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Christina Stead and the Politics of Bohemia 1: The Artist in a Totalitarian Age


i. “To write is to fight” – Stead’s arguing fiction

In the latter years of her life, having wandered for nearly half a century in Europe and America, and after her husband had died, and her ocean of stories had just about run dry, Christina Stead returned to live – and die – in her native Australia. Here, for the first time, the stature of this largely uncelebrated and often misunderstood author began to seem irrefutable: along with Patrick White (her friend and champion) she took her place as one of Australia’s greatest writers. With this recognition Stead was at last granted the laurels and accolades that her work had always laid claim to. “Intelligent ferocity” was Stead’s avowed aim in writing. It is of the kind that William Golding once described, coming off the page at you like a fist. From the beginning, the young Christina had learned to rhyme writing with fighting: “as soon as I fisted cat before mat, they recognised at school that I was a word-stringer.” And since she was naturally truculent, words strung together were never simply a matter of aesthetics for Stead, “The sensuality, delicacy of literature does not exist for me; only the passion, energy and struggle, the night of which no one speaks.” In the end, too, from her homecoming in 1974 to her death just short of a decade later, Stead continued to punch defiantly, if no longer off the printed page, then from bellicose letters she fired off to friends, or from an arena she seemed to relish late in life: the combat zone of the interview. She was someone who told us long before Foucault did, that the will to power can be read in every discourse, that to speak – or to write – is to fight. “It’s as if”, said Angela Carter (a rare example of Stead finding the kind of reader she deserved), “the successive novels were parts of one long argument”.

Much of the belated critical interest in Stead came from feminists who (finding her condition of neglect the condition of all women writers, bar a handful) had embarked upon the redefinition of the literary tradition, re-evaluating women writers and drawing into the mainstream those who had been left along the wayside. In England, Stead’s work was reprinted by the Virago Press who were engaged in just this kind of revision of the canon. So one of the questions most often put to Stead in the 1970s (and in her seventies, too: born in 1902 she was an interesting barometer of the century) was about her attitude to the then flourishing Women’s Movement. She was invariably spiky on the subject: “It’s nonsense. It’s eccentric. It’s not a genuine movement. It’s totally, purely middle class. A waste of time”, is typical among her responses.

Stead agreed that women writers had been neglected, marginalized, silenced and self-censored (Teresa, Stead’s avatar in For Love Alone (1944), looks for women writers to illuminate her feelings but finds “nothing in the few works of women…that was what they must have felt.”) Yet she anticipates feminist writers like Carter and Joan Didion who were interested in writing as an act of power, rather than as a site from which to define women’s powerlessness. Like them she was aroused by the idea of writing as something combative. Stead felt, as Didion did, that writing was “a hostile act”, which involves “trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.” She did not fit comfortably into the model of the sick outsider that many literary feminists began to work from. For example, Elaine Showalter discussing Virginia Woolf in A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar examining nineteenth century women writers in The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979) argued that women’s condition of illegitimacy infected their writing: women were essentially orphaned without mother-authors to guide them. Where such role-models did exist, the lives and work of these isolated precursors invariably carried warnings of madness and self-destruction. The inheritance of the woman writer was one of invalidity, ostracised from the male canon, they were left with the “anxiety of authorship”, a sense that authorship and femininity were a contradiction in terms: to practice writing was to erode feminine identity, ultimately, to destroy oneself as a woman.

Stead never entertained this form of neurosis, had no interest in parading herself as a victim. Her writing, like her peripatetic life (she called herself “the wandering planet Chris”) is characterised by its ambition, movement and changeability, rather than the drama of confinement that Gilbert and Gubar identified as the story of so many women writers’ lives and the subject of their work. Her model, instead, was one of Nietzschean overcoming: she identified with strength not weakness, a childhood instinct which was reinforced when, as an adult, she encountered communist ideas about the importance of holding the centre ground, and the dangers of being on the outside, of belonging to any form of bohemia. Because of this, Stead’s antipathy to the broader Women’s Movement lay not only with its failure – as she saw it – properly to locate the problem of women’s subjugation within the class struggle (“all these things are not Women’s Lib. They’re a question of industrial regulation, impact on the trades unions and so forth”); but also with its espousal of confrontational tactics that lined women up against men, and of the promiscuous counter-culture – “they include absolutely everything”, bra-burning (“What would I do without a bra, I should like to know!”); drugs (“to take by mouth, for fun”); creches; laws protecting homosexual rights; “whether the sun should rise or set…and everything in one roof” – all of which she regarded as ephemeral and unserious, “clouding the issue”.

It was not that Stead disagreed with the basic diagnosis that women are patronized and discriminated against: “I know what women have to put up with; I’ve written about it, I know”, she insisted. But she repudiated the idea that the problems women face are unique: “It’s the whole system that has to be changed. Men have lives of drudgery, too!” And her most fundamental disagreement had to do with the idea of there being a separate realm for women: “Women’s culture. Women’s lib. I don’t know anything about it. It’s not a subject that interests me. I can’t interest myself in an island full of women. Because I believe that the sexes stimulate each other. You manage him and he manages you. And it’s a good thing. It’s nice working together. You get something from each other. It’s a true fertilization…” Stead’s refusal to sign up with the sisterhood (“I wouldn’t join in. I couldn’t. I would hate it”) still rankles with some critics and even in the most recent biography (1993) – Hazel Rowley’s impressive and usually restrained portrait – there lurks a sense that somehow Stead lacked the necessary rectitude: “Politically and intellectually, she always allowed herself to be guided by the man she loved.”

Christina Stead, 1930s

Christina Stead, 1930s

The man she did love for most of her life, finally marrying him twenty-four years after their affair first began, was William Blake (he had changed his name from Blech in 1936). She thought him the perfect mate for her, describing him as “the man I never had a moment’s trouble with in forty years, the lucky wife’s catch.” He was an American, a secular Jew, an economist, a communist and like Stead – who met him on her arrival in London in 1928 – an expatriate. But while Blake was undoubtedly a forceful personality who had a strong influence upon Stead (friends remember how garrulous Blake was, how “withdrawn” she could be), Rowley’s assertion that Stead was “politically and intellectually guided” by Blake makes the question of influence, simply, into a patriarchal one (a husband dominating a wife). The truth, I suspect, is more complicated: Stead had ideas of her own which communist philosophy (and sometimes Party doctrine) gave shape and legitimacy to. The question of influence in this marriage is one I shall try to unravel here: how ideas about ‘bohemia’ and ‘decadence’ that were a part of Stalinist ideology (expounded by Stalin’s commissar of culture, Andrei Zhdanov and his acolytes), and which for a quarter of a century were in the hair and the heads of most leftish writers in the West, interacted with Stead’s esoteric view of life.

ii. Critical Difficulty: Marx or Nietzsche?

Perhaps underestimating the way in which ideological conviction combined with the idiosyncrasies of Stead’s personal conviction (germinated in the heat of family warfare, her “seedbed of pathology” as Carter called it), critics have often found it difficult to place her on the map. This is Edmund White on the problem:

Stead troubles many readers who keep struggling to uncover what she ‘really’ believes or stands for. Having just reread five of her books I’d be hard pressed to give a précis of her philosophy, partly no doubt because she thought in the concrete particulars of dailiness rather than in abstract universals. Her characters might discuss the Spanish Civil War, the profit motive, the need for premarital chastity, the law of the jungle as applied to Wall Street, but the author’s own views of these questions remain shadowy…in Stead’s fiction, ideas are used to render fine shadings in portraits, not to ring up an ideological total.

While Stead was never a Party member, and Blake only fleetingly, they both thought of themselves as communists, remaining faithful to the Party far beyond the breaking points of ‘56 or ‘68 which saw off less thick-skinned fellow-travellers. Stead was not really a “joiner”, though, (her criticism of the left can be just as devastating as her dismissal of the Women’s Movement) and many have responded, as White does, to the lack of ‘position’ in her endlessly shifting narratives by seeing her as an artist somehow beyond ideology, simply using “ideas…to render fine shading in portraits”. But this view of Stead as an unmade maker, (carrying “very little theoretical baggage”), fails to take account of the profound way in which ideology influences her writing, extending far beyond “fine shading” in character: the difficulty and tension in her work -what many have seen as Stead’s flagrant perversity – arises precisely out of a battle of ideas (crudely, one between Marx on the one hand, and Nietzsche and Darwin on the other) that is being played out in her writing, (“as if the successive novels were parts of one long argument”). Lorna Sage, in a 1992 essay on Stead, says that it is “Marxist critics who come closest, in theory, to describing her kind of world”, decrying the false dream of pluralism and an ever-expanding ‘free’ space, insisting instead upon a prescribed, materialist world that cannot be transcended (not even in art). These arguments are raised today against postmodern pluralism, but the debate is not new. Contemporary scepticism about plenitude and the free play of the imagination echoes uncannily the objections of communist critics and intellectuals to modernism and experimentalism in art, that Stead heard in the pre-war years when the call was for a ‘realist’ depiction of working class struggle.

Mike Gold, 1930s

Mike Gold, 1930s

The attack upon modernism was often framed in terms of decadence, effeteness and sexual perversion. Mike Gold, a lifelong friend of Stead and Blake and an Editor of New Masses, (a communist journal founded in the early Thirties to promote ‘proletarian realism’, which they and several of their closest American friends were involved with), provides an example of the bullyboy rhetoric that was common currency among the apparatchiks. Denouncing “politically imbecile” writers, Gold sneered at “pansies” like T. S. Eliot for his “dull, bloodless, intellectualistic poetry”, and Thornton Wilder (a closet homosexual), the “prophet of the genteel Christ”. He dismissed Dostoevsky altogether, while his favoured sobriquet for Proust was the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”. The style was not Gold’s own: his posturing is typically Zhdanovist, reminiscent particularly of Karl Radek’s vulgar attack on modernism at the first Soviet Writers’ Conference in 1934, (where the Union of Soviet Writers was founded and where Zhdanov established socialist realism as the key Soviet doctrine on art). Here is a description of the scene by David Caute from his study of the broad left movement, The Fellow-Travellers:

When Karl Radek informed the Congress that Joyce’s Ulysses was a dunghill swarming with worms seen through a microscope held upside down, even the communist Wieland Herzefelde [the montagist John Heartfield’s brother] rebelled. Radek held his ground: Joyce was morbid, backward-looking. But, protested Herzefelde, had not the admired progressive Dos Passos learned much from the Irish writer? That, said Radek was precisely the trouble with Dos Passos. He then heaped onto the same dunghill as Ulysses, the works of Proust, Eliot, Faulkner and Kafka.

Stead, too, was in thrall to the Party line in the Thirties. The following year she attended, as Secretary for the British delegation, the communist-sponsored First International Conference of Writers for the Defence of Culture. Held in Paris, this was a broad church meeting of anti-fascists and among those taking part were Gide, Malraux and Aragon; Forster and Huxley headed the British group. Stead wrote a report of the conference for the July issue of Left Review, and her description of writers in the West presiding over “the last corruptions of capitalist decay” reads as if it had been extracted from a speech by Zhdanov the year before, when he railed against “the decadence and disintegration of bourgeois literature resulting from the collapse and decay of the capitalist system…Now everything is degenerating – themes, talent, authors, heroes.” Nearly thirty years later Stead’s world-view is still very much informed by her communism. In an unpublished review of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt (1972), Stead says of Virginia Woolf: “One might think that the established order of the fairytale hierarchies of kings, lords and ladies were necessary to these sick minds…She was not a writer for the general public, but for a literary set.” And in a letter to a friend, grumbling about her difficulties in completing the piece, she writes: “The world of vicars and baronets and marriages for land cannot appeal to me…The question for me privately is what she (VW) saw in J.A. [Jane Austen] that gave her comfort…” Stead’s complaints about Woolf – and the doubts about her relevance and representativeness – are not dissimilar to those made by Zhdanov in his ‘report’ of 1946 expelling the poet Anna Akhmatova from the Union of Soviet Writers, forbidding any further publication of her work.

Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people. It is the poetry of the upper ten thousand in old, aristocratic Russia…What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and State?…Akhmatova and her like have no time for Soviet Leningrad. They see in it the embodiment of a different social and political order, another ideology.

The debate, of course, took place at all levels of eminence in the communist movement. In its grander form, in ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline’ (1934), Lukács argues against art forms associated with modernism such as Impressionism, Symbolism, Abstraction and Expressionism, not as Zhdanov, Radek and Gold do, for their disordering eclecticism or pluralism, but because, Lukacs asserts, the intention of such art is to speak of subjectivity, essence and purity. This contention (in direct opposition to the Zhdanov line), can be traced back to Engels’ belief about the ability of Balzacian fiction to portray a total and connected world. From his multitudinous, teeming realism, Engels thought, more could be learned “than from all the professional historians, economomists and statisticians of the period together.” Lukács gives a quotation from Lenin that warns, similarly, against the reductions of monistic or essentialist thinking, advocating wholeness and complexity and stressing the dialectic as a tool in helping to achieve pluralism: “There are no ‘pure’ phenomena, nor can there be, either in Nature or in society – that is what Marxist dialectics teaches us, for dialectics shows that the very concept of purity indicates a certain narrowness, a one-sidedness of human cognition, which cannot embrace an object in all its totality and complexity.”

Andrei Zhdanov, 1933

Andrei Zhdanov, 1933

Lukács says that modernist art represents, “purely subjective expression, emptied of content and separated from the objective reality, [it] can only produce…a rigid combination of sham movements.” And he sees the root of this “separation” in Nietzsche: “The expressionists…deny objective linkage between objects and processes in the external world. This series stretches from Nietzsche and Mach through to Spengler…” It’s a complicated and peculiar argument in that it invokes the very thing it attacks: an essentialist view of art (the modernists/ Nietzscheans are “sham”) is employed to counter essentialism. However the confusion is perhaps instructive in that it mirrors – and gives a context for – the kind of self-reflexive difficulty that permeates much of Stead’s work, which contains precisely this mix of Marxist and Nietzschean thinking. In an interview at the end of her life Stead recalled that in high school she had known Thus Spake Zarathustra by heart, “Nietzsche” she said, “has a tremendous influence on me.” This influence she thought, had “nothing to do with theory or philosophy”, but with the poetry and the rhythm of his language, “the way everything was a chant”. Critics, however, have been interested primarily in the thematic echoes to be found in her work (one finding Nietzsche’s “poetic style” only an “added attraction”). In ‘Christina Stead: The Nietzschean Connection’ (1983), Rebecca Baker argues that it is the influence of Nietzsche which “helps to explain the phenomenological approach to her writing and her view of what she does as an artist. She consistently describes herself as an observer, a typical comment being, ‘I say what I see’”. Stead’s depiction of writers and aspiring writers in her novels, and her autobiographical portraits (in The Man Who Loved Children, 1940 and For Love Alone, 1944) echo “Nietzsche’s view of the special status of the artist” and “his emphasis,” in The Birth of Tragedy, “on the artist’s self as an appropriate subject matter”.

Attesting to the way in which Stead’s writing is infused with strands of Marxist and Nietzschean thinking (and to the difficulty of placing her, simply, in either camp) are critical responses which attribute these various influences to the same passages in Stead’s work. For instance, Jennifer Gribble, discussing the immense appetite of the protagonist of Stead’s last novel, I’m Dying Laughing, discovers Nietzschean (and Darwinian) influence: “Strenuously living her life, Emily earths Stead’s vision once again in its Nietzschean sources. In Emily’s “insatiable hunger for existence” are individuated the struggle and pain and ruthlessness of nature’s “constant proliferation”, the “pushing into life” Nietzsche finds in the Dionysian energy of Greek tragedy.” In a review of the same book, though, Lorna Sage argues that Emily’s craving should be understood not as a symbol of her will to power over others but as an explanation for her communist aspiration. It’s a model which in its insistence on desire and extravagance, turns on its head the Zhdanovist vision of communism as hard and self-denying. Another way of understanding what Sage is saying about Stead is to think of this as a peculiarly Nietzschean reading of Marx – or Marxist reading of Nietzsche – in which the struggle for greatness and superiority is the province of all: “Emily is a communist precisely because…she’s grown-up as an expert wanter, full of greed and need for life, scornful beyond anything of poverty of aspiration – everyone should want elaborately and richly, and not be fobbed off with less than the best.”

New Masses, May 1932

New Masses, May 1932

So despite articles by Stead for New Masses which, like her report from the anti-fascist conference in Paris, advocated the Party line, her fiction, open to multiple interpretations and thereby flouting Party orthodoxy, received short shrift from the kind of communist critics who recognised themselves in the “fanatics or dreary committee people or rabbinical post-graduates” that Stead disparaged. She often found herself under attack for misrepresenting the movement or creating characters that were, as one colleague at New Masses put it in his review of Letty Fox: Her Luck: “…the most unnatural of revolutionaries but the least interesting and important. To present them as Miss Stead does without the contrast of one genuine Communist, distorts the picture beyond the broadest limits of caricature”. Stead’s insistence on depicting communists and radicals as she knew them to be, rather than as the representative types which the Party line on the arts required, is one example of the way in which her work produced this self-reflexive difficulty, not only in the text but in the responses which her writing drew: her fidelity to the real, ironically, placed her in a position in which she was criticised for the lack of realism in her work, for being “unnatural”, for “distortion” and “caricature”.  

iii. Bohemia: Politics and Art

Party critics were hostile because rather than concentrating on positive role models – heroes and heroines of working class struggle – the body of Stead’s work focuses upon exclusion, on those outsiders whose battles in life were neither typical nor exemplary; unlike the protagonists of the ‘proletarian literature’ that leftist contemporaries of Stead – men and women like Mike Gold, Ruth McKenney, Josephine Herbst, Germaine Taggard, Clara Weatherwax and James Hanley – were producing in America and Britain in the Thirties and Forties. As, later, some feminist critics would construct theories about women and writing upon the reassuring notion of female exclusion and victimhood, so, too, these communist writers and critics preferred their narratives to be about casualties of the system they opposed (in this case capitalism rather than patriarchy – Gold, for instance, argued that the ideal literary subject would be “the sensations of the robust young man [who] sees his strength sapped by the furnace’s mouth”).

If Stead’s characters had been merely preyed upon and “sapped” her work might have been more palatable, but the majority remain defiantly unbowed, and those who, like Caroline in Cotter’s England (1967), are “a born saint and a born victim”, tend to come to instructively unpleasant ends. As Jose Yglesias noted, she is a remarkably unconsoling writer: “…because her vision is so radical, she disquiets the mass of readers who are middle class; because she is so original and tough-minded, left-wingers feel no comfort of recognition.” Stead is not romantic about rejection or isolation, she reveals the scars of illegitimacy and her figures are contorted by the ostracism they suffer. But despite this, these “damned souls” are often so unsettling precisely because of their ability to feed off their oppression, to create themselves out of it. “I am my own maker” insists Louisa, the rebel daughter in Stead’s autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). Such figures perversely regard themselves as powerful and their subjugators as weak:

She felt a growing, sullen power in herself which was merely darkness to the splendid sunrise that she felt certain would flash in her in a few years. She acknowledged her unwieldiness and unhandiness, but she had an utter contempt for everyone associated with her, father, stepmother, even brothers and sisters… [Louisa] had many other intimations of destiny, like the night rider that no one heard but herself. With her secrets she was able to go out from nearly every one of the thousand domestic clashes through a door into another world, forget about them entirely. They were the doings of beings of a weaker sort.

Against tyrants and tormentors Stead’s protagonists can exert the full force of their stubborn individuality, their will to power: in her second autobiographical novel, For Love Alone, Louisa’s teenage counterpart, Teresa, feels the “flash” of “destiny” now upon her: “The nineteen-year-old said calmly: “I told you I would kill you if you insult me. I will do it with my bare hands. I am not so cowardly as to strike with anything. I know where to press though – I will kill you father.” In adulthood, this fiery revolt finds many of Stead’s characters, unsurprisingly, political radicals (echoing Stead’s own progress from Nietzschean adolescent to communist adult): most are a part of the movement – the spectrum ranges from the Massines’ utopianism, to Sam Pollit’s New Deal enthusiasm, through Letty Fox’s radical chic, to Nellie Cotter’s working class activism, and the lapsing communists-in-exile of I’m Dying Laughing, Emily and Steven Howard. But all Stead’s vibrant, restless, selfish people stand in testimony against the flat idealizing of socialist realism. In her essay, Sage argues that Stead’s vision is ultimately one of loss – “that the waste of talent in the world is real and unredeemable”; that there’s “only the actual, material world where hunger isn’t transcended, but perverted.”

That Stead was such a troublesome writer for the communists (and indeed for readers today, as White attests) has much to do with the fact that her characters inhabit this place of “waste” and “perversion”, a political, social and cultural space that both she and the communists of the time referred to, disparagingly, as ‘bohemia’: “a ghetto of the spirit where people rot and betray each other”, is how Sage describes it. Bohemia is a fallen place. It is where Stead thinks the Women’s Movement belongs. Its inhabitants have denied the ‘reality’ of Marxist materialism and become ‘eccentric’ in their beliefs and pursuits, waylaid by false gods. Sage’s argument about waste chimes with Stead’s own. Here, for instance, Stead speaks in terms of loss when a writer she admired, Doris Lessing, succumbed (so she believed) to the cultural wasteland: “…the early work from South Africa, beautiful. And then she became sort of steeped in Bohemia…I think she could have done better with her considerable talent.”

But this picture of Stead as someone having Gramsci’s quality of intellectual pessimism, as a writer who refuses sentimentality and bravely speaks up about the things we would rather not be reminded of, “insist[ing] on the reality of the losers”, falls short, I think, in that it speaks to Stead’s intention, perhaps, rather than to what’s on the page. It does not take full measure of Stead’s intimate relationship to the ‘losers’ and to the bohemia they inhabit (which, as she admitted to a friend in 1965, was ambivalent and perverse – “Why do I write about all these worthless people? Why don’t I write about someone positive and worthwhile?”) Nor does it do justice to the challenge to ‘reality’ that bohemia makes. For the straightforward Stalinists, the culture of bohemia meant obscurity; non-signifying, it was an empty place of irrelevance and decadence: “artificial, reactionary, useless, epigonic, decadent, stale, stilted, a hopeless void, just a phantom…” is, for instance, how one Comrade Zenkevitch describes writing (in this case, John Lehmann’s annual Orpheus) not deemed to have achieved the Party’s strict standards of moral and linguistic propriety. Stead draws her own picture of bohemia in several of her novels, perhaps most notably in her portrait of the post-war years in Cotter’s England. Here, it, too, is a place of unreality – abysmal, “spectral”, it exudes a deathly nihilism.

Christina Stead, Cotter's England, 19

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England, 1966

Through the figure of Nellie Cotter, the novel’s bohemian antiheroine, Stead examines the ‘corruption’ of working class radicalism in England when it develops unattached to the Party, becoming susceptible to demagogues and the kinds of mysticism often generated in exclusion and isolation. Adrift from the political centre, Nellie becomes warped, lost in bohemia and sexually paranoid, malignantly exercising power over those even further outcast than herself: she ends by traducing her revolutionary faith and bullying a lonely and impressionable young woman into suicide, seducing her with the idea of death.

…Nellie was impatient with “revolutionary pipe dreams.” No City of the Future! The here and now of pain! Can a slum-mother look beyond the next rat-squeak, or an invalid beyond the next ache? “Most of their rebel talk, sweetheart, is whistling down the wind. It may be heard and may cheer a heart in an orchard two miles away or it may be lost altogether for eternity. You can’t feed the hungry on maybes. For those whose torments are like ours, who understand as we do, there is sometimes only one answer.” Death was the answer… “…Perhaps there is something totally unlike anything ever imagined. I’m a materialist, pet, remember, but still we know nothing: there is the Unknowable. It would be an intoxication, the best to plunge into the unknowable…The Bride-of-Death. That would be something glorious to experience, the last submission, the splendid last breath, the sacred swoon…”

For Stead, bohemia was a kind of existential hell, a reflecting pit into which feelings of loathing, horror and disgust were poured only to be thrown back up. The Party saw bohemia as a diversion, a ghetto, signifying dead-end politics rather than the true path to revolution; in Cotter’s England, it’s a childish, Peter Pan-like limbo, dangerously entrapping adults in a world of play and make-believe, stunting, and keeping them from adult ‘reality’: “Nellie’s a prisoner of Bohemia. She won’t grow…she never got out…” (The official line on the slippery world of childhood was that maturity meant leaving it behind and accepting the objective reality of the adult world, a place where proper grownups arrived unmarked by childhood’s playfulness or cruelty, uncontaminated by its free-wheeling imagination, its metamorphosising and transgressions.) But we should not be surprised when Angela Carter, writing about Stead, reaches to the poet Blake for an analogy, because for all Stead’s denigration of bohemia and its fallen citizens, the world she presents is a cuspate one: we are perched somewhere between heaven and hell. (“If I were to choose an introductory motto for the collected works of Christina Stead, it would be…from The Marriage of Heaven And Hell…‘Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’”) And Stead’s hellish underworld is fraught with “contraries”: as I argued, for the Stalinists and for Stead, bohemia is a prison that keeps you from the truth – but at the same time – for Stead, it is also “a magic carpet” that transports you up “off the hard street stones into culture.” Stead’s most nightmarish, satanic characters are also her most seductive, her monsters – murderers in effect, if not in fact (Sam Pollit, Robbie Grant, Emily Wilkes and Nellie Cotter) – speak a mesmerising language, they are snake-tongued beguilers who can make you believe what you know isn’t true: “Nellie’s a thrilling woman! She can make you see things her way, though you know it wasn’t so.”

So although one may argue that Stead, like a good communist “didn’t believe in pluralism”, Cotter’s England is littered with the apparatus of literary pluralism: angels and devils; puppets and mirrors; doubles and inversions: all of these inhabit her story. Stead was not happy with the title Cotter’s England, although she preferred it to the American one, Dark Places of the Heart. She wrote to her publisher (Secker), “There is a dancing in a hall of mirrors; and the entire story of this eccentric brother and sister is a dancing, nothing but reflections.” A reading which finds these “reflections” only antipathetic (wasteful) doesn’t take account of their disruptive power, of the energy and charge they engender in the narrative. In Cotter’s England, bohemia is a place of hypocrisy and travesty, where people act out roles, disguising their true natures: but it is also – in other words – the place of art, where the ‘real world’ is recast into something eerily familiar, yet askew. When Nellie and her brother Tom walk into a funfair hall of mirrors they see “a ballroom of the strangest people, but always the same two”; the mirrors reveal Tom as “A playing-card king”, and Nellie as “the spindling hatchet witch”. These fantastic illusions, rather as Stead’s New Masses critic had complained, “distort the picture beyond the broadest limits of caricature.” The witchy Nellie, (a bit like Snow White’s mother), “displeased” with what these looking-glasses reveal, wonders at their purpose: “They’re distortions of human beings! Why do we like it, Tom?” Why do we look at these weird transformations that art produces: for their self-shattering revelations, for their ability to alter our ‘reality’?

In Stead we see, perhaps more clearly than in any other writer this century, the war between the childhood dreamer, reader of Shakespeare, Anderson and the Grimm Brothers (those enchanters and fabulists, masters of fiction), and the adult political conscience caught up in a movement whose ideas about art – in their insistence on a form of ‘realism’ so tightly prescribed it left no room for art to breathe – were inherently anti-art. Stead was notorious for confounding interviewers by disavowing art, claiming that her ‘fiction’ was ‘real’, that nothing was made-up or self-created (“Of course it’s exactly word for word.”) And yet she was known, for her early work, as a fabulous artificer: in the first published book, The Salzburg Tales (1934) she is like Scheherazade stringing her stories into one glittering assembly. True, later on she consciously abandons these decorative arts of myth-making and tale-telling in search of a less transcendent, more palpable worldliness. But this treacly, crystallizing stuff of metamorphoses, that denatures and makes strange, leaks inexorably from her pen: it’s at work in The Beauties and Furies (1936) infecting Marpurgo’s dark demagoguery and the ethereal statuary of Coromandel; it stains the songs and rhymes, stories and limericks Sam Pollit chants to his clan of little people in The Man Who Loved Children; and we sense it in the aroused reverie of the adolescent Teresa, in her fairytale daydreams of captivity and escape at the start of For Love Alone.

iv. Daddy-of-the-People

In a letter to her brother at the time of Stalin’s death (1953), Stead writes awkwardly of the Father of the Russian people, as if she cannot quite allow any connection between a man who is for some a satanic figure, and, for Stead, as he still was for many on the left, this (longed for) wise man. (In Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, written a decade later, she includes a wish-fulfilment fantasy about comrades meeting Stalin and finding him the man they want him to be: someone who has “an honest kindly face” and a “fatherly twinkle in his eyes”): “…if Stalin appears to some to have been an anti-Christ, to a lot of others he stood for the Soviet world; a childish but comfortable way of feeling, which also arose in his interesting and apparently goodnatured sane wise mind.”

David George Stead (1877 - 1957)

David George Stead (1877 -1957)

Stead gives a late, revisionary view of her own father, David, in an essay called ‘A Waker and Dreamer’ (1972), but this time she manages to join together these apparently irreconcilable views of the patriarch (much as E.M. Forster’s famous injunction demands: “Only connect, and the beast and the monk…”) Here the father figure is the longed for comforter and enlightener, an angelic man, “rejoicing”, “teaching”, “shining” down on the people; and he is a messianic figure – politician and trickster:

David was ‘floodlit’…remarkably fair…and [had] a speaker’s mobile mouth…Among humane people, some are quiet, almost taciturn; but others rejoice openly in the mass of humanity, in teaching, bringing the light, and when they are in the midst of people and their own good work, they actually shine; as when the congregation of Latterday Saints (the Mormons) saw Brigham Young turn into Joseph Smith (to justify his election), on the platform, before their eyes, as he spoke. David’s appearance, of whiteness, fairness and all that goes with it, dazzled himself. He believed in himself so strongly that, sure of his innocence, pure intentions, he felt he was a favoured son of Fate (which to him was progress and therefore good)…

What joins the illusionist to the deceiver, the deluder (“to justify his election”) – making the Blakean dualism of the benign and the sinister – is the spell-binding power of “the speaker’s mobile mouth”. Stead’s charismatic father, “dazzling” others and himself with his easy, prolific talk, is not so far from the Russian Father, or at least the beneficent daddy-of-the-people she wanted Stalin to be. If Stead was suspicious of her talents, her soaring imagination and linguistic fluency, then these, after all, were her father’s gifts: “Fine writing must have come easily to her”, Carter thought, “roughness, ungainliness, ferocity were qualities for which she had to strive.” An earlier incarnation of her father, Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children, dominates his family with the unstoppable force of his rolling, ludic lyric. In defiance, Louisa/Stead creates a language of her own that is strangled and hard: the father tells the (ugly) daughter that beauty is truth; the daughter tells the (beautiful) father that the truth is ugly.

In ‘Wakers and Dreamers’ Stead describes her father as being like Adam; and Sam is forever roaming around his own paradisal garden, master and namer of every genus of plant, animal and tribe: while his wife, Henny, and daughter, Louisa, are consumed with Eveish dissatisfaction and a rebellious thirst for knowledge of life beyond the gates of Eden. For these refuseniks, the ones who refuse to dream the master’s dream or to sing the “mouthy jailor’s” song, and insist instead upon the bothersome details of material deprivation or their own subject status, paradise is a prison. Or, as Milan Kundera said in a different context, a gulag. At the end of his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), Kundera (himself a subject of the Stalinist Eden in post-war Czechoslovakia) published an interview in which Philip Roth talks to him about an idea of treachery or bad faith, where the lyrical and the revolutionary collude:

PR: …In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet.

MK: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

PR: In your book, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?

MK: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the ‘poesy of totalitarianism’. He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows; he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zâvis Kalandra to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.

Kundera’s formulation of the lyric is, of course, specific to Eluard’s kind of revolutionary eulogy. (But it is, I have argued, one that Stead recognized in – and portrayed as – her father’s idiom.) This is a debased lyric, put in service, it is turned in upon itself and made false (individual, free expression curtailing individuality and freedom). In the same way, socialist realism might be thought of as a form of debased lyric: a circumscribed praise-song of Belief which insists, monistically, there is only “brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows”, and turns its back on doubt or difference, on “isolation”, “gloom” and “cynicism”. And this, too, is the tenor of Sam Pollit’s song, one of “depraved healthiness” Stead calls it, and just as rejecting of the depressed non-believer: “Looloo…I don’t want you cynical…You’re still in tutelage, thank God, and I hope still to make you more amenable! I won’t have this cussed obstinacy. I’ll break that miserable dogged spirit of yours: it will get you nowhere. What man will look at you with your piggish sulky, thick face always gloomy?…You have got to cheer up; you have got to smile.”

v. The Artist in a Totalitarian Age

Christina Stead’s interest in the relationship between ideology, power and language is the most consistent feature of her wide-ranging work. She is an artist who does more than reflect the stormy times she lived through: her oeuvre enacts the struggle of the writer in the age of totalitarianism. She was active – as a writer, as a believer, and as a dissident – in an era of dictatorship and demagoguery, when Stalin and Hitler coerced half the world with their intoxicating dogmas, their government of the tongue. Stead was interested in the power of language to liberate, but cognizant, also, of its corrupting capability: as she demonstrated in The Man Who Loved Children, she was aware that a part of the insidious nature of totalitarian speech-making was that it couched inflammatory passion and prejudice in the language of science and rationalism – in Zhdanov’s “steely realism”. The corrosive effect of this can be felt everywhere in Stead’s writing: the Nietzschean sense that language itself has become untrustworthy: that within it neither lyrical impulse nor logical deliberation is authentic or moral. There is a suspicion of the power of all language to steal you away from yourself, to blind you with its suasion (this is the hard correlative of Didion’s understanding of writing as forceful and imposing); and, in Stead’s novels, the knowledge that under totalitarianism argument becomes lethal – a matter of life and death – is affirmed by the number of characters who are persuaded into suicide (Henny, Caroline, Stephen) by bludgeoning, bullying wordsmiths.

As Carter observes of Stead: “The way she finally writes is almost as if she were showing you that style is itself a lie in action, that language is an elaborate confidence trick designed to lull us into acceptance of the intolerable, just as Sam Pollit uses it on his family, that words are systems of deceit.” In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead gives us in Sam Pollit a domestic tyrant, a daddy whose sugary, cooing, seductive tongue makes him an improbable forerunner of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert: his overbearing passions and monstrous egotism are relentless, blinding him to the autonomy of others (in one grotesque episode Sam tries to force Louisa, his adolescent daughter, into mouth-to-mouth feeding). Pollit’s gross intrusiveness into the lives of his children is that of the totalitarian who must see and know all (the obverse of Breton’s dream of living in a glass house where he would freely reveal all). Stead portrays “Sam, the Great I am”, as a monomaniac who tries to encompass the world: to own it, master it, ingest it. While Louisa his sceptical daughter, grows weary of her father the Master-author; leery of this indiscriminate peddler of words, selling brotherly love one minute, eugenics and gas chambers the next: “My system,” Sam continued, “which I invented myself, might be called Monoman… Monoman would only be the condition of the world after we had weeded out the misfits and degenerates.” There was a threat in the way he said it [addressed to the doubting Louisa]. “This would be done by means of the lethal chamber and people might even ask for the painless death, or euthanasia, of their own accord.”

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children, 1940

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children, 1940

Stead’s response to the deathliness of this patriarchal language is manifold: in The Man Who Loved Children, the garrotted homemade speech that the disbelieving daughter makes up in response, and stages as a play, ‘The Tragedy of the Snakeman, or Father’, sounds like the death-rattle of some late Beckett play; hers in some eerily prescient way is a post-holocaust language, alienating and opaque:

Megara: (Shrieking feebly) Ia mort. Ib esse aliensis! Ib mort im! Occides! Occides! Mat! Anteios: Ia solmo brass im. Men libid fill (but in embracing Megara, Anteios hisses again like a snake). Megara: (Shrieking hoarsely) Mat, rom garrots im, Occides! (And she dies.)

[Daughter: I am dying. You are the stranger. You are killing me. Murderer! Murderer! Mother! Father: I am only embracing you. My beloved daughter. Daughter: Mother, father is strangling me. Murderer!]

But in I’m Dying Laughing(1986), the novelist Emily Wilkes tells her husband that words can still communicate meaning, that, in a totalitarian age, a writer must believe in and struggle for the truth, or be a lost, and damned, bohemian: “I think a writer has a tremendous responsibility to tell the truth and tell it with all the skill and ability and experience – he has – to rise above himself…To be a writer in an age when the truth will set us free – means to be a writer of the truth; or to be an utter, utter, decadent damned soul.”These divergent responses to the problems of language are not untypical of Stead’s own “struggle for truth”: there are few final solutions to be found in her work, it is characterized not by the answers it proposes but by the awkward questions it raises, and the contradictions it thrives upon. This refusal of vulgar summations – even the formal ones art asks for – is a mark of her strength and sophistication, but it makes Stead a difficult writer to ‘place’: as I have tried to show, any attempt must emphasize the specificity of her ‘position’ (including, but not limited to, her politics) and the idiosyncrasy and power of her textual strategies.

If there are no easy answers to be found in Stead’s writing in relation to these questions this is not, as Edmund White mistakenly believes, because she is a writer without commitment. Rather her refusal of fixed positions registers the idea – anticipating Foucault – that “power is exercised from innumerable points,” it is “multiple and mobile” and comes from everywhere (from the oppressive father and the rebellious daughter): hers is the kind of difficulty created by the dissemination of political consciousness, and it is out of the clashes that contending voices give rise to that her best writing is produced, even when the source of their power troubles her, or is something she does not fully understand – as is the case with her relationship to bohemia. Perhaps we can serve her best by following the maxim of a writer to whom she is often compared: D.H. Lawrence believed that we should trust the tale not the teller – attesting to fiction’s powers of prophecy, its ability to reveal what is important, above and beyond what a writer can tell us. If we do this (and with the advantage of hindsight) we can see how prescient Stead’s novels and short stories are. She may have disapproved of bohemia, of the narcissism and performance that its self-consciousness entailed, but as an early disbeliever in the bourgeois notion of the autonomous self she also sensed its importance. Acknowledging this, in a review of The Beauties and Furies in 1982, Angela Carter wrote:

…Stead is certainly not a writer of naturalism nor of social realism, and if her novels are read as novels about our lives, rather than about the circumstances that shape our lives, they are bound to disappoint, because the naturalist or high-bourgeois mode works with the convention that there exists such a thing as ‘private life’. In these private lives, actions are informed by certain innate freedoms and, however stringent the pressures upon the individual, there is always a little margin of autonomy which could be called the ‘self’. For Stead, however, ‘private life’ is itself a socially determined fiction, the ‘self’ is a mere foetus of autonomy which may or may not prove viable, and ‘inner freedom’, far from being an innate quality, is a precariously held intellectual position that may be achieved only at the cost of enormous struggle, often against the very grain of what we take to be human feeling.

Carter’s assertion that Stead should not be read as a naturalist is corroborated by many passages in her writing: among them, the surrealist dream sequences and the episode in the Club of the Somnambulists in The Beauties and Furies; the references to a world filled with “imps”, “devils”, “witches” and “vampires” in Cotter’s England; and Emily’s nightmarish derangement in I’m Dying Laughing. The fascination bohemia held for Stead, her investigation of its anarchic shape and meaning, of what she often felt were its inhuman feelings, atmospheres and manifestations makes her a precursor of those contemporary writers – Carter is the obvious example – whose own physical and psychological landscapes are places of bastardy and waste. However, there were a couple of occasions when Stead appeared to recognise the importance of bohemia, if only for others, suggesting that this was where the future lay. These unusual acknowledgements – given her anxiety about the subject – surface in an interview in 1970 when she told Jonah Raskin: “I have a friend – an American friend – who tells me that Bohemia is necessary for people from the Mid-West. I don’t need it. Greenwich Village would be a prison for me. For some Bohemia is liberation, but not for me.” And they appear in her notes for an unpublished story called ‘More Lives Than One’, which was based, Rowley says, upon a letter from her friend Edith Anderson:

I share your feelings about Bohemia, but I also think it’s the only place that has accepted certain people, and that it isn’t so simple to state that Bohemia has ruined people… Maybe it’s American and English Bohemia that are so especially revolting. Ernst is a product of Berlin’s Bohemia of the twenties, and I’ve met a couple of the leading spirits of that Bohemia…I found them charming and admirable and fine…They would horrify the Communists even more than the respectable bourgeois; you know how easily horrified most Communists are. And yet there is nothing horrible about these people, on the contrary I hope that everybody will be like them in the future when human beings will be permitted to be beautiful without having to be ashamed of it.

But Stead was unlike her female contemporaries Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles and Carson McCullers – who were all drawn to bohemia, and found in it mirrors for their own isolation and aberrance as writers who did not fit the mould, whose work seemed too odd or dislocated to be truly representative. Though driven to explore the bohemian world (“I feel it my duty to ‘understand’ – to understand all is not to forgive all”) more usually she regarded it, not as Anderson did, as a utopia, a place of beauty, but, along with the “horrified” Communists, as a dystopia in which bohemia’s enactment of pluralism and difference aroused shame and fear, not “hope”: Cotter’s England, Stead told Stanley Burnshaw, is an “attack on mental, moral and physical squalor enjoyed in Bohemia which I detest, and all that goes with it: self-congratulating vice, the vanity of ignorance…” Stead’s inability to find any consolation in the idea of bohemia, then, was born in equal measure from a Communist fear of sexual deviancy, coupled with a refusal to romanticise illegitimacy, and a Nietzschean determination not to be left by the wayside or flung to the margins, not to settle for less. So in her final work, I’m Dying Laughing, Stead did not write about the idea of bohemia as a dream where “human beings [are] permitted to be beautiful without having to be ashamed”, but as a nightmare signalling the failure of the two great dreams of the twentieth century: the nightmare of greed and rapacity lurking behind the American Dream of freedom and success; and the nightmare of totalitarianism (that Kundera recognised) lurking behind the Communist Dream of “everybody living in harmony, united by a single common will”.

In the struggle for hegemony both capitalists and communists dogmatically insisted that their dreams were not dreams but the only reality. Stead felt sympathy for the Communist Dream (as did many of her generation) but as a writer she refused both these versions of ‘reality’, seeing them as illusions, and wrote instead of a more turbulent and precarious existence. Her realism is not based on determining fictions of the self (whether bourgeois or socialist), but in the (heroic, Nietzschean) idea of self-making, in an elective, mutating self she had believed in as a child (think of Louisa’s “growing sullen power”, her “intimations of destiny”), which her nomadic, creative life as an adult confirmed for her. But, as I argued, Stead does not turn away from the political realm. Rather her forte is contemplating the collision of these dreams which governed so much of life in the twentieth century – understanding their importance, and the world as it is, in which we must fight to survive. This, then, is the subject matter of Christina Stead’s last novel, I’m Dying Laughing. But its fate also exemplifies Stead’s troubled relationship to bohemia. Largely unknown and unread, the book is indeed hard to ‘place’ (as it is, now out of print, hard to come by). Despite its power, I’m Dying Laughing has not been recognised and accorded its rightful place in the canon, and this, I think, is largely because of the particular difficulty inherent in any ‘reading’ – the problem of understanding Stead’s complex relationship to bohemia and to communist ideology. So it is this that I’m going to attempt here, trying to illuminate I’m Dying Laughing and its author by ‘placing’ them in their proper historical, cultural and theoretical context.

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