Monday, October 26, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I have just been considering Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and there was one element of the popular reaction to it that made me think of a particularly delusional way of looking at the past.
I mean the way many people are inclined the remake the past in the image of the present, assuming that all people with admirable or sympathetic qualities in the past must have shared all the values that are now generally applauded. I have touched on this phenomenon before (see the post LikeUnto DNA for Dinosaurs) in the context of historical novels, but Stein’s book brings up another aspect of the delusion.
Gertrude Stein was a lesbian, and is applauded as such on many Gay and Lesbian websites. She is seen as a pioneer of gay liberation who would therefore presumably have approved of gay marriage etc.etc. Gay-and-Lesbian readers are left to assume, from such websites, that she would have seen the world as homosexuals in the early 21st Century do. Open, inclusive, rainbow LGBTQ coalition and so forth.
But there is a big problem with this. If one reads The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, one soon discovers that Stein was in many respects a conservative, indeed reactionary, person. She may well have been an avant garde writer of her time in terms of style, but she was more on the Right than on the Left of the political spectrum.
It’s no secret that this was true of many of the Modernists, from T.S.Eliot (“Anglican, royalist, classicist”) to W.B.Yeats (aristocratic elitism and a taste for Fascism) to D.H.Lawrence (basically Blut-und-Boden-mit-Sex) to Ezra Pound (broadcasts from Fascist Rome etc.). In fact, this sort of conjunction was more-or-less inevitable when the Modernists were reacting against mass-produced and mass-appeal literature and consciously creating something for the educated few. Assumptions of an elite and exclusivist sort were behind much of their thought.
I say none of this to belittle what they wrote. All the names I’ve mentioned here (except possibly the tiresome, phallus-obsessed Lawrence) were important figures in literature. All of them wrote significant and important things. And a part of me thinks that the social and political opinions they expressed were no more off-the-mark than those of writers on the Left at the time, who wobbled foolishly into the orbit of Stalin.
Nevertheless, it remains true that Gertrude Stein was no advocate of gay liberation and indeed sometimes spoke scornfully even of the women of “first-wave” feminism who had struggled for the vote. She thought of herself as “masculine” (her term), admired soldiers, and thought of Alice B. Toklas as her “wife”. Heterosexual women – especially married ones – she regarded as less than herself, and tended to dismiss or patronise when they came visiting with their husbands. Not much sisterly solidarity there. And on the political front, she greatly admired the soldier General Franco, whose side she supported (with words) when the Spanish Civil War was in progress. Ironical when you consider that she was an on-again, off-again friend of Picasso, whom she claimed to have “discovered”, but there you are.
And then we come to the very messy part of the story. Though they were both ethnically Jewish (though non-religious), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stayed in France throughout the Nazi occupation, 1940-44. They did have to leave Paris and move to a remote country area, but they were not molested and the art collection they had amassed in Paris was never plundered or destroyed, as other collections of “decadent” art were in Nazi-occupied countries.
Why was this?
Partly because, though they were known to be Jewish, the couple were protected by a high Vichy official, Professor Bernard Fay, who had been – and remained – one of Stein’s closest friends since the late 1920s. Fay was an early acolyte proclaiming Stein’s genius. Fay translated some of her works into French. Fay was also an extreme right-winger, on the fringe of Catholicism and having an obsession with Freemasons. During the Second World War, Fay helped compile lists of known Freemasons to help Petain’s government round them up for imprisonment or worse. (Additional note – Fay managed to survive the war and by the 1960s was denouncing the post-Vatican II Catholic Church for being too liberal. He wrote a book entitled L’Eglise Judas [The Judas Church] and was one of those who helped Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve set up his breakaway “traditionalist” church.]
Now one obviously sympathises with Stein and Toklas in this situation. As they were Jews in Nazi-occupied territory, we would have to be tone-deaf not to agree that they had a right to preserve their lives by any means at hand. But I note that Bernard Fay was no mere convenience for Stein. He had been her close friend for well over a decade before the war and she shared many of his views. Early in the war, Stein agreed to translate and produce an English-language version of the speeches of Petain. She proceeded to do so, though she did not find a publisher in the Anglophone world. Some have argued that she agreed to do this simply as an act of self-preservation; but this is not the case. Even after the Liberation of France (in 1944) when the Nazis were gone, and in the last two years of her life (she died in 1946), Stein continued to profess her admiration for Petain’s paternalist and nationalist ideas and was still trying to find an English-language publisher for her translations, which were accompanied by her admiring introduction.
I am aware that this case has been argued back and forth by admirers and detractors of Stein, and you will note that I have not mentioned the silly idea (which turns out to be based on an ironical wisecrack Stein once made) that Stein once lobbied for Hitler to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. You can easily read about the case in many on-line articles. But I am still making it clear that the avant garde, lesbian writer was no liberal in her ideas, and would most likely have rejected much that is held dear by those who produce admiring portraits of her on Gay and Lesbian websites. (And for the record, would I disillusion you too much to point out that, in the 1920s and 1930s, left-wing writers were more likely than right-wing ones to denounce homosexuality as a sign of bourgeois decadence?)
  What conclusion do I draw from all this?
The conclusion that it is all too easy to misconstrue real history as consisting of “teams” – the goodies with whom we agree and the baddies who represent everything we detest. But real history isn’t like that. People in the past have mixed ideals and mixed ideologies (just like you and me). The same person can espouse ideas that we now embrace and ideas that we now emphatically reject. The “teams” mentality is for those who do not know what history really is.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, Nicholas. Their collaboration has always intrigued me.