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November 14 , 2003

Pontigny Symposium Reprises Historic MHC Encounters

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Students in a staged reading of Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, directed by Holger Teschke

When, as a college student in the late 1960s, biographer and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and other activists against the Vietnam War were debating whether they should join forces with a labor union also opposed to the war, they sought the advice of one of their professors, the political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
The students believed that Arendt, an authority on the relationship between violence and power and herself an opponent of the Vietnam War, would certainly be able to help them assess the ramifications of aligning with another group. But Arendt’s response was not what the students had expected. After listening to lengthy arguments pro and con, she simply responded, “‘Well, you could use their mimeograph machine,’” Young-Bruehl related, mimicking Arendt’s German accent. The episode, typical of Arendt, showed “a wonderful combination of sheer pragmatism and the very complex notion of action,” Young-Bruehl said.

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Soprano Nancy Gustafson ’78

The ideas of Arendt and a number of other prominent writers and artists were in the air this past weekend, as the College celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Pontigny-en-Amerique, when leading European figures in the arts and sciences gathered at Mount Holyoke with their American counterparts for conversations about the future of civilization in the midst of World War II. Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II: The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College, 1942–1944, organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, drew students, faculty members, writers, artists, and alumnae to its three days of conversations and performances.

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Laurent Jeanpierre

“We invited our speakers to draw ‘inspiration and provocation’ from the original Pontigny at Mount Holyoke 60 years ago, and that invitation was richly fulfilled,” said Christopher Benfey, professor of English, codirector of the Weissman Center, and coorganizer of the event. “What was most moving for me was the way in which certain words and ideas left dangling in 1943 or 1944 were picked up again over the weekend. In 1943, Wallace Stevens asked for an answer to his poetry from American philosophers and didn’t get it. Sixty years later he got it, in a wonderfully eloquent response from the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell.”

“Hannah Arendt warned her Mount Holyoke audience in 1944 that a new form of government she called ‘bureaucracy’ was reducing human freedom to nothing,” Benfey added. “And Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn, two of Arendt’s students, warned us in 2003 that that form of government is now rampant, and we had better push back hard if we want to have any effect at all on what our government does in our name. And Rachel Bespaloff, that brilliant philosopher and writer who taught for six years at Mount Holyoke until her suicide in 1949, received an indescribably moving response from former students, from her daughter, and from others who have been touched by her life and work.”

Photo: Ben Barnhart

Panel in tribute to former MHC professor Rachel Bespaloff

Weissman Center codirector and Pontigny coorganizer Karen Remmler, associate professor of German studies, agreed. “Like Chris, I was thrilled to discover the intricate constellations that emerged during the weekend—affinities among the speakers via the work of the original participants or new insights about how the talks given at the Pontigny meetings in 1942–1944 resonate with current debates about the use of violence or the status of creativity in times of war,” she said.

“Looking back, I am struck by the desire among alumnae and current students to know more about the details of the Pontigny gatherings in the 1940s at Mount Holyoke College and to converse with one another and speakers about the big questions that we are still asking: What is the function of art in times of war? What is the role of the intellectual in the public realm? How have the encounters among artists, composers, scientists, writers, poets, and scholars here on campus shaped institutional memory? What can we learn from the experiences of refugee faculty and students during World War II in creating spaces for such encounters today?” Remmler said. “I wished that the whole community could have been present to hear the brilliant contributions from our colleagues, Elissa Gelfand, Donal O’Shea, and Andy Lass.”

Photo: Ben Barnhart

Naomi Bespaloff Levinson ’48

Gelfand, Dorothy Rooke McCulloch Professor and chair of the French department, opened the conference with a tribute to Helen Patch, the MHC professor of French who created the connections that brought Pontigny—and a number of French Jewish intellectuals and artists—to campus as Europe was falling to the forces of Nazi Germany. “What moved her to create a haven—albeit temporary—to Jewish intellectuals when other (American) campuses capped Jewish enrollment?” Gelfand wondered, suggesting that Patch is part of the College’s tradition of “active, purposeful engagement with the world.” She also complimented Benfey and Remmler for their “tireless sleuthing,” which, she said, “has rescued the Mount Holyoke Pontigny encounters from oblivion.”

Key figures in the original Pontigny encounters—Patch’s former teacher Gustave Cohen and prominent French philosopher Jean Wahl—were considered by Laurent Jeanpierre of the University of Paris, Jeffrey Mehlman of Boston University, and Helen Solterer of Duke University. Solterer noted, with amusement, that participants 60 years ago affectionately referred to the South Hadley encounters as “Pont’ Holyoke.”

Artists Robert Motherwell, Marc Chagall, and André Masson and art critic Lionello Venturi were invoked during a panel discussion on the transition from surrealism to abstraction, one of the themes of the original Pontigny. Venturi, who was one of the first to unite the fields of art history and art criticism, arrived at Mount Holyoke as one of just 12 Italian university professors who refused to swear allegiance to Mussolini, noted Romy Golan of the art department of the City University of New York. Joining Golan on the panel, moderated by professor emeritus of art Robert Herbert, were Jed Perl of the New Republic and Mary Ann Caws of CUNY’s comparative literature department.

MHC’s O’Shea, dean of faculty and Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, and Lass, professor of anthropology, considered the work of mathematician Jacques Hadamard, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and linguist Roman Jakobson. “Donal combined a memorable math lesson from Euclid to Hadamard with highlights from Hadamard’s life and his family ties to Alfred Dreyfus [Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused of treason],” Remmler said. “Andy Lass talked about the extraordinary ‘elective affinities’ between Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson and their work. Andy’s moving tribute to their influence on his own thinking ended with his reminder that the displaced have no home to return to; exile itself becomes destination.”

Onstage, Pontigny was celebrated in a performance by internationally acclaimed operatic soprano Nancy Gustafson ’78 and a staged reading of Bertolt Brecht’s Conversations in Exile directed by Holger Teschke, MHC’s visiting professor of theatre arts.

“Rachel Bespaloff’s books were the only ones I ever considered stealing in my life,” confessed Alyssa Danigelis ’01, who has studied Bespaloff’s papers in the Mount Holyoke archives. During a roundtable discussion of Bespaloff’s legacy that closed the Pontigny conference, Danigelis paid tribute to the brilliant writer and exile.

Three former students of Bespaloff’s—Renee Cary ’48, Barbara Levin Amster ’50, and Bespaloff’s daughter, Naomi Bespaloff Levinson ’48, spoke of being challenged and inspired in her classes. “She stretched our minds and lifted our perceptions way above the material we were reading,” Cary recalled. “She believed that her students were more than students. She believed that we could be scholars.”

Yet scholarship had its limits. Amster recalled being called to Bespaloff’s apartment to discuss a disappointing paper she had turned in. “One would think that you’re in love,” Bespaloff chided. “She said, ‘Are you in love?’ I said yes. She crumpled my paper and said, ‘Now Barbara’—calling me ‘Barbara’ for the first and only time—‘Barbara, you must learn there are some things in life that are much more important than writing papers.’”



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