Spring 1986, Volume 3
The Myth of the American Experience: Observations by Two Frenchmen, DeTocqueville and Cocteau
Every culture develops pre-conceived notions about other cultures: from the life-style of individual citizens to sweeping generalizations about the psychology of the populace.
For example, the average Frenchman might imagine the life of the typical American as follows: the average American lives on the fifty-second floor of the Empire State Building. He chews gum while shaving before breakfast. At this time he also does his most creative thinking: he comes up with a brilliant idea that will save his firm millions of dollars. In his haste to share his idea, he races to work in his Lincoln Continental, carelessly running several red lights. On reaching his firm he enters his boss's plush office, props his feet up on the desk, and presents the bright idea. The delighted boss rewards him with a $10,000 bonus and a vice-presidency in the firm. The next morning, he learns that his firm has crashed financially, but he does not despair. He goes to work on the Ford assembly line and begins again his climb up the ladder of financial success.
A French humorist, Pierre Daninos, actually created this caricature of the American life style. His article contained as well some damaging generalizations that color the average Frenchman's perception of us: the French commonly believe that Americans are naive, overgrown children with no true education or refinement. They also think we lack taste - we have little appreciation of the past and like only what is new. Most damaging of all, considering the French cult of the table, we do not know how to eat.
If the average members of French society have such misconceptions, are the exceptional members - the artists and intellectuals - freer from them? They may strive for objectivity, but even the greatest and most original minds may fall into a snare when dealing with cultures outside their own. This snare is the great temptation to perceive a foreign culture not as an objective entity but as the embodiment of a myth. Myth has several definitions that could apply to the ways foreign cultures are perceived. It is defined as "traditional stories" or "collective opinions" that are useful for what they reveal of the culture of the people they describe. Stories of this sort are still developing today. Anyone who has lived in a French apartment house appreciates that culture's rule that "silence must prevail," especially after a certain hour of the evening. Such a person can relish the tale about an elderly French woman who was acquitted when brought to trial for shooting the tenant who lived in the flat above her. Her defense was simple: "Yes," she said, "I shot him. I had to have my vengeance. He was making noise."
Myth is also defined as a theme or motif in literature and other forms of artistic expression that reveals significant truths about human life or human nature. Here we have only to replace the general "human" with a particular term like "French," "American" or "Russian." Even a thinker as profound as Alexander Solzhenitsyn uses this kind of "mythic" thinking. In his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address, Solzhenitsyn stated that the West is decadent because we have too much comfort: our materialistic outlook has destroyed our willingness to struggle toward greater spiritual development. Therefore, our decadent ways can offer no true alternative to the East, because the Russian people have achieved a much greater spiritual development through the suffering they have endured. Such themes have been repeated often in Russian literature during the past century. It is not surprising to see them color the perceptions of Russia's foremost exile, especially since he has refused any true attempt at integration into American society during his stay among us.
Similar literary themes or motifs are especially apt to infiltrate the thought of French artists and intellectuals who take upon themselves the task of observing our society, mainly because they are heir to a long tradition of such ideas. Many of these motifs can be traced back to De Tocqueville's observations on Democracy In America, written during the 1830's. In our day such notables as Andre Maurois, Albert Camus, Jean-Faul Sarte, and Simone de Beauvoir, among many others, have multiplied and intensified such themes. In fact, some comment on America seems the expected thing to do - it has become a French fashion.
One writer who exemplifies this tendency of seeing American culture through a screen of somewhat mythical distortion is Jean Cocteau. His career spanned an early influence from the French symbolists, embraced the avantgarde movements of the 1910s and 20s, and flourished with great individuality until his death in 1963. Cocteau visited the United States twice. In 1936 he spent a few days rapidly crossing this continent as the result of a bet with the newspaper Paris-Soir that he could match Jules Verne's imaginary record in Around the World In Eighty Days. Later, in 1949 Cocteau visited New York City for two weeks on the occasion of the premiere of his film L'Aigle a deux tetes (The Two-Headed Eagle). He wrote most of his Letter to Americans on the return flight to France. This 5,000 word "Letter" contains some remarkable impressions from his stay, as well as some direct advice on how to cure various artistic and cultural ills that plague our society.
Certainly a twenty-day visit does not make one an expert on a city like New York, let alone on the whole country. Cocteau seeks to excuse the shortness of his observation period by the intensity of his activity: "I've spent twenty days in new York and I've done so much and seen so many people that I can hardly calculate whether the time I spent with you was twenty days or twenty years."
A greater source of annoyance in Cocteau's Letter is his reliance on assumptions about the United State that he brought with him from France. Most of Cocteau's preconceived notions derive from themes and motifs about the States that he no doubt found in his reading and that were shared by other members of the French intelligensia. However, many of his perceptions are original and do strike home. A brief study of his Letter reveals both Cocteau's preconceptions and his valid criticisms
Cocteau loved paradox and his Letter explores the New World experience in terms of it. He finds that we have a thirst for the new yet we fear change. We seek out audacity yet we are afraid of it. We are fascinated by "modern art" yet we want more than anything to define it, translate it, and pigeonhole it like a scientific discipline. We insist on success, yet we fear the failure that often accompanies the greatest successes. We are willing to spend enormous amounts of money to produce the ultimate weapons of destruction, yet we are scarcely willing to fund the "true births" of art. We hate secrecy and live in an open society, yet we are bored and seek escape in curiosity about others, alcohol, incessant activity, and the quest for the dollar. We have created many labor-saving devices with our technology, yet our machines seem to control us and rob us of our individuality. In spite of our many shortcomings, Cocteau feels that we are the anointed saviors of the world. We must save ourselves first, then save the Old World, and finally save the dignity of all mankind.
One collective opinion that echoes throughout these paradoxes is that Americans are childlike. Cocteau perceived the U. S. as "a nation which has preserved its childhood. A young and honest nation." Children have both positive and negative qualities. They are ingenuous that is, open and straightforward in their dealing with others. Cocteau responded to New york City's childlike openness: "Arms are open there, faces are open, hearts are open, open are the streets, the doors, the windows." But the French poet did not Find New York to be a favorable intellectual milieu: he found it "a drought in which ideas cannot mature, and whirl about like dead leaves." Cocteau also felt that we are like children because our interests are shallow and we are readily bored if not entertained by incessant activities and amusements. Like children we are curious. We seek escape from boredom by subjecting others to an interrogation we are afraid to conduct on ourselves.
How could Cocteau see such a nation of children as saviors of the world? Cocteau's attitude that we are a nation of "childlike heroes" reflects the ambivalency that many French have felt toward us during the course of this century. Our military intervention rescued France twice during Cocteau's lifetime. Until quite recently, the French have seen our nation as having overwhelming competence, an inexhaustible supply of money, crushing power, and tremendous political and military strength. This myth of American superiority haunted France for years, and, of course, it hurt French pride. Charles De Gaulle rose to power by defying it. Pointing out American traits that appear immature from the French point of view assuaged the pride of both Cocteau and his readers living in an older, wiser French civilization.
Some of Cocteau's other observations derive from fairly evident literary themes or motifs. These include the usual criticism that Americans are materialistic, that we insist on our petty physical comforts, and that we are a very practical people with a scientific bent of mind. De Tocqueville noted in De la Democratie that our culture is founded in self-interest, is oriented toward the acquisition of wealth, and that money alone creates social distinctions between Americans.
Cocteau also expounds on these themes of American materialism and concern for success, but he considers mainly the effect such traits of character have on the arts in our country. "Success is essential for you - and this is the tragedy of the motion-picture industry, since all the muses know how to wait ... but ... a film cannot wait, costs too much to wait, and must be an instant, mammoth success." Because success is imperative, producers denigrate the public's ability to appreciate lofty works and cut scripts down to a lower level. There is such a great fear of originality and genious that every aspect of a film has to be "arranged" after it is created by the artist in question.
Concern for physical comfort is a corollary to the motif of the American materialistic outlook. De Tocqueville noted that "the need to satisfy the least needs of the body and to provide for life's little commodities universally preoccupies people's minds (in America)." But American concern for comfort does not create true luxury, according to Cocteau. It leads instead to the creation of many machines. These machines rob us of our precious humanity. Cocteau finds a tentative solution in cultural exchange: "Shouldn't you (Americans) entrust us (French) with your machines to see if we could humanize them, and humanize yourselves by reducing the prerogatives of your machines, in short, tame our individualism and stir up yours ... ?"
Also, Americans are noted for their practical turn of mind and their scientific approach to life. De Tocqueville observed these qualities in the 1830's: "Equality gives the taste for the tangible and the real, the dislike for traditions and forms... In America, the purely practical aspect of the sciences is admirably cultivated, and they cultivate carefully theory that can be immediately applied." De Tocqueville found American taste in the arts likewise simple and direct: "They like books that are easily procured, quickly read, and that demand no scholarly research to be understood. They ask for facile beauties that are self-evident and that can be immediately enjoyed; above all, they demand the unexpected and the new." Cocteau, like De Tocqueville, noted that our thirst for novelty and audacity is countered by a fear of the new and unknown in art. Observing the fascination Americans have for "modem art" he fears that we do not truly understand it. He attributes such fears to the collective scientific spirit of our nation and begs us to trust more the intuitive part of our psyches, suggesting we learn that occasionally two plus two can equal five, or that we meditate on the emblem of the Rothschilds: "two plus two equals twenty-two."
Above all, Cocteau perceived the scientific approach as the biggest problem facing the American psyche. He claimed that scientism suppresses the unconscious and the illogical, thus creating an attraction toward the occult. But in the conscious mind scientism claims its due, causing a horror of the mysteries, and demanding understanding of the products of the unconscious mind in a rational way. Cocteau begs us to go beyond the scientific approach. He begs us to refuse further participation in the pact with the devil that created nuclear weapons, and to experience life in all its profundity. He begs us to relax, to question less, and to entrust ourselves to our friends. Only then may we at last find a fuller life and inhabit our truly intuitive nature.
Cocteau concludes that America can be saved, but not by arms or money. We can be saved "by the minority of those who think" . . . through our secret minds, through our poets. No doubt Cocteau's perceptions and critique of our culture strike exposed nerves. His method is mythical, and myth, for all its fictions, reveals hard truths. His solution to our excesses echoes his own personal choices, since the creation of poetry was the ultimate meaning of life for Cocteau. To save ourselves, our country, and the world, according to Cocteau, we must learn to be poets. The poet in Cocteau's personal mythology imitates Dionysus, Orpheus, and Christ by the sacrificial affirmation of the intuitive vitality of existence. Cocteau thus implies that we Americans need to develop our artistic, intellectual, and moral lives before we can save ourselves, let alone others.