Worldliness And Home Life
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN THE time of the Second Empire, there was, in one of our prettiest sous-prefectures, in a province at a very short distance from a flag-station frequented by the Emperor, a very respectable and also intelligent mayor, whose head became suddenly turned when he thought that some day the Chief of State might enter his house. Until then he had lived in the old paternal home as a son, respecting its smallest souvenirs. As soon as this fixed idea, that he might receive the Emperor of France, took possession of his brain, he be-came another man. That which had seemed to him sufficient and even comfortable, all that simplicity loved by his parents and ancestors, now seemed to him mean, ugly and despicable. It would be impossible to ask an emperor to mount that old wooden staircase, to invite him to be seated on one of those old chairs, to permit him to set his foot on those superannuated carpets. So the mayor called architects and masons, attacked the walls with picks, demolished partitions, and built a salon out of proportion with the rest of the house by its spreading luxury. He withdrew with his family to some small rooms, where people and furniture, hud died together in spite of themselves, were mutually uncomfortable. Then having by this idea emptied his purse and upset his home, he awaited his imperial guest. Alas! he saw the end of the empire come, but the Emperor, never.
The folly of this poor man is not so rare as we may think. They are mentally unsound who, like him, sacrifice their interior life to worldliness.
The danger of a like sacrifice is more threatening in these more agitated times. Our contemporaries are constantly exposed to it, and a great number succumb to it. How many family treasures have been thrown away, a clear loss, to satisfy new styles or worldly ambitions, and the happiness whose arrival they pretended to be preparing for by these impious sacrifices is making them wait still. It is to make a silly bargain to deliver the fireside of the family, to let these good traditions fall into desuetude, to abandon the simple domestic customs. The place of the home life is such in society, that it suffices only to enfeeble it for trouble to be felt in the entire social organism. To enjoy normal development this organism needs that it be furnished with well-tempered individuals, having their own value and their personal mark. Otherwise, society becomes a flock of sheep, and sometimes a flock without a shepherd. But where will the individual find his originality, this unique thing which, united with the distinctive qualities of others, constitutes the riches and solidity of a home? It can never find them but in the family. Destroy that constellation of practices and souvenirs, which make each home like a miniature climate, and you would dry up the springs of character, you would cut even the roots of public spirit.
It is important to the country that each fireside be a world, profound, respected, communicating to its members an ineffaceable moral imprint. But before. pursuing let us set aside a misunderstanding. The family spirit, as all beautiful things, has its caricature which is called domestic selfishness. Some families art like closed citadels, where they are all organized to exploit all outsiders. All that which does not concern themselves directly is indifferent to them. They are in the position of colonists, I might say intruders, in ,the society where they live. Their exclusiveness is carried to such an extent that they consider the whole human race as enemies. They resemble those powerful societies, formed from time to time in history, who quietly take possession of the empire of the world, and for whom nothing counts but themselves. It is that spirit that has made us consider the family as the lair of egotism, which should be destroyed for the good of society. But as there is an abyss between the spirit of a command and the spirit of party, so there is an abyss between the spirit of family and the spirit of the family circle.
Now, it is of the spirit of the family that we speak. Nothing in the world equals it in value. For it holds in germ all those grand and simple virtues which as-sure the durability and power of social institutions. At the very base of family spirit is found the respect for the past, for that which a family has best are the souvenirs held in common. Intangible, indivisible, inalienable, capital, these souvenirs constitute a sacred deposit. Each member of the family ought to consider them as his most precious possession. They exist in a double form, in idea and in fact. One finds them in language, the ruts of thought, the sentiments, instincts even. And under a material form we see them represented by portraits, furniture, constructions, costumes and songs. To profane eyes this is nothing; to the eyes of those who know how to appreciate these things of the family life, they are relics which should not be abandoned at any price.
But what is passing in general in this world where we live? Worldliness makes war with the family spirit. All the struggles are poignant; I know of none more passionate than that one. By grand means, as by small ones, by all sorts of new habits, exactions and pretensions, the worldly spirit makes irruption into the domestic sanctuary. What are the rights of that stranger? His titles? On what can he base his peremptory claims? That is what we generally neglect to ask ourselves. We are wrong. We act with regard to the invader as the poor simple people do in regard to a very splendid visitor. For this encumbering guest of a day they will pillage their own gardens, stuff their guests' domestics and their children, and neglect their own work. Unjust and awkward conduct. We must have courage to remain what we are, before no matter who.
The worldly spirit has all the impudences. Here is a simple home which still forms characters of mark. The men, the furniture, all remain as they were. By marriage, by business relations or pleasure, the worldly spirit enters into it. It finds all old, awkward, foolish. It lacks modernity. At first it confines itself to criticism, a witty raillery. But that is the most dangerous moment. Watch out for yourself; there is the enemy! If you allow yourself to be influenced the least in the world, tomorrow you will sacrifice a piece of furniture, the day after good old tradition, and, little by little, the dear relics of heart-interest, the fa, miliar objects, and with them filial piety, will be sent to the dealer in bric-a-brac.
In these new habits and the changed surroundings your old parents, your old friends, will feel exiled from their country. You will take a step further and dress them up in their turn ; worldliness suppresses the old. Thus, provided with an altogether changed frame, you will be astonished to see yourself in it. That will not remind you of anything, but it will be correct, and the worldly spirit at least will declare itself satisfied. Alas ! that is what deceives you. After having thrown away real treasures like old iron, it will find you borrowed under your new livery, and will hasten to make you feel the ridicule of such a situation. It would have been better, from the beginning, to have had the courage of your opinion and to defend your home.
Many young persons, when they marry, cede to the inspirations of the worldly spirit. Their parents had given their example of a modest life, but the new generation thinks it is affirming its rights to existence and liberty in repudiating a style too patriarchal in their eyes. They, therefore, to install themselves in the latest mode at great expense, sell the useful objects at a ridiculous price. Instead of filling their home with objects which say, "Remember," they fill it up with altogether new articles to which no thought belongs.
I am mistaken. These objects are often like symbols of easy and superficial life. We breathe among them I know not what pungent worldly vapor. They recall out-door life, the haste and the whirlwind. And were we disposed sometimes to forget them, they bring back your thought in saving in another sense, "Remember! Do not forget the hour for the club, the theater, the races." The home thus organized becomes a sort of stopping-place where they come to repose a little between two long absences. It is not good to stay long in. As it has no soul it does not speak to a soul. The time to sleep, to eat ; and, quick, they must go out again ! One would become sleepy there ; domesticated.
We all know these people who have the rage of going out, who think the world would stop if they did not show themselves everywhere. To remain at home is their heaviest load ; they cannot bear to look upon themselves as there in a picture even ! The horror of home-life holds them to such a point that they would rather pay to be annoyed stupidly outside than to amuse them-selves gratuitously at home.
Little by little society drifts toward life in flocks which must not be confounded with public life. The life in troops is something like of the swarms of flies in the sun. Nothing resembles the life of a worldly man so much as the life of another worldly man. And this universal banality destroys even the essence of a public spirit. One does not need to take very long voyages to see the ravages which this worldly spirit has made in contemporary society, and if we have so little foundation of equilibrium, calm good sense, initiative, one of the great reasons is in the diminution of the home-life. The masses are limping along after the classes. The people have become worldly. For it is worldliness to quit one's home to go and live in the saloons. Misery and the wretched state of these habitations do not suffice to explain the current which sweeps each one out from his home. Why does the peasant desert the house where his father and his grandfather were so happy, for the inn? The house has remained the same; it is the same fire in the same chimney. Why does it shine on an incomplete circle, instead of the long evenings of olden times, when the young and old elbowed before its blaze? Something has been changed in the minds of men. Ceding to their unhealthy desires they have broken with simplicity. The fathers have quitted their post of honor, the women vegetate by the solitary astre, and the children quarrel among themselves while awaiting the time when each can go his own way.
We must relearn home-life and the value of domestic traditions. A pious solicitude has consecrated certain monuments, the only remains of the past among us, And pious hands have gathered up old costumes, provincial dialects, old songs, before they have disappeared] from the world. How well they do, to guard these, crumbs of a great past, these vestiges of the souls of our forbears. Let us do the same for the traditions of the family ; let us save and cause to last as long as possible all which still exists of the patriarchal, no matter under what form.
But everybody has not got traditions to keep up. All the more reason to redouble our efforts in the constitution and the culture of family life. One does not need for that to be numerous, nor to be grandly situated. To create a borne, one must have the home spirit. The same as a small village can have its history, its moral imprint, the smallest home can have its soul. Oh, the spirit of places, the atmosphere which surrounds us in dwelling-places ! What a world of mysteries ! Here, from the very threshold, you are chilled by coldness; discomfort takes possession of you. Something in-visible repulses you. There, as soon as the door has closed, you feel the benevolence and good-humor surround you. They say that walls have ears. They have also their voices, their mute eloquence. Around all that is contained in a home floats the spirit of the people, And I see a proof of the power of that spirit in the homes of bachelors and of women who live isolated lives. What an abyss between one room and another room ! Here inertia, indifference, earth to earthly. The device of the inhabitant is written even in the fashion of arranging the books and the photographs. It is all alike to me. In that is the joy of living, the communicative animation; the visitor feels something say to him in a thousand ways, "Whoever you be, guest of an hour, I wish you well. Peace be to you !"
We can never say too much of home life: the influence of a flower, loved and cultivated in a window; the charm of an old easy-chair, where the grandfather sits offering his wrinkled hands to the kisses of the chubby grandchildren. Poor moderns ! Always moving or in transformation ! We, who, after modifying the face of our cities, our houses, our customs, our beliefs, have no longer the where to repose our heads. Do not augment the sadness, the emptiness of our uncertain existences in abandoning the home-life. Relight the flame on the cold hearthstone, create us in violate shelters, warm nests, where children may become men, where love may hide, old age repose, prayer an altar and country a cult !