Skip to main content

by John L. Brown

Rarely does a publication such as ours have an opportunity to publish father and son in the same issue on generally the same topic. Further, it is mighty unusual that the two articles should be so interesting and marvelously well written.

Elsewhere in American Diplomacy you will find a piece by John Brown, a serving Foreign Service officer, on the role of public diplomacy; here we are pleased to republish an article by Brown’s father, John L. Brown, that appeared well over thirty-five years ago. Remarkable! we say.—Ed.

I am always embarrassed when people ask me what I do. And people, for the lack of anything better to say, seem to be asking it all the time.

I reply, sotto voce, that I am the Cultural Attaché, hoping that they won’t hear and that we can go on to something else. “But what does a Cultural Attaché DO?” they come back brightly, sensing they’ve got me on the defensive. I try to pass it off with a melancholy quip like “as little mischief as possible,” hoping that my unwillingness to supply information will discourage them. Such a happy solution is rare. They persist (more inquisitorial now): “But I mean, what DO you DO?”

I’d really like to explain that my purpose in life, if you want to get down to that, is being, not doing, but even I have come to realize that there’s no point trying to go into all that at a cocktail party. So I resign myself and try to fabricate a version of “what I do” that will confer on my activities some semblance of respectability.

I cast about for the proper retort. Education. That’s it. It’s a respectable word. (Culture is still a “dirty” one.) So I reply, in that serious, deliberate tone proper to the civil servant, that I am involved in setting up exchanges of students and professors.

“Oh, how interesting,” warbles the little old lady, her birdlike eye taking on a glitter, “how glad I am to meet you. My granddaughter wants to get a Fulbright and go to Europe to study singing. Could you tell me . . . .”

You’re saved. For, as all of you know, our exchange apparatus is as complicated as a Dr. Seuss machine, and you can spend a very very long time trying to explain it.

Educational exchange is a fine face-saver. But it’s only a part of my job. What do I do besides? Much of the time, I am afraid that I am doing nonsense, measuring out my life with coffee spoons, engaged in the hallowed rituals of telephoning, conferring, meeting, lunching, exchanging memoranda, writing efficiency reports and giving evidence of effectiveness; keeping pointless appointments with people who persistently want favors that I cannot possibly grant, attending official ceremonies (at which it doesn’t matter if you’re there, but terribly important if you aren’t), receiving tourist-taxpayers who want to find out “what you are doing with their money,” meeting painters who want the Embassy to arrange a show, songstresses who want the Embassy to arrange a concert, lecturers who want the embassy to arrange a lecture. If you can’t quickly oblige, they inevitably raise the old cry of “Well, what DO you DO, anyway?”

I go on all day long talking, talking on the telephone or vis-á-vis to the most inconceivable variety of people, in English and in the language of the country, on the most inconceivable variety of subjects, from Etruscan archeology to Pop art, from early American coins to old age security. (You’re supposed to be an expert and interested in all of them–you’re the Cultural Attaché, aren’t you?)

Moreover, the CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] must be eternally watchful in all that he says. Conversationally, he must appear universally informed, endlessly articulate and “enthusiastic,” but at the same time cool and noncommittal. Ideally, he should share everyone’s tastes; nourish coexisting passions for Grandma Moses and Jasper Johns, Zane Gray and William Burroughs, Leonard Bernstein and John Cage.

No wonder that after a few years of this regime, the Cultural Officer, dispersed to the point of being schizoid, despoiled of his cultural baggage if he ever had any, becomes a kind of dispensing machine, spewing out cultural “packets” or “kits” that have been sent to the field for distribution and performing all the miscellaneous chores that no one else wants to do.

For normally when a problem does not fit neatly into the political, economic, military, administrative, or “information” pigeonholes, it is “sent over to culture.” A large percentage of these problems are really insoluble. What can the CAO do, really, for collectors who wish to sell dubious Old Masters to American museums, or about protests against the shipping of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” to the New York World’s Fair, or how to get a degree from an American university by correspondence, or about requests for subventions form lunatic-fringe inventors (the Cultural Office attracts the illuminated as the flame attracts the moth), or about complaints of aging canaries who believe that prejudice against America and Americans is the only factor preventing them from making a brilliant debut at the Scala: or about tourist groups (armed with official letters) who want arrangements made right away for them to take tea with the Queen, or lunch with the president of the Republic, or have a private audience with the Pope?

To these and all the other bizarre requests (both foreign and domestic) about which nothing can be done, the CAO (or some member of his staff if he has one) must reply. And it is notoriously harder to write a letter which politely says “no” than it is to tell someone he can have what he asks for. (It is a melancholy task on a Friday afternoon to review the week’s correspondence and see how little time has been spent on anything “cultural” and how much on such communications.)

Gradually the CAO learns that if he wants to avoid the most stultifying aspects of his métier, he should make sure to get out of his office as much as possible. If he schedules at least ten days of travel per month, he will find everything seems to be looking up. He will feel better, since the change, the open air, and the gentle exercise involved in walking around the schools, museums, cultural monuments or vineyards will be of benefit to him. He will escape being sent on all the miscellaneous errands that would have been his lot if he were available.

Moreover, following the example of a number of vigorous recent ambassadors, it is now become the thing to do to get out of the “capital.” (“Paris isn’t France, Conakry isn’t really Guinea, you know”) and to seek for the “grass-roots” reality in provincial areas. In fact, no good cultural officer has ever had the illusion that the people he really should know will make an appointment to see him in his office. Professional “friends of America” may — but few others. He must seek them out himself. Only then can he start operating in terms of people he knows and of places he’s been, and of situations he has experienced. No amount of theoretical knowledge can replace such contact with concrete reality. Like Leon-Paul Fargue, he should opt for “l’intelligence qui mange de la viande,” that can observe the shape of roofs and the color of skies and can seize the importance of such thinks in understanding people and communicating with them. For he must understand (and if possible, love) before he can convince. (The CAO soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating.)

In the past decade I have traveled thousands of kilometers every year, in order to accept as many invitations to speak, to inaugurate, to “manifest” as I possibly could. I have delighted my eye with monuments and landscapes, my palate with food and drink (for culture must be well nourished!), my ear with the sound of native song and oratory. (Ah, those wonderful exhibitions of rhetoric in which I have participated, when I raised my voice to vie with the Prefect, or the Rector, or the President of the Chamber of Commerce in exchanging superlatives, in offering compliments, in embracing on both cheeks-thus “strengthening the bonds between our two great democracies.”)

I have never been able to be scientifically rigorous in deciding whether or not my attendance at a congress in honor of Leopardi in an obscure town in the Abruzzi, or my presence at a wine tasting in Anjou, or the inauguration of a statue of Marie Harmel (the supposed “inventor” of Camembert and a folk heroine throughout Basse Normandie) constitutes a valid “evidence of my effectiveness,” or how such activity might advance the purposes of American foreign policy. (I privately have had my doubts, for I uncomfortably suspect that my activities have very little measurable importance in themselves.)

But you can never tell in life, finally, what may acquire importance. “Si le nez de Cleopatre….” Soon after my arrival in Belgium, I had accepted an invitation to “dire deux mots” (for in Latin countries culture is always articulate) at the opening of an exposition of ancient instruments in a small town near the German border. This village–it was no more than that–had long been famous for its luthiers and was known throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages for the manufacture of fine instruments. The ceremony was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. When I submitted a request for a car, the grumbling started. Why did I need to go there on a Sunday when drivers were scarce? What did American culture have to do with ancient instruments? I finally did get the car, but as I drove through the Ardennes on that lovely Sunday morning, I began to wonder if attending the ceremony was simply an act of self-indulgence.

On my arrival I was greeted in front of the beautiful old town hall, which flew both the Belgian and the American flags. Inside, the ancient instruments were a marvel to behold. A special ensemble from Brussels, specialized in the execution of fifteenth and sixteenth century texts (and organized, some thirty years ago, by an American from Colorado, who had come to Belgium to study and had remained to revitalize the nearly lost art), played a brief selection of works composed by one of the town’s medieval composers.

In the course of the inauguration, I was introduced to the ranking Belgian present, a high official from the Ministry of Education, a gifted, somewhat erratic “intellectual of the Left.” He was known for his hostility to the United States.

We were seated side by side at the banquet which followed the inauguration. The savory ham of the Ardennes, smoked over a juniper fire, the fresh mountain trout, lightly browned in butter with golden almonds sprinkled on their crisp skin, the tender chicken (the famous “Coucous de Malines”), their white flesh punctuated generously with black truffles, the excellent wine, the cordial atmosphere of the old Hotel de ville all made conversation very easy. We talked about the concert, the music of Joaquim des Prez, the contributions of Belgium to medieval art, the researches of Pirenne on the Flemish cities. I found him a most pleasant companion, learned without being pedantic, animated with real enthusiasm for the past of his country.

When the cheese came, he asked: “But how can an American be interested in these things? Americans like only jazz.” I said that of course many Americans did like only jazz and in this they were like many Europeans. But, I went on, the organizer and director of the ensemble which played for us is an American and there are many such groups in the United States, which are specialized in ancient music. We began to speak about musical education, about Julliard and Curtis and Eastman, about the place that music occupies in the public educational system in America. We parted friends. We continued to see each other. I am still in correspondence with him. And our good relations dated from a meeting at an exhibit of ancient instruments in an out-of-the-way country town.

There is a song of the which goes: “Love is just a game which two are playing. Love is nothing but a game of chance. And the one who chooses, very often loses….” The CAO, it seems to me as I look back, should often let himself follow the dictates of his fancy and his own tastes, and not always be anxiously concerned about restricting his activities to those areas which he feels may be unambiguously presented as “advancing the purposes of American foreign policy.”

Some of my own more picturesque exploits as a commis voyageur of culture have been closely related to agriculture. Of course, the word culture, which now seems so abstract, is thoroughly earthy in its origins.

The Greeks, significantly enough, did not have a word for it. They certainly possessed to a superlative degree the quality of what we call “personal culture,” but just didn’t see any reason for talking about it. For them, it was a human function as normal as digestion. You had “culture” (if you were a proper man) rather as you had a good stomach. I am all for this. When secure in possession of something, you don’t have to be discussing it all the time.

It was the Romans (just as significantly) who invented the word. Cicero speaks of “cultura animi.” (From colere, to tend, to cultivate, which gave the substantive, cultura.) People who are professionally concerned with culture should never forget its agricultural origins. The fairest flower springs from the compost heap: and Bacchus is not only the god of wine, but also of poetry and drama.

In the countries to which I have had the good fortune to have been accredited, agriculture and culture always seem to go happily hand in hand. The Virgilian alliance of the soil and the spirit has been a constant source of pleasure to me, particularly since it usually expresses itself by combining intellectual or artistic “manifestations” with the consumption of food and drink. And quite natural that is, since connoisseurs in such matters agree that there are two ideal places for committing effective cultural relations and that the table is certainly one of them.

In fact, in the actual practice of my trade, I have often been called upon to fulfill the functions of an agricultural attaché. I certainly didn’t mind, for I oppose over-specialization and like to remain a marginal man. Well I remember an incident which remains one of the high points of my official career. We had journeyed to the little Norman village, there to inaugurate an “Exposition of Agricultural Productivity.” After visiting the exposition, our host, Comte de Tocqueville (descendent of the famous Alexis de Tocqueville, author of De la Democratie en Americque) indicated that he had a special treat in store for us. Lili, the champion cow of the Basse Normandie, had been brought here for a personal appearance, and the Count courteously invited me to step forward and milk her, as a concrete gesture of solidarity.

No Washington briefing had prepared me for such a situation. I had never touched a cow in my life. But it was clear that national honor was at stake. I could not refuse to pay homage to Lili. I could not give the impression of being ignorant or disdainful of traditional rural arts. So I marched up like a man, sat down on the milking stool, and pressed myself against Lili’s majestic flank. The peasants crowded around closer to have a good laugh at the expense of a city slicker, and an American one at that, who obviously had no idea of how to milk a cow.

At first she repulsed my faltering advances, aware no doubt that I was a rank amateur. She turned her head and her great brown eyes shone with malice. No milk was forthcoming, and the peasants started to snicker. But I insisted, conscious of what was at stake. Lili finally capitulated, and a niggardly trickle descended visibly into the pail. The next morning, the papers carried pictures accompanied by a wealth of light hearted captions: one I well remember read, “L’attaché culturel americain met la main a pate.” (The American cultural attaché on the job, i.e.,”with his hands in the dough.”) I don’t know if this exploit really advanced the purposes of our foreign policy or even, to employ that hallowed cliché, “struck a decisive blow in the battle for men’s minds.” All I know is that I was thereafter received like a native son throughout the area. In this business the small human gesture will sometimes strike the popular imagination more directly than the large impersonal, official act.

On another occasion, during a banquet in a small rural town in Brittany, I was making conversation with the mayor. In order to establish the proper rapport I remarked that, although forced to live in the city, I was really a countryman at heart, since even in Paris we kept hens. (Two baby chicks we had brought for the children the preceding Easter had somehow survived, and roamed at liberty through our minuscule garden in the 14th arrondissement.) This declaration of common rural concerns seemed to move the mayor deeply. He called an assistant, whispered a few words. The assistant withdrew in haste. Soon he returned with bearing an enormous white rooster. The mayor seized the furiously struggling bird, rose to his feet, and proclaimed: “Monsieur Brown, j’ai l’honneur de vous offrir, pour vos poules américaines, un coq gaulois!” And then he thrust the savagely protesting rooster into my arms. Naturally delirium broke out in the hall. And naturally, I had to get up and reply. It was the most difficult speech I have ever made in my life. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime, with a large muscular rooster in your arms, wildly flapping his wings and trying to pick your eyes out!

I might note for the record that he never got a chance to exercise his virile seductions on those American hens. He ended up in the pot as soon as I got him back to town (there was no question of NOT taking him), and I can tell you he was a tough old bird.End.

Republished by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, Vol. 41, No. 6
(June 1964).


Over the years, Dr. Brown has lectured and written extensively on American-European literary and intellectual relations. His many academic works in comparative literature are published in English, French, and Italian.


Comments are closed.