Review by: Márta M. Minier

5/01/02

Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism
By Laura Frost
ISBN: 0801487641

In her genuinely thought-provoking study Laura Frost chooses to examine Modernist writers who failed to succumb to fascist ideology, yet produced "fictions of eroticized fascism." The study is provocative and daring in the sense that there is an almost sheerly thematic link between the chosen authors, apart from the fact that they have all been described as belonging to literary Modernism (some cases are evident in this respect and some are slightly debatable). The "pannational project" places authors such as D. H. Lawrence, Georges Bataille, Hans Bellmer, Vercors (Jean Bruller), Jean Genet, Isherwood, Katherine Burdekin, Woolf, Duras and Plath under one rubric. The author postulates a line of continuity among these authors, which assumption is not always easily tenable, but the book reads coherently as well as thoroughgoing.

The theoretical "arsenal" varies from psychoanalysis, through Marxist cultural theory and feminism to fairly recent theories of fantasy, e.g. those of Teresa de Lauretis (On the Subject of Fantasy, 1995), Ethel Person (By Force of Fantasy, 1995) and Judith Butler (The Force of Fantasy, 1990). However, there is no pronounced theoretical affiliation on the part of the author – theoretical insights are taken with a pinch of salt, and the socio-cultural context of the texts tackled is taken into account throughout.

Laura Frost poses the question,

    Where do images of eroticized fascism come from (that is, where and why are they produced); what do they mean in relation to their particular historical context; and what purposes do they serve for a particular author?(6)

It has to be noted that it is overwhelmingly Nazism the author discusses. As she explains,

    Although sexualized images of Mussolini and Franco appear occasionally, the most elaborately realized eroticized fictions of fascism are usually based on Nazism (8).

Within the scope of this review, I am going to focus on women writers’ response to fascism as analysed by Frost. A few intriguing questions unavoidably come to a feminist reader’s mind: Is there a case of matrilineage here? Does "Three Guineas" by Virginia Woolf set up a tradition of how to relate to fascism as a feminist? Frost stresses that a strong parallel between fascist regimes and national patriarchies were drawn by Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer Andrea Dworkin. Frost cautions against maintaining this longstanding comparison,

    The historical imbalances between nazism and democratic patriarchy are self-evident and do not need to be reiterated here. However, what is less evident is how the analogy erases questions about women’s desire, complicity, and consent under both fascism and patriarchy (124).

Frost finds the aforementioned parallel rather general and difficult to prove,

    many levels of historical specificity must be ignored to make this comparison, whch also relies on indifference to scale. Erotic sadomasochism and nonfascist patriarchy both allow participants a degree of agency that fascism typically obliterated in its victims (126).

The author points out how "fascism and sexual fantasy are positioned within one influential feminist discourse" (124) in antipornography literature of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The elaboration of this argument is one of the greatest merits of Laura Frost’s study.

Looking at British classics, Frost underlines that Swastika Night, Katherine Burdekin’s fascist dystopia is based on the principle that "women are morally and intellectually only slightly more advanced than worms" (127). Virginia Woolf’s landmark treatise, ‘Three Guineas’ also voices the comparison between authoritarian British patriarchs to fascist tyrants. While Woolf reworks the figure of Antigone from ancient Greek mythology "not to break the laws but to find the law"(147), Plath chooses the contradictory figure of Electra, to reveal a complex love-and-hate relationship between daughter and father. Within a profound contextualisation of Plath’s fascist-related poems in Plath criticism (Jacqueline Rose, Anne Stevenson, Leon Wieseltier, etc.) frost argues that Plath’s poetic (i.e. through fantasy) and biographical distance from the actual experience of fascism allows for an ambivalent construction of the enemy rather than a monolithic one. Within an interplay between libidinal desire and power, submission and domination can be intertwined. Plath’s work is juxtaposed to that of Marguerite Duras, whose screenplay of Hiroshima mon amour is analyzed in depth, as Frost points out the discrepancies between the film, the Scenario, the directorial notes and the plot synopsis. Having read the detailed analysis, it is difficult to see how embedded this group of artifacts is in (a critique of) the ideology of fascism. It is very tempting to see it as a reiteration of the old conflict of loving the enemy, most aptly epitomised by Romeo and Juliet.

Frost provides a fascinating list of films and literary works based on Hitler and women, for instance, Love Letters to Adolf Hitler (1997), which stirred considerable debate. The enumeration is indeed endless. One could add the novel Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge (1978) as an example of how a post-WW2 British writer sees, ie imagines Hitler’s few months’ stay in Britain in 1912, or Eva, Hitler’s Lover, a monodrama by Stefan Kolditz (1996, translated into English by Tony Meech and performed in Hull and Huddersfield).

I would also like to emphasize that the book will be excellent teaching aid for undergraduate classes (Lawrence in a new perspective!) on the relevant authors or for (post)graduate courses on women’s studies / ideology criticism.

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