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The Alibi of Ambiguity

Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma
By Barbara Will
(Columbia University Press, 274 pp., $35)  

By Gertrude Stein
Edited by Logan Esdale
(Yale University Press, 348 pp., $20)  

Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition
By Gertrude Stein Edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina
(Yale University Press, 379 pp., $22)

ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1951, an oddly dressed young woman appeared in an alley adjacent to the municipal hospital in Angers, a town southwest of Paris. She was wearing a pointed Alpine hat and a blue cape bearing the insignia of the International Red Cross. It was later determined that the woman in the Alpine hat could be seen from the window of a patient in the hospital, a convicted war criminal named Bernard Faÿ. The patient, a heavyset man who had survived polio as a child, walked with a pronounced limp and was also suffering from advanced heart disease; it might reasonably have been assumed that he was a low flight risk. He had been rushed to the Angers hospital, when his life seemed in danger, from the notoriously harsh prison of Fontevrault, a few miles away, where prisoners reportedly died at the alarming rate of two per week.

Faÿ was not accustomed to such rough treatment. With a master’s degree from Harvard, where he had admired the “great supple bodies, without faults and without vices,” of the undergraduates while pursuing research on the history of Freemasonry, Faÿ had been widely regarded as the leading French scholar of American culture during the years between the two world wars. The Revolutionary Spirit in France and America, which appeared in the United States in 1927, in which Faÿ deplored the regicidal and anti-clerical savagery of the French revolutionaries while praising their more aristocratic and agrarian American counterparts, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. He received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern in 1933 and gave the Bergen Lectures at Yale in 1936, but his love affair with America had begun to sour with the onset of the New Deal. His distaste for the financial manipulations of the Freemason Franklin D. Roosevelt, trained by Jewish professors at Harvard, was particularly pronounced. As Barbara Will writes in her absorbingly detailed and even-handed book on the “unlikely” friendship between Faÿ and Gertrude Stein, “His hopes now centered on the more radical political model of a federalist Europe dominated by Nazi Germany.”

During World War II, Faÿ was a powerful Vichy official and Gestapo agent in occupied Paris. He ruthlessly persecuted Masons, hundreds of whom he consigned to their death. He held the “Masonic menace” responsible for “all the decadent twists and turns of French history since 1789,” Will notes, while believing, like others in the Vichy hierarchy, in the “solidarity between the Jews and the Freemasons.” Faÿ’s views on Freemasonry, which he referred to as a “monstrous parasite” on the French nation, were closely aligned with those of the Vichy leader (and hero of World War I) Philippe Pétain, whose famous handshake with Hitler in October 1940 indicated, in his own words, that he had “today entered the way of collaboration.”

Pétain presided over the officially “free” portion of France from the French capitulation to the Germans in 1940 until 1942, when Germany, under threat from Allied forces in North Africa, occupied the entire country. One might have thought that the Nazis constituted the greatest threat to French autonomy, but the puppet Pétain took a different view. “Freemasonry is the main thing responsible for our present-day troubles,” he confided to his friend Faÿ. Appointed by Pétain in 1940 as director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Faÿ pillaged valuable books from Masonic lodges. He also purged the famous national library of eleven employees suspected of “communist conspiracy,” who were deported to the concentration camp of Pithiviers, and he looked on as the former director, a Jew, was dispatched to Buchenwald. Of his new duties in the library, he wrote to Stein that “I have a great fun in doing all that.”

Despite his prominence among the top echelon of Nazi collaborators, Faÿ managed, through the intervention of powerful friends, to avoid a death sentence after the war. In preparation for his trial, as his prosecutors assembled the dossier of his victims and perused accounts of his “intimate relations with a certain number of [male] American students while he was a lecturer in the United States,” he received character references from, among others, Gertrude Stein, whose novella “Melanctha” and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas he had translated into French. Stein, as though reciprocating the favor, had translated many of Pétain’s speeches into English, adding an enthusiastic introduction. “We liked the fascists,” she remarked of this period in her life.

On September 30, 1951, Faÿ, a passionate Catholic, attended Sunday Mass at the hospital in Angers. The mysterious young woman who had loitered in the alley the previous day reappeared among the congregants. On leaving Mass, Faÿ seemed accidentally to jostle the young woman; and in the resulting confusion, authorities later surmised, he passed her a note. Back in his hospital room, he asked his guard if he could use the bathroom.

Down the dark hallway Faÿ made his shuffling way and never returned. The gullible guard, after waiting a discreet fifteen minutes, found the bathroom empty. An intern later reported that he had glimpsed a young blonde woman leading an elderly man through the side gates of the hospital. “By the time the police in Angers were alerted, ...” Will writes, “Faÿ and his companion were already halfway across the country.” On the morning of October 1, picturesquely disguised in a cassock like a priest on pilgrimage, Faÿ slipped across the border into Switzerland, where he lived for nearly three decades among supporters and fellow collaborators, dreaming of an eventual return to order and the simple values of family, church, and nation.

GERTRUDE STEIN, who described her relationship with Faÿ as “one of the four permanent friendships” of her life, died of cancer on July 27, 1946, too early to help with his escape. But the daring scheme at the Angers hospital was funded by the sale of two works of Picasso—a drawing of a woman on horseback and a gouache—by Stein’s widow, Alice B. Toklas. Such an arrangement might seem a fitting exchange, almost a quid pro quo, since Faÿ, in a letter to a Swiss newspaper published in 1960, claimed to have protected Stein and Toklas from the Nazi occupiers. He had also, at Picasso’s request, preserved their formidable collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne, housed in their Paris apartment. According to Will, Faÿ’s claim that he had protected Stein during the war has been “repeated uncritically by every single one of Stein’s subsequent biographers.”

The bad news that Stein collaborated with pro-Nazi authorities—broached in 1996 by Wanda Van Dusen in an article on Stein’s Pétain translation project and given widespread currency in Janet Malcolm’s excellent study Two Lives—will intensify the controversy that has surrounded her work for a very long time. The popular version of her, most recently on display in Woody Allen’s harmless confection Midnight in Paris (in which the source of all evil is a rich American family clueless about art), has not yet been contaminated by her sinister work for Marshal Pétain. “She is much as I would imagine Gertrude Stein,” Roger Ebert remarked of Kathy Bates’s performance, “an American, practical, no-nonsense, possessed with a nose for talent, kind, patient.” No portrait of Stein is more familiar than Picasso’s flat, matte, mask-like painting of 1905-1906. But a more suggestive portrait might be Jo Davidson’s sculpted portrait of Stein as the Buddha (currently on view in the exhibition at the Met called “The Steins Collect”), which captures the ambiguity that surrounds both her literary work and her behavior during the Occupation.

Why did Stein enthusiastically embrace a regime so closely tied to the policies and the predations of the Third Reich? And why was she not arrested after the war, like that other willing propagandist Ezra Pound, and placed, if not in a cage, at least in prison? Instead she was portrayed by the American journalist Eric Sevareid as a rugged survivor and “favored stranger,” who had been protected by affectionate inhabitants of Culoz, the village near the Swiss border and the first foothills of the Alps, where Stein and Toklas waited out the war. When the Nazis demanded, in April 1944, that “all Jews, whatever their nationality, were to go,” Stein and Toklas did not go, and did not wear the yellow star, presumably, Will believes, because of the interventions of Bernard Faÿ.

It is tempting to believe that Stein was playing some complicated double game to save her skin, and that her most appalling statements somehow reflected the ambiguity so fundamental to her own best writing. In her self-pitying and self-congratulatory Wars I Have Seen, she writes of Pétain’s capitulation to the Nazis as though it was a remarkably clever strategy: “In the first place it was more comfortable for us who were here and in the second place it was an important element in the ultimate defeat of the Germans. To me it remained a miracle.” Comfortable for whom? Miraculous for whom? In 1944, when Jewish children were being rounded up in the villages surrounding Culoz and transported to Auschwitz, Stein wrote that Pétain’s policies were “really wonderful so simple so natural so complete and extraordinary.” Here one might say that Stein’s rose-is-a-rose style itself verges on collaboration.

Dissenting from the general approbation of Stein’s Wars I Have Seen, Djuna Barnes remarked bitingly: “You do not feel that she is ever really worried about the sorrows of the people; her concern at its highest pitch is a well-fed apprehension.” Writing in this magazine in January 1945, the philosopher and Americanist Jean Wahl, who was interned in the Parisian detention center of Drancy before escaping to America, wrote that Stein’s claim that Pétain somehow won for the French by capitulating to Germany was “almost unbelievable in its naiveté.”

THE FREQUENT alignment of radical aesthetics with reactionary politics is old news. It is naïve to believe that utopian ideas of a better society will always be progressive: nostalgia for a better time (before cities, before industry, before immigration, before democracy) motivates many artists and many worldviews. It is equally naïve to believe that good writers with bad ideas can somehow be edited out of cultural history. One may deplore Pound’s propaganda for Mussolini while admiring the vivid poems of Cathay, or the blameless couplet “In a Station of the Metro,” which may well be the single most influential American poem of the twentieth century.

Gertrude Stein’s early work has a kindred freshness and un-erasable influence. The modernist revolution in American literature most clearly on view in such masterpieces as Sherwood Anderson’s “I Want to Know Why” and Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain” owes much to Stein’s example of an impersonal style built up of radically simplified sentences and insistent verbal repetition. These writers, with Stein as example, made a decisive break with the psychological analysis and “deep” characters of the nineteenth century novel.

Stein first struck her new note in “Melanctha,” an evocation, in an early draft, of a young Jewish woman in a city modeled on Baltimore, where Stein briefly studied medicine. Stein then transposed the novella into an account of the disappointing loves of a young woman of mixed race. Neither unambiguously white nor black, neither lesbian nor straight, Melanctha is a riddle to herself and to her narrator. “Why did the subtle, intelligent, attractive, half white girl Melanctha Herbert love and do for and demean herself in service to this coarse, decent, sullen, ordinary, black childish Rose?” The erasure of Jewish themes in Stein’s books remained a pattern throughout her career. Reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s friend Thornton Wilder wondered, “Why does she never mention that she or Miss Toklas are Jewesses?” and added, “It’s Henry Adams’ wife [who never appears in The Education of Henry Adams], again. It’s possible to make books of a certain fascination if you scrupulously leave out the essential.”

Stein claimed that Flaubert’s late triptych of stories, Trois Contes, had inspired her to write “Melanctha” and the other two stories in her book Three Lives. It has long been assumed that Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” was the most immediate inspiration for Stein. Flaubert’s tale of an admirable servant woman who succumbs to dementia and comes to worship a stuffed parrot had elements of plangent sentimentality laced with savage irony, a kindred mix in Three Lives. Admirers of Stein, such as Edmund Wilson, have interpreted Three Lives as a further push of nineteenth-century realism into the psychological realm, as though Stein, a former student of William James at what is now Radcliffe College, had, along with Joyce and Woolf, adopted his notion that the mind is a “stream of consciousness.”

But I suspect that the decisive story of Flaubert’s for Stein may well have been “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier,” a “flat” story that mimics the medieval tales and stained-glass windows that inspired it. Shallowness was of the essence for Stein, as she invented ways of writing that matched, in key ways, the surface textures and visual ambiguities of the astonishing paintings by Picasso and Matisse that she bought during the early 1900s for her famous salon at the rue de Fleurus.

The short prose sketches—or “radiotelegrams,” as Cocteau called them—of Tender Buttons remain perhaps Stein’s most vital work. It is tempting, on first glance, to see in these prose poems a radical return to simple objects—sections are named “Rooms,” “Objects,” “Food”—an attempt to recover the phenomenological immediacy of things in the manner of Francis Ponge or Rilke’s New Poems, as in this painterly evocation of “A LONG DRESS”:

What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.
What is the wind, what is it.
Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

With its suggestive title, however, Tender Buttons has seemed to many readers to be full of erotic allusions, as in this passage: “PEELED PENCIL, CHOKE. Rub her coke.” Readers affiliated with the so-called “Language” poets have discerned a radical disconnection between sound and sense in Stein’s sentences, and an insistence on language for its own sake, demolishing its “mimetic” or representational function. Stein invites us to seek some relation between the ostensible subject “dinner” and the following sequence of words: “Egg ear nuts, look a bout. Shoulder. Let it strange, sold in bell next herds.” One can see why many people find the book little more than an annoying experiment in random word association.

In some of the most successful sections of Tender Buttons, Stein betrays an interest in riddles and ambiguous definitions reminiscent of Emily (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) Dickinson. “Cooking is the recognition between sudden and nearly sudden very little and all large holes,” she writes. “A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talks.” Occasionally such oblique definitions take on a poignant and mysterious lyricism, as in this entry concerning “A LEAVE”: “In the middle of a tiny spot and nearly bare there is a nice thing to say that wrist is leading.” Is Stein writing about leavetaking, or does she allude to leaves falling from a bare tree?

IN HER crowd-pleasing and readily accessible The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933, Stein impersonated the voice of her lover while trumpeting her own genius: “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken. ... The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.” During roughly the same period, Stein was working on two challenging books that recall her bracingly experimental work of the early years of the century. Her appealing novella Ida, first published in 1941, has been characterized as a reflection on her own celebrity. But Ida seems, from page to page, to be a study in disorientation, in the manner of “Melanctha.” Ida loses her parents: “It was a nice family but they did easily lose each other. So Ida was born and a very little while after her parents went off on a trip and never came back.” She loses men. She loses less definable things: “One day she was there doing nothing and suddenly she felt very funny. She knew she had lost something. She looked everywhere and she could not find out what it was that she had lost.”

Stein was also working on a forbidding long poem she called Stanzas in Meditation, which Barbara Will calls “one of Stein’s most hermetic published works.” It is difficult to find a coherent narrative in the fragmentary Stanzas, and John Ashbery was probably right when he observed that the book “will probably please readers who are satisfied only by literary extremes.” The verse form in which Stanzas is written is of a hammering simplicity, sometimes recalling the playful nonsense of Alice in Wonderland:

A weight a hate a plate or a date
They will cause me to be one of three
Which they may or may be
May be I do but do I doubt it
May be how about it
I will not may be I do but I doubt it
May be will may be.

Yale published an earlier version of Stanzas in 1956. Recently the scholar Ulla Dydo made an interesting discovery: on a final pass through the proofs in early 1933, Stein had changed every use of “may” to “can,” while also finding substitutions for “maybe” and “may be,” with the resulting sacrifice of many internal rhymes and some coherence. The third line in the stanza above became “Which they can or can be,” and the stanza closed with “Can be will can be.” Why would Stein do such a thing?

Dydo’s hypothesis is that Toklas had noticed the prevalence of the word “may” in the book and had suspected that it was a code word for an early love of Stein’s named May Bookstaver. Enraged at this betrayal, Toklas, always the stronger partner in the relationship, demanded the suppression of May from the manuscript. Yale has now published the book in its original form, with the “mays” restored. Is this a gain? It certainly is if a major aesthetic motif of the book is internal rhyme of the most naïve and relentless variety, another exercise in shallowness and ambiguity.

We learn from Will’s book that while she was revising her Stanzas, Stein was also translating Pétain’s speeches into what Will calls an “almost stupefyingly literal” and off-putting English. Writing of the French connection to their land, Stein nostalgically invoked “their cemeteries where sleep their ancestors” and announced, “This is today french people the task to which I urge you.” Was there something deliberately subversive in such a strategy? Was it a subtle stratagem for making Pétain sound foolish, childish, or inept to American readers? Or was Stein trying to improve the Marshal’s flatulent ideas of “family, work, fatherland” by giving them a livelier expression?

IT IS UNDERSTANDABLE that those of us who admire Stein’s best writing might be tempted to help establish a dossier for her defense, as a writer and a wartime survivor. Her best writing is notoriously difficult to read “straight”—if indeed there is a way to read it straight. In what way exactly she meant what she said remains at the center of scholarly debate about her work. “By this I mean this,” she liked to say. Even her explanations of ambiguity are ambiguous, as in this passage from the opening of her essay “Composition as Explanation,” from 1926: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.”

The brilliant critic William Empson, circa 1930, rescued ambiguity from the scrap heap of rhetoric and convinced a generation of poets and critics that ambiguity was not a fault of careless writing but rather a crucial aspect of effective poetic expression. He celebrated poetic passages in which “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading.” Empson had spent a great deal of time in Asia. He developed his ideas about poetic ambiguity, of which he identified seven distinct types, while studying the various representations of the Buddha on statuary in China and Japan. For Empson, the power of the Buddha’s expression lay in its fundamental ambiguity, not quite a smile but not exactly a sneer either.

Toward the end of Unlikely Collaboration, Barbara Will includes a photograph of Gertrude Stein visiting Hitler’s bunker at Berchtesgaden after the war. She is surrounded by eager young American GIs. Stein and the soldiers are executing the Nazi salute. The photograph appeared in Life magazine on August 6, 1945, along with a chirpy text by Stein titled “Off We All Went to See Germany.” Stein seems to be wearing a jaunty little pointed Alpine hat, perhaps resembling the hat worn by the mysterious woman in the alley in Angers, and she seems to be smiling, or perhaps sneering. Will calls the photograph “at once sophomoric and chilling, given Stein’s attraction to authoritarianism in the 1930s and 1940s.” Sophomoric and chilling: a good example of Stein’s recurring ambiguity.

Is Stein’s Hitler salute meant to be ironic? Well, of course, one is tempted to reply. But where exactly does the irony lie? 

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.