A Golden Age

In October 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre returned from the States to a newly-liberated Paris, still reeling from the effects of the war years, and the first thing he did was to give a lecture. When he arrived at the university he found the hall too packed with people for him actually to enter. It took him an hour to reach the lecturer’s podium and the atmosphere in the room was at fever-pitch, with many students fainting and having to be carried out over the heads of the audience. Once in place, Sartre spoke for two hours, without notes, and the result ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ became (and remains) a famous philosophical tract. Not because of the circumstances under which it was delivered, but because in it, Sartre responded to the effects of the war years with a complete change of mental direction. Where existentialism had been a pessimistic doctrine, he now saw it as fundamentally optimistic. Where it had been about alienated, isolated individuals, it was now about community.

His words had an electrifying effect on a Paris that was entering an intellectual renaissance period, headed up by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Because these intellectuals moved around from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, their bases for working tended to be cafés, and the Boulevard Saint-Germain was where the action was. The upstairs of the Café Flore where Sartre and Beauvoir worked almost a full office day looked more like a classroom than a bar, and eventually Sartre had his own phone line put in. They were surrounded by the artists who would be the canonical names of the twentieth century, philosophers like Raymond Aron and Merleau-Ponty, writers like Jean Genet and Raymond Queneau, musicians like Edith Piaf. Picasso lived just around the corner and was eventually peer-pressurised into joining the Communist Party.

What an atmosphere Paris had then! What drive and engagement and focus! Gide was famous, Beckett just about to become so, Matisse was painting his Jazz series, the nouveau roman was about to be invented. Everyone was reading Hemingway and Steinbeck and the new writers from Africa and the Caribbean. When I read about this moment in history, what immediately crosses my mind is how very far we are nowadays from any such intellectual fervour. Can you imagine a lecture making the news headlines? Having the same crowd difficulties as a pop concert? I ponder the climate of anti-intellectualism that we live in (here in the UK at any rate) and wonder whence it has come. I can think of three main factors. The first is that what is intellectual is not commercial. It doesn’t attract a sufficiently large market to make money and therefore must function as best it can without resources, publicity or acclaim. The second is that we live in a science-dominated ideology and so ideas have become subject to great suspicion; objective proof is now the repository of intellectual authority and public approval, and hence can attract public and private funding. Thirdly, we have created a media that prefers its celebrities to have no actual basis for respect; it makes it much easier to set them up and knock them down perpetuating this odd democracy of fame that seems so necessary to modern society. It’s hard to find reasons to criticize Nobel prize winner, even if they can’t tie their own shoelaces or work out the bus route home, and so they remain mostly anonymous.

I do wonder whether we will ever find our way out of this cultural impasse. I don’t want the whole world to become serious-minded, I just think that writing, philosophy, the history of ideas, should regain its status as a valuable and effective part of the society we live in. There’s only one thought that gives me some hope: part of the reason why Paris enjoyed such a heady cultural era was because the Occupation had effectively killed all intellectual life stone dead. Paper shortages meant difficulty in obtaining printed matter, the theatres had been censored, many books had been banned. Freed from these constraints, and recognising the role intellectuals had played in the Resistance movement, the Parisians were hungry for exciting new ideas. Maybe a time will come when we, too, realise our starvation and feel ready to create a context in which thought and experimentation in the arts and humanities can once again flourish.

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16 thoughts on “A Golden Age

  1. Oh, that sounds like a wonderful time! Most certainly the anti-intellectualism you talk about exists here in the US too (aided and abetted by our wonderful president, I think), and your account of it makes sense, especially your point about money — I see so many people who want nothing more in life than to make a lot of money, and big ideas won’t help them do that.

  2. Your terse description of the era is so good. It does make me wish I had been there. For the first twenty years we were here in Fredericton, there was something of that kind of intellectual and artistic excitement (not on the same scale of excellence of course), and I miss it.

  3. I love that Satre story. I can’t imagine it happening now, and certainly not in the US. As Dorothy says–anti-intellectualism very much exists here. I’m not even sure people trust scientists–I work with people who vehemently deny global warming. I just shut up and inwardly shake my head. I sometimes feel like we are heading back into the dark ages! I only hope that some sort of renaissance will occur and things will change.

  4. I think it’s a key point that an intellectual and artistic community flourishes under oppressive circumstances. Prague in the 60s. I’ve heard numerous anecdotes of vibrant little pockets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia through the 90s up to today. Whether any movement will have the impact of those times in Paris remains to be seen; ironically in a globalized world, those pockets tend be local, a response to an immediate circumstance, and it’s much harder to be heard by a larger audience.

    Regarding science-dominated ideology — I don’t think that propagates antiintellectualism so much as it simply favours certain types of intellectualism: say, economic and technological advances over “artistic” ones; “philosophy” perhaps is less firmly grounded these days but wanders amid all those fields.

  5. The Parisian philosophers were forerunners for the American “Beat” generation and there was some wonderful work which came out of that. The modern equivalent is the “Goth” movement and I have yet to see anything of worth emanating from them. I had hopes of the Blogging culture developing some new literate icons. Unfortunately the leading blogs are based on Hollywood Gossip, not on existentialistic angst.

  6. I share your wish Litlove for a vibrate intellectual culture. I can’t imagine people packing in to see a lecture by a philosopher these days. But I hold out hop, maybe someday!

  7. Ah litlove how great would this be. Sometimes I get very discouraged when I read articles on the decline of reading or notice that newspapers have stopped publishing a book/arts section but like Stefanie, I’m holding out hope.

  8. Dear Dorothy – In a way I’m relieved to know it’s not just here – although if anybody wanted to buck the trend, that would be quite acceptable! I do wish money didn’t rule the world, but I think it does. Nancy Ruth – even to have a bit of that cultural excitement is better than to have none at all! Shannon – welcome to the site – and yes, the voice of blogging does at least offer something new and democratic. Finding a community of like-minded book people has been the most wonderful treat for me, and there’s a lot of potential power here, if organised somewhat diffusely. Danielle – you are quite right! Those global warming scientists do get treated like fiction writers, don’t they? I hope for a shift in attitudes, too! Isabella – how interesting to hear of those small but vibrant communities, and how intriguing to think that oppression should foster them! I agree with what you say about science – it is interesting though that the global warming scientists (as Danielle is saying) get dismissed because their work is still speculative; it’s the validation only of the factual that I think will cause us problems in the end. Dear Archie, yes I can’t think of any great contemporary gothic literature, but surely someone will prove me wrong on that! The celebrity blogs might have the stats, but we book bloggers have all the integrity… Stefanie, oh I do hope so too! and Iliana too, we will all three of us have to somehow manage to turn up to the lecture of this century and show solidarity. In the meantime, we’ll express it here.

  9. I agree with all of this, but I do wonder whether there is a problem of diversity too. There is so much work, so many ideas, movements, divisions and subdivisions of knowledge, it’s so hard to even keep pace with any area. The audience for any part of the intellectual world must be similarly diverse. At one time there were professors of literature, history, philosophy – now it’s professors of medieval literature, critical theory of renaissance literature, eighteenth century studies in feminist history, the history of the philosophy of science. Here’s next year’s new appointment – professor of the study, dissemination and assessment of fragmentation in modern thought! Unless it already exists! Sorry to be a little flippant, on a topic of serious concern, but I know how difficult I find it even to keep up with all the wonderful books recommended on this and other related blogs.

  10. All I can say is BRAVO, Litlove!

    You make me want to take a time machine back to the days of gay Paree….

    Where is the verve and challenge today? We’re all Wal-Marted and Disneyfied!

  11. I totally agree with you, Litlove. In France too there seems to be a rash of anti-intellectualism, fuelled by populism (even our would-be president relishes it). In St germain des pres there is hardly one bookshop left, but luckily others have flourished in other parts of the town. I see hope in blogs though, even if the communities are scattered and never meet in real life. Seeing a group of people ready to read Don Quixote, or Proust, just for fun, gives me great hope. (sorry for the long post!)

  12. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

  13. I wonder if this kind of revival will begin with blogs. This post reminds me of one I read on trust boundary lamenting the death of Kurt Vonnegat and our inability to replace public intellectuals right now. I think a return to valuing public intellect is possible and I think its beginning, very slowly, in blogs.

  14. Bookboxed – you’re quite right – and we could add to that, of course that postmodernism made the ‘predominant thinking’ in metaphysics so hugely complex that hardly anyone understood a word of it. That didn’t help either. Existentialism has its challenging moments, but its basic principles are readily understood by anyone, something than cannot be said of deconstruction! LK – I love what you say about WalMart and Disney!! And of yes please to a time machine – if only! Pauline – your comments are warmly welcomed – take as long as you like over them. I’m so sorry to hear France has succumbed – it was always the nation with the greatest respect for its academics. The bloggers will just HAVE to show the way forward, I can see. Courtney – I agree with you – it will be fascinating to see what happens in the blogosphere over the next five years. It’s clearly the place where something significant is going to happen.

  15. Interesting to read your: “the climate of anti-intellectualism … (here in the UK at any rate)”.

    To us in the US, Britain often seems enlightened. A place where reason and education are respected. Certainly the “Andy Capps” have always been there; do you think it’s that much worse now?

    I liked your three “coarsening” influences, driving anti-intellectualism. Yes, our money worshipping culture has little interest in ideas w/o commercial value. I look forward much to reading more of what you have to say about arts v. sciences.

    But don’t you think the media is driven by popular demand rather than any cognizant force looking to criticize Nobel winners? People want emotive stories about movie stars they can ID with. Photogenic extremes of feminine or masculine beauty they can admire, rather than some crusty old codger in a paper-strewn office discussing high-falutin’ concepts they have to think about, perhaps don’t understand completely, and which thus make them feel dumb.

    The sad truth about the sitcom culture is that lowest common denominator humor, at essence, makes even the dimmest bulb feel bright in comparison. And many don’t want to be challenged to learn, they just want to feel superior.

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