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Fahrenheit 451

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Title: Find More Like ThisFahrenheit 451 Below.

Authors: Hollier, Denis

Source: Raritan; Summer96, Vol. 16 Issue 1, p93, 10p

Document Type: Literary Criticism

Publication Information: Rutgers University

Subject Terms: BOOKS





FRENCH Literary Fascism (Book)

Abstract: Analyzes Ray Bradbury's book `Fahrenheit 451 Below and `French Literary Fascism,' by David Carroll. Bradbury's focus on Nazi cultural politics; Carroll's description of fascism as a crusade for preserving literature's purity; Carroll's study of nine French writers.

Document Information: Essay last updated: 19960924

Lexile: 1210

Full Text Word Count: 3527

ISSN: 02751607

Accession Number: 9609241544

Persistent link to this record:

Database Literary Reference Center



French Literary Fascism, by David Carroll, Princeton University Press.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury encapsulates Nazi cultural politics in a single image: book burnings. This powerful simplification has strong pedagogical advantages: it might even encourage us to equate the homey gesture of dozing over a book, slippers on, next to a reassuring fireplace, to a deed of underground resistance. Fascism, however, was not primarily defined by its politics of the book; literature was not summoned to the bench at the Nuremberg trials. Worse, moreover, the political exploitation of the German auto-da-fe of the 1930s by the Popular Front bears responsibility for an insidious Manichean delusion hiding the fact that fascism too is (or should one optimistically say, was) a cultural phenomenon. There were fascist intellectuals. And Goebbels himself, before burning books, was a novelist.

At least in this regard, David Carroll's French Literary Fascism is a welcome reminder that antifascism did not hold a monopoly on culture. There were fascist men and women who liked to read books--even to write them--rather than burn them. Were they, then, fascist because of that? Did fascism start with bibliophilia and belletrism? Carroll would like us to think so. French Literary Fascism is a bizarre Fahrenheit 451 in reverse: it pictures fascism as a crusade for preserving literature's purity, a crusade that went berserk. It all started, we are asked to believe, with literary people upset at seeing literature's purity threatened; it started as a campaign against literary hybridization and cultural miscegenation; it put literature not on the fire, but in the freezer, to prevent it from contamination from the melting pot Fahrenheit 451 Below.

Carroll's excess derives in part from a perverse use of Walter Benjamin's famous identification of fascism with "the aestheticizing of politics." Why perverse? Because in the process Carroll decontextualizes the motto. Benjamin was not merely speaking against fascism; he was, more to the point, speaking as a Marxist. Close to Brecht, he was trying to define the parameters of a working-class culture, of a culture where work and proletarian values would serve as the foundation of an aesthetics able to supersede an "art for art's sake" tradition that prizes nothing more than uselessness, sterility, and destruction. Benjamin's cultural analysis of fascism, his definition of fascism as "the aestheticizing of politics" is not simply descriptive, taxonomic; it is aggressive, committed, and polemical; it is not simply about politics, it is political. When withdrawn from this militant context, what survives of Benjamin's analysis? No more than what survives of October Revolution posters when shown in a Museum of Decorative Arts. Uprooted by the mechanical reproduction that now pervades academic literary criticism, Benjamin's slogan is used to induce a strange political pathos--the pathos of politics as unusual--in books that otherwise are deprived of any identifiable political agenda.

The more and more common use (and abuse) of Benjamin's motto by more and more practitioners of literary studies is a striking expression of the pervasive feelings of political powerlessness in the field of literary studies. It is, besides, a perfect example of the nostalgic hall of mirrors in which a typically literary ambition to be, or to sound, political leads some academics to play ostrich, to indulge in a rather short-sighted longing for politics--a politics that in the end consists of little more than a condemnation of aesthetics itself.

French Literary Fascism is not a book for beginners. It not only takes the condemnation of fascism for granted, it goes a giant step further. Condemning fascism is fine, but hardly enough; one must, according to Carroll, condemn it for the right reasons, and for him the right reasons turn out to be literary ones. Political scientists, it would seem, are not trained in the right style of analysis. This is reserved for literary theorists. Only they can expose the purloined letter within the literary heart. There is a kind of self-expiratory exultation in all this, as if historically the last task of literary theory, literature's last bravado, were to expose its own self as essentially fascistic.

For the nine French writers he studies, Carroll writes, "the cause of literature and art and the cause of fascism were basically the same." But he does not intend to limit his conclusions to these individual cases. The equation between fascism and literature must be turned into a general law: "political extremism and the defense of the integrity of literature and culture constitute one and the same position," he warns. "Even formalist or aestheticist concepts of literature that stress the autonomy or organic integrity of literature and art were used to support totalitarian



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