Why Paris? Reason #2
Reason #2: The Right to be Left Alone
“The great merit of the place is that one can arrange one’s life here exactly as one pleases…there are facilities for every kind of habit and taste, and everything is accepted and understood.” Henry James, in a letter to a friend (1876)
The French have a term for it: laisser faire, and it means, basically, that minding your own business is a beautiful thing. The French believe in individual liberty, and they believe in the importance of privacy. What other people have often interpreted as French aloofness or snobbery is often just a profound sense of and respect for personal boundaries. When you get to know French people, you will realize that they are every bit as warm and loving, as funny and friendly, as anyone else in the world. What they are not is presumptuous, or hasty in developing their personal relationships. They believe that forming meaningful relationships takes time, and they have both patience for that process, and respect for people’s right to be left alone if and when that is what they want.
Being left alone can be liberating, or it can be lonely. (And of course it can be both at the same time.)
James Baldwin spent a good deal of very artistically productive time in Paris. His feelings about the French, and about their famous respect for privacy were nothing if not ambivalent. (It is he who said “It is perfectly possible to be enamored of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French.” ) About his decision to go to Paris, he wrote, “My flight had been dictated by my hope that I could find myself in a place where I would be treated more humanely than my society had treated me at home,” and added, “Paris had done this for me: by leaving me completely alone…I didn’t want any help, and the French certainly didn’t give me any–they let me do it myself; and for that reason…there will always be a kind of love story between myself and that odd, unpredictable collection of bourgeois chauvinists who call themselves La France.”
I believe Gertrude Stein was referring to something similar when she said, “It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away that was important.”
V. S. Pritchett put it another way. “What did I get out of my two years in Paris?…Freedom…and love of it has never left me. Self-confidence too…” he wrote, and added, “Above all, I had had feckless pleasure, a thing suspected by the calculating, constrained and anxious lower-middle-class from which I came.”
Let’s hold that thought about “feckless pleasure.” It will surely come up again.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.