Culture

I’m No Critic, But

Feature: A Night of Ideas in Washington, D.C.

Nic Rowan

What a night for ideas. The bread is crunchy, the wine abundant, and the French embassy is stuffed with about 500 of Washington, D.C.'s most eager bright young things. It's a regular soirée.

And it should be. This is the Night of Ideas, a worldwide event organized by the French government that promotes an all-night extravaganza of art, music, and philosophy, under the care of one roof. In past years, New York and Los Angeles have hosted this celebration of the liberal world order. Tonight, D.C. joins them, seizing its rightful place as a center of global culture.

But wait, there's just one hitch. The government shutdown—the one that lasted from late December until just last week—almost spoiled this evening of felicitous intercourse. The Night of Ideas was originally slated to be held at the Hirshhorn Museum, but the Smithsonian Institution's reliance on federal funding kept that concrete ring closed so long that it wasn't able to set up in time. So our oldest ally intervened at the 11th hour and picked up the bill.

"I don't call this ideology, I call it opinionology!" I hear as I poke my head into one of the event's four lecture halls.

Up on the stage, the French academic Raphael Liogier is lecturing on the subject of "Populism Everywhere: the Symptom of Unstable Identities in a Globalized World." He's waving his hands and comparing today's leaders to Hitler and other sundry fascists of the 1930s.

Back in the main hall, I find Pillar of Salt, an art exhibition discarded in a corner. The latest effort of social impact artist Althea Rao, it allows any passersby to share his sexual insecurities. A projector flashes phrases depicting the interior life on the wall.

I worry that my penis is not big enough.

Two women are sitting on the floor with the ribbons. One is writing what appears to be a long paragraph.

I want to feel in control of my body.

And so on.

When I return to the center of the main hall, a young man with tousled hair, a bow tie, and misshapen jeans is talking to Liogier. Like the Frenchman, he uses his hands when he speaks.

"It might actually take populism to defeat populism," the American says.

Liogier cuts him off with an excited gesture. "But if you look at Mr. Roosevelt—" he begins, before launching into "favorite anecdote" about populism from War and Peace.

Behind Liogier and his acolytes, a young man is holding his girlfriend close in a get-married-at-prom embrace. He rocks her back and forth, whispering sweet assurances. His eyes plead, but her face remains stoney.

"Well, how do you like it?" a voice behind me asks.

I turn around—embarrassed to be caught staring—but it's only Max Levin, an employee at Glenstone, an art museum in Maryland. Levin is an aspiring writer, and he says the Night of Ideas is inspirational.

"This event is giving me a bunch of writing ideas," he tells me. "The whole nationalistic connection with the French government being involved, matched against the deficiency of the United States government being shut down. And now we get to come here."

Max gestures to the main hall, and explains that this event shows how the United States could learn from France about how to run governments efficiently. He goes on to praise the French embassy for putting on such a wonderful cultural event, when the Hirshhorn could not.

"We can't even handle it," he says. "But this is a nice, huge facility."

I want to ask him more, but a manifestation cuts our conversation short. About eight people decked out in black dress clothes stroll into the main hall. Each wears a top hat and holds an umbrella in one hand, a fan in the other. They spread out across the room, silent and stern.

One approaches me. He winks and outstretches his hand. I grasp it, and keep eye contact with him. We stalk through the crowd of umbrellas with heavy peacock-like steps. He motions me to sit on the ground. He offers me his black umbrella to hold above my head. I take it and assume the pose of a demented Mary Cassatt.

As I guard my head against a potential rainstorm, he produces a cardboard black tube, about three feet long, and presses one end to my ear. He whispers through the other end. The words tumble out in free verse poetry.

Now, I'm no critic, but in my estimation, the quality of this poetry fell closer to Rupi Kaur than Wallace Stevens.

Say we forget it all—

Lying here, touching the dog.

Say it is love:

Say it doesn't matter.

Say we are right here

Feeling lucky.

I look around the main hall. The other whisperers are accosting people all over the room. My own voice artist has concluded his recitation.

It wasn't much, but maybe that's the idea.