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Fascism: the Wrong Idea

ISSUE:  Winter 1996
French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture. By David Carroll. Princeton. $29.95.

The word “Fascist” brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s quip about a stubborn acquaintance: “That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is the wrong one.” As an ideology, fascism has been difficult to take seriously despite the great amount of ink spilled on it by critics, apologists, and academics. Many still suspect that it was a structure thrown together on the fly: the conceptual bric-a-brac of opportunist thinkers and blustering demagogues who justified their hunger for power by an appeal to history, race, nation, destiny, and the like. Careful examination, the skeptics continue, reveals a tissue of inconsistencies, idiocies, and incongruities. Fascism, in this light, is nothing more than a mug’s game— though one that happened to spell the death of tens of millions and to rock the entire planet.

The disproportion between cause and effect is simply too great, however. Worlds, we need to believe, are not plunged into wars over slogans. We tend to forget (or never learn in the first place)—and this despite the numerous contemporary memoirs, autobiographies, and studies—that fascism was all the rage in the interwar period. Benito Mussolini, who coined the term “fascism” in the early twenties and rode to power on its appeal, was the Italian hearthrob of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians across Europe and the United States. He was embraced by conservatives as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, by syndicalists as a spearthrower for the working class, and by too many intellectuals as one of their own—a journalist, if not quite philosopher, king who delivered countless pronouncements on the inevitability of fascism.

That fascism could be so many things to so many men and women suggests that it was either a vile stew of undigested notions or a serious and eclectic attempt to rethink politics. Zeev Sternhell, an Israeli historian, has most recently and powerfully argued the latter case. In a series of works focussing on fascism in France, Sternhell affirms that Fascist thought represented a sustained effort to tack toward a society free of class conflict by avoiding the shoals of both capitalism and socialism. Hence the significance of the title to Sternhell’s most controversial book: Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France. Sternhell insists upon the revolutionary content to fascism, no less hostile to capitalism, and no more amenable to representative democracy, than was communism. As a paradoxical fillip, French fascism is held to be the purest, since unlike in Germany or Italy, it was never tainted by the actual exercise of power.

David Carroll, a professor of French at UC Irvine, takes fascism no less seriously than does Sternhell. In French Literary Fascism,Carroll dissects with great care the nature of fascist thought in French literature. By literary fascism, the author underscores “the totalizing tendencies implicit in literature itself and constitutes a technique or mode of fabrication, a form of fictionalizing or aestheticizing not just of literature but of politics as well, and the transformation of the disparate elements of each into organic, totalized works of art.” Carroll is a literary theorist whose prose is rich in such semantic brambles. Yet, his point, if I understand him correctly, is intriguing and important. Rather than explore the ways in which fascism was imposed upon literature, or literature served as a mere medium to broadcast Fascist notions, it is how a certain literature and its underlying aesthetic ideals bled into politics that warrants consideration. The German critic Walter Benjamin suggested this approach in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written when fascism was still in its heyday. The genius of fascism, according to Benjamin, lay in its ability—through its marches, uniforms, rhetoric, and organization—to allow the masses to express themselves without altering the economic basis of society. Carroll, who cites his debt to Benjamin, adopts this notion. It was the exclusive focus of certain writers on aesthetic issues, and the working out of these issues in their writing, that lent support to totalitarian systems. Their idealization of “Man” and culture was tantamount to the annihilation of reality, with all its messiness and ambiguities. Aesthetics, in this regard, was the soporific that lowered these writers into the nightmare of fascism.

Just as Carroll echoes Sternhell in his insistence upon the specificity of the French variant, so too does he throw his net far in his investigation. He devotes separate chapters to the predictable line-up of anti-Semitic and Fascist writers: Robert Brasillach, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Lucien Rebatet, and Louis Ferdinand Céline. Yet there are other figures on the edge of the line-up. The anti-Semite and militant nationalist Maurice Barrés, for instance. As with the next generation of Fascist writers, Barrés, writing during the Dreyfus Affair, uses the Jew as foil to his nationalism: the true nation (le pays reel) is defined by what the Jew is not. The difference—one often overlooked in modern studies of anti-Semitism and understandably slight to French Jewry at the time—is that Barrés never proffers a racial definition of either the Jew or the Frenchman. Instead, his nationalism is grounded in his concept of “la terre et les marts” (the earth and the dead): the cultural sediment collected over centuries, the bloodline of tradition, authenticates the French nation. Hence the power of his novel The Uprooted (Les Déracinés}, which traces the careers of several young men who, seduced by foreign intellectual influences awash in Paris, are pulled from the cultural soil of their native Lorraine.

There is, of course, an unreal aspect to this scholastic splitting of ideological hairs. Barrès’ notorious declaration that “Dreyfus is capable of betrayal, I conclude from his race,” is hardly softened by the reminder that his concept of race was culturally, not biologically defined. As Carroll himself points out in his subtle analysis of Les Déracinés, Barrès’ emphasis upon cultural determination entails the?> elimination of all foreign elements that threaten the health of the collectivity. Yet there is, perhaps, a greater elasticity to a cultural definition of man. Carroll neglects to mention that, with the advent of World War I and call of la patrie en danger, Barrès did embrace French Jews as part of the French nation. This flip-flop would, I think, have been harder to execute if one were weighted down by the baggage of racial ideology.

A more provocative choice for this pantheon of the “fathers” of French literary fascism is Charles Péguy. The committed Catholic battling on behalf of Dreyfus and French Jewry; the fiery Socialist and tireless defender of the Republic: this is the Peguy who has inspired several generations of the French Left. Carroll of course acknowledges the reality of this particular Péguy but argues that the portrait is more complex than allowed by the standard version. He notes that Peguy was a reference point not just for thinkers on the Left, but for those on the Right as well. Well aware that a writer cannot be damned for the posthumous company he keeps, Carroll nevertheless insists upon the significance of the polyvalent attraction Péguy has exercised. Despite his spirited defense of Dreyfus, Péguy’s spiritualistic approach to politics lent itself to Fascist cooptation. In an early essay, “Marcel, Premier dialogue de la cite harmonieuse, “Péguy emphasizes the inclusive nature of his ideal socialist city. All within it must be compelled to join—an invitation to collective acceptance, but an invitation that also carries the dark overtones of Augustine’s notion of Christendom or Rousseau’s concept of the general will. As Carroll points out, at a deep level, “the foreign has to be radically excluded as the greatest imaginable menace to will.” In other words, those elements that prove incapable of incorporation must be eliminated in the name of social harmony. Though a staunch anti-anti-Semite, Péguy here provides an opening for later Fascists who, no less “spiritualist” than Peguy, claimed that the Jew could never be assimilated and must, as a result, be thrown out by the body politic.

“Everything begins as a mystique, and ends as a politique.” Peguy’s famous observation is usually thought to refer to the Dreyfus Affair, and Peguy’s own disenchantment with its course and resolution. But Carroll suggests that the remark bespeaks an ambivalent and troubling attitude toward modern liberal politics in general. As he argues, republican politics were for Péguy “not truly French, for they were cut off from all of the cultural values of old France, the culture and spiritual values of the ancient world that both royalist and republican mysticism kept alive.” True republicanism is spontaneous and pure, a worldview rooted in “la vieille France,” and thus, paradoxically related to royalism. Mystical republicanism is no closer to its modern manifestations than, say, the sap of the maple tree is to Log Cabin syrup. Both one and the other are facsimiles, pale and unhealthy reflections of the original ideals. Politics as usual—with its strategies, negotiations and inevitable compromises—will not help us realize the Republic; only a complete transformation of our spiritual and cultural lives will accomplish that. Thus the sense of Péguy’s disillusioned response to Dreyfus’ acceptance of a presidential pardon: “We were willing to die for Dreyfus, but he wasn’t.”

It seems certain that his appropriation by Fascist and virulent anti-Semites, little more than two decades after his death in WWI, would have horrified Péguy. But Carroll argues persuasively that Péguy’s most nationalistic writings, with their emphasis upon a spiritually pure France true to her ancient roots, herald later Fascist writings. Ironically, the specific political expressions of these Fascist texts would have been denounced by Péguy, held to be the very source of their inspiration. Where, in moral terms, does this leave the reader? Seemingly in her armchair or at his desk, where they had been all along. Carroll does not, in a direct or sustained manner, address the ethical issues involved in such aesthetic legacies, thus leaving the readers to work out on their own the implications of his analysis. He simply states his case, which is perhaps all we ought to expect from a literary theorist.

As for the subsequent Fascist writers who claimed Péguy’s mantle, Carroll has a great deal to say. His commentaries are meticulous, documented, intelligent—and depressing. Those who are familiar with the journalism of Brasillach, Drieu, or Rebatet are well aware of its numbing quality. A hectoring style larded with Great Ideas (the historian Richard Cobb rightly picks up on the Fascist affectation for capitalization), laced with vile projects, redolent of juvenile posturing and focussed relentlessly on the self are the hallmarks of this literature. That Carroll succeeds in detecting differences in style and motivation between these writers is not just a mark of his intelligence, but also of his courage. It is no small matter to devote years of one’s life to wading through such literary bilge. In this regard, his acute remarks may beg the point of this entire enterprise. With the notable exception of Céline, none of these men qualify as great writers. They were prolific, ambitious, and occasionally best-selling authors (as in the case of Rebatet’s Les Décombres)—but they were never destined for the catalogue of Plèiade. Unsurprisingly, Carroll carefully depicts their various aesthetic stances and pretensions— Rebatet’s most striking quality, he suggests, was the inflated sense of his place in the French literary history—but never reveals their significance as writers. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even make such an effort. Were it not for their notoriety as Fascist writers, these men would have been forgotten years ago.

As a result, one of the moral issues addressed by Carroll—can an authentic writer or artist also be an authentic Fascist?—is, if not voided, certainly hobbled. Just because these writers took their writing seriously, does not mean that their writing was, in a lastingly significant sense, serious. Yet this cannot be said of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort a credit, two of the most controversial and admired works of 20th-century French literature. Alongside these novels are three pamphlets: Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’Ecole des cadavres, and Les Beaux drops.Published between the late 30’s and the early 40’s, the latter works comprise a most extraordinary attack on Judaism. The paranoid worldview contained in his triptych, which detects the marks of “Jewish decomposition” in every corner of French culture, outstrips earlier anti-Semitic texts in the hallucinogenic quality of its prose and violent tenor of its proposals. In L’Ecole des cadavres (1938), for example, Céline writes “If you really want to get rid of Jews, then, not thirty-six thousand remedies, thirty-six thousand grimaces: racism! That’s the only thing Jews are afraid of: racism! And not a little bit, with the finger-tips, but all the way! Totally! Inexorably! Like complete Pasteur sterilization.”

These screeds are not, as Carroll makes clear, incidental to Celine’s oeuvre: they are at the very core of his aesthetic enterprise. Celine’s writings mark a watershed in the tradition of literary anti-Semitism in France, a tradition with old and deep roots. Carroll notes the irony that, given the dusty stock of mythical French representations of the Jew, the anti-Semitic writer was “the most traditional of all traditionalists.” Celine’s genius is that he escapes the countless cliches and tired metaphors of this school, creating a swirling, mad universe manipulated and polluted by “the Jew.” Carroll argues that, in this context, Celine is the direct successor of Edouard Drumont, author of the late 19th-century bestseller La France juive. Drumont’s achievement was two-fold: to locate the Jew behind every social, political, and economic ill besetting France, and to offer a vast warehouse of racist images and “proofs.” Drumont’s effort to catalogue every “Jewish crime”—to be as complete and universal as possible—not only mirrors the anti-Semtic accusation of the ubiquitousness of Jewish influence, but also prepares the ground for Celine’s obsession with Jewish mimeticism.

Celine, like Drumont, was obsessed by the belief that the Jew, incapable of creating true art, instead imitates and mimics. This, clearly, poses a threat to the integrity of French and European culture. Given the parasitical role played by the Jew, so adept at imitation, the tradition of French culture, considered the expression of the national identity, risks contamination and death. The true French artist is a vessel of the people, giving poetic voice to the deepest sentiments and emotions of his race. The Jews, according to Céline, “experience nothing . . . They are condemned if they inhabit our climate to waste their energy on grimaces, toms-toms, in imitations, like Negroes and like all monkeys.” As a result, the Jew represents the major obstacle to true poetic expression, and any individual who blocks this path, from Montaigne and Racine to Zola and Anatole France—desecrators one and all of primitive and authentic French—are “Jewified.” Celine was mad, but there is a frightening consistency to his madness.

In discerning a logic to Céline’s paranoid ravings, Carroll disposes of the apologist’s argument that considerations of Céline’s literary greatness can be divorced from his anti-Semitism. To the contrary, Céline “could be considered the writer who most completely realized the anti-Semitic literary project”—namely, representing the Jew as carrier of the forces of modernity and decadence that stood between the French and their culture, history, and language. Or, in a word, that stood between the French and their selves. The aesthetic concerns of Céline, no less than those of his Fascist contemporaries and proto-Fascist ancestors, cannot be separated from their ideological frenzies. This is an important, commonsensical, and salutary reminder. The recent controversy over the wartime writings of Paul de Man—to which Carroll devotes a damning afterword—suggests that this issue will be with us for some time to come.


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