IN THE HANDS of a more conservative writer than Rosemary Sullivan, a history of artists and intellectuals exiled by totalitarianism before and during the Second World War could be used to make the case for a cynical, quietist retreat from political engagement. After all, that is âe" to a large extent at least âe" what did happen, particularly in France, the primary site of Sullivanâe(TM)s Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, where the pre-war revolutionist milieu became one of post-war Existentialism. (The case is well made by George Novack in the introduction to his Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting views on Humanism, and Sullivan, too, advances a version of the thesis).
The confluence of Stalinism and especially Nazi and Vichy fascism drained the essential faith of secular humanist philosophers, drove thinkers who had stood naively with the Soviet Union into desperate abstractions and confusions, and effectively rent the Surrealist movement from the revolutionary project, severing what was arguably the most organic link between psychoanalysis and socialism.
But Sullivan, the Canadian poet, literary critic and biographer, is in her own right an intellectual engaged with the Left, and has no truck with quietism. At the Vancouver International Writersâe(TM) Festival this past October, on a panel called âeoePolitics and the Pen,âe she was a charismatic and fierce defender of the writerâe(TM)s role in defending humanity, especially through âeoefighting back for the language so that we can tell human stories.âe Even next to the world-renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, who was also on the panel, Sullivan stood out.
The titular Villa Air-Bel was a nineteenth-century mansion in Marseille rented by staff members of the Emergency Rescue Committee (or CAS, from its French initials), an effort organized by American liberals and progressives and European exiles in order to evacuate from France artists and intellectuals who had been listed as targets of the Nazis. Not unlike the situation in present-day America, free-thinkers and intellectuals were identified as the natural enemies of any totalizing system or authority, and Sullivan does a brilliant job of delineating the vibrant political life of Europeâe(TM)s artistic communities and intelligentsia prior to and during the war. Particularly inspiring is the poet and founder of surrealism AndrÃ© Bretonâe(TM)s mutual battle against oligarchic, imperial capitalism as well as the ossifying, suffocating tendencies of Stalinism (so we have the surrealist doing everything from coining the phrase âeoelâe(TM)humour noirâe âe" black humour âe" to repeatedly smacking a Soviet stooge in the middle of the street).
As the villa itself was so much larger, and cheaper, than the renters had anticipated, they were joined in the house by other CAS staff, as well as larger-than-life refugee clients and sympathizers (the progressive Russian writer plucked from the jaws of Stalinism, Victor Serge, for instance). Though the time spent in the structure occupies less narrative space than is suggested by the primacy of Air-Belâe(TM)s position in the bookâe(TM)s title, the opulent, isolated villa works as a metaphor for the community of struggle, solidarity and intellectual eminence forged in the attempt to save the continentâe(TM)s intelligentsia from imprisonment, internment or extermination âe" it was strong, it was beautiful, pastoral; it was of an altogether different time, and it was ultimately still vulnerable to the changing and violent world surrounding it.
It is late October 1940. Twelve adults and two children are seated around the table in the gloomy dining room. Little light penetrates the roomâe(TM)s dark corners, so that the tattered condition of the torn mock leather walls and leather-backed chairs is obscured. [. . .] The room gives an impression of old world elegance. In the center of the table, camouflaged by branches and green leaves, are two large triangular-headed insects. They are praying mantises. The male has just mounted the female and she has turned back and begun slowly to eat her mate.
The people around the table are laughing. Or at least some of them are. The entertainment is a substitute for food.
If there is a flaw in Sullivanâe(TM)s otherwise staggering, incredibly important work, it is a degree of Eurocentrism that compromises some of her historical accuracy. As have many, she identifies the Spanish Civil War, and not the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), as the fascist âeoedress rehearsal,âe the pre-war Rubicon across which international fascism crossed. Work has been done by some historians to outline the engagement âe" at least politically, and rhetorically, if not military âe" with the Italian invasion as an internationalist rallying point, particularly amongst political activists of African descent; regardless, it seems fair to identify Ethiopia, rather than Spain, as the first country sacrificed to goose-steppers by official indifference and inertia.
In the same section, Sullivan describes residents of âeoea small town in the north of Spainâe as âeoethe first to experience the terror that airplanes could inflict.âe Simon Fraser University students were taught by the late, world-renowned professor of Middle Eastern history Dr. William Cleveland (though itâe(TM)s a matter of the historical record, delineated elsewhere as well) that the British RAF used vicious bombing raids to quell on-the-ground resistance to the amalgamation of three disparate Ottoman provinces into the nation of Iraq; the only thing that Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis and Shia had in common by the end of the 1920s was a mortal fear of airplanes (an irony driven home by the fact that that same country has now been torn asunder by that same air force).
But these international matters are marginal to Sullivanâe(TM)s project, which is profoundly about Europe and is completely successful. Written in an exciting, literary style, Sullivan parallels the Great Man narratives of the Serges and Bretons with the personal histories of the selfless staff of CAS, such as Varian Fry, some of whom came to the struggle without an extensive background in politics. But readers are certainly lucky that Sullivan does have one; it makes her work far richer, more relevant and, ultimately, more inspiring.âe"Charles Demers
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