Gertrude Stein’s legacy today is strangely cleft. While her work continues to earn the reverence of a strong academic cohort, most everyone else – even much of the literary community – encounters her most often as the butt of jokes, made at the expense of both her uniquely inaccessible way with words and her eccentric celebrity personage.
Take, for example, Ben Greenman’s “Gertrude Stein Gets Her New iPhone,” or Kathy Bates’ portrayal of her (this actor-role pairing is itself something of a joke) as the brusquely opinionated but unerring cultural sage in Woody Allen’s recent “Midnight in Paris.” These are recognizable as parody and caricature, respectively, but are made all the more hilarious by the extent to which they do seem to approach veracity.
Stein’s contemporaries equally indulged in the ridicule to which her writing and her personality lent themselves. One magazine editor to whom she had submitted work returned to her the following reply:
Always get the last word.
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I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.
And then, of course, Hemingway — with whom Stein had a falling out – in his memoir A Moveable Feast famously recollects Stein dismissing one of his pieces as “inaccrochable” (“It’s wrong and it’s silly,” she allegedly then told him, “”like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either”), a word to be found seemingly nowhere beyond the walls of Stein’s Montparnasse flat.
Such a mixed halo of Stein-related artifacts can render this figure further incomprehensible, and for this reason it is important that we have scholars like Lyn Hejinian, a poet and UC Berkeley professor, who devote themselves to Stein’s work and way of thinking (or as Hejinian put it in her recent lecture on Gertrude Stein at SFMOMA, her “reality”) with genuine enthusiasm and appreciation – while never losing sight of the humor in her – and thus stand to illuminate this artist for the rest of us.
During a lonely period spent in London in 1902, Stein read the entire canon of English-language narrative to date, plus a considerable smattering of Russian novels (I feel compelled to insert a “more or less” here, though Hejinian did not; perhaps Stein’s frequent declarations of being a genius do carry their own weight). It is around this time in one’s life (one’s late twenties), Stein proposed, that “life which was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose, and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.” It is this small hard reality, outer and inner, that her work strives to describe. Of course, her method of description avoids almost all of poetry’s usual techniques, mobilizing instead a singular form of repetition: one rooted in her belief that “there is no such thing as repetition” – something that had occurred to her as an adolescent living in a household of eleven, where things had to be repeated – or only seemingly so – often.
In Hejinian’s published works (see “Two Stein Talks”) she has likened Stein’s poetry to landscapes in an effort to illuminate and exonerate Stein’s at first repetitive-seeming poetry. At her lecture, Hejinian proffered what is perhaps a more readily comprehensible, if less broadly useful metaphor that Stein herself endorsed: that Stein’s poetry is cinematic. Film is, after all, a rapid succession of frames, many of which are so similar as to be indistinguishable. Yet we would not be inclined to describe the relationship between such frames as one of “repetition,” at least not exactly.
Toward the end of her talk, Hejinian ventured an intriguing hypothesis: that people react to Stein’s work with such aversion precisely because it is composed in language – a survival tool we are evolutionarily hardwired to enjoy for its clarity and ready comprehensibility. Works by avant-garde modernist painters of Stein’s time – consider Malevich, or perhaps Kandinsky – are no more transparent in their meaning than hers; the encounter may prove just as confrontational. Yet, we are more willing to tolerate such artistic liberty when it occurs in paint.
Dismayed by this possibility – that we are programmed not to enjoy Stein – an audience member asked Hejinian how she came to love the writer, and how she approaches Stein’s poetry. “If nothing else,” Hejinian replied, “I just follow the train of Stein’s perceptions.” Is this not how we approach Picasso and Braque’s works of analytical cubism (some of which are on display in SFMOMA’s The Steins Collect), which render a single object from numerous perceptual vantage points? Paint and language make for different artistic media indeed.