“The Work of Gertrude Stein”
William Carlos Williams
By locating traces of Tristram Shandy in Stein’s Geography and Plays, Williams identifies an entire tradition of literature that is concerned foremost with language rather than logic, with “the words.”
Would I have seen a white bear!
(for how can I imagine it?)
Let it be granted that whatever is new in literature the germ of it will be found somewhere in the writings of other times; only the modern emphasis gives work a present distinction.
The necessity for this modern focus and the meaning of the changes involved are, however, another matter, the everlasting stumbling block to criticism. Here is a theme worth development in the case of Gertrude Stein–yet signally neglected.
Why in fact have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today? Now I quote from Sterne:
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are am; was; have; had; do; did; could; owe; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; ought; used; or is wont . . . –or with these questions added to them;–Is it? Was it? Will it be? . . . Or affirmatively . . . –Or chronologically . . . –Or hypothetically . . . –If it was? If it was not? What would follow?–If the French beat the English? If the Sun should go out of the Zodiac?
Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child’s memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter the brain how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.–Didst thou ever see a white bear? Cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair.–No, an’ please your honour, replied the corporal.–But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?–How is it possible, brother, quoth my Uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?–‘Tis the fact I want, replied my father,–and the possibility of it as follows.
A white bear! Very well, Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?–described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Note how the words alive, skin, painted, described, dreamed come into the design of these sentences. The feeling is of words themselves, a curious immediate quality quite apart from their meaning, much as in music different notes are dropped, so to speak, into a repeated chord one at a time, one after another–for itself alone. Compare this with the same effects common in all that Stein does. See Geography and Plays, “They were both gay there.” To continue–
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? . . . How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
Note the play upon rough and smooth (though it is not certain that this was intended), rough seeming to apply to the bear’s deportment, smooth to surface, presumably the bear’s coat. In any case the effect is that of a comparison relating primarily not to any qualities of the bear himself but to the words rough and smooth. And so to finish–
Is the white bear worth seeing?
Is there any sin in it?
Is it better than a black one?
In this manner ends Chapter 43 of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The handling of the words and to some extent the imaginative quality of the sentence is a direct forerunner of that which Gertrude Stein has woven today into a synthesis of its own. It will be plain, in fact, on close attention, that Sterne exercises not only the play (or music) of sight, sense and sound contrast among the words themselves which Stein uses, but their grammatical play also–i.e. for, how, can I imagine it; did my . . . , what would, how would, compare Stein’s “to have rivers; to halve rivers,” etc. It would not be too much to say that Stein’s development over a lifetime is anticipated completely with regard to subject matter, sense and grammar–in Sterne.
Starting from scratch we get, possibly, thatch; just as they have always done in poetry.
Then they would try to connect it up by something like–The mice scratch, beneath the thatch.
Miss Stein does away with all that. The free-versists on the contrary used nothing else. They saved–The mice, under the . . . ,
It is simply the skeleton, the “formal” parts of writing, those that make form, that she has to do with, apart from the “burden” which they carry. The skeleton, important to acknowledge where confusion of all knowledge of the “soft parts” reigns as at the present day in all intellectual fields.
Stein’s theme is writing. But in such a way as to be writing envisioned as the first concern of the moment, dragging behind it a dead weight of logical burdens, among them a dead criticism which broken through might be a gap by which endless other enterprises of the understanding should issue–for refreshment.
It is a revolution of some proportions that is contemplated, the exact nature of which may be no more than sketched here but whose basis is humanity in a relationship with literature hitherto little contemplated.
And at the same time it is a general attack on the scholastic viewpoint, that medieval remnant with whose effects from generation to generation literature has been infested to its lasting detriment. It is a break-away from that paralyzing vulgarity of logic for which the habits of science and philosophy coming over into literature (where they do not belong) are to blame.
It is this logicality as a basis for literary action which in Stein’s case, for better or worse, has been wholly transcended.
She explains her own development in connection with Tender Buttons (1914). “It was my first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense, and eliminating rhythm;–now I am trying grammar and eliminating sight and sound” (transition No. 14, Fall 1928).
Having taken the words to her choice, to emphasize further what she has in mind she has completely unlinked them (in her most recent work) from their former relationships in the sentence. This was absolutely essential and unescapable. Each under the new arrangement has a quality of its own, but not conjoined to carry the burden science, philosophy and every higgledy-piggledy figment of law and order have been laying upon them in the past. They are like a crowd at Coney Island, let us say, seen from an airplane.
Whatever the value of Miss Stein’s work may turn out finally to be, she has at least accomplished her purpose of getting down on paper this much that is decipherable. She has placed writing on a plane where it may deal unhampered with its own affairs, unburdened with scientific and philosopic lumber.
For after all, science and philosophy are today, in their effect upon the mind, little more than fetishes of unspeakable abhorrence. And it is through a subversion of the art of writing that their grip upon us has assumed its steel-like temper.
What are philosophers, scientists, religionists, they that have filled up literature with their pap? Writers, of a kind. Stein simply erases their stories, turns them off and does without them, their logic (founded merely on the limits of the perceptions) which is supposed to transcend the words, along with them. Stein denies it. The words, in writing, she discloses, transcend everything.
Movement (for which in a petty way logic is taken), the so-called search for truth and beauty, is for us the effect of a breakdown of the attention. But movement must not be confused with what we attach to it but, for the rescuing of the intelligence, must always be considered aimless, without progess.
This is the essence of all knowledge.
Bach might be an illustration of movement not suborned by a freight of purposed design, loaded upon it as in almost all later musical works; statement unmusical and unnecessary, Stein’s “They lived very gay then” has much of the same quality of movement to be found in Bach–the composition of the words determining not the logic, not the “story,” not the theme even, but the movement itself. As it happens, “They were both gay there” is as good as some of Bach’s shorter figures.
Music could easily have a statement attached to each note in the manner of words, so that C natural might mean the sun, etc., and completely dull treatises be played–and even sciences finally expounded in tunes.
Either, we have been taught to think, the mind moves in a logical sequence to a definite end which is its goal, or it will embrace movement without goal other than movement itself for an end and hail “transition” only as supreme.
Take your choice, both resorts are an improper description of the mind in fullest play.
If the attention could envision the whole of writing, let us say, at one time, moving over it in swift and accurate pursuit of the modern imperative at the instant when it is most to the fore, something of what actually takes place under an optimum of intelligence could be observed. It is an alertness not to let go of a possibility of movement in our fearful bedazzlement with some concrete and fixed present. The goal is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest.
The goal has nothing to do with the silly function which logic, natural or otherwise, enforces. Yet it is a goal. It moves as the sense wearies, remains fresh, living. One is concerned with it as with anything pursued and not with the rush of air or the guts of the horse one is riding–save to a very minor degree.
Writing, like everything else, is much a question of refreshed interest. It is directed, not idly, but as most often happens (though not necessarily so) toward that point not to be predetermined where movement is blocked (by the end of logic perhaps). It is about these parts, if I am not mistaken, that Gertrude Stein will be found.
There remains to be explained the bewildering volume of what Miss Stein has written, the quantity of her work, its very apparent repetitiousness, its iteration, what I prefer to call its extension, the final clue to her meaning.
It is, of course, a progression (not a progress) beginning, conveniently, with “Melanchtha” from Three Lives, and coming up to today.
How in a democracy, such as the United States, can writing which has to compete with excellence elsewhere and in other times remain in the field and be at once objective (true to fact), intellectually searching, subtle and instinct with powerful additions to our lives? It is impossible, without invention of some sort, for the very good reason that observation about us engenders the very opposite of what we seek: triviality, crassness and intellectual bankruptcy. And yet what we do see can in no way be excluded. Satire and flight are two possibilities but Miss Stein has chosen otherwise.
But if one remain in a place and reject satire, what then? To be democratic, local (in the sense of being attached with integrity to actual experience) Stein, or any other artist, must for subtlety ascend to a plane of almost abstract design to keep alive. To writing, then, as an art in itself. Yet what actually impinges on the senses must be rendered as it appears, by use of which, only, and under which, untouched, the significance has to be disclosed. It is one of the major problems of the artist.
“Melanctha” is a thrilling clinical record of the life of a colored woman in the present-day United States, told with directness and truth. It is without question one of the best bits of characterization produced in America. It is universally admired. This is where Stein began. But for Stein to tell a story of that sort, even with the utmost genius, was not enough under the conditions in which we live, since by the very nature of its composition such a story does violence to the larger scene which would be portrayed.
True, a certain way of delineating the scene is to take an individual like Melanctha and draw her carefully. But this is what happens. The more carefully the drawing is made, the greater the genius involved and the greater the interest that attaches, therefore, to the character as an individual, the more exceptional that character becomes in the mind of the reader and the less typical of the scene.
It was no use for Stein to go on with Three Lives. There that phase of the work had to end. See Useful Knowledge, the parts on the U.S.A.
Stein’s pages have become like the United States viewed from an airplane–the same senseless repetitions, the endless multiplications of toneless words, with these she had to work.
No use for Stein to fly to Paris and forget it. The thing, the United States, the unmitigated stupidity, the drab tediousness of the democracy, the overwhelming number of the offensively ignorant, the dull nerve–is there in the artist’s mind and cannot be escaped by taking a ship. She must resolve it if she can, if she is to be.
That must be the artist’s articulation with existence.
Truly, the world is full of emotion–more or less–but it is caught in bewilderment to a far more important degree. And the purpose of art, so far as it has any, is not at least to copy that, but lies in the resolution of difficulties to its own comprehensive organization of materials. And by so doing, in this case, rather than by copying, it takes its place as most human.
To deal with Melanctha, with characters of whomever it may be, the modern Dickens, is not therefore human. To write like that is not, in the artist, to be human at all, since nothing is resolved, nothing is done to resolve the bewilderment which makes of emotion an inanity: That, is to overlook the gross instigation and with all subtlety to examine the object minutely for “the truth”–which if there is anything more commonly practiced or more stupid, I have yet to come upon it.
To be most useful to humanity, or to anything else for that matter, an art, writing, must stay art, not seeking to be science, philosophy, history, the humanities, or anything else it has been made to carry in the past. It is this enforcement which underlies Gertrude Stein’s extension and progression to date.
“The Work of Gertrude Stein” by William Carlos Williams is from Imaginations, copyright © 1970 by Florence H. Williams. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.