The Free World

From The Wall Street Journal:

There was once a time—Louis Menand recalls at the beginning of “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War”—when “people cared. Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” Even criticism mattered. It was a time when “people believed in liberty, and thought it really meant something.” The United States was “actively engaged with the rest of the world.” To be sure, the 20 years that followed World War II didn’t frame a utopia: a fifth of the nation lived in poverty, “white men” dominated “virtually every sphere of life,” the U.S. “intervened in the internal political affairs of other states, rigging elections, endorsing coups, enabling assassinations,” and “invested in a massive and expensive military buildup that was out of all proportion to any threat.” Nevertheless, Mr. Menand suggests, something extraordinary took place. American and European cultures were transformed by what transpired, and somehow the concept of “freedom” was bound up in it all as “the slogan of the times.” This epic book—at once brilliant and exasperating, illuminating and confounding, absorbing and off-putting—is his attempt to examine what happened and to explain why, by the end of the Vietnam War, America was a very different country from the one that led the “free world” just after 1945.

This would be a daunting project even if Mr. Menand had established some disciplinary boundaries, but as readers of his criticism in the New Yorker know, his interests and insights range widely. Though he teaches English literature at Harvard, he writes as an intellectual and cultural historian. He takes on eclectic subjects with dedication and imagination, whether teasing out the aesthetic behind Pauline Kael’s film criticism, tracing the complicated tensions between the ideas and personalities of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, two of the most imposing black literary figures of the Cold War period, or arguing, as he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 book “The Metaphysical Club,” that late 19th-century pragmatism helped shape the character of modern American democracy.

In this 857-page tome he pulls together a decade of writing and research, but it doesn’t take long for us to see that this project is both overtly unsystematic and highly selective. We begin with what appears to be a conventional examination of George Kennan’s diplomatic career, his secret 1946 telegram from Moscow outlining the expansive ambitions of the Soviet Union in the postwar period, and his recommendation of a policy of “containment”—a geopolitical foreign strategy that was almost immediately adopted to deal with postwar confrontations. But no sooner have we begun to get a feel for Kennan’s views than we are carried into an analysis of George Orwell’s dystopian visions and the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger. And Hannah Arendt and totalitarianism. And the development of Abstract Expressionist painting. Eventually we accommodate ourselves to a nonstop, nearly phantasmagorical display of erudite inquiry. What was John Cage up to with Merce Cunningham? What was the nature of Lionel Trilling’s relationship with Allen Ginsberg? Why was the 1964 arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. a pop-cultural tsunami? What role did academic literary criticism play in the transformation of American high culture? What were the differences between Simone de Beauvoir’s and Betty Friedan’s visions of the status of women? How was the film “Bonnie and Clyde” a tribute to postwar French cinema? What went wrong in Vietnam?

Clearly, even with hundreds of pages at the author’s disposal, none of these chapter-length probes can do its theme full justice, particularly because Mr. Menand’s approach is not to make a systematic argument but to focus on particular individuals and advocates, noting their characters and interactions and ultimately implying that cultural and political change might be discernable in statistics but is largely accidental, full of misunderstandings and unintended consequences. Many things that happened, he implies, could not have been expected, or if they could have been, people might not have noticed. When these tracings of lives and encounters are combined with the explication of some difficult ideas, the result can be unusually illuminating. Some revelations may be trivial (Sartre did terrific Donald Duck imitations; John Cage won a quiz show on Italian television by naming all 24 species of white-spored mushrooms—in alphabetical order) and others suggestive (Orwell was influenced by James Burnham’s 1941 book “The Managerial Revolution,” which predicted that society’s new social elite would include managers, executives and government administrators), but under Mr. Menand’s guidance, something always can be learned.

But why then, should this book also exasperate? First, because much of the interpretation is left to the reader. There is no attempt to shape the narrative into anything cumulative or conclusive. If there are varieties or notions of “freedom” and “liberty” in play here, they are only vaguely defined and never put in careful order, nor are we directed to any larger understanding of their interaction. It is strange: Much of the book is very concrete but it all ends up feeling rather amorphous. We wind up knowing quite a bit about Andy Warhol or about Elvis Presley’s early career but are left unsure about the relevance of the Cold War to either.

The book comes closest to suggesting connections in its early chapters, which deal most directly with America’s tensions with the Soviet Union. But these chapters also tend to minimize the confrontation’s stakes, suggesting they were, in retrospect, exaggerated. “Each nation,” we read, “honestly believed that history was on its side.” Each also claimed to be a “grand civilizing” nation. (Mr. Menand points out that while Kennan may be thought of as the first analyst of the Cold War, he was warning the U.S. of the Soviet Union not because of the dangers of communism but because of the nature of Russian history; he was also, surprisingly, wary of thinking of the conflict as a “moral” one.) Mr. Menand doesn’t really accept Cold War symmetry, though sometimes he seems tempted to do so. He notes that the confrontation was about “ideas in the broadest sense,” such as “civic and personal values, modes of expression, philosophies of history, theories of human nature.” But this is still too bloodless a description of the East-West contest. We don’t really understand the Cold War or its effects, because we can’t really understand the other side.

Mr. Menand alludes to it in a theoretical way, in a discussion of totalitarianism, but it might have helped if, for example, he’d provided an account of the notorious Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace staged at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1949. There the Soviet Union attempted to undermine Western suspicion of its aims by presenting itself in a supposedly enlightened embrace of peace and brotherhood, bringing over some of its own artists and intellectuals and luring the support of Western fellow travelers (including Lillian Hellman and Pablo Picasso and Leonard Bernstein). On one panel, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich famously sweated in terror as his watchers made sure he gave no hint of the recent killings and purges that led him to fear—yet again—for his own life.

. . . .

Mr. Menand’s tendency is also to moderate his interpretations of some figures so that they and their ideas seem less polemical. The literary movement known as “deconstruction,” for example, is treated almost as a variety of liberal skepticism, even though, over time, its members engaged in ever more radical attempts to dismantle the philosophical premises of Western culture and society. And many of Mr. Menand’s aesthetic explorers may well have been influenced by the Cold War to become overtly antagonistic to the American perspective—and to so-called bourgeois culture. That certainly was the case with Sartre and, in a subtler way, with some of the American artists that Mr. Menand discusses. Is it possible, for example, to look at Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1955), which displays an American flag painted on top of a newspaper collage, without seeing it as having a countercultural comment on the news of the day? The symbolism of the flag, disarmingly straightforward, is, beneath the painting’s surface, subtly undercut.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

1 thought on “The Free World”

  1. Let’s just say that Mr Rothstein’s unstated assumptions are showing in this review. What one needs to add to just about every statement that he makes in this review is “From the perspective of a white upper-middle-class male with an early-70s Ivy League education,…” (Which, if you’ve ever read his comments on leaving the NYT and have heard any scuttlebutt about what else was going on, is even more necessary.)

    People do care. Ideas do matter. Painting does matter. Movies do matter. Poetry does matter. It’s just that the most vibrant sources of these works and discussion/criticism about them is outside the tunnel vision of a former museum critic and “critic at large” who does not appear to have spent significant time west of the Hudson this century. (Or, for that matter, online, given the focus on “painting.”)

    The same goes for Mr Menand (and his little dog, too!), or at least the Mr Menand implied by what Mr Rothstein says of him. But given other writings of Mr Menand that I have read, I suspect that Mr Rothstein’s review is doing him an injustice. Which, frankly, is disturbingly common whenever the WSJ ventures off of Wall Street, at least under its current ownership and editorial structure/personnel. It’s sort of like expecting cogent, detailed analysis of multinationals’ balance sheets and business structures… in Salmagundi.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.