April 23, 2003

Menand Visits to Give Olin Lecture

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Louis Menand, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club and an English professor at the City University of New York, gave a lecture last night on “Love and Duty in the Cold War” in Goldwin Smith Auditorium D.

The annual Olin lecture began as Sunny Powers, Dean of the Cornell Graduate School, introduced Menand. Menand, she said, like most other Olin speakers, has met with groups of graduate students in addition to his scheduled lecture. “He is a literary critic, a cultural historian, an editor and a writer. He writes about the history of ideas,” Powers said.

Menand spoke about cultural exchange and pointed out that “American culture is hybrid.”

“The illusion of American superiority is due to blindness about this fact,” he said.

The Cold War, according to Menand, changed art. In the early years, elite European opinion was important; now, the American culture of freedom dominates.

His lecture focused on the interaction between American and French writers, translators, and filmmakers. Menand spoke of Jean Paul Sartre’s essay “Existentialism as Humanism,” how it wowed the French public, and how, for a brief moment, “American writers, French writers, and thinkers saw that the world was dawning.”

The French, Menand explained, thought that American writing was modern and fascinating. They believed that “American writers had solved the problem about the representation of time. There was a collapse of distinction and memory,” Menand said. Also, American literature lacked the psychological aspect of past literature.

“The character and the author never reflected on conduct,” Menand said. Both the inside of the character and the author were eliminated entirely from the text.

The French, he added, thought that American writers were simply imitating movies. There is some truth to this idea, and one can understand it through “the atomization of action,” Menand said.

Take Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example. All of the old man’s actions are linear; everything is in the, “and then, and then” style, Menand explained.

“This is documentary-style realism,” he said.

Menand went on to discuss the rise and American adaptation of “Film Noires” like The Maltese Falcon. France, in 1949, only “had an enthusiasm for American writing if it was violent,” Menand said.

The last part of Menand’s lecture dealt with Sartre’s idea that all acts are chosen in the name of freedom. Quoting Sartre, Manand said, “no general ethics can show you what is to be done.” Menand described the following scenario: if a completely rational hungry donkey stands exactly between two piles of hay, he will starve to death. Menand related this story to real-life decisions.

“You have to get yourself out there in the abyss and choose,” Menand said . Once the choice is made, there is no need for explanation. The only explanation is that you had to make a choice.

“The separation of love and duty splits identity,” Menand said. At the conclusion of the lecture, Menand touched upon the war in Iraq.

“Whose freedom is it? Theirs, but on our terms…There are not two haystacks,” Menand finished.

After the lecture, guests gathered in the A.D. White building for a reception.

Menand has taught at Princeton, Columbia, The New School, and the University of Virginia School of Law. He is the author of American Studies and Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context; the editor of Pragmatism: A Reader, and The Future of Academic Freedom; and co-editor of volume seven of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism and America in Theory. In 2002, he was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

Menand was also the associate editor of The New Republic from 1986-1987, literary editor and staff writer at The New Yorker from 1993-1994, and contributing editor of The New York Review of Books from 1994-2001. Menand is currently a staff writer at The New Yorker.

The lecture was sponsored by the Spencer T. & Ann W. Olin Foundation. Past lecturers in the program have included Noam Chomsky, Isabelle Allende, Stephen Jay Gould, Lani Guinier, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Goodall and Jared Diamond.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman