- Thinking Race in the Avant Guerre: Typological Negotiations in Ford and Stein
The eponymous “hero” of Wyndham Lewis’s first published novel Tarr (written 1907–1915), a young English painter living in pre-war Paris, first encounters the novel’s femme fatale—an exotic cosmopolitan named Anastasya Vasek—at a party of German expatriates. Attracted to her “beauty, bangles, and good sense,” Tarr asks Anastasya “from what part of Germany” she comes. Anastasya’s response catalogues the competing ways in which nationality was popularly defined before the First World War: “‘My parents are Russian. = I was born in Berlin and brought up in America.’” Initially, Anastasya offers the theory that nationality is determined by parental lineage, but immediately complicates that explanation by suggesting two other possible nationalities, the first based on birth place, the second on place of habitation. Is nationality the result of blood, birth, or culture? Is Anastasya a Russian, a German, an American, or some cosmopolitan hybrid of the three? Rather than giving priority to any of the candidate definitions, Tarr asks Anastasya to define her own nationality: “‘Do you regard yourself as a Russian = or a German?’” Tarr’s willingness to entertain a conception of personal identity that elevates individual agency over cultural or biological categories suggests that we read Lewis’s typographical innovation, the double hyphen, as an equals sign that opposes the differentiating “or” by equating “Russian” and “German.” For self-defining persons, under this sort of account, nationalities are interchangeable, with none more “essential” than any other.Anastasya accepts Tarr’s implication that she is a self-defining individual, answering his query by choosing her own nationality: “‘Oh, a Russian. I—.’” 1 She later elaborates on the suggestion that “I” is the final arbiter of identity when she figures herself as capable of donning nationalities at will; she tells Tarr, “‘I don’t like being anything out and out. . . . I like wearing a dress with which I can enter into any milieu or circumstances. That is the only real self worth the name.’” 2 Yet while Tarr implies, and Anastasya affirms, that persons with independent personalities can define themselves, overcome the constraints of nationality, and put on different nationalities like clothing, his underlying desire is to categorize her, and [End Page 371] the text bearing his name often works to cast her as a typical popular fiction femme fatale, “aggressive and almost masculine.” 3 Even as Tarr and its protagonist demonstrate avant-garde urges to question established categories of group identity, they also expose lingering commitments to period stereotypes and characterological determinism. From this perspective, Lewis’s “or =“ signifies simultaneously antithetical conceptions of the relationship of human agency to biological and cultural determinants.
I begin this essay on modernist race thinking in the avant guerre with the passage from Tarr because it suggests that in the years leading up and into the First World War, self-styled “advanced” writers like Lewis (at the time a leading figure in the avant-garde Vorticist movement) did not understand categories of group identity as only, or even primarily, fixed, permanent, and radically determining. The quotation provides strong evidence that such writers were fascinated by the categories of nationality, ethnicity, and gender, all of which were (then as now) central preoccupations within social discourse and (unlike today) sometimes placed under the rubric of race. But the quote’s peculiar blending of conceptual rigidity and fluidity—figured typographically in the “or =“ of Tarr’s question—urges us to reconsider the adequacy of accounts of modernist race thinking as simply totalizing, stereotyping, and discriminatory. This essay begins with the belief that recovering some of the less familiar ways in which modern writers thought and wrote about race in the movement’s formative years will help us better evaluate their treatments of nationality, ethnicity, and gender before the Great War, and better prepare us to understand their more straightforwardly racist proclivities after it. With those goals in mind, I’ll neither refute nor fortify the charge of modernist racism here, only retrieve a few unfamiliar cognitive functions which the category of race offered modernists during the avant guerre.
Scholarship among literary historians and theorists over the past...