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Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II

The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College, 1942-1944

edited by Christopher Benfey and Karen Remmler

Publication Year: 2006

Sixty years ago, at the height of World War II, an extraordinary series of gatherings took place at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. During the summers of 1942–1944, leading Europeanfigures in the arts and sciences met at the college with their American counterparts for urgent conversations about the future of human civilization in a precarious world. Two Sorbonne professors, the distinguished medievalist Gustave Cohen and the existentialist philosopher Jean Wahl, organized these “Pontigny” sessions, named after an abbey in Burgundy where similar symposia had been held in the decades before the war. Among the participants—many of whom were Jewish or had Jewish backgrounds—were the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Rachel Bespaloff, the poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the linguist Roman Jakobson, and the painters Marc Chagall and Robert Motherwell. In this collection of original essays, Stanley Cavell and Jacques Derrida lead an international group of scholars—including Jed Perl, Mary Ann Caws, Jeffrey Mehlman, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl—in assessing the lasting impact and contemporary significance of Pontigny-en- Amérique. Rachel Bespaloff, a tragicfigure who wrote a major work on the Iliad, is restored to her rightful place beside Arendt and Simone Weil. Anyone interested in the “intellectual resistance” of Francophone intellectuals and artists, and the inspiring support from such Americanfigures as Stevens and Moore, will want to read this pioneering work of scholarship and historical re-creation.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xiii

The spirit of Pontigny arose from a trust in the vitality of human conversation. Conversations with colleagues, students, staff, and alumnae of Mount Holyoke College—some of whom contributed to this volume—inspired us to pursue this exploration of a key moment in the history of the college, and in...

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Introduction: A Violence from Within

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pp. 1-13

Pontigny began for me with a faded snapshot, a freeze frame in time. I stumbled across it among the swatch of photographs in the center of Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World, his fragmentary “oral history” of people who had known the poet Wallace Stevens. The black and white image, slightly blurred...

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Part I: A Hundred Years of Pontigny

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pp. 15-55

For the intellectuals and artists in exile, and also for their American counterparts, Pontigny-en-Amérique—or the “Yankee Pontigny,” as Wallace Stevens called it—was a radical departure from institutional business as usual. This primarily historical section addresses three related questions concerning the “fit” of...

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pp. 19-36

Of all the eyewitness accounts of the annual D

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The Vision of Helen Patch

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pp. 37-42

I cannot think of a more propitious moment than our own to reflect on the extraordinary event that was Pontigny-en-Amérique, a series of three summer retreats held during World War II in which some of Europe’s best minds gathered at Mount Holyoke College to talk and argue about nothing less than...

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The OSS Pays a Visit

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pp. 43-45

In rethinking France’s identities through the memory of its interactions with its various “others,” inside and outside of France, I note that the Mount Holyoke celebration calls attention to the interplay between margin and center, of French intellectuals and artists decentered or marginalized by the war...

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The Philosophical Model of a Counter-Institution

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pp. 46-55

Although this session is devoted or restricted to philosophy, to the established and statutory discipline named “philosophy,” recognized and designated as such, I believe it legitimate to posit that all the décades in which I have participated—even when their title or name gestured in the direction of...

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Part II: Poetry and Philosophy

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pp. 57-100

Adventurous philosophical thought was always at the center of the Pontigny tradition, especially when the philosopher-poet Jean Wahl assumed the direction of Pontigny-en-Am

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Reflections on Wallace Stevens at Mount Holyoke

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pp. 61-79

I counted on the fact that by the time it fell to me to present these remarks, we would have had sketched more of the texture and the details of the event sixty years ago that we are gathered to commemorate than I have learned in the course of my preparation, on and off these past months, for composing...

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Thoughts on Wallace Stevens’s Contribution at Pontigny-en-Amérique: Response to Cavell

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pp. 80-83

“The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” is a confusing text, but it does have a recognizable armature of sorts, pertaining to the three references to a muse said to be “a kind of sister of the Minotaur.” The mythographer immediately thinks of Ariadne and Phaedra, but because she fi rst appears in relation...

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Postscript: Response to Mehlman

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pp. 84-88

I do not doubt that Jeffrey Mehlman, in his elegant and exuberant response to my remarks, has successfully demonstrated “the Phèdre intertext” in Stevens’s “Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” text. When I said that I assumed the obvious candidates—Ariadne and Phaedra—for Stevens’s provision...

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Henry Church and the Literary Magazine Mesures: “The American Resource”

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pp. 89-100

Henry Church was born January 3, 1880, in Brooklyn. He was a descendant of one of the Mayflower pilgrims and also of a pharmacist who owned a monopoly on the marketing of bicarbonate of soda in the United States (the source of Church’s immense fortune). At the age of twenty-one...

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Part III: Art and Artists

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pp. 101-135

The artists—Chagall, Masson, Motherwell, Louise Bourgeois, Stanley Hayter—came to Pontigny-en-Amérique and so did the art critics, including the Italian art historian Lionello Venturi, who issued the invitations, and the scholar (and husband of Bourgeois) Robert Goldwater, whose work on primitive art had great influence...

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Romantic Reverberations

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pp. 105-113

In 1941, Eugene Jolas, the friend of Joyce and editor of Transition, was living in the United States, where he assembled Vertical: A Yearbook for Romantic-Mystic Ascensions. The book, published by the Gotham Book Mart in New York, included poems, essays, classic texts...

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Robert Motherwell and the Modern Painter’s World

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pp. 114-121

Robert Motherwell is my topic here: I knew him, loved him, and discussed at length with him his relation to the painting and poetry of France and of America, to other arts such as music, and, most particularly, his relation to literary Symbolism—especially to the ur-Symbolist...

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The Critical Moment: Lionello Venturi in America

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pp. 122-135

Lionello Venturi was the only art historian invited to come to the Pontigny encounters at Mount Holyoke, and he came twice.1 The decision to invite Venturi was significant. No European art historian in exile had his credentials as an anti-fascist. If his physical stature was unusual...

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Part IV: Creativity and Crisis

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pp. 137-201

Pontigny-en-Amérique was a meeting place not only of nationalities but also of academic disciplines, in a more intimate setting than a traditional institution of higher learning. A term such as “interdisciplinary” does not do justice to the fusion of diverse ways of thinking that one finds, for example...

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Medievalism and Pontigny

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pp. 141-144

“Nos yeux reçoivent la lumière des étoiles mortes [our eyes register the light of dead stars].” So began André Schwartz-Bart’s 1959 novel of the Holocaust, Le dernier des justes (The Last of the Just), which came to mind as I first read through the Pontigny dossier in the Mount Holyoke College Archives...

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Gustave Cohen at Pont-Holyoke: The Drama of Belonging to France

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pp. 145-161

Gustave Cohen, the medievalist and man of the theater, limped onto the Mount Holyoke campus in the summer of 1942, an ardent advocate of France.1 Just two years earlier, he had been stripped of his post at the Sorbonne by the Vichy government and its anti-Jewish statutes. He fl ed to America...

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The Tiger Leaps: Louis Aragon, Gustave Cohen, and the Poetry of Resistance

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pp. 162-172

Surely Walter Benjamin, who had been at Pontigny in 1938, would have been at the Mount Holyoke Pontigny colloquia of the war years, and the pathos of those gatherings owes not a little to his absence. Benjamin called one of his protracted meditations preliminary to the Arcades...

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Poetry and Reality: Roman O. Jakobson and Claude L

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pp. 173-184

This story has no beginning and may not be able to end. I would like to tell it, stuck as I am on one of its many tangents, if only it would sit still at least for a brief moment while it continues to expand. It is the story of chance meetings, some fortuitous, some foretold, and several others missed...

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Jacques Hadamard and Creativity in the Sciences

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pp. 185-201

When he checked in the first summer at Pontigny-en-Am

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Part V: Conversations in Exile

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pp. 203-245

As many of the contributors to this volume have argued, the face-to-face encounters at Pontigny-en-Am

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A Tale of Two Iliads

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pp. 207-219

The critic Kenneth Burke once suggested that classic literary works could serve as “equipment for living” by revealing familiar narrative patterns in new and chaotic circumstances.1 If so, it should not surprise us that European readers in times of war should look to their first poem...

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Hannah Arendt on Action and Violence with Reference to Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff on Homer’s Iliad: A Conversation

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pp. 220-239

In 1968 Elisabeth and I met for the first time in Hannah Arendt’s seminar “Political Experiences in the Twentieth Century,” and we have been talking ever since. We have often wondered why, in 1968, just as her students were protesting America’s aggression in Vietnam, which she also opposed...

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Concerning the Label Emigrant: Brecht’s Conversations in Exile and the Century of Refugees

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pp. 240-245


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Part VI: Remembering Rachel Bespaloff

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pp. 247-277

Rachel Bespaloff had an affinity for despair, and she may well have found kinship in Hannah Arendt’s talk on Kafka at Pontigny-en-Amérique in 1944. We have no record of her response to Arendt’s talk. We may never know the extent of the friendship between these two extraordinary thinkers, but it seems...

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Rachel Bespaloff and the Nostalgia for the Instant

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pp. 251-259

A woman of great classical intelligence, both impulsive and fragile, Rachel Bespaloff gave in to misfortune and despair by committing suicide in exile, in the United States, in 1949. And yet, she had always shown a remarkable lucidity in the midst of her suffering, and was ready to recommend...

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Rediscovering Rachel Bespaloff

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pp. 260-263

For many years I have been studying the work of Benjamin Fondane, a poet, philosopher, critic, and playwright, who was a contemporary of Rachel Bespaloff. In a diary of Fondane’s encounters and discussions with Shestov I came across the name of Rachel Bespaloff for the first...

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Searching for Rachel Bespaloff

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pp. 264-267

Rachel Bespaloff’s books were the only ones I ever considered stealing. I held the old copies in my hands at the Mount Holyoke College library in the spring of 2001 and seriously contemplated breaking the law and the honor code. Not having these copies would make a post-graduation...

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Blend and Belong

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pp. 268-270

First, I would like to set the scene. Mount Holyoke during World War II. Visualize two wars going on and very slight communication from the outside. The only news that we had about the war was through the newspapers or through the newsreels. We were told only what they...

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Memories of Rachel Bespaloff

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pp. 271-272

As a brand-new freshman in Pearsons Hall, I crossed College Street, walked through the gates, and fell in love with Mount Holyoke College. It is a love affair that has lasted more than fifty years. Little did I know in those early days that Mount Holyoke would change my life forever...

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Pauvre Rachel

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pp. 273-277

My mother, Rachel Bespaloff, looked at a photograph of herself taken at the age of eighteen and said: “Pauvre Rachel.”1 In her voice, I heard a world of sadness tinged with longing. She did not explain why she felt sorry for the lovely young woman in the picture, who, being only eighteen...

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Conclusion: Encounters of Hope

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pp. 279-282

The four photographs of Rachel Bespaloff—as a girl, as a young woman, and as an adult marked by the experience of exile—haunt us. The ghostly images are silent, even as the presence of this elusive and driven thinker is all around us, transported by the words of those who knew her and those...


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pp. 283-286


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pp. 287-294

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760680
E-ISBN-10: 161376068X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558495302
Print-ISBN-10: 1558495304

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Art, Modern -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Underground movements.
  • Mount Holyoke College -- History -- 20th century.
  • Décades de Pontigny.
  • Bespaloff, Rachel.
  • Philosophy, Modern -- 20th century.
  • Europe -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Scholars -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Scholars -- Europe -- History -- 20th century.
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