Life During Wartime 1 – Gertrude Stein

Life During Wartime 1 – Gertrude Stein

Life During Wartime is an ongoing series examining the lives of well-known artists during times of intense hardship.  Using the art they produced during that period as a reference point, I try to understand the many ways creative people handle times of intense pressure and trauma, and how to apply that to hard times today.

(music for reading)

            In total war, everyone and everything assimilates into the nation-state. Factories that once produced soup cans now produce bullets. Farmers and tailors and librarians now become pilots and medics and marines. Children stop being future tax payers and start being future soldiers, their acculturation taking on increasingly nationalistic and militaristic hues. In total war, the state and the individual are one. It is what allows wars of catastrophic proportions. And it is why in total war, civilians suffer far more than regimes.

World War II was not the first total war, but for those who lived through it, it certainly felt like the last. By war’s end, over 60 million people were dead and much of Europe and East Asia were in ruins. For those living under Fascist rule, the experience was even more difficult, with disappearances and torture a commonality. Anyone who was not a fervent supporter of the current regime, whose views or faith or ethnicity were “deviant”, were subject to abuse, restriction and extermination.

It is difficult for me to fully comprehend the magnitude of events during that period, when the sky was falling and it was unclear whether humanity would even be able to recover. We live now in dark times of xenophobic populism, economic recession, terrorism and brutal civil war, events which, despite my better judgment, calls to mind the years leading up to the invasion of Poland. History does not repeat itself, but it does have recurrent patterns. By seeking out accounts of those who lived through hard times previously, I hope to learn how to better navigate the present.

When the war broke out in 1939, the American author Gertrude Stein was residing in Paris with her life partner (and subject of her most famous book) Alice B. Toklas. Stein had spent the previous two decades on the vanguard of experimental Western art, publishing her own poetry and fiction, as well as supporting the efforts of up-and-coming writers and artists like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Matisse. When she briefly returned to the U.S. in the mid-30’s, she was treated as literary royalty.

As the war intensified, Stein and Toklas retreated to their country home in the Rhône-Alpes, a region which became part of the collaborationist Vichy French government after the Nazis took Paris. Stein, Jewish and queer in an environment that now sought to eradicate both, kept a low profile, evading the Gestapo either because she was a famous American artist or because of her close friendship with anti-Semite and Vichy collaborator, Bernard Faÿ (perhaps both). In 1943, with the liberation of France still unforeseeable, Stein began work on a memoir of her life under occupation titled Wars I Have Seen.

Stein’s actions and beliefs during this period have been the subject of intense debate among literary historians and readers alike. Stein has been accused of being a Vichy collaborator, an argument backed up by her close relationship with Faÿ, her support of Vichy leader Phillipe Pétain (whose speeches she translated in 1941 and who is written of somewhat admirably in Wars I Have Seen) and her ability to remain un-harassed by the Gestapo even as other Jews in her village were being shipped off to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.  Supporters have vehemently opposed this view, even producing a “dossier” of evidence showing her love of liberty, her tolerance of difference and her ability to survive in hellish conditions. In their eyes, Stein is subject of a witch hunt, with her critics attacking her legacy to gain political points in the present.

Wars I have seen

The answer to “Was Stein a collaborationist?” is probably somewhere between these two poles of Fascist and Saint. To best understand what Stein thought of the war, it is perhaps best to examine her own words. The most significant factor of Wars I Have Seen is that it is practically unreadable (a note of honesty: I was only able to read 150 out of the 240 odd pages, but I feel reasonable in assuming not much was different in those extra 90 pages; if that is an issue, feel free to stop reading). Stein’s memoir is purposefully elliptical, drenched in irony, repetitious in the extreme and remarkably indecisive. She doesn’t so much have deplorable opinions as she has no opinions at all. The passivity of her prose matches her inaction in thought – she is not so much the keen-eyed observer of reality who once made poetry describing chairs in great detail as she is a bemused chatterbox. To be sure, bits of reality seep in every now and then (her descriptions of hunger and deprivation, occasional examples of the absurdities of occupation life), but those are far outweighed by indecisive musings on the nature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as vague memories of wars past. Wars I Have Seen is not a harrowing examination of (Jewish) life under Nazi occupation, it is a rambling account amounting to “well this isn’t very great”.

At least within the confines of her prose, Stein seems not to be able to address the immensity of the events she is living through. Of course, no one can be absolutely aware of the history swirling around them, but it is exceptionally odd that someone as brilliant and observant as Stein, living in occupied territory, with her neighbors disappearing in the night and the official anti-Semitic discourse all around her, would not at the very least see her conditions as historically exceptional.

An example of this problem comes when she is discussing France, and the many forms of government it has had since the Revolution. In regards to what the next government might look like after the war, she writes, “I say why worry, it can be anything and if it is it can change to anything else and after all what difference does it make except to the people in power. It certainly does not make any difference to anybody else ever, certainly not.” Except that it does. The Vichy government, in collaborating with the Nazi regime, was complicit in a genocidal form of governance which murdered not only its political opponents, but also the Jews, Romani, homosexuals, Slavs and disabled within its civilian population. The history of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan and authoritarian communism in the Soviet Union reveal that the shape of governments can mean life or death to the individual. Politics was not benign. It had not been at least since the First World War, where short term political opportunism led to the destruction of a generation of men and women, the weary folk Stein herself dubbed “The Lost Generation”. Stein’s thinking may not be fascist, but at the very least it appears to be somewhat willfully blind.

Life Magazine Stein Plane

            There is an odd correlation between modernist art and a penchant for authoritarianism. Ezra Pound, one of the most important English-speaking poets of the early twentieth century, spent the war cheering on the Fascists from a radio station in Rome. Martin Heidegger, a brilliant philosopher of existentialism and phenomenology, joined the Nazi party and actively supported Adolf Hitler. T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Filippo Marinetti, Paul de Man – as Barbara Will notes, it might be more useful to come up with a list of Modernists who didn’t eventually adopt authoritarian attitudes. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of modernist art, its dislike of tradition, its relentless zeal for change and novelty, its rejection of realism. For many Modernists, the future was fetishized. Everything old was bad, everything new good. Yes the present is ever-changing, but it is not changing fast enough. The artist, through sheer force of will, will cause that change. War, particularly because of its capacity to destroy old orders, is necessary (“We will glorify war…the world’s only hygiene!” screams Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto). The past must be erased for the present to breathe. One can find the connections between this denial of history and the reactionary ideologies of the twentieth and twenty-first century (it is not surprising that one of the first things the Islamic State did when gaining power was to destroy pre-Islamic ruins and artifacts). The denial of history is essential for denying the complexity of humanity. One cannot build the “New Man” without first erasing the old one.

However, this argument doesn’t fully fit Stein’s work and style. In Wars I Have Seen, she comes across as nostalgic for quaint wars of the nineteenth century. Like her Modernist colleagues, Stein saw realism as a relic of the past; unlike her colleagues, she seems saddened by it. As she states in one typically scattershot passage, “Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any, and so it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter.” In a way, Wars I Have Seen can be understood less as a view of the present as it is a reckoning of a possibly imagined past (it is Wars I Have Seen, not Wars I Am Seeing).

By the time she was writing her memoirs, Stein was 69 and exhausted. Total war is stressful in the extreme for the young; it is much worse for the elderly. She was alive to see Allied troops liberate France a year later. In August 1945, Life Magazine published an account of Stein’s visit to post-surrender Germany, which reads like a holiday excursion except for the decimated state of the cities visited. A year later, Stein would be dead from stomach cancer.

Life Magazine Stein

            It is difficult to judge the actions of a person during times of extreme hardship. The support of Petain and her comfort with the Vichy well into 1944 are deeply disheartening, but when compared to the actual cruelty of fascist sympathizers, it is not reprehensible. Stein’s possibly willful ignorance is an all too common response to trauma. Importantly, while Stein spent the war quietly in a Vichy village, a new wave of French artists (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Malraux) were risking their lives in the French Army and/or Resistance. For these writers, the war (and their actions in it) would prove essential for their development as both artists and thinkers. Perhaps, in action, a principle can be found.


Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen was originally published in 1945 by Random House and is pretty tough to find outside university libraries or Amazon.