Like it or not, the reality is that creative work — roughly speaking, art — tends to survive the years better than theory or criticism. So, among the subjects in “The Free World,” we still recite Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (or at least its opening, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”), revere the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and sing along with the Beatles hit parade. A single line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit” — “Hell is other people” — has outlasted the entirety of his existentialist treatise, “Being and Nothingness.”
All things must pass, as George Harrison sang. But can’t we sometimes slow them down a little? One function of literary journalism should be just what Menand does in “The Free World”: Remind us of how much we’ve forgotten or neglected because of our widespread cultural amnesia. Take “The Liberal Imagination”: Because of Menand, readers will know at least a little about it.
In their turn, some older readers may see in Menand — and I intend this as a compliment — the latest avatar of Will Durant. Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” (1926) and “The Story of Civilization” (11 volumes, most co-written with his wife, Ariel Durant) aimed to introduce the intellectual, political and artistic achievements of the past to a general public. The books were popular and immensely informative, smoothly blending biography, analysis and anecdote. This is Menand’s formula, too, with the addition of a bright New Yorker magazine finish. While Durant was sometimes pooh-poohed by the snooty as middlebrow and facile, he nonetheless brought history to vivid life and made complex ideas understandable.
Until the last third of the 20th century, education broadly meant familiarity with the best that had been written or thought, discovered or imagined, painted or composed. The classics, in other words, the high spots. In my own childhood, adults still sent away for International Correspondence School courses, working men and women hurried to night classes after supper, and “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary” by Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis reached the bestseller list. High culture mattered. Leonard Bernstein taught music appreciation on television, Clifton Fadiman shared his infectious enthusiasm for great books in “The Lifetime Reading Plan,” Dr. Bergen Evans discussed English usage on a weekly radio program titled “Words in the News.”
Today we’re liable to dismiss all this as an antiquated, even antiquarian, approach to what it means to be educated. To think that people once actually pored over books, scribbled on three-by-five note cards, wrote papers and paid homage to what Yeats called the “monuments of unageing intellect.” How naive! In 2021, by contrast, the past — that seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of knowledge, culture and human achievement — is too often portrayed as little better than a vile sink of iniquity. With a smug sense of our own superiority, we downplay our ancestors’ real accomplishments to dwell on their moral failings. Just wait till our grandchildren get hold of us. Good historians, like Menand and Durant, seek to understand and interpret; they aren’t witch hunters and grand inquisitors.
To call someone “cultured” these days implies passivity and an out-of-touch prissiness. Activism — whether online or in the streets — defines our own touchy era, one for which Marx has supplied the motto: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” In that case, why bother with the philosophers at all? And as for interpreting the world, surely Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can do that for us. What more does one need?
Aristotle, the master of measure and nuance, believed that all men (and women) by their nature desire to know. Why is that? Because knowing things isn’t just useful to humans, it’s a source of pleasure. To mix half-lines of Pope and Keats, even a little learning is a joy forever. And a comfort too. In the midst of zealotry and chaos, I find a flicker of solace simply in remembering the title of an old book by George Saintsbury: “The Peace of the Augustans: A Survey of Eighteenth Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment.” How pleasant to listen to Dr. Johnson pontificate! How soothing the prose of Addison! Mileage may vary.
Though more engagé than restful, Menand’s “The Free World” is comparably diverting, even at the basement level of the weird factoid. The avant-garde composer John Cage was — who knew? — an expert on mushrooms and actually won a quiz-show jackpot by identifying 24 varieties of a particular subspecies. Henry James — and I’ll guess you won’t see this coming — was the writer James Baldwin most admired. Simone de Beauvoir graduated second in philosophy from the Sorbonne — behind the radical religious thinker, Simone Weil. I love knowing or being reminded of things like this.
Reading Menand jump-started these rambling, somewhat pessimistic reflections. Does the past, in fact, still matter as it did in the heyday of Will Durant? In what ways? “The Free World” presents a long, panoramic tour of a paradigm-shifting era, yet will our future-oriented young people bother with it? While the book may win awards, like Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club,” it may still be secretly, if undeservedly, yawned over as nothing but — ho hum — ancient history.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
By Louis Menand
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 880 pp. $35