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“What ideology,” Alice Kaplan asks in her groundbreaking Reproductions of Banality, “could make clearer than fascism does that people have a sexual, as well as material, interest in their political life?” That fascism (more than, say, democracy) should make manifest libidinal investments in politics is a curious proposition, and over the past ten years, numerous critics have examined the erotic and gendered dynamics underpinning fascism. The latest contribution is Carlston’s Thinking Fascism, which focuses on Djuna Barnes, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Virginia Woolf.
Two factors immediately distinguish Carlston’s book from the many thematically similar studies: the first is the precision and clarity of its prose. Although the theoretical underpinnings of the book are not stunningly original, Carlston’s direct and eloquent writing is a rare commodity indeed. The second distinguishing feature is Carlston’s expansion of the “fascist/anti-fascist” dichotomy that has been the basis of most critical work on modernism and fascism; Carlston addresses figures whose work demands a more nuanced negotiation of politics, aesthetics, and ideological investments.
The term “Sapphic modernism” is adopted from Shari Benstock, but Carlston brackets its lesbian associations and redefines the term to denote authors showing “a hypersensitivity to sexuality in, and as, the aesthetic and the political.” These interests shaped Barnes’s, Woolf’s, and Yourcenar’s responses to fascism, as did “biologistic” discourses developed in the nineteenth century. Carlston traces the roots of twentieth-century thinking (both conservative and progressive) about fascism to earlier notions, of Max Nordau and others, about “the relation [End Page 1069] of the Other(ed) body—Jewish, homosexual, female, proletarian, exiled—to the nation.”
In a chapter on Barnes, Carlston takes issue with Jane Marcus’s championing of Nightwood as a “feminist-anarchist call for freedom from fascism” and argues convincingly that the novel “cannot be said to have a purely oppositional relation to fascism, and indeed [. . .] mimics many of fascism’s favorite tropes.” Carlston explores the novel’s intellectual and philosophical influences: aestheticism, Catholicism and Decadence, all of which overlap with certain fascist and conservative Victorian discourses. For example, “Like the organicist discourses they inherited, the ‘decadent lesbians’ emphasized the sterility of lesbian sexuality,” but did so as a “threat to bourgeois morality, the family, the Church, and ultimately the State.” The antireproductive discourse in Nightwood works against fascism’s characteristic insistence on maternity as a form of patriotism—“matriotism,” in Carlston’s words.
Still less recuperative is Carlston’s reading of Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1934 novel, Dernier du rêve, set in Rome during Mussolini’s dictatorship, voiced fascist sympathies that the author later repudiated: Yourcenar rewrote the novel after the war to bring it into line with her new liberal-humanist agenda. Looking at Yourcenar’s early and late writings, Carlston points out how the author fluctuates between complicity with and rejection of fascism. In an interesting comparison of Yourcenar and Hannah Arendt, Carlston proposes that both “humanists” show “conservative and elitist tendencies,” including a disdain for mass culture and “the masses” themselves—an observation that could be applied to a number of supposedly “anti-fascist” modernists.
Three Guineas, probably the most well known feminist modernist critique of fascism, does not elicit particularly new insights from Carlston. However, the emphasis on how Woolf “forces the reader, and herself, into an uncomfortable identification with the very figure of the dictator” demonstrates how even Woolf, the socialist par excellence, identified with fascism in order to write a polemic against it and to address the “deep inadequacies in liberalism’s account of human experience”—especially “the mystical, the aesthetic, the sexual.”
As I mention above, the “Sapphic” in the subtitle of Thinking Fascism does not specifically signify “lesbian.” This has the virtue of avoiding reductive biographical readings. However, had Carlston pressed the Sapphic dimension a bit more, other writers who already fit her criteria, [End Page 1070] but whom she does not consider, might have come more to the fore—Natalie Barney, for example, who organized pacifist women’s groups during World War I but later became an anti-Semitic fascist sympathizer, or Gertrude Stein...