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Free and Worldly

Louis Menand’s questionable pantheon of Cold War–era luminaries

Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 880 pages.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States, with 6 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 50 percent of the world’s production. Militarily, it was invulnerable: it controlled both oceans and had sole possession of the most fearsome weapon ever invented. Culturally, American movies and popular music were all-conquering. Perhaps most important was America’s moral standing. Woodrow Wilson’s (not entirely deserved) reputation as an apostle of self-determination; the United States’ apparent lack of territorial ambition; and the awful fate from which the U.S. and the USSR had saved Europe—all aroused hopes for America’s moral leadership. Those hopes seemed to find fulfillment in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as wise and generous a scheme for international order as any yet devised. But the UN, along with America’s moral prestige, fell victim to the superpower rivalry that extended from 1945 to 1991 and is known as the Cold War.

That is not the story Louis Menand aims to tell in his teeming and colorful history of “art and thought in the Cold War.” Helpfully, Menand explains that this is “not a book about the ‘cultural Cold War’ (the use of cultural diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy).” Nor is it a book about “‘Cold War culture’ (art and ideas as reflections of Cold War ideology and conditions).” (A good example of the former is Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War; of the latter, Duncan White’s Cold Warriors.) The Free World is intellectual history, primarily a narrative of ideas talking to ideas and works of art talking to works of art, while also trying to take into account “the underlying social forces—economic, geopolitical, demographic, technological—that created the conditions for the possibility of certain kinds of art and ideas.”

It is a tall order, but he has pulled it off brilliantly once before, in his The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). That book traced the personal and intellectual histories of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. The first three of these were friends (and members of a discussion group called the Metaphysical Club), and all four of them were central to American thought between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. They were all broad-gauged thinkers, so following their intellectual odysseys meant touching on nearly every significant current of thought in their time. The book’s narrative weave and astute interpretations set, in effect, an impossibly high standard for The Free World, which is half again as long and has a cast roughly ten times as large. The Free World pays the price of its ambition—it is not, like The Metaphysical Club, a masterpiece. But it is a splendid book.

You Must Be Kennan

Understandably but unfortunately, Menand begins with a portrait of George Kennan. Kennan was widely revered as the patron saint of American foreign policy during the Cold War. While on diplomatic service in Russia after World War II, he sent back a famous eight-thousand-word dispatch, the “Long Telegram,” that explained the Soviet Union to the State Department. Russians were, he cautioned, by nature devious, mistrustful, chronically suspicious: in a word, paranoid. No lasting understanding could be expected between such a regime and the high-minded, straight-shooting United States. Internationally, the sneaky Soviets would strive, he warned, “to stimulate all forms of disunity,” and “poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.” (How dastardly of them!) All in all, the best we could hope for was to firmly, patiently contain Soviet attempts to spread their disruptive ideology, while waiting for a favorable evolution. The term “containment” stuck.

The Free World pays the price of its ambition—it is not, like The Metaphysical Club, a masterpiece.

Kennan explained the Kremlin’s “neurotic view of world affairs” as the result of a “traditional and distinctive Russian sense of insecurity . . . [the] insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [the] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples.” This was compounded by contact with the economically advanced West, which induced “fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies.” Russian fears of capitalist hostility were of course “sheerest nonsense”: capitalist countries “showed no disposition to solve their differences by joining in [a] crusade against [the] USSR.”

It is a pity Trotsky never had an opportunity to comment on the Long Telegram. I think he would have shredded it so thoroughly that even American foreign-policy intellectuals, normally rather sheep-like, would have felt obliged to sternly repudiate it. For it was not merely the existence of that “vast exposed plain,” extending through much of Eastern and Central Europe, that made the Russians anxious; it was also the fact that three times in 150 years, invaders from the West had crossed those plains into Russia, on the most recent occasion very nearly annihilating the country, exterminating much of its population and enslaving the rest, while its Western allies dithered, one of them (Churchill) opining that it would be no bad thing if the Nazis and Bolsheviks killed as many of each other as possible before the U.S. and UK fulfilled their long-delayed promise to open a second front. Of course Stalin had no right to occupy Eastern and Central Europe after the war. But to ascribe the Soviets’ concern for their western borders to traditional Russian “paranoia” was preposterous.

The Soviets also had a more up-to-date reason to want to hold on to Eastern and Central Europe. In the late 1940s, they pushed for a unified, demilitarized Germany, with free elections, and possibly even a pullback of the Red Army. It was German military power they were worried about, for obvious reasons. But the United States insisted on partition, with West Germany to be part of a new military alliance, NATO. Not surprisingly, the Red Army stayed put.

Perhaps the most outrageous line in Kennan’s dispatch was his ridiculing as “sheerest nonsense” the notion of capitalist countries “joining in a crusade against the USSR.” In fact, the moment World War I ended, that’s exactly what they did. The United States, Britain, Japan, and other capitalist countries sent 180,000 troops to support the rebellious anti-Bolshevik White Army. The resulting civil war lasted several years and made an already bad situation in Russia incomparably worse. In short, there were many reasons for the USSR to distrust the West at the outset of the Cold War besides what Kennan called “the very disrespect of Russians for objective truth.” But Kennan told the U.S.—and the West generally—what we wanted to hear: we are rational and honorable; they are devious and paranoid. Naturally, he was hailed as a Wise Man and the Cold War deemed inevitable and “tragic”—the latter term usually (as in Vietnam and in Kissinger’s “philosophical” blatherings about international affairs) a tacit acknowledgment that the policy or practice in question is indefensible.

There’s not a great deal more about politics in The Free World, except for a chapter about James Burnham and George Orwell. Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), which Orwell wrote about several times and drew on in Nineteen Eighty-Four, predicted that bureaucrats and technocrats would be the ruling class in advanced countries, that the state would extend its control indefinitely over economic and private life, and that states would form shifting blocs, always in conflict, often military. This was to be the fate of both capitalist and socialist countries, hence “the convergence theory of totalitarianism.” It didn’t turn out that way, in most respects at least. Still, it struck many people as one of the most powerful and persuasive social theories (in Orwell’s case, visions) of the twentieth century.

There was a deep difference, though, between Burnham and Orwell, which Menand mentions but doesn’t make enough of. They were both notably tough-minded; that is, they shared an intense dislike of cant and wishful thinking. But Burnham was a thoroughgoing nihilist: he thought that all ideals were sentimental rubbish, that lasting peace was a pipedream, and that power was the only reality in politics. Orwell, on the other hand—though in Nineteen Eighty-Four he portrayed nihilism more brilliantly than anyone else ever has or, probably, ever will—was nevertheless the most idealistic of men, with solidarity and generosity seemingly written into his source code. Burnham doubtless pitied the poor, deluded democratic socialist Orwell. But as Orwell observed dryly in “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” (1946): “So long as they were winning, Burnham seems to have seen nothing wrong with the methods of the Nazis.” That is not something a decent person would want to have written about himself. Perhaps tough-mindedness is not the last word in politics.

Your Eminents

One of The Free World’s larger themes is the replacement of Paris by New York as “the capital of the modern.” For nearly a century, Menand writes, “Paris was where advanced Western culture—especially painting, sculpture, literature, dance, film, and photography, but also fashion, cuisine, and sexual mores—was . . . created, accredited, and transmitted.” It was not the Nazi occupation that changed things; Paris got off lightly compared with other occupied capitals. (Though it would have been burned to the ground if the German commandant had not ignored Hitler’s orders.) And immediately after the Liberation in 1944, there was a cultural efflorescence. Existentialism was in vogue everywhere; its three main exponents—Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir—were international celebrities. But the compass needle was turning: as Sartre acknowledged, “the greatest literary development in France between 1929 and 1939 was the discovery of Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Caldwell, Steinbeck.” American leadership in painting was even more pronounced in the 1940s and 50s. Paris would always retain its aura, particularly for Black American writers and musicians, though not only for them—Paris would play a large part in liberating Susan Sontag, for example. But American global primacy was so complete in the fifties and sixties that the cultural primacy of its capital city could not be gainsaid.

Menand gives a lengthy but concise and penetrating sketch, both biographical and intellectual, of Sartre and Beauvoir. That is his modus operandi. Though there’s plenty of connective tissue, the book essentially consists of a very large number of profiles of such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, David Riesman, Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg, C. Wright Mills, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Claude Lévi-Strauss, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin, I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Ralph Ellison, Pauline Kael, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Tom Hayden, as well as quite a few only slightly less luminous figures. In addition, there are many sketches, pretty full and mostly even-handed, of influential institutions, movements, and doctrines, such as the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, UNESCO’s The Family of Man exhibit, “Action” painting, structuralism, the Beats, the New Criticism, deconstruction, Industrial Art, Cahiers du Cinéma, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the rise of the rock-and-roll industry, the rise of the paperback book industry (with special attention to Grove Press and Olympia Press), the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Vietnam War, and Bonnie and Clyde. It is possible to quibble with some of his judgments (as I’ll do in a moment). But it’s not possible, I’d say, to read the book without learning a vast amount about twentieth-century intellectual history.

One of The Free World’s larger themes is the replacement of Paris by New York as “the capital of the modern.”

Menand plays his cards pretty close to the vest, ideologically. He is however, notably indulgent toward eminent centrists. Kennan is one example; another is Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was one of the most influential intellectuals in the English-speaking world at mid-century, so Menand had to discuss him at some length. But he didn’t have to discuss him respectfully. Berlin made a career of admonishing everyone to his left that perfect harmony and rationality in politics are unattainable, that not all desirable values can be fully and simultaneously realized, and that therefore anyone who talked of utopia, or even radical change, was a totalitarian in sheep’s clothing. His political views, for all his suavity, really were no more sophisticated than that, though they did very often have the virtue of being tacked on to the rather elegant essays in intellectual history in which he specialized. His regrettably popular book on Marx assured liberals that the Moor was fundamentally unsound and largely responsible for the Bolshevik outrages. And his main contribution to political philosophy, the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” by insisting on a sharp distinction between “freedom from” coercion (from e.g., taxation and gun laws) and “freedom to” live with dignity (e.g., to afford housing, education, health care), aimed a poisoned shaft at the Communist countries—who of course deserved it but who were paying no attention to Berlin—and which unfortunately landed in the English-speaking countries, where the eventual results were Thatcherism and the Republican Freedom Caucus. Berlin might have regretted this, but to forestall it he would have had to take a firm stand in favor of democratic socialism, or at least social democracy. That, however, might have been unpopular at his Oxford High Table and was therefore unthinkable.

A Clever Racket

Menand’s interpretations are always plausible, but not always quite convincing. The Black Mountain and New York City avant-gardes figure largely in the book, and he nicely balances narratives of their individual careers and collaborations. But with the best will in the world (well, perhaps something less than that), I couldn’t accept his claims for their significance. Three of this story’s central figures were Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. In the early 1950s, each produced an important work. Rauschenberg’s was White Paintings, several canvases painted white. Cunningham’s was Theatre Piece No. 1, a forty-five-minute-long multimedia piece which consisted of a movie turned on and off throughout the performance, a lecturer (Cage) alternately speaking and silent, piano music, records playing on a Victrola, and some intermittent and spontaneous dancing—all of these lasting for intervals determined by chance. From the rafters hung Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which supposedly inspired Cage’s now-famous 4’33”—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ambient noise, with the performer sitting at the piano holding a stopwatch.

Menand tells a plausible enough story of how each of those artists arrived at his chef d’oeuvre (or cul de sac). But to show that it was worth getting there is something else again. “These works,” he writes,

—the White Paintings, Theatre Piece No. 1, and 4’33”—are at the center of the Rauschenberg-[Jasper] Johns-Cage-Cunningham aesthetic, and they are easily misread. They are not Dada or anti-art, and they do not embrace a philosophy of “anything goes.” They are completely committed to a traditional view of art as a transformative experience, and they are highly disciplined. They rule out much more than they permit.

Rauschenberg made large claims for White Paintings, saying that they deserved “a place with other outstanding paintings and yet they are not Art because they take you to a place in painting [that] art has not yet been.” Menand apparently agrees. “The discipline in the White Paintings is the uninflected surface. Rauschenberg was insistent about this. . . . Keeping the artist out of the work required constant vigilance. . . . The artist doesn’t make the paintings signify; the viewer does. . . . Cage got what was going on in the White Paintings. He described them as ‘airports for the light, shadows, and particles’ in the space around them. They proved that ‘[a] canvas is never empty.’” As Marcel Duchamp had shown, “the art object itself is empty, inert; it is ‘made’ by the spectator . . . The art is happening because of the canvas, but not on the canvas.”

Menand’s interpretations are always plausible, but not always quite convincing.

Theatre Piece No. 1 may have sounded to its audience like “a cacophony of simultaneous and unrehearsed independent actions,” but there was order, Menand counters. The order consisted in the fact that, even though the performances had no relation to one another, the noises and silences were not determined by the whims of the performers. They were not determined by Cage either. They were determined by chance, which was Cage’s usual method of composition at this stage of his career. 4’33”, which was Cage’s favorite work to date, was also full of order: a stopwatch, a score whose pages Cage would turn without playing anything, the wind and rain, and the audience, who “made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

As that last phrase suggests, the audience for 4’33” (likewise Theatre Piece No. 1), who were other artists and not easily intimidated middlebrow concertgoers, were not impressed by Cage’s and Cunningham’s masterpieces. (Rauschenberg was already well-known; it is interesting to imagine an unknown painter bringing a set of white-painted canvases to a midtown gallery and insisting that they “deserve a place with other outstanding art.”)

I had high hopes for Menand’s chapter on the “Rauschenberg- Johns-Cage-Cunningham aesthetic”: I’ve struggled for decades between closing the book on American avant-garde painting, music, and dance, as I’m inclined to do, and giving an ear one more time to astute and knowledgeable interpreters like Menand, and perhaps finally getting it. Alas, la lutte continue.

I’ve never felt any such ambivalence about Andy Warhol. He’s always seemed to me a clever racket, disclaiming any special knowledge of what his productions meant, even to him, and inviting his viewers to invest the work with their own meanings, while refraining, sphinx-like, from responding, lest he limit their saleability. According to Menand, that pretty much is what Warhol was up to, and more power to him. “Pop Art was a market-driven phenomenon.”

Warhol’s [Campbell Soup can] painting is a painting about the nature of painting. It represents the idea that a soup can is a commodity, and so is a painting of a soup can. . . . There is a marketplace for everything. This collapse of the fine art-commerce distinction seems banal today, but in 1962, it tied people in knots.

Actually, I hadn’t heard that there was no longer any distinction between fine art and commerce. I’m not sure I like the idea. Menand gets a bit wound up on the subject:

[Pop Art] was what [Clement] Greenberg said it should be, the next step in art’s investigation of its own nature. And it brought that investigation to an end. Pop Art showed that the only difference between art, such as a sculpture that looks like a grocery carton, and reality, such as a grocery carton, is that the first is received as art and the second is not. At that moment, art could be anything it wanted. The illusion/reality barrier had been broken.

It sounds a little like a stock market pyramid scheme. The winner is the person who guesses exactly when other people are going to stop receiving sculptures of grocery cartons and paintings of soup cans as art, and sells at the top of the market. In the stock market, too, the “illusion/reality barrier” has been broken, with fictitious financial instruments like derivatives and collateralized debt obligations and fun games like super-hyper-ultra high-speed trading, in which one gang of trader-buccaneers will pay tens of billions of dollars for a new cable with a few thousandths-of-a-second faster connection to a stock exchange. If they say something’s money, it’s money.

Seriously Ridiculous

I’m afraid Menand didn’t convince me that Warhol is even worth arguing about—I half-suspect he made those extravagant claims for Pop Art just to get a rise out of reviewers. Susan Sontag is another matter. “She had been educated at Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford . . . She had a command of the Western literary, philosophical, and classical music canon; she was up to date on Continental thought; she was a dedicated cinéaste who often saw two or three movies a day; and she followed the avant-garde . . . She also wrote experimental fiction.” Menand, who is strictly measured in his praise of nearly everyone else, is unmeasured in his praise of Sontag. “There was no one like her.” She was “in the forefront of American letters.” “Every other American critic of the period looks provincial by comparison.”

How good was Sontag? Her experimental fiction, as Menand half-admits, was barbarously bad. Her conventional fiction was good but not outstanding. On Photography, Illness As Metaphor, and AIDS and Its Metaphors were intermittently interesting, but hardly the brilliant revelations some of her admirers claimed. Her most interesting and enduring work is in her five essay collections. Many of the essays are fine: on Bresson, Camus, “The Pornographic Imagination,” Riefenstahl, Walter Benjamin, Victor Serge, “On Style,” others. There are quite a few political pronouncements, usually wise and eloquent. But she is generally considered a literary critic, and virtually none of her essays, I would say, is literary criticism. They are literary history, literary journalism, literary theory, literary reflections, sometimes, as I have said, very good. But almost nowhere does she grapple with a poem or novel or film or painting or piece of music and show us, from the inside, how it works: how, precisely, it achieves the effects it does. Menand suggests that that’s an outdated idea of literary criticism, the so-called New Criticism, which Paul de Man allegedly rendered obsolete with his dazzling deconstructive approach. But de Man, too, was a literary theorist and historian rather than a critic; when he actually essayed interpreting a text, the results were not impressive. And what Menand calls the New Criticism is, I’d say, simply criticism: what F. R. Leavis did with Hard Times, Lionel Trilling with Little Dorrit and The Princess Casamassima, Irving Howe with Nostromo, Randall Jarrell with Marianne Moore, Helen Vendler with Wallace Stevens, and William Gass with Rilke.

Sontag simply was not interested in getting to grips with individual works like that. As Menand writes: “She just wanted to be on the cutting edge of cultural awareness.” That will keep you busy. She did, on at least two occasions, become the cutting edge herself. “Notes on Camp,” her most famous essay, was a jeu d’esprit, a catalogue of practically everything in cultural history that is serious and ridiculous at the same time. It was so popular that later in life she hated to be reminded of it. It remains fun, however. The other large splash was “Against Interpretation,” a protest against the tyranny of meaning, content, intellect. “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” was only one of the flaming arrows Sontag shot into the traditionalist camp. Marxist and Freudian approaches are paradigms of critical aggression against art. But any determined search for meaning is a mistake. Something else altogether is needed. “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” It sounds like a mindfulness exercise.

Sontag is perhaps the key figure in The Free World, or at any rate the one Menand admires most. But he must sense that there’s something a little unstable about her reputation, because his discussion is largely defensive: noting and answering criticisms of her. Here is one of his best formulations, explaining what (he thought) she was up to in “Against Interpretation”:

Sontag was not a permissivist or a leveler. She was not saying that the Beatles are as good as Thomas Mann. She was saying that the fine arts can be approached with the same openness and lack of pretension that people bring to pop songs and Hollywood movies.

Well, yes. But then, there’s an awful lot in Thomas Mann (and the fine arts generally) that you can only get through discipline and interpretive skill, while for the Beatles (and pop songs and Hollywood movies), openness and lack of pretension are all you need.

The Free World does not have a single, comprehensive argument; it contains many disparate arguments, only a few of which I’ve touched on here. It is based on a vast amount of research, biographical, historical, even economic, which shows (though it doesn’t obtrude—Menand is too graceful a writer for that). Though he has not overcome my skepticism about some of the artistic and cultural developments of the period, he has nevertheless taught me a good deal. It will be a long time, I imagine, before a better account of art and thought in mid-twentieth-century America appears.