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Modernist Memories of Fascism: Women’s Writing in the Age of Trump

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

As a scholar of early-twentieth-century literature, I have not found it necessary to address contemporary political issues in my work. However, the election of Donald Trump has forced me to change my thoughts about writing in general and more specifically, about publishing on modernist women writers. In the present academic climate, many who read and teach in the perpetually unpopular field of women writers also contend with heavy teaching loads, difficult family commitments and/or precarious employment. Because of these loads, familiar ones that women have perennially balanced, we content ourselves with sporadic writing. We compile collections and editions rather than create original work, compose book reviews rather than bold pieces.  But the election of Donald Trump changed my commitment to writing about modernist women writers. Before his ascension, I naively believed that finally, a hundred years after women had won the vote, and after modernism had produced the flowering of a large generation of educated women, we had moved forward and would elect a female president. Instead, I find myself facing many of the frightening scenarios the modernist women encountered in the first decades of the twentieth century: the rise of fascism, bitter racial apartheid, and unabashed chauvinism.

I teach at a regional public university in rural Pennsylvania where the vast majority of people voted for Trump. Since his election, confederate flags proliferate; my university has not had a safe space or even an acknowledgment of the danger. Students and faculty of color do not speak out; a professor of color called me in tears about the intimidation she felt in the classroom after she protested about a paper topic the students unanimously came up with: Why Trump should lock Clinton up. Not one student voice dissented. An African American student was called slurs, as was a lesbian student, and a woman who suffers from depression came to me in despair to share that she was a victim of sexual assault, and the election had created such panic that she had begun cutting herself again.

It has been hard to move through the despair produced by the surge of aggression, and I have found the most hope and solace in women’s writing. Recently I attended Catharine Slusar’s production of  Eurydice at Bryn Mawr College where I found myself transfixed by the all-female cast and the play’s central question of “How do you remember how to forget?” In Sarah Ruhl’s powerful rendering, the tragedy is not that, as in the traditional story, Orpheus looks back and thus loses Eurydice but rather that Orpheus becomes a victim of the numbing coldness of the River Styx and forgets her. Eurydice, also a victim to the encroaching loss of memory, forgets Orpheus, but more—in Slusar’s unique, all-female production, Eurydice and her mother, despite desperate attempts to maintain the bond, forget each other.

Until the tragic final erasure of memory in the last moments of the play, what holds these characters to each other is the power of writing. The characters all pen furtive notes that they try desperately to send to each other between the world of the living and that of the dead. The writing keeps the connection alive, transports it past the numbing forgetfulness of the River Styx and the subjugation of the Lord of the Underworld. This desperate shuttling of notes as a tool of remembrance reminded me of what I learned from an essay by Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” a short treatise he wrote in the face of rising fascism.  In a pessimistic piece that expresses his lost hope in a methodical progress of goodness, Benjamin instead suggests that the histories and truths that counter tyranny are not logical and consistent but “can be seized only as an image which flashes up in an instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”  In this view, progress is never linear but quixotic, sporadic, and ephemeral. This view of progress as capricious and unreliable seems to be a truth also understood by the modernist women writers, that first large group of female voices in the western, English-speaking tradition. They wrote against a backdrop of the threat of global tyranny, because they, like the characters in Eurydice, sought to keep alive their vision of an endangered flash of a kinder and more egalitarian world, and they, like Benjamin, knew that those flashes were not simply the interjection of the aesthetic but were the images of a vision that tyranny always needs to erase in order to establish dominance. Whether the writer was H. D., who kept composing as she lived among the nightly buzz bombings in “Doodlebug Alley,” Silvia Townsend Warner, who travelled to Spain to support the Republicans in the Civil War and worked on short stories while laboring in a munitions factory, or Gertrude Stein, who penned poetry even while wearing a helmet and driving an ambulance, all these women wrote, in part, because they were bearing testimony to a reality that was something other than the fascism they saw before them. As Virginia Woolf says, in her 1939 reflection entitled “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” to write is to “think peace into existence.”

Yet, lest we dare too much optimism, we should note that the work of none of these writers, not that of Ruhl, nor Benjamin, nor Woolf, expresses confidence that this effort to write would establish a new tradition that would counter the fascism they feared. In Eurydice, forgetfulness prevails as all succumb to the River Styx. Woolf, having experienced two world wars, expresses only the hope that “these fragmentary notes” will be read “generously and charitably” by those “whose sleep has not yet been broken,” and Benjamin warns, “The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.” All three present the pessimistic and joyful vision that, even though history teaches us that the march of time is all too often the tale of prevailing tyranny, writing will exclaim hopefully that tyranny is not all. To grasp at the flash these writers speak of is to move out of an insistence on a homogenous history and suggest that other temporalities and testimonies exist. Doing so will, to quote Woolf’s reflection on peace, “drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down.” Woolf, of course, recognizes that “subconscious Hitlerism” is the desire to dominate and enslave women. And we are all too aware that, close to eighty years after Woolf’s clear vision, no matter how qualified a woman is, America will still choose a government of white men, by white men, and for white men, a government that shows by word and image that women are best suited to serve men as sexual objects or domestic implements. This tired insistence grates particularly in a time when sexual violence against young women comes as part and parcel of a college education, when, in a culture of drunken parties in darkened rooms, sexual assault has become little more than a rite of passage.

The lessons of these three writers, Sarah Ruhl, Walter Benjamin, and Virginia Woolf, connect to my original thoughts about whether one should persist in writing and whether one needs large platforms and loud megaphones. All three urge us simply to write of these truths without paying mind to the best venues or biggest audiences. In Ruhl’s play, most of the writing never finds its reader as the missives disappear into the mists of Hades. Benjamin wrote his twenty short theses, an undeveloped argument, as he fled the country, just before his suicide. Twenty short theses—it’s the sort of writing one might do when consumed by the care of others, heavy teaching loads, and insecure employment. It’s the writing one does simply to write, not with major publication in mind.  Woolf, in her essay on peace, unsurprisingly, is the most specific about how, faced with male tyranny, women must continue to speak anywhere they can. She chastises a writer who says we need not bother to assert a voice anymore because “there is no woman in the Cabinet; nor in any responsible post. All the idea makers who are in a position to make ideas effective are men.” To that, Woolf retorts, “there are other tables,” besides “officer tables and conference tables.  Are we. . . . [to] give up private thinking, tea-table thinking, because it seems useless?” She urges us that we must write for forums large and small, we must write as do the characters in Eurydice— without knowing if we will find an audience, for words make the world we believe in concrete, writing gives weight to hold our ideas down and ourselves together.

But there is another reason to write, and it’s the one presented most clearly in Ruhl’s Eurydice. Before the sad conclusion of forgetfulness, Eurydice is able to recognize her mother because of the slips of paper with scribbled words that had been cast into the unknown and preceded the meeting. I can recognize my allies because of their writing. But even more, I can recognize the tradition of women—not only those I have mentioned here, but also Rosa Chacel, Stevie Smith, Dora Marsden, Bryher, Paulette Nardal, Rebecca West, and many, many more. In writing about modernist women, we become heir to this bold chorus of voices that dared to try to establish the presence of women and non-whites in a brazenly, unapologetically, misogynistic and xenophobic world. Especially now, we need, in whatever forums we have, to present and interpret the agonies and philosophies of the female modernists who grappled with the dark shadows of the early twentieth century. Only by continuing to write will we not be dipped into the oblivion of forgetfulness of the river Styx. Like Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, we must write to remember our modernist mothers, and we must write so that our daughters can find us.