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Norman Conquests

The late Victorians, our intellectual parents in so many ways, jettisoned the religious pilgrimage for a different kind of quest—the search for a landscape in key with their own inchoate yearnings. Paris and Rome retained their complicated allure, of course, but other places began to emerge from history's dustbin. For Marcel Proust and Claude Monet, Henry Adams and Henry James, a meander through Normandy was the intellectual pilgrimage at its multilayered finest. The austere stone architecture and poplar-studded pastures suggested a lost world of spiritual certainty and aesthetic decorum, a place where the secrets of the past opened up new meanings for the fraught and uncertain present. And so it was for me.

I would never have traveled to the Romanesque churches and channel beaches of Normandy had I not stumbled across an unassuming snapshot of Wallace Stevens among the photographs in the center of Peter Brazeau's biography of the poet. The black-and-white image, slightly blurred by bright sunlight, shows Stevens in his habitual business suit, seated on a lawn by a brick building next to a diminutive man with wavy hair and glasses. Brazeau's caption reads: "Jean Wahl and Wallace Stevens at Mount Holyoke College in August 1943, when Stevens lectured on 'The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet.'" Now, I knew the lecture—a difficult meditation on the task of poetry to lift the spirit "in a leaden time"—and I knew the college, where I have taught for a dozen years. The Beaux-Arts building in the background is Porter Hall, where I have my office. But who was Jean Wahl and what were these men doing on the lawn at Mount Holyoke on a summer afternoon in the middle of World War II?To find answers to those questions, I went first to the Mount Holyoke archives, then to various books, and, finally, to a 17th-century château in Cerisy-la-Salle, the heart of Normandy. What I learned, assembling the puzzle piece by piece, is that Mount Holyoke was a rich detour, caused by the pressures of war, in the complicated history of a series of exchanges among Europe's leading intellectuals, known as les entretiens de Pontigny—the Pontigny conversations.

Pontigny is a famous Cistercian abbey in the Burgundy region of France. There, beginning in the summer of 1910, a full-bearded humanist with medieval tastes named Paul Desjardins—imagine a French William Morris—would convene a group of writers, thinkers, and artists for 10-day informal conversations, or décades, on themes like "Man and Time" or "The Will to Evil" or "Is Civilization Mortal?" French writers dominated: André Gide and Paul Valéry were regular participants during the early years; later, the young Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre gave the sessions a more political turn. But such Francophile Bloomsbury figures as Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Roger Fry came as well. Not many Americans were involved, though Edith Wharton stopped by one afternoon in her touring car and journalist Elizabeth Sergeant wrote that staying at Pontigny was like being at "a glorified, intellectual house-party."

If the conversation was sophisticated, the living arrangements were not. Strachey complained that the sanitary facilities were "crushing and inadequate," that his bedroom was literally a monk's cell. (He did enjoy flirting with Desjardins's son Blaise, whom he described as "largish, pale, [and] unhealthy," adding that he sang very well.) Gisèle Freund's photograph of philosopher Walter Benjamin walking along the river by the abbey in the summer of 1938, twirling a flower between his fingers, has a particular poignancy—a moment of meditative calm about to be shattered. (In 1940, Benjamin was finally prevailed upon to leave Nazi-occupied France for Spain and eventual safe passage to America, but committed suicide in the border town of Port Bou.)

The Pontigny session in August 1939, co-sponsored by the London-based Times Literary Supplement in a gesture of Anglo-French solidarity, carried the ominous theme of "Destiny." It was interrupted by news of Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1. A few months later the Nazis took over the old abbey, the Gestapo destroyed its archives, and that was the end of the entretiens—for the moment. They resumed three years later, beneath the elms and maples of the Mount Holyoke campus, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, for the duration of the war. During the summers of 1942 through 1944, such European émigrés as the artist Marc Chagall and the philosopher Hannah Arendt met their American peers at what was named Pontigny-en-Amérique. When the exiles returned to France after the war, the entretiens returned as well, though not to Pontigny, which had by then passed into other hands. The international gatherings were held, and continue to be to this day, in the small Norman town of Cerisy-la-Salle, at the Desjardins family's other estate.

So it was to Cerisy that I traveled in the summer of 2002. A special session, titled "De Pontigny à Cerisy," was to be devoted to the 90-year history of Pontigny and its permutations, with a particular sectionon the years when the entretiens had been transferred to Mount Holyoke. There was also an accompanying exhibition in the Norman university town of Caen, with extraordinary photographs and documentation. The summer of 2002 was a very strange time for an American to be visiting France, and to be looking into Franco-American cultural exchange. The campaign to wage war on Iraq was gaining momentum, and French-American relations had begun to feel the strain. There were inklings already of the all-time low they would reach in the winter of 2003, when french fries were renamed "freedom fries" and there were calls for a boycott—in Congress and elsewhere—of all things French.

After a short drive from the cathedral town of Coutances, I arrived at the château at Cerisy-la-Salle, where professors and writers were just beginning to assemble in the quaint, heavy-beamed library to hear Professor Laurent Jeanpierre, a young scholar from the University of Paris, lay out his colorful account of the French invasion of Mount Holyoke, which he described as having been a far more "transatlantic and even global dialogue" than any held at Pontigny itself. He noted the importance for the history of modern art of a session held in the summer of 1944 that included the Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, the Surrealist André Masson, and the young sculptor Louise Bourgeois. On that occasion, Motherwell delivered his first talk defending the claims of abstraction against the traditions of Surrealism. At that moment, Jeanpierre argued, one could see the first tremors of the seismic shift from Paris as the center of artistic innovation to New York, and of the new wave in modern painting. Another session brought together the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the linguist Roman Jakobson, founders of what came to be known as Structuralism, a theory of language and culture that revolutionized the study of literature. Jeanpierre was arguing that France and the United States had been allies not just in a military sense, but intellectually as well. At the time, and even now perhaps, this was something that seemed at once heartening and impossibly remote.

Pontigny-en-Amérique (or "Pont'holyoke," as it was affectionately called) was the brainchild of an enterprising Mount Holyoke French professor named Helen Patch. She wanted to create an advanced summer school for French language and culture, drawing on the expertise of the many French artists and intellectuals living in exile in New York. The exiles, in turn, wondered whether there might be a way to resume those spirited conversations at Pontigny that had been interrupted by the war—and whose themes suddenly seemed more urgent than ever. Patch suggested to her old Sorbonne mentor, the medievalist Gustave Cohen, who was living in New York and teaching at the New School, that Mount Holyoke, the oldest women's college in the United States, could serve as a reasonable facsimile of Desjardins's monastery at Pontigny. And Cohen knew just the person to organize such a thing: Jean Wahl, the man next to Wallace Stevens in the faded photograph.

Born into a Jewish family in Marseilles, Wahl was uniquely positioned, by temperament and training, for the role of cultural intermediary between France and America. His father was a teacher of English, and Wahl grew up fully bilingual, as at home with Huckleberry Finn as with The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a philosopher and a poet whose first major book, published in 1920, was a study of American pragmatist philosophy that introduced the ideas of William James to a French audience. (An early existentialist, he had created a stir when he failed Jean-Paul Sartre in a graduate course.) Wahl was precisely the kind of "cosmopolitan Jew" the Nazis reviled. The Gestapo arrested him immediately following the occupation of Paris and subjected him to weeks of interrogation and torture; during lulls in the horrific routine Wahl read Moby Dick, in English, and wrote short poems. (The Germans, noted Wahl's friend Henry Church, "were told to mistreat him and being obedient did so.") Wahl was incarcerated at the concentration camp of Drancy, where, with thousands of other French Jews, he awaited the death trains to Auschwitz. In a 1945 New Yorker profile, Wahl described his unlikely escape in the back of a butcher's truck, hiding among the carcasses. Emaciated and scarred, Wahl made his way to Marseilles, where he boarded one of the last refugee ships to the United States. He arrived in New York on August 1, 1942, and was quickly drawn into the planning group for Pontigny-en-Amérique.

Wahl had a double vision for the Mount Holyoke décades. They were intended to be, first of all, acts of intellectual resistance, the cultural counterpart of de Gaulle's Free French in London. But Wahl also wanted them to serve as occasions for French-American dialogue, sealing culturally an alliance crucial to the eventual liberation of France. So, as the Allies prepared to reclaim Europe from the Nazis, Jean Wahl marshaled his intellectual troops in Massachusetts. Wahl's outdoor discussions, accompanied by the sounds of jets flying overhead from the nearby Westover Air Reserve Base and of Navy Waves training on campus, were intense. Poet Marianne Moore wrote of her admiration for Wahl, the "elfin and most touching exile." "An unselfish experiment like that of the Pontigny Committee," she added, "leaves a certain memory of exaltation, and a great desire to be of service to those who have suffered, and fought so well." Word spread of this remarkable occasion. Time sent a reporter, who learned that Mount Holyoke students thought Wahl was "cute." The Times Literary Supplement announced that the "spirit of the Abbey" had found a "sanctuary" in the United States. Proceedings were published in the prestigious Sewanee Review.

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