Review of Louis Menand's 'The Free World' - Matthew Cole

Review of Louis Menand's 'The Free World' - Matthew Cole

Through our monthly book reviews, we want to provide an opportunity for students and early-career academics to discuss new non-fiction publications which contribute to our understanding of Orwell’s life and work. Our book reviews give the views of the author and do not reflect the position of The Orwell Foundation.

In the third of our book reviews, Matthew Cole, a Preceptor of Expository Writing in the Harvard College Writing Program, reviews Louis Menand's 'The Free World'. Matthew Cole holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, where he specialized in political theory. His research has appeared in Political Research Quarterly and Environmental Politics.


In his preface to The Free World, Louis Menand offers both historiographical and personal reasons for writing the book, though less than a year after its release it’s hard to imagine many readers needing justification. Menand’s intellectual and cultural history of the Cold War era arrived in paperback just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. That ongoing crisis has prompted widespread discussion of a “new Cold War” and provoked urgent questions about the viability of the world order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, readers hoping for a primer on geo-politics might come away disappointed: Menand’s book is frequently insightful on these matters, but as he acknowledges at the outset, The Free World is less about the Cold War itself than the movement of art and ideas that took place in its shadow. Still, this is an opportune moment for reacquaintance with Menand’s panoply of thinkers, many of whom have been recruited as analysts of our present global predicament – among them George Kennan, Hannah Arendt, and of course George Orwell.

Most readers will recognize Menand as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club, a history of American pragmatism that solidified his reputation as a lively and penetrating excavator of ideas, personalities, and contexts. But even that ambitious work looks minor next to The Free World, a continent-spanning tome whose ensemble cast includes scholars, statesmen, philosophers, composers, novelists, activists, painters, poets, critics, and polymaths who moved between several of these spheres. Individual thinkers and artists come to the foreground for a chapter-length close-up before returning to the ranks of the supporting cast, but their names, works, and ideas recur throughout the book so that, even as Menand begins to rotate the prism, a coherent world of thought is illuminated.

The same qualities that make The Free World so dazzling to read also make it difficult to review – anyone interested in checking Menand’s work comprehensively would need to be as good on James Baldwin as Bonnie and Clyde, as conversant with French cinema as German philosophy as American grand strategy. But if the figures on whom I could claim some authority –Orwell, Arendt, C. Wright Mills – are any indicator, specialists will find Menand formidable. The miniatures and cross-sections that comprise his tapestry are rendered with precision and economy, offering ample rewards for popular and scholarly audiences.

Orwell’s portrait arrives early, in the book’s second chapter (the first belongs to Kennan, Menand’s principal avatar for the American foreign policy establishment). Following a tightly paced tour of Orwell’s life and politics, the chapter dwells mostly on Orwell’s encounter with James Burnham and the genesis of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Menand’s primary contention is that Orwell, despite his antipathy toward the Soviet Union, was not a proto-Cold Warrior but a critic of the incipient conflict whose name he happened to coin. Drawing on essays like You and the Atom Bomb and Toward European Unity, Menand uncovers an Orwell who foresaw ’a world dominated by totalitarian monsters locked in an interminable and unwinnable struggle’ and who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in large part as ’a warning about what a Cold War might turn the World into’ (Menand 35-36).

Menand locates Orwell among the post-war critics of totalitarianism, as a popularizer of the ’convergence theory’ of totalitarianism, and most importantly, as a writer concerned with ’the traits and tendencies that might lead to totalitarian conditions in liberal democracies,’ which is to say, with the question, ’Could it happen here?’ (Menand 36) Orwell’s readers know his answer: it’s no accident that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are set in England, as Orwell believed that “totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.” For this reason, Menand cites Orwell as an inspiration for ’a Cold War within the Cold War,’ wherein the struggle against totalitarianism becomes an internal struggle against state control, censorship, propaganda, and surveillance – tactics by which the Cold War might be ’won,’ but at an unconscionable price.

The only objectionable point in Menand’s reading of Orwell is his claim that Nineteen Eighty-Four ’gave expression… to the belief that people have a natural susceptibility to totalitarian ideologies, that those ideologies appeal to an inherent sadism in human nature’ (Menand 49). Now, Menand chooses these words carefully. To say that the novel gave expression to these ideas is not quite to say that Orwell himself held them. Tellingly, the next sentence averts not to Orwell but to Arthur Schlesinger, who saw ’a Hitler, a Stalin, in every human breast.’ Still, it might have been worth pointing out that Orwell did not. He thought it was mostly intellectuals who were susceptible to totalitarian ideologies and the pathology of ’power-worship,’ but he did not think these attitudes were widespread among the common people, let alone universal.  As for inherent sadism, Orwell often disputed this view of human nature. In fact, it was one of his major criticisms of Burnham, ’that in all his talk about the struggle for power, Burnham never stops to ask why people want power,’ but instead ’seems to assume that power hunger, although only dominant in comparatively few people, is a natural instinct that does not need to be explained’ (Orwell 177). Orwell’s own hunch was that the twentieth century cult of power was distinctly unnatural, and needed historical, political, and psychological, as opposed to metaphysical, explanation.

Orwell makes a few additional cameos in The Free World. Amidst the rise of the mass market paperback there’s an amusing detail about a pulpy American reprint of Nineteen Eighty-Four that features a ’sleeveless, and surprisingly toned, Winston’ alongside a scantily clad Julia and a whip-clutching O’Brien who seems to be dressed for an S&M convention (Menand 359). Later Menand attributes the novel’s atmosphere to the bleakness of post-war Britain, its ’shoddy goods, undernourishment, and rationing’ with substantiating testimony from Orwell’s pal Cyril Connolly) (Menand 329). Nineteen Eighty-Four plays a larger role in The Free World than any other novel – though On the Road and Invisible Man compete for the honor – but Menand isn’t too reverential, treating the novel as both solemn prophecy and historical curio as suits his wider story. Some of the questions Orwell raises reverberate to the end of The Free World, though they are joined by equally urgent questions about sex, race, the avant-garde and much else besides, that Orwell barely touched on. No one figure comes across as a cipher for Menand, rather his tour de force reflects the range of his ensemble cast, informing, provoking, and entertaining in turn: exemplifying what, in Chapter 13, Menand calls ’The Free Play of the Mind.’

Per Menand “freedom was the slogan of the times” and while it was “invoked to justify everything” this does not yet suffice to explain “just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean” (Menand, xiv). The Free World offers glimpses of freedom’s triumphant possibilities and then leaves us wondering if freedom can withstand anything longer than a glimpse. Many definitions of that titular concept compete throughout – from the Sartrean abyss to the spiritual strivings of the Civil Rights Movement to the modest negative liberalism of Isaiah Berlin, from the mundanity of the market to the transcendence of art. Near the middle of the book, Menand reflects that “Freedom isn’t natural,” but instead must be carved out (Menand 334). Individuals may experience freedom in rare moments, and perhaps never so fully as when our minds are at play in the realms of thought and art. But can a society or a nation be free? Let alone a world?  There may never, in fact, be a free world, but there is a world shaped by the pursuit of freedom, and Menand is as good a guide to it as one could hope to have.


Bibliography

Menand, Louis. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021).

Orwell, George. 1968. In Front of Your Nose: The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, Vol. IV., eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Boston: Nonpareil Book, 1968).


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