Louis Menand paints a phenomenal picture of thinkers and artists in the ‘free world’ ★★★★★


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Dwight Eisenhower was commander-in-chief of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944 (D-Day). The liberation of Paris was not a priority for him. The city had no military significance. On the contrary, hand-to-hand combat in the narrow streets of the French capital would only slow down the advance of troops towards Berlin.

Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the free French forces and leader of the French government-in-exile, thought otherwise. In his view, the French Communists (who had built up a lot of goodwill in the resistance) were ready to take power as soon as the occupying power was raised. Such a revival of the French Revolution had to be avoided at all costs.

On August 15, the fire broke out. Paris police suddenly went on strike (to clear their blazon, which had been violated by collaborating with the Germans). A spontaneous revolt among the population broke out. The Allies understood that the conquest of Paris would now require little effort and, moreover, bring a great moral victory. After all, Paris was much more than the capital of a distressed and divided nation. Paris was the cultural capital of the world.

Louis Menand – Honored Professor of English Literature at Harvard and Editor of New Yorker – summarizes: ‘Paris was the city where Henry met James Ivan Turgenev, where Pablo Picasso met Gertrude Stein and Vladimir Nabokov met James Joyce. salome by Oscar Wilde and Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky had their premiere there. Paris was the birthplace of Cubism and Surrealism. It was home to Dada and the musical innovators of Les Six. The world’s first cinema opened in Paris. ‘

De Gaulle insisted on entering the capital first. It was agreed, but there was a complication. The Free Forces were different shades of beige, brown and black; they had, after all, been recruited from the French colonies. Africans at the head of the troops on the Champs-Élysées – it was not a pretty picture for De Gaulle as well as the Americans and the British. And so that honor was awarded to the Second Panzer Division. It consisted of 75 percent white Europeans.

Thus the Communists and the colored people were directed towards the wings. They would soon become the main challenge to what on the western side of the Cold War was called the free world.

Magisterial history of ideas

That challenge meant that something was really at stake. Louis Menand does not call his masterful history of ideas for nothing The free world† In a few striking episodes, he puts personalities like George Kennan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, C. Wright Mills, Malcolm X, Susan Sontag and Claude Lévi-Strauss (who called himself Claude L ) Strauss to avoid associations with jeans). They – and a few dozen others in well-deserved supporting roles – each contributed in their own way to the liberation of individuals and communities. Until the party was grossly disrupted in Vietnam.

The rivalry between Paris and New York runs like a thread through Menand’s epic. It is far too simplistic to think that the cultural center of gravity came to lie on the other side of the Atlantic; it was rather a creative cross-pollination between the old and the new continent.

For example, Sartre and De Beauvoir praised French translations of American writers such as Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Steinbeck as ‘the most important development’ in the French literary life of their time. They also liked going to the cinema, even though Sartre thought Borger Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) a bit disappointing. De Beauvoir proved to be a passionate advocate for a naked Brigitte Bardot And God … create the woman (Roger Vadim, 1956): ‘She is a free woman who does not care about anyone. She eats when she is hungry and loves in the same natural way. ‘ The film broke all records in America.

In return, 24-year-old James Baldwin emigrated from New York to Paris in 1948. “I did not come to Paris, I fled America,” the author of Tell it on the mountain and The fire next time† ‘I knew what it meant to be one negro to be and what would happen to me. ‘ As a socialist black homosexual, he could not develop himself, not even in the village, the artist district of New York. Paris, a haven for black writers from all corners of the crumbling French colonial empire, was a hot bath for Baldwin.

Sartre realized better than anyone that it was high time for the indigenous people to become aware of the white consideration (the white gaze): ‘We European whites have had the privilege of seeing without being seen for three thousand years. But now we are looking at ourselves with the free and wild eyes from the outside. ‘

To disturb the elite

Louis Menand emphasizes that freedom also has another meaning: the disruption of the cultural elite. He writes with taste about provocateurs like Jackson Pollock with his drip paintings and John Cage with his composition. 4’33 ” (four and a half minutes of silence). Those were the years of the democratization of culture. Menand: ‘America did not colonize the world because of Partisan Review or through the Museum of Modern Art, but through Pop Art and Hollywood. ”

Pop art took advantage of the daily visual environment, especially commerce and entertainment. Think packaging (Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell soup cans), advertisements, newspaper and magazine photos, movies and TV. Was it societal criticism? Satire? Or just celebrate artistic advertising? The pop artists themselves avoided those questions. At any rate, the boundaries between art, design, and commerce disappeared. This could be clearly seen in the design of cars. 1948 Cadillac was the first with tail fins. Seven years later, Detroit cars were so lavishly overloaded with chrome, bumpers and ornaments that critics spoke of “jukeboxes on wheels.” Roland Barthes liked the streamlined Citroën DS 19 more: ‘DS is pronounced like thesegoddess.’

Cross-pollination can also be toxic. Louis Menand, for example, has little interest in an uninvited guest in his own field: Jacques Derrida. This Frenchman was the protagonist of the ‘deconstruction’ of texts, a method that paralyzed literary studies for years. ‘Deconstruction’, Menand writes, ‘is difficult to explain in a way that is consistent with deconstruction. This is evident from the infamous puns and circular reasoning in Derrida’s prose. Deconstruction is like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water. ‘

null Statue Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Statue Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Louis Menand: The Free World – Art and Thought in the Cold War. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 873 pages; € 31.99.

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