Thursday, March 02, 2006

Worth Remembering

I remember that, speaking of his fellow Americans, especially of American youth, a great friend of mine said to me one day: "They have no roots." The worst scoundrel in Europe has roots; there is some old human legacy to which he can stick, for better or for worse. Here there is, it seems to me, a certain instability, or fleetingness, in the life of individuals; one is less sure that "it will last," that they will carry through, I don't say with the job they are determined to do, I would rather say with the inner purpose they have formed as to the direction of their own personal life.

That is why, among the general features of American psychology, and despite many exceptions, of course, I think we can observe a certain proneness to a peculiar sort of impatience, and, as a result, a proneness also to quick discouragement. Let me make my thought clearer. I just said that the impatience in question is a peculiar sort of impatience. American crowds (when waiting for a train, for instance or inconvenienced by any of the multiple regulations of our modern life, or plagued by red tape) are incomparably more patient than French crowds. Men and women in this country confront suffering with great courage, and often a strange Stoic resignation. In emergencies they manifest admirable endurance. But they are not patient with life.

They are not patient with their own life, as a rule. And they get disturbed and discouraged very soon, if the work they have undertaken is slow to succeed. The American artist, the American painter, would like to have his work satisfy him rapidly and give immediate results, whereas a French painter, a Cézanne, a Rouault -- disregarded, spurned by all for perhaps thirty or forty years -- remains bent on working with furious patience. As a rule, I think, a young American would be afraid that such an attitude marked only presumptuous stubbornness. If he is not recognized, he starts doubting himself. He thinks he is a failure.

Jacques Maritain, following in the French tradition of Chateaubriand and Tocqueville, in Reflections on America. In context he is discussing weaknesses in American society. And there's no doubt that this is one.

UPDATE: Another great line. This time Maritain is discussing deep-rooted American illusions. The fifth is this:

Americans seem sometimes to believe that if you are a thinker you must be a frowning bore, because thinking is so damn serious.

This one's more serious, though. It's number seven:

A number of Americans seem to consider that marriage must be both the perfect fulfillment of romantic love and the pursuit of full individual self-realization for the two partners involved.

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