A faded photograph links an American college campus at the height of World War II with the summer retreats of France's intelligentsia—and the textured history of Normandy's jagged coastline. Christopher Benfey sets off to discover what remains

By Christopher Benfey
May 29, 2014
Frédéric LaGrange

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.

The OSS (forerunner of the CIA) dispatched an agent to Mount Holyoke to see what the fuss was all about. What the agent found, on the whole, was a gathering of tolerant, humanistic, and nonsectarian intellectuals and artists. When the great mathematician Jacques Hadamard was asked whether, after a French victory, ethnic Germans should be evicted from France, he responded forcefully in the negative. The French, in that case, Hadamard said, would be mimicking the crimes of the Nazis.

Sitting in the library of the château at Cerisy, listening to Professor Jeanpierre and the ensuing conversation, I began to feel the special mood of these occasions that had spanned a century and crisscrossed the Atlantic. Jacques Derrida, the eminent philosopher and godfather of deconstruction, flew in later that night from Nice and described Pontigny-Cerisy as a "counter-institution" outside the normal routines and rituals of academic life. "One never knows truly, totally, what, in the future, is going to happen when one comes to Cerisy," Derrida remarked.

For me, such reflections drove home the transatlantic events of the summer of 1944. As the students left the Mount Holyoke campus to make way for debateson such questions as the fate of 20th-century art, Eisenhower was making his decision to invade Normandy—exactly 60 years ago this June. Omaha Beach is just an hour's drive from Cerisy, past stone villages and dairy farms. The landscape—perhaps because my mind kept shifting between Cerisy and South Hadley—reminded me of New England. But Henry Adams, a passionate Normandy pilgrim, had also noted the resemblance, believing the inhabitants of these granite coasts to be "as hard and practical a fact as the granite itself." My own vague image of the American Cemetery, drawn from films and history books, hardly prepared me for the sheer emotional impact of Omaha Beach. The sky was ashen and the surf down the cliffs was rough and roiling. A single row of pines lined the bluffs overlooking the landing beaches. Spreading out on the level turf as far as the eye could see was an ocean of white crosses, some 10,000 of them, like doves alighted on the grass. Each cross, with an occasional Star of David mixed in, gave four stark pieces of information: the soldier's name, rank and regiment, home state, and date of death. The afternoon I visited, it was rare to hear an American voice, though I heard Italian, Japanese, German, and French spoken—reverently, and in hushed tones. Somehow this mix of languages made the current French-American hostility over Iraq all the more distressing, and the graves were a painful reminder that American soldiers might again be risking their lives far from home.

A few minutes eastward, the no-frills fishing village of Port-en-Bessin, which served as a communications center for the Allies, offered another perspective on the invasion. Port-en-Bessin is the main port with access to the city of Bayeux, and its docks were lined with brightly colored fishing boats. On the high ridge above the town, a steep five-minute hike from the docks, the German gun emplacements looked like medieval redoubts, with vivid, blood-red poppies sprinkled among the stones. On the way down, I came upon a bronze easel with a marker explaining that the Pointillist Georges Seurat, along with his disciple Paul Signac, had come often in the 1880's to paint this view. I found myself thinking that not only was this landscape layered with historical memory—from William the Conqueror to the D-day landings—but that every traveler has brought his or her own fresh interpretation to the scene, stitching the present to the remote past.

Here and there along the coast, you can still see signs of how, in the 19th century, fops and dandies from England and France turned the austere Norman coast into the most popular seaside resort in Europe. In the sleepy resort town of Cabourg, a few miles east of Port-en-Bessin, which Proust immortalized as Balbec in Remembrance of Things Past, the casino where the young novelist whiled away the time is still standing. The Proust family were themselves close friends of Desjardins, the founder of Pontigny, who described Proust in 1888 as a "Persian prince" with "huge gazelle eyes and languorous eyelids...a collector of pleasures." Though Cabourg has not been slow to capitalize on its association with Proust—the boardwalk is named Promenade Marcel-Proust—it is possible even here to see Normandy as the author first saw it.

When the beaches—miles of dunes and oyster bays—ceased to amuse, the cathedrals were waiting. At the turn of the 20th century, such cultural pilgrims as Proust, Monet, and Henry Adams turned Normandy into a different kind of vacation spot, one where the traveler could idle—while his motorcar and driver waited—in the landscapes and mindscapes of the medieval past. "The architectural highway," as Adams wrote in his great travelogue Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, "lies through Coutances, Bayeux, Caen, Rouen and Mantes." Elstir, Proust's fictitious painter, who is in part modeled on Monet, is enraptured by the carved bas-reliefs in the little church at Balbec (Cabourg). "What exquisite trouvailles came to the old carver," Proust wrote, "what profound thoughts, what delicious poetry!"

Monet himself had studied the great cathedral façade in Rouen, which Henry James had described as "magnificently battered, heavy, impressive." Monet, by contrast, tried to give the massive cathedral an airy, polychromatic lightness. Though he painted canvas after canvas—30 in all—he had a recurring nightmare about the cathedral: "It fell on me [and] seemed to be pink or blue or yellow."

I was having a little daydream of my own, tracing in my imagination my progress across Normandy from steeple to steeple across the hill towns and battlefields. Proust had remarked that you see French country towns long before you get to them, their stone spires shifting with your changing perspective. Something similar had happened with my own quest for Pontigny-en-Amérique. I found a pocket of American history in the heart of Normandy and of French history in western Massachusetts. From her rooms at Mount Holyoke, Marianne Moore had experienced the same sense of being in two places at once. As she wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in the summer of 1943: "You should see the tiny hemlock cones at Holyoke; and hear the bells, which clang sonorously every hour and half hour so you feel as if you were in Europe."

From Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport you can pick up a connecting flight to Rouen, Caen, or Le Havre, or you can rent a car for the trip north (it's just 71 miles to Rouen, 145 to Caen). Trains run between the major Norman cities, but you'll need a car to explore the region in depth.

Grand Hôtel de Cabourg
Proust stayed in room 414 of this Belle Époque building. Rooms on the north side face the sea. DOUBLES FROM $162. PROMENADE MARCEL-PROUST, CABOURG; 33-2/31-91-01-79; www.grandhotel-cabourg.com

Hôtel Château d'Agneaux
A 13th-century castle, now a 12-room inn and restaurant, in the Vire Valley of central Normandy, a half-hour's drive south from Omaha Beach. DOUBLES FROM $85. AVE. STE.-MARIE, ST.-LO, AGNEAUX; 33-2/33-57-65-88; www.chateau-agneaux.com

Chef-owner Gilles Tournadre scours local markets daily to assemble rich regional dishes such as frog's leg fricassee and squab with foie gras ravioli. DINNER FOR TWO $96. 8-9 QUAI DE LA BOURSE, ROUEN; 33-2/35-71-16-14

Café de la Digue
Order a plate of Normandy oysters and bulots (whelks) at this beachfront café, next door to the Grand Hôtel. LUNCH FOR TWO $42. PROMENADE MARCEL-PROUST, CABOURG; 33-2/31-91-62-48

Just outside Coutances, on the road to Bayeux, this 17th-century château is where the colloquiums that began at Pontigny are now held each August. Open to the public on Thursdays in July and August; available for group tours in summer with prior reservations. 33-2/33-46-91-66; www.ccic-cerisy.asso.fr

St.-Étienne Church, Caen
One of the greatest of the early Romanesque churches, in the Abbaye aux Hommes monastery complex in Caen. PLACE MONSEIGNEUR DES HAMEAUX, CAEN; 33-2/31-30-42-81

Notre Dame Cathedral, Rouen
Monet immortalized this cathedral, built between 1201 and 1514, in a series of 30 paintings, one of which hangs in the nearby Musée des Beaux-Arts (Place Restout, Rouen; 33-2/35-71-28-40). PLACE DE LA CATHÉDRALE

Le Mémorial de Caen
This World War II-focused "peace museum" marks the 60th anniversary of D-day with "D-Day Words," an exhibition built around the letters and diaries of German and Allied soldiers. The museum also organizes four-hour guided tours of the D-day landing beaches. YEAR-ROUND; TOURS FROM $70. 33-2/31-06-06-44; www.memorial-caen.fr

D-Day Remembered
For a more in-depth look at the cultural and military history of the region, Smithsonian Journeys' 12-day cruise from London to Caen includes a visit to the D-Day Museum at Southsea, England, and a wreath-laying ceremony on Omaha Beach. MAY 24-JUNE 4; FROM $5,095 PER PERSON. 877/338-8687; www.smithsonianjourneys.org
—Jaime L. Gross


Café de la Digue

Hôtel Château d'Agneaux

Grand Hôtel de Cabourg