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Ed Driscoll

What Is the Answer? In That Case, What Is the Question?

March 3rd, 2012 - 1:10 pm

“Every adolescent has that dream every century has that dream every revolutionary has that dream, to destroy the family.”

Gertrude Stein

Found via Commentary, Jewish Ideas Daily explores the notion of “Gertrude Stein, Fascist?” The article begins with an image of Picasso’s portrait of Stein from the start of the 20th century and a quote from him. “Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait. But never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it”:

This discrepancy between the imaginary Stein and the private Stein is, in a sense, the true subject of Barbara Will’s recent Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma. Will’s book, the latest and most thorough investigation (and this is very much a detective story) of Stein’s political ideology, is extremely detailed and erudite, and brings to public attention what had previously been hidden in scholarly journals: Stein’s wartime translations of the speeches of Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of France’s Vichy regime, with a highly sympathetic introduction that compares Pétain to George Washington.

Will combs Stein’s archives for clues about her “collaboration”—what it constituted, whether it was genuine—and comes away convinced that Stein is guilty of “commitment” to Pétain. But, as often as not, the evidence points to a fundamental murkiness. No matter how much the archive appears to answer and expose, questions always remain, and we frequently cannot say what Stein intended. What appears to be unassailable evidence of collaboration can just as easily be unassailable evidence of Stein’s survival instinct. Perhaps there is no difference.

Consider the Pétain documents themselves. What can we actually say about them? The book was never published, the translations were shoddy, and there are hints in Wars I Have Seen that she abandoned Pétainism. (Her Pétainism was originally genuine.) But Stein was also a Jewish woman (as was Toklas) whose life depended on the protection of Vichy officials, and there is the very real possibility that Stein’s self-styled role as Vichy propagandist was a fiction necessary for survival. Or it is at least an embellishment. Reading this way, we enter a second murkiness of morality, and approach the question of when self-preservation becomes outright collaboration. It is not a comfortable place.

In order to make sense of the Pétain documents, Will scrutinizes almost every shred of Stein’s writing, from articles, essays, and novels to private letters and notes, and reads them for what they might say about Stein’s actions. As Will writes, “It would be a mistake to simply dissociate Stein’s early ‘progressive’ experimental writing from her later ‘reactionary’ politics to excuse or compartmentalize. The tendencies that drew Stein toward both Bernard Faÿ and Philippe Pétain, we could say, were always there.”

Wow, a modernist artist in bed with the Nazis or their collaborators. That’s never happened before! (Or not, as we’ll explore on the next page.)

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