The Modern Aspasia by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Most of the historic cities of Europe have a distinct local color, a temperament, if one may be allowed the expression, of their own. The austere calm of Bruges or Ghent, the sensuous beauty of Naples, attract different natures. Florence has passionate devotees, who are insensible to the artistic grace of Venice or the stately quiet of Versailles. In Cairo one experiences an exquisite bien être, a mindless, ambitionless contentment which, without being languor, soothes the nerves and tempts to indolent lotus-eating. Like a great hive, Rome depends on the memories that circle around her, storing, like bees, the centuries with their honey. Each of these cities must therefore leave many people unmoved, who after a passing visit, wander away, wondering at the enthusiasm of the worshippers.

Paris alone seems to possess the charm that bewitches all conditions, all ages, all degrees. To hold the frivolous-minded she paints her face and dances, leading them a round of folly, exhaustive alike to health and purse. For the student she assumes another mien, smiling encouragement, and urging him upward towards the highest standards, while posing as his model. She takes the dreaming lover of the past gently by the hand, and leading him into quiet streets and squares where she has stored away a wealth of hidden treasure, enslaves him as completely as her more sensual admirers.

Paris is no less adored by the vacant-minded, to whom neither art nor pleasure nor study appeal. Her caprices in fashion are received by the wives and daughters of the universe as laws, and obeyed with an unwavering faith, a mute obedience that few religions have commanded. Women who yawn through Italy and the East have, when one meets them in the French capital, the intense manner, the air of separation from things mundane, that is observable in pilgrims approaching the shrine of their deity. Mohammedans at Mecca must have some such look. In Paris women find themselves in the presence of those high priests whom they have long worshipped from a distance. It is useless to mention other subjects to the devotee, for they will not fix her attention. Her thoughts are with her heart, and that is far away.

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When visiting other cities one feels that they are like honest married women, living quiet family lives, surrounded by their children. The French Aspasia, on the contrary, has never been true to any vow, but has, at the dictate of her passions, changed from royal and imperial to republican lovers, and back again, ruled by no laws but her caprices, and discarding each favorite in turn with insults when she has wearied of him. Yet sovereigns are her slaves, and leave their lands to linger in her presence; and rich strangers from the four corners of the earth come to throw their fortunes at her feet and bask a moment in her smiles.

Like her classic prototype, Paris is also the companion of the philosophers and leads the arts in her train. Her palaces are the meeting-places of the poets, the sculptors, the dramatists, and the painters, who are never weary of celebrating her perfections, nor of working for her adornment and amusement.

Those who live in the circle of her influence are caught up in a whirlwind of artistic production, and consume their brains and bodies in the vain hope of pleasing their idol and attracting her attention. To be loved by Paris is an ordeal that few natures can stand, for she wrings the lifeblood from her devotees and then casts them aside into oblivion. Paris, said one of her greatest writers, “aime à briser ses idoles!” As Ulysses and his companions fell, in other days, a prey to the allurements of Circe, so our powerful young nation has fallen more than any other under the influence of the French siren, and brings her a yearly tribute of gold which she receives with avidity, although in her heart there is little fondness for the giver.

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Americans who were in Paris two years ago had an excellent opportunity of judging the sincerity of Parisian affection, and of sounding the depth and unselfishness of the love that this fickle city gives us in return for our homage. Not for one moment did she hesitate, but threw the whole weight of her influence and wit into the scale for Spain. If there is not at this moment a European alliance against America it is not from any lack of effort on her part towards that end.

The stand taken by la villa lumière in that crisis caused many naïve Americans, who believed that their weakness for the French capital was returned, a painful surprise. They imagined in the simplicity of their innocent hearts that she loved them for themselves, and have awakened, like other rich lovers, to the humiliating knowledge that a penniless neighbor was receiving the caresses that Croesus paid for. Not only did the entire Parisian press teem at that moment with covert insults directed towards us, but in society, at the clubs and tables of the aristocracy, it was impossible for an American to appear with self-respect, so persistently were our actions and our reasons for undertaking that war misunderstood and misrepresented. In the conversation of the salons and in the daily papers it was assumed that the Spanish were a race of noble patriots, fighting in the defence of a loved and loyal colony, while we were a horde of blatant cowards, who had long fermented a revolution in Cuba in order to appropriate that coveted island.

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When the Spanish authorities allowed an American ship (surprised in one of her ports by the declaration of war) to depart unharmed, the fact was magnified into an act of almost ideal generosity; on the other hand, when we decided not to permit privateering, that announcement was received with derisive laughter as a pretentious pose to cover hidden interests. There is reason to believe, however, that this feeling in favor of Spain goes little further than the press and the aristocratic circles so dear to the American “climber”; the real heart of the French nation is as true to us as when a century ago she spent blood and treasure in our cause. It is the inconstant capital alone that, false to her rôle of liberator, has sided with the tyrant.

Yet when I wander through her shady parks or lean over her monumental quays, drinking in the beauty of the first spring days, intoxicated by the perfume of the flowers that the night showers have kissed into bloom; or linger of an evening over my coffee, with the brilliant life of the boulevards passing like a carnival procession before my eyes; when I sit in her theatres, enthralled by the genius of her actors and playwrights, or stand bewildered before the ten thousand paintings and statues of the Salon, I feel inclined, like a betrayed lover, to pardon my faithless mistress: she is too lovely to remain long angry with her. You realize she is false and will betray you again, laughing at you, insulting your weakness; but when she smiles all faults are forgotten; the ardor of her kisses blinds you to her inconstancy; she pours out a draught that no other hands can brew, and clasps you in arms so fair that life outside those fragile barriers seems stale and unprofitable.

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