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The Virtues of Art de Vivre

The Virtues of Art de Vivre

Or the Fine Art of Doing Nothing

Edith Wharton once wrote: “Every French man and every French woman takes time to live, and has an extraordinarily clear and sound sense of what constitutes Real Living." Those are Wharton’s italics, and they underscore a certain reality in France: There’s a difference between Real Living - simple pleasures authentically and intensely lived—from the surface value of entertaining or the joyless perfections of trying to be too organized.  And for the French, this is wrapped up in what they call art de vivre.

Art de vivre is one of those cute French clichés that have been walking around with a beret and a baguette forever, but there’s more to this celebrated term than we might imagine. It's about simple, sensual pleasures. Let’s put an emphasis on the word “simple.” You can’t buy art de vivre. You don’t need a big house or a turbo stainless-steel infrared barbecue for art de vivre. (Sheer stuff, no matter how utterly excellent it might be, is still just stuff. ) The holy trinity of essentials—a simple bottle of wine, bread, and good company—is all that’s needed for a deeply satisfying moment. 

The French have an almost promiscuous capacity to create those moments, and they organize their lives around the imperative of not doing things. In fact, the French are professional sensualists (“a job,” author Joel Achenbach once writes, “that doesn’t exist in America outside certain zip codes in California”); they understand that the universe will not implode without their constant attention. They still generally rebuff the American culture of constant self-improvement and reinvention.

French women know that like joie de vivre, art de vivre is not necessarily about attaining a state of sustained and sublime inner contentment; it’s about the act of enjoying essential pleasures outside oneself—even despite oneself. Life is filled with innumerable imperfections after all, and art de vivre is not a cure for them. On the contrary, art de vivre is what makes life worth living with all of its pernicious complexities.

If you push past the cream puffery about French fashion, food and flair, you touch on an essential element here that’s hard-wired into the French cultural DNA. The writer Michèle Fitoussi  hit the nail on the head when she said her compatriots “have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”  Wise words we can all live by. 
juillet 20, 2017 
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