Monday, August 15, 2016

Defining fascist literature

A fake "Vermeer" by van Meegeren. Is it fascist art? 

A Tim Parks essay reviewing a book about fascist artist Mario Sirono from the August, 2000 NYRB renewed my interest in defining the attributes of fascist literature. I found Parks insightful, for I have struggled to understand what makes fascist art (painting and sculpture)  fascist. For example, Errol Morris's 2009 NYT series on Dutch art forger van Meegeren posed the question: how could the Nazis (and others) have possibly fallen for van Meegeren's "Vermeers," given how badly executed they are? Morris decides they appealed to the fascist tastes of people like Göring, but not to our tastes, because the fascist aesthetic became a "dead end" in art history-- but Morris never defines that aesthetic, except as bad art. 

Returning to Parks, I was amused when he quoted a contemporary of Sironi, who commented in the 1930s that every time he came across writing about fascist art:

 "I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope that I will come away from it having understood what is meant by fascist art. ... but that desire, that hope, remains unfilled." 

That sense of puzzlement has often, if not always, been my experience. Parks however, offers an answer: that what makes Sironi's art fascist is its "static" quality: "The figures are rigidly separate," he says.  Parks contends this creates, rather than a story, a sense of figures "waiting for a story to happen to them." That made sense to me and seemed to describe van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries as well. However, my main interest is not in fascist painting or sculpture, but literature. Thus, I have identified the following attributes, using as a frame my background reading on Nazi ideology and aesthetics for my Bonhoeffer book, pieces of Mein Kampf, Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism," and bits of fascist literature produced in the 1930s and 40s.  

A Sironi painting called Italy in the Arts. I agree that there's a static, disconnected quality to the figures.

A more explicit frame I use is a romance novel by Elizabeth Bailey called Fly the Wild Echoes, written in 1982 and reissued in 2012.  Here are the attributes of it I found fascist:

1. A "superior," upper-class protagonist, an exceptionally beautiful and talented (and famous) movie and stage actress from a superior, talented family--a version of the "superman," or, in this case, "superwoman."

2. Overwrought prose. 

3. On the same note, no touch of  irony. Everything is intensely "poetic," serious, and important.

4. Heroic heroes and heroines (again the ubermensch.)

5. The setting as a castle that had been converted into an upper class sanatorium-- the aristocrat and backward-looking surround.

6. The sanatorium's religious aspect, eg as a place of retreat and purification. Everything there is beautiful, elegant, elite, rarified.

7. The male as savior. In this case, he is the handsome psychiatrist who falls in love with our heroine during their overwrought dawn and dusk meetings in the rose garden. He in turn has a male mentor, the wise man who began the sanatorium. As Sontag would argue, sex here functions a form of purification: the great man will save our heroine.

8. A female character who is unquestioningly disposed of because of her inferiority. The handsome psychiatrist is engaged to this woman, the daughter of the founder of the sanatorium, but she has qualities that make her entirely unsuitable to marry, most notably a masculine, stocky quality that is completely unlike our delicate, ephemeral auburn-haired heroine, Fliss, in her silk flowered print dresses. There's a sense that the fiancee would compete as to who would run the sanatorium after her father's death, threatening to usurp the male role. But what is most striking is how dispensable she is, how she is treated with such narrative contempt. There's no real question of her feelings, her being: she is simply so much trash to be discarded, a problem that protagonists are (unfairly) forced to deal with rather than a human being. Is this how the ordinary people are to be treated by the ubermensch? 

9. A static quality, ala Parks on Sironi: while the Bailey book is clearly set in 1982, to the point of featuring an answering machine and a Sony walkman, it really could be set in any time period from, say, 1800 to today. It's an alternative universe that has no bearing on real history. The heroine has little relationship, if any, with anyone outside of her "fuhrer worship" relationship with the psychiatrist who will save her.

10. Black and white characters. The lack of irony or humor means you never have to look for double entendre or complexity.

The book left me feeling deeply disturbed.

In sum,  I would define fascist literature as aristocratic, overwrought, humorless, non-ironic, heroic, callous toward the non-superior person, static, interested in purity and in enforcing rigidly traditional sex roles, preoccupied with the "beautiful" setting or surround (all gardens and castles, no factories or slums) and never messy. It imposes its will about what it would like the world to be rather than what the world is. Bailey's book reminded me of some of the fascist descriptions I read of SS men as exemplars of a Knights Templar medieval purity, stronger, harder, more crystalline, living at a higher plane of virtue and morality (if you can imagine) than the rest of humanity. 

To what extent Bailey's romance is a representative of the Harlequin type I don't know, but my suspicion is that there are many like it. Further, Harlequin and similar romances have a huge share of the book market. Tanya Modeliski, in her 1982 book about romances, Loving with a Vengeance, discusses these books as a way for women to deny the reality of male hatred by consistently devising plots in which the seemingly brutal man is found to have the woman's best interests at heart--in fact, to love the woman. Likewise, in 1984, Janet Radway published Reading the Romance, arguing that these romances create an illusion of comfort for the reader that allow avoidance of  confronting political realities. Both of these analyses seem to align with a fascist reading of these texts. I will try to look into more recent studies.

I think too of a book I have not read but hope to by David Imhoof called Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen  between the World Wars that discusses  Nazis infilitration of cultural institutions, such as symphony, to promote their worldview before they took power, in essence "softening" people to their ideology. One wonders about a correlation between female Trump supporters and consumption of romance novels: how much has our literary world (including movies and televisions, primed us for strong leader rather than democratic rule?

I will end with a link to a blog about fascism and careerism:

What do we think?

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