Rejoice! Economic recovery is at hand: Norman Mailer and Sophia Loren have put their pretty heads together in Paris at a conference of intellectuals--broadly defined, obviously.
The conference was paid for by Francois Mitterrand's socialist government. It thinks writers and movie stars should help solve the world economic crisis. "Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so is an economic crisis too important to be left to the economists or the 'practical men,'" said John Kenneth Galbraith, who is not guilty of belonging to either group.
Kate ("Sexual Politics") Millett did her number, complaining about the "severe lack of representation of women." She is a writer who is not picky about the meaning of words: her complaint was, presumably, about insufficient representation, not "lack of representation." Melina Mercouri was there. (She is minister of culture for the Greek socialist government.) Sophia was there. And so, of course, was Susan Sontag, whose economic theories have, in the past, been, well, vigorous: "America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity which inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities."
The Sontagian definition of "necessary" is obscure. But Sontag's books are, presumably, necessary commodities, as is her theory connecting commodities and conduct: "To us, it is self-evident that the Reader's Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces napalming villages in Guatemala."
Her theory resembles Mailer's justly famous White Bread Theory of History. White bread, he said, is the "embodiment" of, among other things, "corporation land which took the taste and crust out of bread and wrapped the remains in wax paper and was, at the far extension of this same process, the same mentality which was out in Asia escalating, defoliating. . . . The white bread was also television. . . ."
It probably was this ability to see the big picture that caused Mitterrand to seek Mailer's counsel. That, and the fact that Mailer shares Mitterrand's enthusiasm for things Third World. In the history of literature, there is no love as affecting as that which Mailer felt for Castro 20 years ago. "It was," Mailer once wrote of Castro, "as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata's white horse."
Peter Ustinov enjoyed the conference: "Governments of the left are always much better at this sort of thing because they give the appearance at least of wanting to learn, while governments of the right want only to teach." Actually, governments of the left are careful to seem to want people like Ustinov to teach. One thing that made Sontag limp with admiration for Castro's police state was the fact that "intellectuals in a revolutionary society must have a pedagogical function." Yes, "must" is the right word. Intellectuals who do not accept their function go to jail. The likes of Sontag go back to Manhattan, content to praise totalitarian pedagogy from a safe distance.
The conference was organized by France's anti-American minister of culture, Jack Lang. Sontag is sad that the United States does not have a minister of culture--except that if we did, she says, the minister might be Clint Eastwood. In that case, Americans would never be raised to the Cuban level of joy.
"The Cubans know a lot," she once wrote, "about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality, and freaking-out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print-culture." There is nothing like a steady diet of communist print, edited by a minister of culture, to cure linear tendencies.
News reports were disappointingly silent about Sophia Loren's thoughts on our economic difficulties, but reports agreed that discussions tended to be a bit "vague." And what good came of it at last? "Well," said Galbraith (perhaps seriously, perhaps not; I do not know how to tell when Galbraith and Mailer are being serious), "I found Norman Mailer's proposal for a tax on plastics very interesting." Besides, Galbraith said, "Only a journalist would ask if this was actually useful."
Utility is a concept important to economists, but it would be tacky to allow utilitarian considerations to spoil the fun of living well on other people's money. French taxpayers paid the bill the government incurred renting these intellectuals.
Mitterrand's policies are failing, so he wants to change the subject. Cultural posturing suits the timeless French vanity and today's French austerity. Even after a decade of inflation, intellectuals come cheap. For all their bold talk about an adversary stance toward power, they are quick to play the game of a leftist government that provides plane tickets and hotel rooms.