David A. Powers

Molecular Revolution

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In Defense of Gertrude Stein

I first discovered Gertrude Stein in an English anthology, and the bits I read made me extremely curious. I always wondered why, if she was as important as the anthology claimed, so little of her work was included. Later, when I was around the age of 20, I satisfied my curiosity by checking out her books from the local library. I became convinced that she had an absolutely bold and original style, and that her language was as powerful as that of any modern American writer I had read. Her style was often abstract, but unlike James Joyce, whose work is full of arcane references, Stein used the simplest of means to build her complex linguistic constructions.

Recently, my interest in Stein was revived when I read an interview posted at Smithsonian.com[1], where author Elaine Showalter made the remarkable claim that Gertrude Stein is "overrated" and "absolutely unreadable." She also claimed that Stein is only read by academics. Unlike Ms. Showalter, I happen to believe that Gertrude Stein is not only readable, but also brilliant and deserving of more recognition than she currently receives.

Gertrude Stein's Modernism

Gertrude Stein is, quite simply, the first truly Modernist American writer. Already in her Three Lives[2], composed in 1906, she demonstrates a profound understanding of the synthetic nature of language. Stein understood that the appearance of organic unity that a well written work of literature presents is only an illusion. In reality, literature is stitched together and assembled out of a primordial linguistic stew, and only becomes coherent through the careful manipulation of language by the author. In Three Lives, Stein manipulates language to foreground its synthetic nature, while still maintaining a coherent narrative structure. She claimed to have found inspiration for this technique upon viewing a portrait by the painter Cézanne. Note the contrast in paragraph structure, the use of rhythm, the precise vocabulary, and the controlled repetition in the following passage:

Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. It was a funny little house, one of a whole row of all the same kind that made a close pile like a row of dominoes that a child knocks over, for they were built along a street which at this point came down a steep hill. They were funny little houses, two stories high, with red brick fronts and long white steps.

This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna's voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long.

In the following years, Stein's technique mirrored the technique of analytical cubism found in the paintings of Picasso and Braque. These painters broke up every day objects into their components, and then reassembled those components to create new, abstract compositions; an excellent example of this technique can be seen in Picasso's 'Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler'.

In her writing of 1909-1912, Stein uses the following procedures to create extremely abstract prose: she takes ordinary phrases and subjects them to multiple permutations, she uses rhythm and sound rather than narrative as primary structural elements, and she subtracts grammatical elements to create suggestive sentence fragments. This does not render Stein's language meaningless, but it does dispel the illusion that language has a fixed and certain meaning. No longer does a polite waiter bring meaning to the reader on a silver platter with a smile and a nod; instead, the bewildered reader is forced to participate in the work and construct meaning out of the abstract linguistic material. At times, one no longer feels that an author is speaking. Instead, it seems that language itself is speaking, revealing the objective condition of the human animal. The following passage, which comes at the end of G.M.P., exemplifies Stein's abstract prose style:

The window rest is more in than out entirely.

The pen within is more there than before.

The cutting stands are more shadowed than rainy.

The outside is more dreadful than water, the rest is more excellent than impaired. The licking is with a spoon spreading and a question of oats and cakes, a question of oaks and kinds a question is so stately.

If the best full lead and paper show persons and the most mines and toys show puddings and the most white and red show mountains and the best hat shows lamp shades, if it is the sterns are sterner and the old bites are bulging and the best the very best of all is the sunshine tiny, is the hollow stone grinding, is the homeless wedding worrying.[4]

Modernist Art & Conformism

When Stein's writings are examined from the perspective of modernist painting, one wonders if what Ms. Showalter really objects too is not only Stein's writing, but modernist art itself, an objection that seems somewhat astonishing in the year 2010. Or perhaps she wishes that modernism could confine itself to music and painting, and not desecrate the temple of literature, that realm of eternal truth and beauty. One suspects she would like nothing better than to retreat into the nineteenth century, when portraits looked like portraits, words were words, and readers were not expected to work too hard. Such thinking ignores the fact that there is no going back. Once it has been understood as a synthetic construction, language can never regain the innocence it once had.

At root, Ms. Showalter's position is merely anti-intellectualism and conformism masquerading as scholarship and criticism. The anti-intellectual hates modernist art because it does not conform to common sense. It forces us people to reflect, and challenges tradition. For the anti-intellectual, literature that transgresses the norms of ordinary language can simply dismissed as unreadable. The truth, however, is that only what is unreadable is worth reading.

Ms. Showalter's claim that only academics read Gertrude Stein is both ironic, since Showalter is herself an academic, and revealing. It implies that only a book which can be understood by ordinary people can be important, whereas difficult, modernist literature only matters to a handful of out of touch, elitist academics. Indeed, one can imagine these academics sitting in their ivory towers, hunched over difficult, arcane manuscripts which they read by candle light, taking notes on cracked parchment with their quill pens. The reality, of course, is that in order to make a proper judgment on works of literature, one must have time to digest and reflect upon them, a luxury which is usually only available to academics. Gertrude Stein's approach to language is revolutionary, and she deserves to be read more widely. If it is true that she is only read by academics, then this does not invalidate her art, but merely reveals the narrow-minded prejudices of the reading public.

Books that are easy are not necessarily true; books that are true are never easy. The universe is complex and mysterious, and the artist who tries to illuminate this difficult universe will make work that is difficult. Of course, the average person has neither the education, nor the time, to engage with any kind of difficult art. But perhaps, instead of laying blame on art for being too difficult, we should examine the society that makes people slaves to their careers and the market place, and educates them only enough so that they make good slaves.

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/music-literature/Literary-Landmarks-A-History-of-American-Women-Writers-.html?c=y&page=1, retrieved on January 15,2010

[2] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15408/15408.txt, retrieved on January 15, 2010

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Picasso_Portrait_of_Daniel-Henry_Kahnweiler_1910.jpg, retrieved on January 15, 2010

[4] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15396/15396-h/15396-h.htm, retrieved on January 15, 2010


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