Barbara Will

 

On her book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma

Cover Interview of October 24, 2011

The wide angle

This book emerged out of a sense of uncertainty as to how to understand the years that Gertrude Stein spent in Vichy, France, from 1940 through 1944.

My previous book on Stein and modernism had ended with the period of the 1930s, at the moment when Stein achieved public success as a result of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  This achievement seemed to be the defining feature of Stein’s late life and work; at the time, little was known about her experience in Europe during World War II outside of Stein’s own retrospective account in a book published in 1945, Wars I Have Seen.

Then, in 1996, an American graduate student named Wanda Van Dusen began raising uncomfortable questions about an unfinished manuscript that few knew about and no one had really confronted: a project started by Stein during the war to translate into English the speeches of Philippe Pétain, Vichy head of state.

Stein, it turns out, was like many French people a strong supporter of Pétain at the start of the war, but unlike many French (and certainly unlike many Jews), her support continued well into 1943—long after Pétain had fallen out of favor.  Even after the war, Stein can be seen saying complimentary things about Pétain, in Wars I Have Seen and elsewhere.

The impetus behind this book was to understand how and why Stein would have been drawn to Pétain.  Following the lead of others, I found myself looking more closely at Stein’s friendship with the man who may have drawn her into the orbit of Vichy, a French historian named Bernard Faÿ.  As I researched their friendship, I became increasingly aware of shared affinities and trajectories.  I began to understand not only why these two individuals would have been drawn toward supporting the Vichy regime but also how their relationship with one another over the course of many years nurtured and refined their political beliefs.  The story behind Stein’s attraction to Pétain, I realized, could only be told through her relationship with Bernard Faÿ.

But this story is also a larger story of modernism.  For the last fifteen years or so, there have been a slew of revisionist accounts of canonical modernist writers and artists.  Critics are starting to come to terms with the fact that many of the most creative, original, and experimental writers, artists, and philosophers of the modernist period—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Martin Heidegger, Paul de Man, Leni Riefenstahl, to name just a few—were all supporters of fascist, profascist, or authoritarian regimes during the 1930s and 1940s.  We want our great artists to be clean, but many of them, it appears, were not exactly that.

What was it that drew these thinkers toward such regimes?  My book sees Stein and Faÿ as case studies of this larger phenomenon, arguing that there is no necessary correspondence between avant-garde or radical thought and progressive politics.  Indeed, in uncertain times, the avant-garde can sometimes take on rear-guard or reactionary positions.  Being attentive to the particular reactionary agendas of Stein and Faÿ—including their idealization of the eighteenth-century and their sense of Pétain as a revolutionary war hero—allows us a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the broader points of convergence between modernism and fascism or authoritarianism.