in 1766, had not yet shown his true colors. However, he is a spiteful spirit, given to random malice. This is his Hume:

'M. Hume doit aimer la France; il y a requ l'accueil le plus distingué et le plus flatteur. Paris et la cour se sont disputé l'honneur de se surpasser….Ce qu'il y a encore de plaisant, c'est que toutes les jolies femmes se le sont arraché, et que le gros philosophe écossais s'est plu dans leur société. C'est un excellent homme que David Hume; il est naturellement serein, il entend finement, il dit quelquefois avec sel, quoiqu'il parle peu; mais il est lourd, il n'a ni chaleur, ni grace, ni agrément dans l'esprit, ni rien qui soit propre à s'allier au ramage de ces charmantes petites machines qu'on appelle jolies femmes.'

Walpole saw the sights in Paris. He saw the great monster of Gevaudan – an ‘absolute wolf” -- in Marie Antoinette’s corner of the palace. He liked Rousseau’s opera, and disliked the Italian. And the charmantes petites machines – Grimm is all over that phrase – took to Walpole, just as they had to Hume. The effect went to his head – just as it did with Hume. Here he is, revealing his success in another letter in January, 1766:

It would sound vain to tell you the honours and
distinctions I receive, and how much I am in fashion; yet when they come
from the handsomest women in France, and the most respectable in point
of character, can one help being a little proud? If I was twenty years
younger, I should wish they were not quite so respectable. Madame de
Brionne, whom I have never seen, and who was to have met me at supper
last night at the charming Madame d'Egmont's, sent me an invitation by
the latter for Wednesday next. I was engaged, and hesitated. I was told,
"Comment! savez-vous que c'est qu'elle ne feroit pas pour toute la
France?" However, lest you should dread my returning a perfect old
swain, I study my wrinkles, compare myself and my limbs to every plate
of larks I see, and treat my understanding with at least as little
mercy.
Walpole was famously ridden by gout, and one wonders how he managed to hobble around Paris so much. But he did.


I find no mention in his letters from that time of Adam Smith. But, by coincidence, Smith was also visiting Paris in 1765 – and warning his intimate friend Hume not to settle there:

'A man is always displaced in a forreign Country ... They [the French]-live in such large societies, and their affections are dissipated amongst so great a variety of objects, that they can bestow but a very small share of them upon any individual.'

On that note, let’s end this little divertimento.

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