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Et in Arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin

Et in Arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicolas Poussin (15 June 1594 – 19 November 1665) is associated with classical French Baroque

Dear Readers,

In the blog I posted on 23 May 2013, I used the word “savoir-faire.”  Donkey-Skin‘s fairy godmother does not merely turn rats into horses, as in most fairy tales.  She suggests an attitude, such as not contradicting one’s father.  Persons who have savoir-faire know ways of circumventing problems.

The word savoir-faire is well nigh impossible to translate, but it describes the behaviour of l’honnête homme perhaps better than any other word.  As Dr Jules Brody, an expert on Molière, has said about Alceste, Molière‘s Misanthrope, Alceste is morally right, but, esthetically, he blunders.

Dr Cecil MacLean

I remembered a joke which Dr Cecil MacLean, the Carnegie Chair of French at St Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia, told brilliantly.  Dr Cecil did not have his equal as a raconteur.  Nor could we find an example of a better athlete who was also a most refined scholar and teacher.  He studied in France while playing hockey for the French all-star team.  In a trial game preceding the Munich 1936 Olympics, the French team, with Cecil as goalkeeper (gardien de but), defeated the German team.  Hitler was watching.  Unfortunately, Cecil was recalled by StFX before the actual Olympics.  StFX had lost its French teacher and needed a replacement.

That was the demise of the French team because they could not replace “Cécil Macléan.” This is how his name was spelled and he was described by the French press as the young Canadian Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Græco-Roman mythology. Cecil had amazing reflexes and eyesight. The French team was defeated at the 1936 Olympics, but StFX had found in him the finest of teachers.

He lived on one side of the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen’s house, and I lived on the other side. By the time he started teaching, at the age of twenty-four, Cecil had earned a Doctorat ès Lettres from the Sorbonne and his doctoral thesis had been published, in Paris. I do not think it is in circulation anymore.

Cecil’s doctoral dissertation was on the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson on French literature, a perfect topic for a Nova Scotian. Dr Cecil was impressive. His French was flawless; he was the personnification of “honnêteté,” and a Renaissance man.

This scholar was also a great lover of sports and the extraordinary athlete the French had loved.  He was the coach of the StFX’s hockey team.  He published articles on sports and co-hosted a radio program devoted to sports, his favourite being baseball.

Moïse sauvé des eaux, by Nicolas Poussin

Moïse sauvé des eaux by Nicolas Poussin (Photo credit: Google images)


The joke is as follows.

The students of an American teacher of French simply cannot understand the meaning of savoir-faire.  It is not know-how, but a kind of finesse.

An American at the Académie française.

I have removed the ‘h:’ ‘that is spelled ‘dat’ and ‘the,’ ‘de.’

The story is as follows. An American teacher travels to Paris and visits the French Academy, in order the learn the meaning of “savoir-faire.” The Academicians number forty called “les quarante immortels” (the forty immortals) because when on dies, he or she is replaced.

One académicien described savoir-faire by giving an example.

The First Académicien

A first Académicien attemps to help our American professor. He says “When a man, ‘e goes ‘ome and ‘e finds ‘is wife in bed wit’ another man, ‘e says: “Oh, pardon !”  (Sorry!).  Dat is savoir-faire.”

The Second Académicien

“Pas exactement” (not quite) said another académicien.  Stroking his beard, he refined the example.  “When a man, ‘e goes ‘ome and ‘e finds ‘is wife in bed wit’ another man, ‘e says: ” Oh, pardon, continuez ! “  (Sorry, carry on!)  Dat is savoir-faire.

The Third Académicien

“Pas exactement” said a third académicien.  Stroking his beard, he refined the example further. “When a man, ‘e goes ‘ome and ‘e finds ‘is wife in bed wit’ another man, ‘e says: “Oh, pardon, continuez ! “  (Sorry, carry on!)  “Now if de man in de bed, ‘e can continue,  dat is savoir-faire.”


This is a story you may have heard and it is a story I cannot tell well.  I am not a raconteur, but Cecil was.  He gave this joke finesse.  So I bow to Cecil, our twentieth-century honnête homme.

As for the académiciens’ definition of savoir-faire, although the story is a joke, the definition is mostly accurate.  It would have delighted Charles Perrault whose Donkey-Skin, or Donkeyskin, is esthetically correct, thereby redeeming (racheter) less savoury parts of a lovely narrative.


composer: Girolamo Frescobaldi (September, 1583 – 1 March 1643)

Le Triomphe de David, by Nicolas Poussin

Le Triomphe de David, by Nicolas Poussin (Photo-credit: Google images)

© Micheline Walker
25 May 2013