Overview: ‘The Absolutely free World’ by Louis Menand

The ebook is built as a “great books” system of personalities, glued collectively by middlemen,…

The ebook is built as a “great books” system of personalities, glued collectively by middlemen, all contributing to “an extremely speedy and thrilling period of time of cultural transform.” The curriculum operates chapter by chapter by way of George Kennan, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Jackson Pollock, Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, Elvis and the Beatles, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael. Each and every biography opens a doorway to a school or craze of do the job. At initial, the persona is squeezed for coloration and human desire. Right here, pared down marginally, is the period’s ideal-known philosopher:

Sartre was five feet two inches tall … He was conscious of his ugliness—he normally talked about it—but it was the kind of intense male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he correctly refrained from disguising it … He was also wise, generous, mildmannered, very funny, and a excellent talker … Sartre favored other folks to like him—which, in social cases, can be pretty much as fantastic as liking other people. He was a gifted mimic, he appeared surprisingly good in drag, and he did a good Donald Duck impact. He enjoyed drinking and conversing all night time, and so did [Simone de] Beauvoir.

The disorienting trick of this approach is that these central figures are then popped inside out, and they, also, develop into intermediaries for, or transfer details to, many other personages, artists, thinkers, salespeople, propagandists. Menand’s is not a “great man” view of history, because no 1 appears especially wonderful. 1 gets a sensation for Sartre as a human being, a minimal know-how of how Sartre made Being and Nothingness, and a vivid feeling of how the ebook created Sartre a celebrity. Then one learns how a troupe of other people arrived along and rode his achievements like a sled.

Menand zooms in and out in between individual egomaniacs and the milieus that facilitated their ascent and profited from their publicity. The results—group biographies, in miniature, of the existentialists, the Beats, the action painters, the Black Mountain University, the British Invasion, the pop artists, and many coteries more—are enchanting singly but demoralizing as they pile up. All of these enterprises look like hives of social insects, not selfless quests for truth of the matter or magnificence. Menand is a globe-course entomologist: He can identify every indistinguishable drone, understands who had an oversize mandible, who lost a leg, who carried the ideal crumbs. The caution is that you must not seek lasting benefit in their collective functions. From this vantage, the monuments truly are just anthills.

Menand is definitely a single of the great explainers. He rates approvingly a lesson taken by Lionel Trilling from his editor Elliot Cohen: “No concept was so difficult and complicated but that it could be expressed in a way that would make it comprehended by everyone to whom it might conceivably be of curiosity.” Menand puts his individual exercise to the exam. He is correct, he is insightful, and he is not a dumber-downer. It is notoriously hard to summarize Martin Heidegger’s Remaining and Time, structural linguistics, serial composition in audio, or the development of Fantastic Electric power rivalries in the interval of decolonization. Menand’s account of every is an abbreviated tour de drive. His explanations perform at all stages: interpretation for scholars, evaluation for general audience, introductions for neophytes. Exactly where a different author would get 20 webpages to inform us why anyone or a thing mattered historically, Menand does it in two.