The World's Greatest Minds Convene, and Agree: Paris Is Better Than Dallas

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Film director Arthur Penn gazed at more than 300 foreign and French intellectuals gathered at the Sorbonne and marveled, "There are enough egos here to light Paris." Illuminating the City of Light, however, would be child's play compared to the stated goal of "The Cultural Congress of Paris: Creation and Development." Convened by Cultural Minister Jack Lang on Feb. 12-13, the congress brought together such disparate personalities as Norman Mailer and Kate Millett, John Kenneth Galbraith and Sophia Loren to discuss how culture might help solve the world's economic crisis. Some of the assembled savants seemed eager to explore that question: "The economic crisis is too important to be left to economists," said economist Galbraith. Others were less certain of what they had to offer. "I'm mystified by the relationship between culture and the economic crisis," admitted William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice, "but people who are invited to Paris in a spirit of goodwill shouldn't refuse—especially when there's a free ticket on the Concorde and a hotel room at the other end."

Jack Lang, an outspoken French chauvinist, organized the conference at least partially to lower the hackles he raised last July when he denounced American "cultural imperialism" in a speech in Mexico City. Mailer, for his part, eschewed immediately any imperialistic plans by declaring in his best French: "Je ne run pas for Mayor de Paris." But one TV manifestation of American culture came under constant fire. Delegate after delegate denounced a U.S. export that has become a favorite worldwide: Dallas. Israeli author Amos Oz, for example, charged that the popularity of the Ewing family saga had transformed Tel Aviv into a clone of Texas.

As at any gathering of intellectuals, there were individual axes to grind. Poet and former Senegalese President Leopold Sédar Senghor was worried that "the Third World would not get the attention it deserves as a cultural entity." And Nobel Peace laureate Sean MacBride pricked the balloon of his host nation's morality. "Although it is interesting to speak of culture and morality at a conference like this," he said, "I must point out that France is also one of the world's largest arms exporters."

Despite such disclaimers, most participants felt the 12-hour congress was worthwhile. "There was some serious talking done about the future of post-industrial society," said Future Shock author Alvin Toffler. Sophia Loren was glad to be there simply because "it's not often an actress gets to be among such high-spirited people." Millett, who complained about the paucity of women in attendance, wished the congress had lasted longer. "There wasn't enough time to do any work and all of the tremendous minds here weren't used to the fullest." Indeed, if the assembled intellects of the Congress of Paris did come up with a solution to the world's economic ills, it may take another meeting to figure out what it was.

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