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Rereading Fascism: War, Anti-colonialism, and the Crisis of National Identity in Early Twentieth Century Far-Right French Literature and Thought

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My dissertation takes as its point of departure the commonly held premise that WWI forever changed the horizon of French literary production. While deemed indescribable, many authors did attempt to represent the battlefields and aftermath of WWI in literature. Distinct from previous heroic accounts of war, these descriptions had to rely on new literary techniques and new understandings of the world in order to accurately describe the experience of modern warfare. Following scholars of British war literature, including Samuel Hynes and Kathy J. Phillips, I will suggest that these war narratives were not only ground-breaking, but also played a significant role in the construction of the national imaginary in interwar France. In identifying WWI as a privileged space in the construction of national identities, I hope to trace in this study the common colonial genealogy between discourses of race, gender and national identity in interwar France on both sides of the political spectrum. I will begin by engaging with scholarship on the surrealists and the Dadaists, challenging the assumptions that their politics and literature demonstrate a drastic break with the nationalist identities that were largely shaped by WWI. Instead, I will argue that, even as they publicly denounced Maurice Barrès in 1921, surrealist literature and politics of the 1920’s were decisively influenced by Barrèsien nationalism and its production on wartime identities. I will then move to the opposite spectrum by focusing on the works of Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Louis-Ferdinand Céline to show that so far these works have only been examined through their relationship to fascism, and their resulting explanation of European superiority. This is exemplified by literary studies such as David Carroll, Robert Soucy, and Alice Kaplan, where they focus on both authors’ late 1930s foray into fascism. Yet, I suggest that this focus fails to consider how their understanding of race originates from their experiences of the First World War and follows a gradual progression that is not distinct from the majority of the time. I have elected to re-read these well-known authors in this debate because they represent canonical authors from throughout the political spectrum who fought in the First World War and remained influential throughout the interwar period and into WWII. My methodology resembles that of Ranjanna Khanna’s Dark Continents, which “reads psychoanalysis symptomatically”, allowing her to “understand it as a masculinist and colonialist discipline that promoted an idea of Western subjectivity in opposition to a colonized, feminine, and primitive other.” Reading war literature symptomatically will enable me trace the genealogy of ideas that contributed to French soldiers’ subjectivity during and following the war, with a hope to better understand the undercurrent of colonial concepts and racialized identities that remain present and create ambiguities in these war narratives. I emphasize that wartime identities are not apolitical or separate from forms of European colonial nationalism at the turn of the 19th century. While WWI expanded the ways that authors could describe their experience of war, it did not, however, remove their Eurocentric worldview from its colonial context. And, in fact, its lasting influence of literature added longevity to many pre-war definitions of the national man In this light, even as the connection between literature and the First World War has become almost incontestable, most analyses of this link remain limited to considerations of European identities. Unlike in later periods, particularly those concerning anti-Semitism and racism in the late 1930s, French identities remain virtually autonomous in studies engaging with French war literature. This approach fails to integrate new understandings of the intricate connection between European national identities that were formed during the war and their colonial context. While historical studies by scholars such as Richard Fogarty and Alice Conklin have exhumed the significance of the colonial soldiers’ participation in WWI they focus on historical records and French policies, avoiding overlapping considerations of the representations of the colonial troupes in France and the construction of French identities. On the other hand, Postcolonial scholars, including Ann Laura Stoler, Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard and Francoise Vergès, have begun to question the conceptual separation French studies and the colonial question. They conclude the idea of the empire is built into any understanding of national identities. Yet, they focus almost entirely on the colonial within far-right politician. Therefore, building on this idea we will learn how the First World War was a colonial war. And we can conclude that representations of the European self on all sides of the political spectrum came out of WWI and rest inherently on the France’s connection to its colonies. By examining literary productions from several political and literary movements, all of which were born out of the war, this study will teach us how concepts of the barbarian, colonial other and civilization are integrated into ideas of the self in interwar France.

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  • 02/22/2019
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