The Gascon And The Pickled Herring

I was recently reading a biography of Napoleon written by a Swede. With customary Nordic self-absorption, it paid almost as much attention to his rival Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who ended up on the throne of Sweden.

Much was made of the Gascon general’s “Southern temperament”; the author appeared to feel no need to analyse or even unpack this concept, probably because the contrast between temperamental southerners and themselves is the small change of Nordic self-consciousness. They sometimes mean it in critical contrast to their own admitted lack of warmth and bonhomie, but far more often in boastful contrast to their own imagined rationality and balance. In Norway, at any rate, being “temperamental” means being to any degree indignant at one’s maltreatment by Norwegians; in this it greatly resembles the way in which psychiatrists define any objection to their coercive interventions as being in itself a symptom of insanity. That is, the Nordics are so superior that any trouble you might have with them becomes unspoken proof of your own dysfunctional “temperament”.

Not that the Nordics are alone in commenting on the alleged Gascon temperament. Even the other French do this. We have the Three (or Four) Musketeers, for example, plus Cyrano de Bergerac. In all cases this “Southern temperament” functions as a plot point. So what do they mean by it? In Old Goriot, Balzac identifies those coming from south of the Loire as possessing “impetuous courage”, “dash and boldness” and “impatience of delay and suspense”. Well, is impatience of delay and suspense actually Trans-Loirean or simply human? “Dash” is difficult to define, although we know it when we see it; while “boldness” too often means my own stupidity rather than yours.

The Southern quality most often cited by Northern people is surely hot-headedness; but this is merely a metaphor that pushes back the question. That some people have emotions that are “hotter” than those of others is usually special pleading and always unprovable. If we go only by what we can actually observe, then we may observe that allegedly “emotional” types do not seem to calculate costs and benefits before acting, are oversensitive to offence and make a great deal more noise about everything.

Histrionic types are convinced that it is normal to take up as much space in the world as possible and consider a small footprint to be a form of “death”. A sceptic might counter that making more noise does not in fact mean there is more “in there” to make a noise about – the loud ones have learned this particular kind of meaningless display from their parents, that’s all.

As for rushing about without thinking, I know of no definitive formula for precisely how much thought in which to engage in before action. Perhaps our only guide is not to do again that which blew up in our faces last time. If being “hot-blooded” means courting the same disaster every time, then my vote is for the other side. Or else it just means being willing to act at all, as opposed to eternal dithering, which would be the equal but opposite error.

As regards the prickliness of one’s amour-propre, there is an Aristotelian golden mean; on the one hand it is unwise to hang a sign on the seat of your pants advising the world where to kick, and on the other hand the man who is easily insulted is easily manipulated. Characters such as Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man may come to resemble not chocolate but rather clockwork soldiers, comically easy (in the felicitous British idiom) to “wind up” and set a-strutting. If the cold fishes of the North are advising an interval of thought between stimulus and response, then perhaps they have the right of it.

As well as retribution to all offenders, the Southern temperament is supposed to deal out generosity to the defeated and the innocent. Bernadotte himself was certainly noted for this. The magnanimous ideal, of course, goes back at least to Virgil’s command to spare the conquered and war down the proud. The quality that the Nordics sometimes seem to be promoting in contrast with the hot blood of the South is being langsint or never letting go of a grudge. Funnily enough, this is closer to the Corsican or Sicilian vendetta than to magnanimity. So perhaps the whole business of the “hot Latin blood” is merely a nonsensical stereotype; or perhaps the vendetta-nurser is actually “colder” even than the pickled herrings of the North, who despite all their grim unsociability are rarely as destructive.

Posted on January 18, 2011 at 15:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, What Is This Thing Called Love?

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