Apr 12, 2021, 05:55AM

Posterized: Louis Menand's Hill of Meaningless Beans

A Review of The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.

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Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War amounts to a hill of beans: a gargantuan heap, mound, or pile, each bean being a capsule biography or mini-narrative giving the most conventional possible interpretation of the usual developments. By the time you force your way through or over, you'll be too thoroughly buried to get a decent view of the terrain. It's hard to believe that a writer as reputable as Menand (the Lee Simpkins Family Professor of Arts and Sciences and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard), and a publishing house as reputable Farrar, Straus, and Giroux could produce a book this bad.

Menand's tome begins after the Second World War and ends up in Vietnam, though there was a lot of Cold War to go after that. It covers government policies, wars here and there, and social movements; and it covers paintings, novels and essays. It gives hundreds of tiny biographies (though it more or less entirely omits Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans). It assembles the least controversial and most conventional portions of many other peoples' research. It doesn’t impose any particular order on the material as a whole: it doesn’t amount to an interpretation, much less a fresh interpretation, of the myriad developments it does little more than mention. Its prose is hackneyed.

When deciding whether to commit to reading the publisher's proof of The Free World, I should’ve taken Menand's words in the preface a bit more seriously. "I focus on the headliners," he says, "the artists and thinkers who became most widely known." And he focuses on telling the most familiar stories about them (though Menand displays no gift for narrative). There will be no surprises. "The dots do connect," he assures us, but by the time my eyes traversed that last page (727), swimming dots were all I saw.

Flummoxed by how to characterize this heap, I’ll take the following approach. I’m going to quote sentences, in the order in which they appear in the book. You can take the whole thing as a plot summary. But each sentence can also be savored as a distinctive lesson in how not to write. (Note: pronouns have been replaced by names in some cases.)

"With their enemies defeated and their armies no longer in the field, the United States and the Soviet Union could disagree openly about the design of the postwar map. And they did." "The Cold War changed the atmosphere. It raised the stakes." "Orwell read Joyce and kept a goat in the backyard. He was authentic and inauthentic at the same time." "The émigré was Hans Gerth, who had been educated at Heidelberg, where he knew Hannah Arendt, who was writing her doctoral dissertation, and Frankfurt, where he knew Arendt's first husband Günther Stern, who was writing his thesis." "Paris had enormous political significance, however." "Everything was set for a new culture hero to walk onto it. As if on cue, one did." "She was a handsome woman, and she had a boyfriend." "The French had their own way of reading American fiction and their own understanding of what it was about." "When Sartre got back to Paris in May 1945, the city had changed." "Arendt was precocious."

"History is filled with resemblances, but history never repeats itself." "There were always philosophers who brought their ideas into the public square." "If you do not engage in political life, you are vulnerable to bad actors." "But that is the thing about social history, as Riesman of all people should have known. The screw always takes another turn." "There was no going back.""But in the nineteenth century, the response produced something new and unprecedented: the avant-garde." "Greenberg reported to Lazarus that Harold Rosenberg had told Macdonald that he liked the essay, 'with reservations.'" "Guggenheim was rich."

"Orlovsky was from a broken family. He was born on the Lower East Side, where his father, a Russian émigré, tried and failed at a business making silk neckties." "Racism did not disappear after 1945." "In many respects, Levi-Strauss was a typical Parisian academic." "He sailed from Marseille on a boat carrying André Breton and 220 other passengers, including the Trotskyist Victor Serge, who was fleeing France as an undocumented Russian émigré with his twenty-year-old son, Vlady Kibalchich." "He became a friend there of a woman with whom Sartre would later fall in love, Delorés Vanetti." "He also participated in a group that included the literary critic Victor Shklovsky." "Trubestzkoy died of a heart attack."

"Cage had got married, in 1935, to Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, a young artist with exotic features. She had had an affair with the photographer Edward Weston." "Isaac Rosenfield, a writer who was one of Saul Bellow's closest friends—they produced together a Yiddish translation of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'—also visited." "The artist Ray Johnson, who had been a student at Black Mountain, lived in the building." "Her presence is sometimes elided in accounts of Rauschenberg's and Johns's artistic development, but when they had their breakthroughs, Rosenthal was there." "She and Cage would collaborate on a children's book, The Mud Book, which they were unable to publish." "The next year, the Italian composer Luigi Nono, who was married to one of Arnold Schoenberg's daughters, gave a lecture." "Cunningham and Cage's initial plan was to travel only as far as India, where they had been invited by Cage's old friend Gita Sarabhai, and Japan."

"This turned out to be significant." "Freed, Clark, and Phillips were key actors—more accurately, nodes—in the production, performance, and dissemination of rock 'n' roll. They helped transform it from a niche commodity into a mass-market product, and they had a lot to do with giving it a sound, a look, and a level of energy. They were in the yolk of the egg. But they did not lay the egg." "He didn't sing only for money. He sang because he was a singer." "Gladys was dynamic; people liked her. But the family was somewhat insular. Elvis was a bit of an outsider and sometimes got picked on." "Sam Phillips had a vision." "A musical genre boils down to a certain kind of sound." "Lennon was a big personality." "It was one of those moments when the universe was poised to plunge down a different path." "Lennon was different from Presley." "They became a phenomenon." "The Beatles managed to make every song they played sound like a Beatles song." "Rock 'n' roll needed, in other words, a fan. And one emerged."

"The balance tipped because other priorities asserted themselves." "Is there a problem with this? Berlin thought there was." "This is a caricature, though not an unfair one." "The Bill of Rights, and subsequent amendments to the Constitution, were enacted to strengthen, not compromise, democratic practices.""The threat of communism did not disappear as a political issue." "Beckett's work had been 'discovered' by Richard Seaver, a graduate of the University of North Carolina who was living in Paris writing a dissertation on Joyce and supported by, among other things, a job teaching English to Air France Stewardesses. With friends—Alexander Trocchi, a Scot, and Jane Lougee, an American from Maine—he had helped to found Merlin, one of the English-language magazines in postwar Paris." "It was a psychologically vexed moment." "He began spending a good deal of his time abroad, in Istanbul, where he had friends, and in the south of France, where he had a house. His later works were critically disparaged and he died in 1987." "The forty dollars, or whatever the amount actually was, was what he had left." "Change was in the air."

"Consumerist culture is not disinterested." "Cars themselves had symbolic import in the postwar democracies. They stood for freedom, even if it was 'driving a car' freedom." "Of course, the past was rapidly receding." "One critic who was inspired by hearing Richards lecture was an American." "Brooks's closest collaborator at Yale was Wimsatt, who was from Maryland, another border state." "A year later, Jacques Derrida brought deconstruction to America. By then the situation of academic literary studies had changed." "The apartment had belonged to a friend, Bill Cannastra, who was killed by sticking his head out of the window of a moving subway train. It is assumed that Cannastra was gay. Joan Haverty was his girlfriend at the time." "That would change."

"Olson came very close to taking a government job." "Works of art and literature are make-believe; 'theory' is an effort to figure out why we create such things, what they mean, and why we care so much about them." "Deconstruction simply added language to the list of things we should not take for granted. It reminds us that the ice we walk on is never not thin." "In the mid-1960s, his studio on East Forty-Seventh Street, known as the Factory, was a center of social mingling." "Ivan Karp, who worked at the Leo Castelli Gallery and discovered many of the Pop artists, gave a number of interviews." "Malanga was not without an agenda." "What drives art is art." "In the summer of 1912, Duchamp spent two months in Munich. His stay there is somewhat of a mystery." "Analytically, there were three pieces to the regime of subordination. The first was patriarchy. Society was ruled by men." "The country was about to shift from a manufacturing economy to a service and information economy."

"When Sontag burst onto the intellectual scene, in the early 1960s, there was no one like her." "Her father was asthmatic.""It was a good time for independent filmmakers and a bad time." "When they saw the lights of Times Square, they decided they had to stay." "Sontag also knew about Yoko Ono's work." "In Sontag's case, however, her interest went elsewhere because of an event with which she did become powerfully engaged. This was the War in Vietnam." "Jazz was always popular in Paris." "What Mailer learned at the Voice was the value of leading with your personality. He never forgot it." "Hip was very much part of the scene." "Louis Armstrong came from a broken home." "He must also have known that he would one day meet a fate that was already in the cards." "Glazer thought that Baldwin was making the same mistake that he and Riesman thought people like Burnham and Mills made." "What sort of year was 1964? It was the year after 1963, in which John Kennedy had been so notably shot." "Three months later, he would be dead. Kennedy was not a martyr for racial equality." "He articulated a view of American culture that had wide appeal." "A few years after leaving the Party, in a farmhouse in Vermont, he began writing Invisible Man." "It would be overtaken by events." "And then the focus shifted." "And the concept of black identity changed."

"The word 'cinema' is French." "The cinema is not only a business. It is also an art." "French movie culture changed American cinema." "Langlois did not finish his baccalaureate degree." "He worked around the clock, traveled everywhere in search of films, helped set up film libraries around the world, and, in later life, grew quite fat." "There was a mismatch between the worldview of the midcentury American and the worldview of the midcentury Frenchperson." "Truffaut's relations with his own family were vexed." "He was posted to Saigon, but he had second thoughts." "By breaking the rules, Godard wrote a new rulebook." "Bardot became the popular symbol of the new cinema. Her ass belonged to the whole world. She was the hips that launched a thousand faces. One of them was Faye Dunaway's." "Penn was a sophisticated theater person." "And that was when the New Wave crashed into the Old Wave." "It has sometimes been said that with that piece, Pauline Kael saved Bonnie and Clyde. That is not what happened. What happened is that Bonnie and Clyde saved Pauline Kael." "Kael just barely managed to get on board that train. But she got herself into the front car." "She had entered the arena with a splash. She was thirty-three." "Then, lightning struck." "But there might have been another reason lurking in the shadows. Shawn was enigmatic figure." "The counterculture had come to France."

"Geopolitics helps to account for the U.S. government's concerns about the future of Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when relations with the Soviet Union and China were hostile." "Like any social affect, there is a story behind it." "He had a normal childhood and did well in school." "Cason was from Victoria, Texas. Her parents were divorced." "The students didn't really want free speech, or only free speech." "Then he discovered something strange." "It is not true that no negative opinions about the United States were ever censored." "He was Frank Wisner." "His father, Harvey Bundy (Hackley, Yale, Harvard Law), had served under Henry Stimson in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. McGeorge himself (Groton, Yale) was co-author of Stimson's autobiography. His brother William (Groton, Yale, Covington & Burling) was Johnson's assistant secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and was married to Mary Eleanor Acheson, Dean Acheson's daughter.""But there was a problem."

The book concludes not by trying to bring the thousands of facts and woolly quasi-assertions together in some sort of framework or even synopsis, but on a quotation from James Fenton: "The victory of the Vietnamese was a victory for Stalinism." On that, presumably, Simone de Beauvoir, Jackson Pollock, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Andy Warhol, Mario Savio, William Westmoreland, Louis Armstrong, and the rest ofthis cast of thousands of merely-mentioned sort-of people from broken homes would presumably converge.

Now, I could praise a paragraph on page 247, let's say, or quibble with a footnote, or point out that Menand is really wrong about Sontag's reading of Riefenstahl, or compare The Free World to his previous book. But I see now that continuing to struggle will only embed me more hopelessly in the beans.

[Note: One item in the above barrage is actually a parody of this sort of writing by Margaret Atwood. Guess which.]

—“Posterized” is a series of extremely negative reviews. This is the first. Who will be on the next poster? Don't let it be you.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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