Gertrude Stein (Modernism & Fascism)

I was curious about how it was that Gertrude Stein survived the war in France. The organizers of The Steins Collect neglected to mention that Gertrude was a sympathizer for the pro-Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime in France. My older and wiser brother very graciously “reminded” me about this. I simply didn’t know, and that’s my mea culpa.

As for the curators of The Steins Collect and at the Met, I’m not sure what I think about the squeamishness, except to identify it as such. One would think that sixty and more years after WWII and some forty years or so after modernism that one might be able to address this nasty business with more forthrightness. There’s still a lot at work here regarding art, modernism, politics, cultural politics –above all the fascination with power on the part of artists and intellectuals, the hatred for modernity on the part of modernists and the hatred of liberalism on the part of radicals. Regarding a possible Jewish Studies angle, one might start from the opposite tack with uncomfortable political questions about the limits of assimilation, cosmopolitanism, “diasporism.”

My brother referred me to an essay about Stein’s collaboration with the Vichy regime. It was written by Barbara Will, who teaches English at Dartmouth. She writes:

“Yet surprisingly, most of Stein’s critics have given her a relatively free pass on her Vichy sympathies. Others have tried to ignore or justify equally inexplicable events: for example, Stein’s endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, or her performance of the Hitler salute at his bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945. Until recently, in fact, the troublesome question of Stein’s politics didn’t really figure in debates over her legacy—as opposed, for example, to the vehement debates surrounding Mussolini supporter and modernist poet Ezra Pound.

Stein’s obvious vulnerability as a Jew in Vichy France—a regime that sent more than 75,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3 percent survived—explains some of this critical response. Even if we acknowledge that Stein was a Vichy propagandist, what right have we to condemn her for doing what she could to save herself in a terrifying situation? Hiding in plain sight might have been the best way to deflect attention away from herself. Given that many of Stein’s neighbors in the small southern town where she lived during the war were Pétainists makes this argument even more convincing. And the fact that Stein apparently joined her neighbors in supporting the French Resistance after 1943 further underscores these formative ties to her community.

On the other hand, 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).”

Will concludes her article-essay on this note, which is more about us than it is about Stein.

“Pound and Stein were just two of the modernist writers who signed on to a fascist or authoritarian program in the hope that it would lead their societies away from the perceived problems of modern life. But this then raises the question: So what? What do the political views of these and other great modernist thinkers have to do with their art or writing? Not much, we could say, in the case of someone like Stein, whose most experimental writing seems highly abstract, patently disconnected from views and opinions, or even from politics. Or maybe her political views, in fact, have a lot to do with her experimental writing. Tracing the lines of convergence between abstract modernist art and the real social world is hard work—but it is beginning to be done. Speaking of the fascist modernist Wyndham Lewis, Fredric Jameson has criticized the systematic “‘innocence’ of intellectuals” that gives a free pass to those whose work we admire, regardless of the context in which it was written or its ultimate aim. It is high time for us to strip away that innocence, and to produce a more inclusive, complex, and realistic portrait of our modernist predecessors and their work.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Gertrude Stein (Modernism & Fascism)

  1. palmsundae says:

    Elder brother knows about literary and art history? I am somewhat surprised and intrigued.

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