The Difficulties of
Gertrude Stein, I & II
I WRITERS & READERS—PARTNERS IN CRIME
Here you will learn many things:
How Gertrude Stein Failed to Write
a Proper Detective Novel While Writing
Blood On The Dining Room Floor.
(Was it an accident or was she pushed?)
Do you see, nothing is surprising but a coincidence. A fact is not surprising,
a coincidence is surprising and that is the reason that crime is surprising.
There is always a coincidence in a crime.
There are so many ways in which there is no crime.
Blood On The Dining Room Floor
Here's a coincidence. I've been thinking a lot about these things—coincidence, surprise. The latter as positive aesthetic value. It's one of those days composed of rushing here and there for reasons instantly erased by the completion of each task. I turn on my car radio just in time to hear a woman's voice saying, Complex thought in writing is always surprising. Does she mean it both ways—complex thought always surprises; it's surprising to find complex thought in writing? We intuitively know that everyday life doesn't conform to the simple outlines of well-made stories. In fact the story as story is radically surprising only to the degree that it transgresses its own generic expectations. When it really does this, disrupting the calculated turns of an artful plot, it's instantly recognized as at least a misdemeanor.
Is there always a coincidence in a crime? Of course, everything is of course coincidence, but the literature that incorporates the kind of coincidences—the unsettling ones, the dissonant juxtapositions—one notices is surprising and therefore a crime unless/until those dissonances become familiar, naturalized. A densely polyglot world, overflowing with disparate perceptions, intentions, desires, is one in which the kinds of coincidence we call transgressions (border incidents) are more likely to occur. The literatures of high-profile coincidence cause generic border incidents even as they explore the patterns of a complex reality. It's ironic that their dissonant contiguities, juxtapositions, incoherences, permeabilities seem gratuitously haphazard when the extratextual world is so much like that. The formal principles of these literatures raise difficult questions about making meaning in a world whose borders exist primarily to locate scenes of transgression while transgressive fluidities are forming our interconnected realities. It might seem that all this should pose more difficulties for the traditional storyteller as guardian of narrowly sequential logics, logics of identity, narrations of continuity in a world whose vulnerabilities have more to do with contiguity. Contiguity is the spatial dimension of coincidence, and it is the illfitting coincidence-contiguity of our reciprocal alterities that continually disrupts longings for the harmonies and smooth transitions of self-assured narrations. If literature is an engagement with possible forms of life—as all language games must be—there are perhaps too many ways in which there is no crime.
This speculation comes as a surprise only because we live in a culture of literary institutions (and markets) that have constituent needs to erase difficulty. But, wait, this is itself beginning to look suspiciously like a story—story of early, middle, or late capitalism reinscribing its brutally fetishized commodification and reification of— If I don't stop the momentum right here and now it might prematurely ejaculate its own conclusion. Stein stops me. Stein writes in her seven-page, four-chapter "Superstitions Of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday A Novel Of Real Life" (1934): "Do not bother. Do not bother about a story oh do not bother. Inevitably one has to know how a story ends even if it does not."
Virginia Woolf, the great and hesitant storyteller, self-interrupter of stories, thinks about the problem of the story as form in her novel The Waves. Throughout, the quasi-character, quasi-narrator Bernard engages in an intermittent, ruminative soliloquy on the relation of language
Now to sum up.… Now to explain to you the meaning of my life …. But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story—and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down so beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. Lying in a ditch on a stormy day, when it has been raining, then enormous clouds come marching over the sky, tattered clouds, wisps of cloud. What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch. Of story, of design I do not see a trace then.
What does such a literature look like? One that does not deny the inarticulate, the confusing, the fragmented, the lost, the loss, but instead brings it into the form? There are many examples in modern and post- modern poetry, drama, even fiction (although less there). Samuel Beckett searched for a form that would admit what he called "the mess," "the chaos": "What I am saying does not mean that there will hence- forth be no form in art. It only means that there will be new form and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else …. [T]o find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now."
Everybody knows everybody.… But not everybody knows everybody.John Upham, Chelsea, Vermont
What about the mess, the chaos, of murder? In the summer of 1933 Mme. Pernollet, the wife of the hotel keeper in the little town of Belley (near Gertrude Stein's country house), fell from a window onto the courtyard below. She died five days later. Stein was fascinated by this event and even went to the funeral. (She and Toklas had stayed in the Pernollet hotel during the summers of 1924–28.) The whole town was gossiping; the cause of the death would never become clear. Stein made a series of attempts to turn an account of this death into a manageable story, but in the way of all mysteries of ordinary life it resisted neat packaging to the very degree that it was closely inspected. It was in fact the merest glimpse of an enormous entanglement, and Stein was quite familiar with the intricacies of the town gossip. As Stein scholar Ulla Dydoputs it, "Notes and revisions in the manuscript of Blood show how many family stories seethe behind the details.… Stein … saw her chance to use the death and her knowledge of town and crime in a detective story."
Stein loved detective novels and wanted very much to write one. By early fall she was trying to put the circumstances of Mme. Pernollet's death into a generic detective form. Unsatisfied with the way things were going, she repeatedly tried to tell the story in other ways. By the end of the year the account had entered three short prose pieces.
The fact is that Stein could never bring herself to reduce this material to the conventional form of the detective novel. As much as she desired another popular publication to follow the success of The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas(1932), she wouldn't (couldn't) take the advice of her American agent, William A. Bradley, to fix the transitions. As anyone who has ever taken a high school English class knows, "fix the transitions" is shorthand for "this makes no sense." Blood is indeed not a story at all but a strangely fragmented, intricately incoherent, humorously tonic meditation on the genre of the murder mystery itself, on the probable act of an improbable murder, on the murderous microclimates often found in seemingly innocuous small-town ecosystems. In the midst of what Stein believed was a failed project, her sense of Mme. Pernollet's death would remain full of powerfully oblique implications intersected by ominous and poignant elements of small-town life. The
The genre that supersedes the detective novel in Gertrude Stein's use of the events of Mme. Pernollet's death is a complex-realist text that can play out contradictory and coincidental and unsettling implications in experiments with form—the form of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, as well as what Stein humorously referred to as the "novel of real life." The promise of a "real life" novel is heralded in the subtitle of "Fred Anneday" (written some six months later, in the winter of 1934), where a "real life" ambition at first appears to be a passing joke but is actually the object of analysis in a hybrid story-essay about the impossibility of telling stories. The permutative-analytic poetics of Blood's antinarrative logic enacts this kind of analysis. It begins with the very first sentences in chapter 1: "They had a country house. A house in the country is not the same as a country house. This was a country house. They had had one servant, a woman. They had changed to two servants, a man and a woman that is to say husband and wife" (Blood, 11).
So the reader at the very outset must either put the book aside in disgust or become complicit in the dual crime that is the fall of the story as story of a fall: the Pernollet clinamen reveals itself in a medley of long-since fallen generic suspects: small-town life, family life, public and household scenes of the sinister life of husband and wife:
Who remembers a door. Any one who remembers a door can remember a war. He went to the war to be killed in the war because his wife was crazy. She behaved strangely when she went to church. She even behaved strangely when she did not. She played the piano and at the same time put cement between the keys so that they would not sound. You see how easy it is to have cement around. (Blood, 47)
The book concludes with this parting gesture toward the detective genre:
|Do you understand anything.|
|How do we do.|
|Do you remember. It made its impression. Not only which they sew.|
|Thank you for anxiously.|
|No one is amiss after servants are changed.|
Yes, of course. Everything always turns out as it should in the world of that particular detective genre where the servant problem remains the
|Lizzie do you understand.|
|Of course she does.|
|Of course you do.|
|You could if you wanted to but you always want something else but not that but not that yes. (Blood, 79)|
That last sentence can be read in as many ways as there can of course be no "of course" at all and yet "of course." Of course it's all a matter of course given the shadow geometries of small-town and family life. But mostly, of course, one can ask all the questions one likes; one can cast them in any direction and address them to whomever one chooses, and of course there can be no reply but one that is entirely empty of information and portent. These are matters to be treated finally as matters in the course of a literary logic that enacts a language game of indisputably warranted nonconclusion. One can quite easily read Blood On The Dining Room Floor as simultaneous matter-of-fact deconstruction of the detective genre—beginning with the counter-informative title (there is no blood on the dining room floor in the text)—and demonstration of the experimental novel as play of and on forms. This play is enacted in a number of spatiotemporal ways—for example, the occasional one- or two-sentence chapter that, like Laurence Sterne's comic brevity in Tristram Shandy, is just one more destabilizing blow to a reader's generic expectations.
But, someone will protest, couldn't this be just a coincidence of accidents in the making of a poesis? Yes, of course, that's how it always is in our contingent world. But I think I know what they might mean. Something like: Are not Gertrude Stein and Mme. Pernollet sleepwalking toward the precipice hand in hand? Is it perhaps a double suicide?
Of course, with Oulipean thoroughness all these pairs could be recombined. Whatever answers one might posit or reject it is undeniably clear that Stein makes of the textual world of Blood just what a confirmed mystery addict doesn't want—unresolved ambiguities, a proliferation of questions whose very forms, rhetorical and not, are ways of saying, See? We never will understand the why of it; this is how things happen. In fact, Stein's fascination with the psychodrama of husbands and wives, as well as other material in Blood, persists well beyond the immediate events of 1933. The Mother Of Us All, completed in 1946, the year Stein died, will revisit the role of the wife with psychological queries and conjectures and humor and startling wisdom.
Meanwhile Stein's geometry of attention in Blood, rather than being plotted in an intriguing, reassuring Euclidean zigzag route from A to Z, creates a fractal coastline of repetitive/permutative linguistic forms whose semantic shape (following the permeable, fluid dynamic of any coastline) is constantly shifting in the emotional, social, intellectual weather of interpretive space.  The novel is a small but complex system that cannot by its own constituting rules arrive at a logical terminus. The directionalities here are about expansion, permutation, change … not reductive stasis. In fact Blood can be seen as a radiant ecosystem of unstable grammars, indeterminacy, uncertainty, surprise. The thoroughly embedded crimes of valuing coincidence over strategic plotting, a generic failure, the ruin of closure, no question of answers. Knowing how badly Stein wanted to write a popular detective novel, I cannot see Blood as the result of Stein's insufficiency as a storyteller. Certainly not after the indisputable counterexample of The Autobiography! And self-sabotage just doesn't ring true. Rather, I want to conjecture that her characteristic practice, the ethos of an investigative poetics, propels her into this culpably poethical position. That she herself later proclaimed her effort a
The poetics of any writing that can and must go on without answers, despite the urgency of its subjects, will always be regarded as a failure if systematic narratives of completion are desired. This is the nature of the story that must bypass questions of its own generic entropy to follow its conventionally prescribed schedule. The first requirement of a plot-driven narrative is that it run on time—story time. The detective story may be the most paradigmatic case in point because all of its mechanisms are in the foreground. It operates with the principles of assured closure present in any assembly-line best-seller. If the writer becomes self-conscious about the DOA starting point s/he might well balk. A narrative will fail to meet its generic conditions if the writer is incompetent, yes, but also to the precise extent that it becomes poethical in its vitality. That is, to the extent that it is a truly investigative form of life, it might override its own moment of inertia; it might not be condemned to go in perfect circles. I associate Stein's "failure" to fulfill the conditions of the detective form with other fortunate generic failures: the "failure" of Walter Benjamin's Arcades project to come together as a systematic whole, Pound's "failure" to fix the fragmentation of the Cantos, and Wittgenstein's (ambivalently) self-proclaimed failure in his introduction to Philosophical Investigations:
It was my intention at first … that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks. After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.——And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.… I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.
It's interesting to note how Wittgenstein seems to confuse forms of logic(that must always fail to contain life) and forms of life (that must always exceed logics). He is after what is "natural"; but of course the logics of genres, philosophical or literary, although they may become habitual enough to be "naturalized," are constructed. The means of their artifice is always open to revision. Pace Gertrude and Wittgen, remarks can be philosophy can be literature.
In all these cases the authors' sense of failure comes in the wake of generic expectations that cannot be achieved for what I see as poethical reasons: the writing engages difficult, unprecedented forms and questions of one's times and therefore must move out of familiar containment into what—at least for a while—will be experienced, by writer and reader alike, as hopelessly fragmented and—to one degree or another—unintelligible. (It's hard to imagine now, and yet true, that Wittgenstein's work was widely considered unintelligible for decades after its publication.) Such work leaves the reader with the question of what s/he's to do. This is where thinking in terms of a fractal poetics may help.
Fractal models (with their scalar self-similarities and unpredictable variations) bring into the foreground of our attention the large patterns and erratic details, the dynamic equilibrium of order and disorder in complex life systems like weather and coastlines. This is a geometry of nature that has helped us attend more productively to the chaotic processes of complex turbulent phenomena that static and idealized Euclidean models cannot begin to accommodate. I have begun to think of certain forms of art (for example, the post-1940s music of John Cage) as having a fractal relation to the rest of life. They are complex constructions that, among other things, present their material presence as a dynamically indeterminate "coastline" for audiences to explore via their own complex cultural and psychological dispositions. If one acknowledges language itself as a complex life system, the linguistic tensions and instabilities, semantic ruptures, and self-similar variations in a work like Blood invite comparison to fractal forms. Can one in fact view Blood as fractal model of small-town and family turbulence rather than confused detective novel?
The closer you look at fractal models, or the natural phenomena they describe, the more (self-similar) details you see, the more complex things become. (In Euclidean figures the closer you look, the simpler things get.) I wonder whether the kind of "positive feedback loop" that generates fractal self-similarities and variations—data reentering the system again and again, each time undergoing slight modifications—might be an illuminating way to think about Stein's writing process. Might in fact give some intuitions about how the mind (that is, the fractal neural networks of the brain) produces complex linguistic forms based on repetition and variation. We know that in the case of Blood, as with most of her other writing, the product and the process are
And then there's the particular way the form of any coastline structures an exploration of it. The reader can tramp up and down the shifting coastline of Stein's words looking for the lost object (the victim, the culprit) in vain, day after day not finding it, finding instead a strange constancy in the scene of the absent object, the coastline itself as a pattern-bounded indeterminacy in flux. Even if something as reassuring as a body were to turn up with an explanation tagged to its toe, it could hardly become the focal point of this tidal windblown beach or page. Ocean beach and Steinian page are equally contingent and dynamic zones whose life principle is change. The beach changes in its conversation with the vagaries and variabilities of meteorological elements; the page changes in its conversation with variable epistemologies, grammars, and genres, as well as with the associative elements of a reader's mind as that mind lives within multiple intersecting forms whose rules are neither simple nor readily apparent. All this occurs of course within another strange constancy—the changing cultural climate of the developing contemporary. Luckily, coincidentally, both beach and page are locations of aesthetic wonder. Aesthetic wonder is a source of energy even as one hesitates in the face of unforeseen difficulties.
But, you may be quite legitimately asking, this beach stuff—isn't this (metaphorically speaking) building sand castles on an extended conceit? Surely one knows that language is not really a coastline. Well I'm not so sure it's not. Or rather I sense that languages and coastlines operate with similar kinds of principles. If one thinks of a coastline as just one site of mutually transformative exchange between different kinds of complex dynamical systems, then language as it exists in the active mediation between neural network and world ecosystems is surely such a site. There are specific things one gains in thinking of language in this way, particularly when confronted by literature that won't resolve into simple mimesis or tidy containments and conclusions.
It saves a certain amount of frustration to remember that you will never solve a coastline. You can explore, analyze, describe it, visit it as often as you like for the pleasure of it, picnic on it, swim along it, embark from it. It is of course gloriously noncompressible. Its best description can only be coterminous with itself, with its horizons and skies and weather, with the complex, infinite series of possible encounters anyone might have with it. You cannot sum up or paraphrase a coastline, although you can experience topographical limits. Geographers
As location of conventional murder mystery, where all must resolve into a single gory punctum—vanishing point of "the body"—Stein's coastal prose is entirely revelatory in its surprising variations. The more you can't find the object you're looking for, the more you're learning about the language coastline itself. "The more you see how the country is the more you do not wonder why they shut the door" ("A Water-fall And A Piano," 31–32). This experience includes that of one's own imaginative cognition, since the system that I am calling fractal is always composed of text in interaction with reader's mind.) To make a "novel of real life"—as distinct from stylistic naturalism—it was necessary to pursue language, with its internal tensions between grammatical logics and radical unintelligibilities, as an active intersection that resists one-to-one correspondence with anything other than its own traffic patterns. Stein was acutely aware, as was John Cage, of the incommensurability of the multiple logics we experience and employ in different parts of our lives. Hence the cluster of questions that will always exist concerning the connection of connections within a work of art to the connections between persons and events and things in daily life. These passages from "The Superstitions Of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday a Novel of Real Life" examine precisely the same puzzle of poetics that Aristotle and countless others since have worked on—the relation between the unfolding logic of a lived day and the logic of time in literature. Notice the self-similar patterns, the noise, the perturbations as this linguistic system enacts what it's saying about everyday life:
It is not at all confusing to live every day and to meet everyone not at all confusing but to tell any one yes it is confusing even if only telling it to any one how you lived any one day and met everybody all of that day. And now what more can one do than that. And doing more than that is this …
Now I need no reason to wonder if he went to say farewell. But he never did. Fred Anday never said farewell to any one in a day no one ever does― 156 ―because every one sees every one every day which is a natural way for a day to be.… Of course no dream is like that because after all there has to be all day to be like that. And all day is like that. And there cannot be a novel like that because it is too confusing written down if it is like that so a novel is like a dream when it is not like that.
But what is this yes what is this. It is this.
What then is this text one finds in Blood On The Dining Room Floor? It is this. Stein's complex dynamic system enacts on the page her contemporary mix of Euro-American, lesbian feminine-masculine, sexual-intellectual, visual-linguistic … compound sensibilities. Refusing to arrest her gaze in the way of detective fiction she keeps it and us in motion. She must go on, even after the success of The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, with her role of prime suspect in the crime of being a foreigner in the familiar world that most readers demand. She is, in other words, the foreigner that every contemporary artist must be. ("Oh dear a foreigner. They did not listen to him be a foreigner"[Blood, 49].) It is this ethos of contemporaneity (most decidedly not that of the conventional detective novel) that Stein articulates in the extraordinary essay she wrote in 1935, "How Writing Is Written": "Everybody is contemporary with his [sic] period … and the whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness.… The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don't know where they are going, but they are on their way."
II READERS & WRITERS—CONSTRUCTING ACCIDENTS
The constructed contingencies of a novel, whether we call them accidents, coincidences, or just events, occur in what we read (in the grammatically directed continuity of reading) as linked series. This gives us a sense of continuous pattern rather than unaccountably sudden or isolated event—a death. When a chapter is no more than a sentence or two or is, as in Tristram Shandy, black or blank, it announces a sudden death/dearth of what one can know even within the confines of the novel—a form whose working epistemology has from its inception been one of authoritative, sweeping, transcendent cognition. Any breakdown of this illusion in the novel is a wrenching event, like a figure emerging out of a dark corner with a knife. Here are five sudden chapters in Blood on The Dining Room Floor quoted in their entirety. I experience them as edges and bends in the coastline of the book:
Chapter 11:Marius to Mario I think easily.
Mario to Marius, and not to believe it at last, oh dear not to believe it at last.
Chapter 13:I felt as well as when I heard that he had trembled for a word.
Chapter 14:Now is the time when no one knows more than in twos and threes.
Say which you like.
Chapter 16:Did I tell of the thing I meant when I said very well?
Chapter 18:So then that is like that. So Now farther.
READING & WRITING
The difference between reader and writer can be the
difference between fantasy and imagination, unless
what one is reading demands rewriting. Fantasy creates
the illusion that amazing things are happening even as
one's body is quite still, docily watching the movie in
the mind. One breathes in, breathes out. This gentle
breathing is very soothing, the pulse is steady and slow.
Imagination can trigger a rapid or irregular pulse, send
eyes darting. Frenetic and copious fits of marginalia are
not enough. The reader jumps out of her chair, indulges
in kinetic perversions—arm waving, forehead grasping,
gasps and exclamations, hyperdramatic reading aloud,
chaotic pacing. This corporeally risky (best
unobserved) reader-response can knock over lamps,
disrupt and rearrange the material forms of one's life,
make it worth living.
An Unwritten Book
Imaginatively living one's contemporariness is a poethical matter. Art can bring us into touch with the concrete particulars of our world in ways that raise questions like John Dewey's in Art as Experience—How is this useful in connecting us with (vivifying) ordinary life experiences? Or my own permutations of that—What art forms help us do the work of meeting our historical moment with compassion, in reciprocal alterity with others; bring us into courageous, humorous dialogue with the historically contingent character of the contemporary; draw us into engagements
Gertrude Stein, reader:
What are detective stories, well detective stories are what I can read. ("Why I Like Detective Stories," 146)
I used to think that a detective story was soothing because the hero being dead, you begin with the corpse you did not have to take him on and so your mind was free to enjoy yourself, of course there is the detection but nobody really believes in detection, that is what makes the detection so soothing, they try to make you believe in the detection by trying to make you fond of the character that does the detecting, they know if you do not get fond of him you will not believe in the detection, naturally not and you have to believe in it a little or else it will not be soothing. ("Why I Like Detective Stories," 147)
Stein is describing a fantasy ethos, a bubble in which one can float on the surface tension of real time. It provides respite from daily worries and also from writing.
I like detecting there are so many things to detect. ("Why I Like Detective Stories," 147)
Suppose or supposing that you had an invitation, suppose some one had been very inviting supposing some one had given him an invitation supposing you had been inviting him to listen to an explanation suppose there had been an explanation supposing you had given an explanation, I can explain visiting. I can explain how it happened accidentally that fortunately no explanation was necessary.
I explain wording and painting and sealing and closing. I explain opening and reasoning and rolling, I was just rolling. What did he say. He said I was not mistaken and yet I had not when he was not prepared for an explanation I had not begun explaining. It is in a way a cause for congratulation. It is in a way cause for congratulation. ("An Elucidation," 434)
Or, to put it another way, Stein doesn't want as a writer to be prematurely dead:
Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between
This interestingly echoes Stein's teacher William James, who, like all those thinkers most intensely concerned to work against the inertia of the known, was puzzling about the locus of new intuitions and knowledge. I found this passage from The Will to Believe quoted in Benoit Mandelbrot's The Fractal Geometry of Nature:
The great field for new discoveries … is always the unclassified residuum. Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to. The ideal of every science is that of a closed and completed system of truth.…Phenomena unclassifiable within the system are paradoxical absurdities, and must be held untrue … —one neglects or denies them with the best of scientific consciences.…Any one will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena. And when the science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exception in them than of what were supposed to be the rules. (28)
Stein's enthusiasm for real detecting, for not explaining, is an actively imaginative ethos of an ever "rolling" investigation released from the finalities of explanation or the death—to art—that is brought on by premature classification. This is the poethos that pervades her writing, linking it with her early interests in psychology and physiology. Isn't it a lovely coincidence that Mandelbrot, whose work helps us read Stein, quotes her teacher, William James, who himself wrote about science in a way that describes Stein's attitude toward language and writing—its relation to the unintelligibilities of the contemporary. Stein was no doubt drawn to James and influenced by him because of significant temperamental affinities. The spirit of inquiry in their respective science and art is one of purposeful play.
I want once again to underscore the seriousness of play in culture, how bereft we would be without the improbable capacity for play some of us sustain against all odds. There's an intense need for play when one is in a peculiarly untenable situation like adulthood. Notice that children can be victims of all sorts of horrors, can suffer from poverty, racism, war, invidious identity politics, but they aren't victims when they are at play; they are fully realized persons when they are fully concentrating
Really why Edgar Wallace is so good is that there is no detection. He makes it ordinary and the ordinary because he is genuinely romantic has an extraordinary charm. The girl will always be caught by the villain just before the end and the chase is to end only in one way that is in the rescue and sometime he has to cudgel his brains to find some reason for this capture of the heroine but captured she is and it is a charm.…[O]f course incidentally he writes awfully well he has the gift of writing as Walter Scott had it. ("Why I Like Detective Stories," 148)
I tried to write one [a detective story] well not exactly write one because to try is to cry but I did try to write one. It had a good name it was Blood on the Dining-Room Floor and it all had to do with that but there was no corpse and the detecting was general, it was all very clear in my head but it did not get natural the trouble was that if it all happened and it all had happened then you had to mix it up with other things that had happened and after all a novel even if it is a detective story ought not to mix up what happened with what has happened, anything that has happened is exciting exciting enough without any writing, tell it as often as you like but do not write it not as a story.(ibid. [italics mine])
To be or not to be continuous? How can this be a real question? Notice how much of the matter of poetics has to do with time. The detective story occurs in its own, urgently hermetic past tense. When the wager of your genre is to maintain the tension of an internal logic, you are always writing in the past tense—about what has happened (present perfected by the past, stopped dead). You cannot let what is going on in your daily life enter without rupturing the form. Writing, as Stein practices it, is the moving principle, the literal composing of her daily life as attentive participant in her contemporary moment. She is in her writing process, which is also her life process "on the way …" She cannot know precisely where this will take her writing, only that it must not
Not everyone is contemporary voluntarily. Stein and Stein's Susan B. know that most people choose to live "about forty years behind their time" ("How Writing Is Written," 151). Few can attend to anything truly new until it is no longer new. Stein says in "How Writing Is Written," the contemporary artist is "expressing the time-sense of his contemporaries, but nobody is really interested.… That is really the fact about contemporariness … you will do something which most people won't want to look at" (151). Stein and the Susan B. of Mother have only recently arrived within the ken of a large, appreciative audience. The writing practice and the living practice for Stein as contemporary writer are inextricably intertwined and must remain that way despite risks to one's "career."
This makes no success because success—who shall, who will, who could, who if they do—nobody changes. (Blood, 79)
What happens if one thinks of the temporal not as layers or arrows, or horizons "before and beyond which …," but as consequence and possibility? Why do we notice time? Because things change. Why do we notice change? Because expectations are disrupted. With this in mind might we begin to develop a model of experience (and art as part of that experience) that is fractal, where time is one dimension of an omnidirectional, infinitely detailed, surface continuum? Transformation, produced by accident and praxis—the form of play that is moderated by exigencies of the real—is the moving principle of human time. Not that this makes anything simple. To the contrary, to think this way is to invoke an urgent scene of complex intersections—nonstop traffic, noise, swerves, accident (collision) on accident (serendipitous meeting). Detailed aerial views would reveal one happy or harrowing coincidence after another. There are so many ways in which there is a crime.
TIME OUT (OF FOCUS?)
The contemporary is what we're doing with the consequences of the past before they've congealed into history.
Genre Tallique, GLANCES:
An Unwritten Book
It's quite clear that a good deal of the culture of any period is designed to reassure the populace that nothing is happening. Stanley Cavell's excellent analysis of TV as palliative pseudomonitor explores one sociocultural logic of this sort. In fact popular programming formats show that nothing significant has changed since the last golden era fit for nostalgia. (This can be signaled by the form even as the characters speak the latest lingo, refer to the most current events. Is the literary equivalent the "new formalism"?) Or, same thing, that the things that are rapidly changing have no effect on core truths.
If one starts, like Gertrude Stein, with the premise that the most valuable writing of any time is that which enacts those times in its language, what—in concrete, material, pragmatic terms—does this really mean? It can mean something about the currency of vocabularies, the ingredients of the linguistic mix, but it inevitably has more to do with formal principles that redirect geometries of attention. The first thing it means for Stein is that she can't operate in the topography of a conventional poem or detective novel. Her poethics precludes conventional (already classified) forms with the one oblique exception (the one that led to her greatest popular success) of writing a biography of herself as autobiography of a persona who can write a conventional biography of Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas can be seen from one of many possible angles as an exercise in Kierkegaardian irony—the pseudonymous narrator writes from a privileged position of disingenuous disclosure that is in fact the closest thing to a "coming out" that Stein could accomplish.
What it means to write one's contemporariness has of course to do with one's material culture but also, and just as important, with one's working epistemology. Stein puzzled a great deal about the relation between memory and knowledge.
Stein: In my own case, the Twentieth Century, which America created after the Civil War, and which had certain elements, had a definite influence on me. And in The Making of Americans … I gradually and slowly found out that there were two things I had to think about; the fact that knowledge is acquired, so to speak, by memory; but that when you know anything, memory doesn't come in. At any moment that you are conscious of knowing anything, memory plays no part. You have the sense of the immediate. ("How Writing Is Written," 155)
Given this highly evolved epistemology, informed by her study of psychology with William James at Harvard and of neurophysiology in her medical studies at Johns Hopkins, Stein realizes that the material forms and synaptic routes her language takes must leave room for what
Stein cannot write a book entitled What Is Remembered, as Toklas can and does, any more than she can write a convincing narrative account of Mme. Pernollet's death. Why not? For one thing, however much she wanted to make an account "natural," she simply couldn't tell a story about what had happened (past perfected). She had to make something happen (tensile present) in her own text. The act of writing automatically catapulted her into the conditions of presentness. As reader she may want to be soothed by pseudodetection, but as writer she wants to engage in the actual detection that is the modus operandi of investigative forms. She approaches writing more like a passionate scientist than an audience-conscious artist. She is investigating the "elements" of language. She is using those "certain elements" to construct a kind of fractal model of her experience of the twentieth century: "So I got rid more and more of commas.…[T]he comma was a stumbling block … that is the illustration of … grammar and parts of speech, as parts of daily life as we live it.…The other thing I accomplished was getting rid of nouns. In the Twentieth Century you feel like movement" ("How Writing Is Written," 153).
From Epistemological First Principles to First Sentences, A Sampler:
First a first sentence from Stein's favorite mystery writer:
Harry the Lancer slouched along Burton Street; he was out of Dartmoor only that Monday, having served twenty-one months short of seven years and the last person he wanted to see was Inspector Long. (Edgar Wallace, Terrible People, 1).
Ah, the wholesomeness of a well-made English sentence!
Here is the dilemma, in How To Write:
Stein: A sentence is an interval during which if there is a difficulty they will do away with it.
And what a poignant predicament to refuse to live in that interval.
Having undertaken never to be renounced never to be diminutive never to be in consequence never to be with and delayed never to be placing it with and because it is an interval it is extremely difficult not to make sense extremely difficult not to make sense extremely difficult not to make sense and excuse.
With a sentence like Wallace's one can begin to appreciate the soothing effect of the stylistically heralded foregone conclusion. The epistemological illusion that knowledge can be complete. It is just that illusion that Gertrude Stein liked so much in murder mysteries. Here's another Edgar Wallace opening, from a novel called The Mouthpiece, published posthumously in 1935. (Wallace lived from 1875 to 1932, so the coast was clear in 1933 for Stein to try her own hand at a mystery.):
There might have been occasions when the offices of Stuckey & Stuckey, solicitors, received the ministrations of a charwoman; but, if so, no living soul could testify to this of his own knowledge.
There is of course complete knowledge of incomplete knowledge all around us. This is the prose of foreshadowing, foreordaining what is already known to the writer. Don't worry, he's in control. Relax, just as you relaxed as a child being read to by an adult. The end is in the beginning. Teleology recapitulates epistemology, or is it the other way around? Stein felt very bad about not being able to do this kind of thing. According to Ulla Dydo, after the success of The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas she discovered how much she enjoyed fame. She had a marvelous time touring America, meeting hundreds (thousands) of delighted readers. She herself was delighted, delighted in all those delighted readers, relishing the delights of finding that she as writer could delight readers. In her attempt to write a generic detective novel did the writing process become fused with the reading process in her mind? Did she wish to satisfy not only her newfound readers but the reader in herself? I think so. I think Stein originally conceived of Blood on the Dining Room Floor entirely in terms of writing as reader for readers. But that interval in the sentence, between reader and writer, looms with more difficulty than she anticipates: "It is very early to begin with the end and so this will not be done" (Blood, 37).
It seems that as Stein began writing Blood, there was a figure-ground shift, a poethical transvaluation of values, in which the author
The first husband and wife were Italian. They had a queer way of walking, she had a queer way of walking and she made noodles with spinach which made them green. He in his way of walking stooped and picked up sticks instead of chopping them and he dried the sticks on the stove and the fires did not burn.
The next ones were found on the side of a mountain. She had a queer way of walking, he didn't. She had been married before but perhaps not only then, at any rate she was soon very sick and is still in a hospital lying on a chair and will not live long. He was like a sheep. He was not at all silly. He was like a sailor. He had been a waiter. He cried when he was disappointed and fell down when he was angry.
The third pair came by train from a long distance and most unexpectedly they had a little child with them. She was a pretty child and went up stairs gracefully. He had been an accountant and loved automobiles and poetry. He was very quickly certain that a mistake had been made. She had lost one kidney and was soon to lose another. They wished all three to sleep under a tree but that is unbecoming and dangerous. There was fear and indignation everywhere until there was nothing any longer to fear. There never had been. (Blood, 11–12)
Stein: I did write it, it was such a good detective story but nobody did any detecting except just conversation so after all it was not a detective story so finally I concluded that even although Edgar Wallace does almost write detective stories without anybody really doing any detecting on the whole a detective story has to have [it] if it has not a detective it has to have an ending and my detective story did not have any. ("Why I Like Detective Stories," 148–49)
Stein is a reader who wants to be soothed, and there is nothing so soothing she says as "crime and ancient history which explains the crime" (ibid., 150). She concludes that Wallace is so satisfying because he uses "the old melodrama machinery and he makes it alive again and … it is much better to make an old thing alive than to invent a new one" (ibid., 149). This is undeniable if one's project is the genre fiction of detection with its systematic extinguishing of variables, its location of the single vanishing point one must create and destroy in generic detective fiction. There is also the exact placement of the interrogative it as in Who done it? The reader wades two sentences into Blood and knows it's generically hopeless. There will never be a luminously prominent it, that fictive filament by which every part of the story is evenly lit. With sprightly writing and a homeopathic dose of uncertainty Wallace is undisputed winner of the competition. Is it a cheap shot to point out that forty years or so later he is forgotten and that Blood is steadily gaining new readers and is the basis for two new operas? This is a happy story of the delayed, but important, consequences of some poethical forms.
In this story Stein has fallen/risen from her position as reader, enjoying the soothing nature of detection-free detective crime, to move between a poetics of permutation and one of conspicuous incompleteness. Or perhaps this is the same thing since permutations foreground indeterminacy. In this way—through repetitions, microvariations, investigating that is a form of noticing, shifts of perspective, pattern differentia, the relative incompleteness of thought/grammar is played out via enjambment and fragmentation. In contrast to Edgar Wallace, whose hydrodynamical circular flow is designed to dissolve jagged edges and return us to the past, Stein gives us a humorously craggy coastline to explore well into the future.
MORE FIRST SENTENCES, from The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein and What Is Remembered, by Alice B. Toklas. Which is Stein? Please elucidate your answer.
- I was born and raised in California, where my maternal grand-father had been a pioneer before the state was admitted to the Union. He had bought a gold mine and settled in Jackson, Amador County.
- I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always preferred living in a temperate climate, but it is difficult, on the continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and live in it.
WHAT STEIN FOUND HERSELF WRITING
What Stein found herself writing in Blood On The Dining Room Floor was not generic fiction, not a story at all, but an analysis of town and country stereotypes embedded in the habitus of a particular place-time. An analysis that emerges out of her investigatory poetic language:
They said nothing happens in the country but there are more changes in a family in the country in five years than in a family in a city and this is natural. If nothing changed in the country there could not be butter and eggs. There have to be changes in the country, there had to be breaking up of families and killing of dogs and spoiling of sons and losing of daughters and killing of mothers and banishing of fathers. Of course there must in the country. And so this makes in the country everything happening in the country. Nothing happens in the city. Everything happens in the country. The city just tells what has happened in the country, it has already happened in the country.
Lizzie do you understand. (Blood, 50–51)
Lizzie Borden, under whose sign Stein writes a detective story with no solution, is a key element. As the Episcopal priest John Herbert Gill puts it in his afterword to the 1982 Creative Arts edition of Blood:
Why could her detective story have no ending? Why is there no detecting, even though clues and coincidences abound? It is because it is a story of crimes in which the guilty are not caught or punished. It is not "soothing" the way Gertrude Stein found most crime stories to be. These were true crimes, crimes that stayed in the memory because they were never solved; when there is a solution it is soothing but it is not interesting, we do not remember it. And so we find that page after page … summons the spectre of the patron saint of unsolved crimes in a kind of anguished litany: "Lizzie do you understand Lizzie do you mind." (Blood, 88)
Of course there is detecting here, but of another kind. The matter under investigation is not only the kind of crime that produces a corpse. The death of the hotel keeper's wife is only the efficient cause as Stein frames her exploration of the ambiguous and complexly explosive elements of the sexual politics of marriage and small-town family life.
THE MOTHER OF US ALL
Gertrude Stein is not known for her sensitivity toward the position of the wife in a masculinist society. She is in fact known to have had scorn for wives of writers she knew while respecting the intelligence and enjoying the services of her own model wife. Alice B. Toklas was the silent partner who kept house, cooked, and typed and commented on Stein's work. According to Ulla Dydo, Stein was unhappy that homosexual
What is marriage, is marriage protection or religion, is marriage renunciation or abundance, is marriage a stepping-stone or an end. What is marriage.
I am not married and the reason why is that I have had to do what I have had to do, I have had to be what I have had to be, I could never be one of two I could never be two in one as married couples do and can, I am but one all one, one and all one, and so I have never been married to any one.
After her marriage to Jo the Loiterer (whose name from the outset has been tagged as lower class: "Any Loiterer can be accused of loitering."), Indiana Elliot decides to change her name but wishes to make it clear that this comes of her own free choice, not from social or marital pressures.
Jo the Loiterer:She has decided to change her name.
Indiana Elliot:Not because it is his name but it is such a pretty name, Indiana Loiterer is such a pretty name.
All the Chorus:She is quite right, Indiana Loiterer is so harmonious, so harmonious. Indiana Loiterer is so harmonious.
Stein, Last Operas And Plays, 82
And in the next act,Indiana Elliot:
I am sorry to interrupt so sorry to interrupt but I have a great deal to say about marriage.…[D]ear Susan B. Anthony was never married, how wonderful it is to be never married how wonderful. I have a great deal to say about marriage.
Susan B. Anthony:
It is a puzzle, I am not puzzled but it is a puzzle, if there are no children there are no men and women, and if there are men and women, it is rather horrible, and if it is rather horrible, then there are children.
Stein, Last Operas And Plays, 85
With the illuminating intelligence of Susan B. Anthony the conscious ambivalence and ambiguity is humorously and seriously played out in an irony that is neither bitter nor sinister. After all, how could any woman resist the opportunity to become a Loiterer? The political voice of the chorus changes the terms from aesthetic ("pretty") to social ("harmonious"). All this operates at a different end of the chromatic scale from Stein's Blood-chilling writing on the position of wives in general and in particular the wife of the hotel keeper who is so crazy she drives her husband off to fight in the war even though he could have avoided combat conscription. The sinister sociofictive logic of Stein's "our town" prepares one for the probability that the husband has pushed his "crazy" wife to her death in the hotel courtyard. The ominous tone leading up to this event is couched almost entirely in evocations of the isolated and uneventful life led by the hotel keeper's wife. (Or, was it suicide?) The linguistic embodiment of thankless repetitive tasks coheres with generations of feminist writing on the "wife trap" that drives women into depressions that of course drive husbands to affairs, divorce, even murder.…
And all this time she was at home, home at the hotel And was it home. In a way it was and in a way it was not, but any way it was the only home she had.
Every day and every day she had to see that everything came out from where it was put away and that everything again was put away.… In that way she passed each day and each day passed away which was a night too.…
She cried when she tried but soon she did not try and so she did not cry.…She was very gracious and smiled sweetly and every day everything was taken out and every day everything was put away; and sometimes several times during every day and sometimes very often during every day everything was taken out and everything was put away. He was busy every day. That is the way to see a thing, see it from the outside. That makes it clear that nobody is dead yet. They grew richer and richer every day. The four children grew richer and richer in that way. They grew richer and richer. That was the only change every day. (Blood, 18)
Thinking about generic differences, the detective novel turns out to be much too linearly driven and constricting for Stein's investigative poetics. The simultaneities of opera as a genre lend themselves to Stein's multiple explorations even as the positive outcome of Susan B. Anthony's work provides the psychic space for a particularly buoyant humor in Mother. A sense of the kind of thing that happens in both instances—where
A POETHICAL WAGER
For Stein, to compose authentically out of one's contemporary situation is to live in the new time that one is taking part in making through the act of composition. Unavoidably this is to some significant extent to not know where you are going, to literally make your way with a poetics whose language leads you to see things in the changed perspective that only the present (with its new cumulus patterns) offers. But, without contemporary composition/composition of the contemporary—the living and seeing it literally makes possible—one isn't moving with integrity and vitality into the new time.
The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. ("Composition As Explanation," 497)
Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. ("Composition As Explanation," 498)
This may be the closest Stein comes to an avant-garde utopian vision: to actually live in one's contemporary world! If it can't happen in everyday life, then it can first happen in art. But if it can happen in art and art is a part of one's everyday life, then we are living courageously in our time. It's funny. Almost too funny for words, but not quite:
|I have often admired her courage|
|In having ordered three|
|But she was right.|
|Of course she was right.|
|About this there can be no manner of doubt.|
|It gave me pleasure and fear|
|But we are here|
|And so far further|
― 171 ―
|It has just come to me now to mention this|
|And I do it.|
|It is to be remarked that the sun sets|
|When the sun sets|
|And that the moon rises|
|When the moon rises.|