March 29, 2013 6:16 pm

The stoic, the upbeat and les misérables

A nation’s cultural imprint can act as a prison for its artists

The French are unhappy. So says a study by Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, who raises questions about the country’s cultural “mentality”. The country of excellent healthcare, fine wines and the short working week is in distress. True, there are some stinging tax rates to consider, and the weather up north can be iffy. But there are more profound issues at stake. “There is something in the culture that makes French people miserable,” says Senik. It seems that art is to blame.

This is a significant finding. We love French culture. It covers the entire range of human experience, from the uptight kingly elegance of its palaces to the feral love triangles of its free-flowing movies. How can you not fall in love with the artistic sensibility of the French? Who would not want to be duelling with Jules and Jim for an intellectually resonant clinch with Jeanne Moreau? That potent brew of sensual and cerebral satisfaction, a resolution of Cartesian dualism no less, seemed to be achievable only to the French.

And only on Gallic ground could you come across a school of philosophical thought that said that you could do anything you liked (I am compressing the argument). You could smoke. You could be unfaithful. You could lure a sexual partner to bed by discussing Cartesian dualism, although this can be a dangerous tactic. In Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud, a young man spends the night flirting so fiercely on the topic of Pascal’s writings that he uncharacteristically forgets to get the girl.

But all this existential speculation is not good for us, we now find out. The Gallic shrug of the shoulders is not a gesture of insouciance but of impotence. When everything is allowed and life is good, we really do feel that sense of Sartrean nausea that inevitably ruins the moment. Endless questioning leads to endemic dissatisfaction. The French are held back by the very inquisitiveness of their own culture. They find problems where none exist.

All this set me thinking, on a long flight back to London earlier this week, on how a nation’s cultural imprint can act as a prison for its artists. I was catching up on a movie, Silver Linings Playbook, which had received good notices from critics and friends. It was billed as a comedy that looked at the troublesome issue of bipolar disorder, which sounded ominous.

It flowed sweetly enough, boasting some fine performances and an above-average script. And then, wouldn’t you know it, it completely lost its nerve. The ending melted into a hot pool of schmaltz that utterly undermined its earlier claims to be treating its subject seriously. In the last 10 minutes alone there was a dancing contest, the reading of a defining love letter, and an extended family celebrating its contentment over Sunday lunch.

So here was an aspect of American culture, the relentless desire to make things whole and happy, that crucially overwhelmed its attempts to say something lasting and serious. If the French have a tendency to problematise, the Americans do the opposite, cheerfully skirting over pain, ambiguity, nuance. And that, too, must make its citizens unhappy. Over-neat resolution is as frustrating as over-keen contemplation. Both make a mockery of the real world’s real problems.

. . .

Stop making such wild generalisations on national stereotypes, I admonished myself. And then the BA pilot entered the scene. Our descent into London was accompanied by a warning: we would be finding the temperature “rather chilly”. We knew, his compatriots, what this meant. We smiled, complicit in his understatement, and searched our bags for extra layers of Gore-Tex.

When we landed, our captain said there would be a “small delay”. We knew what that meant too. After a few minutes, two armoured police men marched on board. There was a not over-friendly discussion with a passenger, and they led her out of the aircraft. Once more, our pilot from central casting had the right words. He apologised for the “slight change of procedure”.

And here was the trap that British culture inflicted on its population, that obsessive need to de-dramatise, to underplay, to respond with a quiet stoicism to the stormiest of occurrences. Does that too not make us unhappy? All that clenched inwardness (a favourite topic of novelists, not surprisingly), making the best of a bad situation when a good situation is just a couple of healthy emotional outpourings away?

Each country has its own cultural tropes. That is what makes its artistic offerings distinctive, and attractive to outsiders. We love the exoticism of alien cultures because they compensate for the shortcomings of our own. The greatest artists are able to encapsulate fundamental truths about their own patrimonies, as well as about the wider human condition. Think Michelangelo or Beethoven, the most universal of artists, who could nonetheless have only come from their own respective cultural traditions. Could Ingmar Bergman have come from Spain, or Pedro Almodóvar from Sweden?

The French need to lighten up. Spring is around the corner and, besides, there is a new Carla Bruni album out this week. On it, there is a song entitled “Mon Raymond”, which is addressed to her husband, and the former president of the republic, Nicolas Sarkozy. Check out the lyrics for yourselves. Only in France, and all that.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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