Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
― Gertrude Stein
How many of you English majors knew that Gertrude Stein took the side of Frenchmen who sympathized and collaborated with the Nazis before and during World War II? From the New Yorker:
… In 1941, at [Bernard] Faÿ’s suggestion, Stein agreed to translate a set of speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain—a hundred eighty pages of explicitly anti-Semitic tirades—into English. (She hoped that they would be published in America, although they never were…)
… It would be easy to chalk up Stein’s endorsement of Pétain to her gratitude toward Faÿ, who shielded her from persecution during the war (Stein and [Alice] Toklas, both Jews, stayed out of the capital and in the countryside throughout the fighting), or to her political cunning. But her enthusiasm for Pétain, who was responsible for the death and deportation of nearly eighty thousand French Jews, was nothing new. After she met Faÿ—the first professor of American studies in France and a friend of Pétain—in 1926, she increasingly warmed to his political thought, writing to him once that she “sees politics but from one angle, which is yours.” Stein felt it vital for artists to work in undisturbed serenity in a climate of political stability; on the day, in 1940, that France fell to the Nazis, she published a book in which she wrote, “I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free…”
The latter quote, possibly a distortion of something Flaubert wrote, is key. Stein was saying that artists, in order to be free to make art, must not defy the powers-that-be, even when freedom is being stomped out, and people killed, all around them. As if art exists in a realm outside of human experience. As if you don’t have to decide at some point to be on the bus or off it.
How ironic that such a sophisticate, so famous for her literary ambiguity, would stumble so badly over her own lies and self-deceptions.