“My hope with this book is, first, to resituate Stein where I think she belongs—in the latter camp of reactionary modernism. It simplifies her work and falsifies her life to misread both in the service of our own progressive agendas. The dilemmas of her life, and the realities of her actions and convictions, require careful and objective understanding.”—Barbara Will
Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma continues to garner attention. This week the book was featured in Rorotoko and in an article in The Chronicle Review (unfortunately, a subscription is required to view the entire article).
In her essay for Rorotoko, Barbara Will describes her book’s focus on the relationship between Gertrude Stein and the French intellectual Bernard Fay. As she explains, Unlikely Collaboration tells the story of Stein and Fay’s involvement and support of the Vichy government — Stein as writer of propaganda for Petain’s regime and Fay as an official in the secret police. Despite their shared affinity for the Vichy government, the two had very different fates after the war as Stein’s wartime writings were suppressed and she was hailed by the American press as being a survivor while Fay was sentenced to life in prison.
Barbara Will’s investigation into how a Jewish-American writer and a French aesthete were drawn to a fascist government is complemented by her exploration of larger questions about what drew many modernists to reactionary politics. Will writes:
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.
Later in the essay, Will challenges the assumption that an experimental or progressive aesthetic necessarily translates into progressive political views:
For too long we have tended to assume that the stance of modernist resistance or rebellion is by definition progressive—adopted in the service of a future-oriented transformation of modernity. Many modernist artists and writers did see their work as breaking through tradition or norms in order to arrive at something newer/better/as-yet-unrealized. Yet just as many modernist artists and writers hoped that their work would bring back to life a world lost to the depredations of modernity.
My hope with this book is, first, to resituate Stein where I think she belongs—in the latter camp of reactionary modernism. It simplifies her work and falsifies her life to misread both in the service of our own progressive agendas. The dilemmas of her life, and the realities of her actions and convictions, require careful and objective understanding.