Monday, May 21, 2012

Gertrude Stein and the Jacket2 dossier

Recently, Jacket2 posted a dossier, edited by Charles Bernstein, called “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.”  In compiling a number of different essays, articles, and editorial pieces, it seeks to refute the recent charges made by a number of commentators that Stein was a Nazi sympathizer or a fascist.  Prompted in part by the recent Stein show at the Met, these critics most particularly point to her close association with Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale under the Vichy regime.  Some also make the rather more spurious claims that Stein supported Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize and that she was photographed giving the Nazi salute. Berstein, in his essay, rightly exposes these latter assertions as false.  The Nobel Peace Prize comment is obviously ironic when read in context, and the Life magazine photo in question, which Bernstein reproduces, clearly shows Stein and a group of American soldiers at Berchtesgaden pointing, with index fingers outstretched, off into the distance (not giving the Nazi salute). For anyone to attack Stein on the grounds of these falsehoods is to make quite a weak case indeed.

I wonder where Jacket2 really wants to go with all this, however.  It seems to me that in defending Stein from the accusation of Nazi sympathies, they expose and affirm some less-egregious but still-questionable aspects of Stein’s politics and choices during the war. I’m not so sure that the dossier — which also includes a paper delivered by Edward Burns at the Met and Joan Retallack’s introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (University of California Press, 2008) — successfully disproves Stein’s admiration for Marshal Pétain or the taint of her relationship with Faÿ.

Barbara Will (listed in the dossier as someone who “denounce[s] Stein for her war time record”), whose book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) is one of the prime sources of information on Stein’s wartime years, is among those who discuss Stein’s project of translating Pétain’s speeches for an American audience, facilitated by Faÿ. In Stein’s introduction to the speeches, she compares Pétain to George Washington (without irony). In an essay for Humanities (the journal of the NEH), Will writes,

we have no evidence to suggest that Gertrude Stein was anything but an enthusiastic supporter of the Vichy regime. In her correspondence during this period, Stein explicitly refers to herself as a “propagandist” for the “new France.”  She was apparently excited by the possibility that Pétain himself had approved of her project to translate his speeches. And in one of the only pieces of Vichy propaganda Stein actually brought to press, a 1941 article on the French language in the Vichy journal La Patrie, Stein envisions a productive continuity between the political and cultural project of Pétain’s National Revolution and her own experimental writing. Even after the war, Stein continued to praise Pétain, stating that his 1940 armistice with Hitler had “achieved a miracle” (this, after Pétain had been sentenced to death by a French court for treason).
However, Edward Burns cautions against reading too much into Stein’s Pétain translations and supposes that she embarked on this endeavor mostly at Faÿ’s urging: “Probably without articulating it, he must have been convinced that if Stein did this translation it might be a bargaining chip to protect her and Toklas should the time ever arise when they were in danger. We just do not know how he proposed the project to her and what she knew about his motivation.” Essentially, though, he agrees with Will’s characterization of Stein’s embrace of the project: “In spite of a rapidly changing political situation inside and outside of France, Stein continued working on the translations. . . . We do not know why Stein continued to work on the translation (which was never published) as long as she did.” Burns’s defense of Stein in this regard is only to complicate the issue, as it should be complicated: alongside her acknowledged sympathy for Pétain, she also published in journals unfavorable to the Vichy regime and was friends with people who were active members of the French resistance. It does not seem that for Stein these activities were mutually exclusive.

Joan Retallack, also mobilized in the dossier in support of Stein, further highlights Stein’s Pétainism, writing that her reasons for it were “complicated” and grounded in the relationships she had with her neighbors in the villages she lived in during the war. In the best-case scenario, then, it seems that Stein was merely trying to keep her head down and get through an extremely fraught situation. She was by no means a Nazi or a collaborator. Still, Burns certainly doesn’t portray her in a very good light in regard to the mass arrests of Jews in France beginning in 1941: “How much of this did Stein know is difficult to determine. But it is impossible to believe that even in her small village in southeastern France she was not aware of what was happening around her.” Retallack writes, “How much Stein and Toklas understood (actually took into their consciousness) about the fate of Jewish deportees is questionable. No doubt there was self-protective denial.” Bear in mind, these quotes come from two of the primary essays linked in the Jacket2 dossier which is supposed to “set the record straight” about Stein’s war years. Whatever the case, as Marjorie Perloff writes in a response to an attack by Alan Dershowitz, we must remember “how complex the situation was in wartime France,” and I certainly can’t say that she’s wrong. As Bernstein writes, “When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale.”

Such murky questions aside, both Retallack and Burns at the very least agree that Stein really did support Pétain on an ideological level. Retallack notes that “Stein’s controversial support of Vichy was related to her conservatism.” They both discuss Stein’s close relationship with Faÿ, who Burns (again, here a supposed Stein defender) characterizes as

a friend since the 1920s. Faÿ was a historian of the Eighteenth Century and a specialist in American intellectual history. He came from a family of bankers and lawyers with Royalist and Catholic ties. He was well-connected in the world of power, intellectual circles (he was Professor of American Civilization in the Collège de France), and in the world of the arts. Pétain appointed him Director of the Bibliothèque Nationale after dismissing the Jew, Julien Cain. In this position, Faÿ made frequent trips to Vichy and he became the eyes and ears for the Marshal in Paris.
Barbara Will rounds out the picture of Faÿ’s politics:
For Bernard Faÿ, who had known Philippe Pétain as the “Victor of Verdun” during the First World War, the Vichy regime with its dictatorial authoritarian creed was a salutary development after a century and a half of “democratic nonsense.” Elitist to the core, a royalist and a devout Catholic, Faÿ felt strongly that only a return to the political system and “spiritual values” of the ancien régime could restore France to its premodern, pre-Revolutionary glory.
In a New Yorker piece, Emily Greenhouse notes that Stein agreed with Faÿ’s politics: “in 1926, she increasingly warmed to his political thought, writing to him once that she ‘sees politics but from one angle, which is yours.’” It’s hard to know what aspects of Faÿ’s politics this might or might not be an endorsement of, but it does arrest one’s attention.

According to Will, further linking Stein to Faÿ,

In their individual writings and correspondence, we see a remarkable convergence of right-wing ideas and convictions. Both Stein and Faÿ agree that modernity, understood as the nineteenth-century development of industrial and organizational societies in France and America, has become the source of twentieth-century cultural decline. Both trace the roots of this decline to social changes that took place in the wake of the French and American revolutions, changes that had culminated in the disastrous governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt in America and Léon Blum in France.
Nothing in the Jacket2 dossier disputes the Faÿ connection or Stein’s own political beliefs.  She may not be (was not) a Nazi sympathizer, but isn’t what we know of her politics by now already bad enough?

Again, let’s agree that Stein was definitely not a Nazi and not a collaborator. What remains is the troubling connection with Faÿ (who Retallack notes was “indicted for collaboration after the war”) and Vichy ideas. The writers whom the dossier marshals to defend Stein (Burns and Retallack), it seems to me, do nothing to negate this connection or her Pétainism. Clearly, she embraced a right-wing politics that was the same kind of politics espoused by the Vichy regime and one of its functionaries.  For me, then, the Jacket2 dossier raises more questions than it answers. So Stein was not a Nazi — sure, that was easy! But she was an extreme conservative (Greenhouse quotes Stein in 1940: “I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free”). So why does Jacket2 seems so intent on defending her when she’s clearly on the right and just as elitist and anti-democratic as the likes of Eliot and Pound?

Now, I like Stein and I think her innovations are extremely important. Her experimental approach is still significant today, and in some ways she remains even more relevant than some of her modernist colleagues. But I can live with the fact that she held some pretty unpalatable political views, because this is no surprise; many of the premier modernists did. The charges of Nazi sympathies and collaboration most definitely need to be challenged, but I don’t have to feel alright about Stein’s politics in order to appreciate her work. Yes, it would be nice to think that her subversive use of language implied some sort of progressive thinking about the world of her day, but unfortunately that is not the case. Thus, given that the political makeup of Jacket2 does tend toward the progressive end of the spectrum (Bernstein did a great interview about Occupy Wall St., for example), it seems like the attempt to rehabilitate Stein politically is a circle that can’t be squared.

Okay, so Stein didn’t support Mussolini like Pound did, but is Pétain really that far behind him? Eliot is often scorned for his statement that “I am . . . a royalist in politics,” but Stein’s politics actually seem just as bad, if not worse (given that her close friend and political influence
Faÿ was involved with enacting such notions, whereas Eliot merely espoused them). She believes in the “great” individual over the regular people struggling to get by and eschews any role for government (to which they pay taxes) in helping them out. Joan Retallack, who (again) is framed in the dossier as a defender of Stein, observes Stein’s “political conservatism” and describes her vision of American politics like this: “She detested Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal because she thought it would sap the energy of individual initiative. American politics, in her opinion, had taken a wrong turn between the two Roosevelts.” If Stein were alive today, it seems, she would probably be a Tea Partier (in principle, if not in terms of social values), or at least a supporter of the Paul Ryan budget. No, nothing so dramatic as a Nazi sympathizer here, just a regular old right-wing elitist like Pound, Eliot, Yeats, etc. All of whom were also great writers.

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