Saturday, February 18, 2006

Thinking with Stein



A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy."

This passage from Tender Buttons always gets me...I feel as if I've lived through that kind of dinner a thousand times, but the scenario I'm seeing hasn't been spoon-fed to me. There's a gist of something, perhaps a suppressed feeling, a criticism of a complicated sequence of moments, a specific account of a space of time that has occurred often, but not an exact time. Many ways to read it. Perhaps not a comforting experience of reading for some, because it is unlike the habitual reading that we do in the newspaper, or in the reading of a novel or even in many poems, something where we strive for completion and the comfort of identification with the words and the way they are presented. "There is a likeliness lying in liking likely likeliness." (That's from "Portrait of Mabel Dodge.") People are drawn to the familiar, why?

Stein actively disrupts the act of reading "habitually" in Tender Buttons, but she does this while describing mostly objects and foods that probably would have been familiar to her own household. What if we looked around at things that were familiar and didn't take them for granted? What if we described around items rather than naming them? I thought it was interesting that one source I looked at, Bob Perelman's The Trouble With Genius, mentioned that Stein often did not read the titles of the sections aloud when reading Tender Buttons in public. (I'll have to listen to the sound source that Rodney posted and see if she reads them there.)

Mina Loy's "Gertrude Stein"

of the laboratory
she crushed
the tonnage
of consciousness
congealed to phrases
to extract
a radium of the word

And by finding the "radium of the word," perhaps that's where the biases in language are shown. Juliana Spahr's talk that Rodney posted gives excellent examples of how reading Stein might be a freeing experience for someone to whom English is a second language. Stein's language sort of performs in a space where it's not as important to have everything figured out. It's a space of becoming. We discover things. Perhaps she is criticizing a lot of what she sees, but it takes a while to have an opinion about that sink in...

I was reading from Joan Retallack's book How to Do Things With Words, and there's this one little section:

"I never saw John Cage come alive. He seemed to be alive already. ditto Marcel Duchamp? ditto ditto Gertrude Stein?"

I guess I feel like she's alive, trying to burst out of those pages, bouncing around. I laugh, I open the book to where ever and just start thinking with her. I'd like to hear what everybody thinks about all of this...

I also think it would be interesting to compare what we began to talk about in class a little, about H.D. trying to make the aftermath of war, history, and a literary tradition more familiar and approachable in her poetry...both H.D. and Stein seem to want to recreate "familiarity" in some way.

Being In the Present

There's a lot of talk, always, about Stein's repetition, and I feel like that has a lot to do with the feeling of the present moment in Stein's work. How many times in your mind do you repeat things to yourself? If we are asked to repeat in reading, it has the effect of trying to sink in, to emphasize that very place in the sentence, that very concept. Perhaps Stein is trying to keep us right there in the current sentence for a while, rather than rushing on to the next sentence. I would stretch to say that the reading itself could be a practicing for a way of living, truly relishing every moment as it comes along rather than anticipating the next chess move.

John Ashbery says of Stein's work: "if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do." So, the perseverance might be more important to emphasize than the completion of a masterpiece. The use of rhyme and rhythm and repetition really makes her writing resonate, even if we cannot attach a definite doctrine or purpose to her, she makes a loud sound. People still react to this sound.

I wonder if anyone else can comment on Stein's writing being in the present. The sense of the present is in the "-ing" of course, as in "Picasso:" He was having something coming out of him something having meaning. He was not ever completely working." I feel as if Stein's writing reflects a process, more than a completed statement. What are the implications of that? She even references that with Picasso here: "not ever completely working." Is it that Picasso was less conscious of his painting ability, in relation to past goals of completed idea of painting, that made him interesting enough for this portrait? Is he less concerned with his identity, more with his art? Or are the words just part of the composition, brushstrokes that we shouldn't ponder over beyond their usage?

Okay, I feel I've wiggled enough doors loose with my monkey wrench.

Hopefully we'll all learn a little more by listening to Stein read in class on Tuesday.


1 comment:

rodney k said...

I loved this reading of Stein, hope it draws lots of responses, either here or in class.

Your point about "Stein's writing being in the present," subverting the way syntax usually slinks through time (subect-verb-object, past-present-future). and its tendency to defamiliarize the everyday, to make us really SEE--either the thing she's describing, or the language itself--sent me hunting for this quote, from Stein's lecture "Portraits and Repetition":

The painters naturally were looking ... and they too had to be certain that looking was not confusing itself with remembering. Remembering with them takes the form of suggesting in their painting in place of having actually created the thing itself that they are painting...I began to make portraits of things and enclosures that is rooms and places because I needed to completely face the difficulty of how to include what is seen with hearing and listening and at first if I were to include a complicated listening and talking ot would be too difficult to do. That is why painters paint still lives."