Notes on Gertrude Stein
by L o u i s e B i a l i k

A Portrait of Alice B Toklas was a best seller when published in 1933. Gertrude Stein, author, was pleased and disturbed and for the first time experienced writer's block. It took four years for her to write again. In this novel, Stein speaks through Alice Toklas as a ventriloquist to compliment herself when saying, 'I knew three genuises' (p.5):

"The three genuises if whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met several great people but I have only known three first class genuises and in each case on sight within me something rang."

And continues to compliment herself:

"The sentences of which Marcel Brion, the french critic has written, by exactitude, austerity, absence of variety in light and shade, by refusal of the use of the subconscious Gertude Stein achieves a symmetry which has a close analogy to a Bach fugue." (p. 50)

And gives a commercial plug for herself in the voice of a praising critic:

"Gertrude Stein has written the story of Melanctha the negress, the second story of Three Lives which was the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century." (p. 54)

Then settles the record that she is the greatest, most unique author and mentor when correcting Earnest Hemingway, "Hemingway, remarks are not literature," for:

"The young often when they have learnt all they can accuse her of an inordinate pride. She says yes of course. She realises that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it." (P.77)

The problem of modernist literature is being at the center of it for Gertrude Stein. By Stein's account, she is the only one of her kind separate from Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce. The 27 rue de fleures was an open house to artists and bohemians visiting to praise Stein who answered only in french and kicked out any art dealers intending to buy her collection of Cezanes, Picassos, Picabias, Monets.

Stein was disturbed by her fame but did enjoy a new fur coat and an automobile, and said, 'it is funny about money and about identity,' when the outside world is placing a value on the inside world, she hinted, the outside gets inside of You. Stein felt tormented by the external world interfering with the internal haven she set up for herself and Alice Toklas:

"It was a long a long tormenting process, she looked, listened and described. She always was, she always is, tormented by the problem of the external and the internal. [cut] ... She is interested in Picabia in whom hitherto she has never been interested because he at least knows that if you do not solve your painting problem in painting human beings you do not solve at all." (P.119)

But the question is, does name-dropping advance Stein's cultural status? According to Stein, there is art and then there is official art, official art which depends upon one's body type, carriage, dress and delivery of persona (p.33). And to be successful as an artists does present a problem, for according to Gertrude's friend, Henry McBride, "It ruins you. It ruins you." (P.121) And so it is better to fail because then you have protected your true self, your true, authentic, one hundred per cent pure art.

In many ways Gertrude Stein hermetically protected her own art by making her writing so complicated with the elimination of punctuation and introduction of new grammaric rules that outside editors could not begin to fool with her work because to do so would unravel the armature of a piece never intended for readers but for an audience of one: herself. Why? Most likely for self-discovery while writing the world out. Sometimes writing is the premise of communicating outwardly, but in this case, this introversion moves internally toward self-actualization, and the reader becomes an internal pest of the sort. Why then if Gertrude Stein is so compelled to create an agoraphobic environment does she enshrine her world with artists, writers, famous, famous people entourages of fans and the accusations of "selling out" to official art? The message is this: 'I notice you are an individual after I notice myself. You are fundamentally different than me.' The strong emphasis on singularity, especially occurring in Paris of those 20s and 30s, was an intentional effort for Stein to draw very heavy borders around herself. It was such an extreme effort that she refused to have other people speak to her in english as englishness represented the Americana culture which she had fled, however, she did seem to have her mood swings as when meeting Alice Toklas for the first time, she was asked by the young lady why there were no french books but english books about the apartment. Stein's answer?

"You see I feel with with my eyes and it does not make any difference to me what language I hear, I do not hear a language. I see words and sentences and there is for me only one language and that is english. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and my english. I don not know if it would have been possible to have english to be so all in all to me otherwise. And they none of them could read a word I wrote, most of them did not even know that I did write. No, I like living with so very many people and beling all alone with english and myself."

Yet to be 'alone with english and myself' is to experience a beautiful, self-sufficient, biospheric reality which contradicts her efforts to publish and experience popularity, fame. There is a 'certain slant of light' in this case.

(More to be added in the near future)...

.................And now for a short meditation on Stein's portraiture pieces:

A Slice, A Wheel, A Pretty Round Idea

From Gertrude Stein's petite manifesto, "Portrait of Prince B.D." (1922), space and spatial relations are explored to express knowledge on how to paint a picture, or rather, write an honest work that is precise and exact in its interpretations of the physical world.

According to Stein, "a space is not spent, it is not used, it is similar, it is represented" and yet, if there is no object nor subject, one can't talk about space since space is defined in terms of bodies and made meaningful when one puts things inside to show the distance or relations between elementary or aesthetic elements. Stein writes that the section in a space not only fosters reciprocity between two objects or subject but "resembles distance" as well and is not intentionless but "supplies the drop and selects no sightless system" so clustered phrases like "a large moist blue" and "large dust rose" change hue when set side by side whereas if left isolated in space, the largeness is not questioned and the humidity unimportant. Why then does Stein state "space is not used" but unspent? In perfect unspent vacuums there is no space. However, a blank canvas is an 'unspent space' of the sort, defined by four corners in which an artist may break passed its barriers to behave like a 'pilot' and fly his 'public' eye to 'unsecreted' places. To Stein's logic then, it is a "trade between the one who has a hat" (the artist) and "that one adding" (the viewer) whose regard (criticism) continues the development of the work.

To be a master or critic of the art of painting or writing, Stein urges one to arrive at the center of its purpose and essence via sections. In portraiture art this cube shaped sectioning is called "gridding" while Stein's writing could be called "gertting" (girdding) when her sections are implicitly triangular and uniquely of her own design. On the whole, Stein's manner of examination is circular with a focus that is fixed on a central point quartered by commas, linking the previous to the next, and the next to the previous. These pie-shaped sections carry ideas previously introduced but said in a new way as if to reintroduce the general idea with an added or distorted perspective. Quite cubistic! This way the central point gains greater clarity in definition as all angles have been measured, analyzed, broken down and finally reassembled when all parts are gathered back into the wheel of the paragraph.

Stein's circulatory style of writing stimulates the experience of getting to the point in a round about fashion while being highly charged, excited and driving swiftly to a destination that may seem to be a long ways away and thus creating a special internal inertia. To step outside of Stein's object or idea and examine from the outer edges what is going on in its center is to experience high density implosions. Stein's writing style may seem circumlocutious yet her circulatory approach creates an hermetic central nervous system which is totally secure since, as Stein says, "there is no question because investigation is miraculous."

Cool web site on Gertrude Stein


For future studies on Stein, please check out Lew Welch's "How I Read Gertrude Stein."
Many many thanks to Mark McGurl's lectures and cool book, "Novel Art," which have
contributed to deeze here views in progress. LB

Copyright 1999

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