. . . Gertrude Stein

. . .

Sometimes I feel a little blue about having so thoroughly avoided the possibility of serious money during these many years of involvement with the Web. But then I remember what Gertrude Stein wrote about dropping out of Johns Hopkins Medical School --

Her very close friend Marion Walker pleaded with her, she said, but Gertrude Gertrude remember the cause of women, and Gertrude Stein said, you don't know what it is to be bored.
-- and I realize that I didn't even have to betray the cause of women. All right!

Underreported fact: Gertrude Stein's gravestone misspells her birthplace.

. . .

I love listening to Gertrude Stein. She sounds just like Margaret Dumont. Like if Margaret Dumont had been a full member of the Marx Brothers.

. . .

Modernist Class

  1. Literature is the study of artifacts made of language. Thus, as a discipline, it asserts the primacy of primary sources.
  2. Labels like Modernism and Postmodernism obscure or obliterate primary sources.
Given the overwhelming variety of international publishing in the twentieth century,
an / era / any / time / of year -- Louis Zukofsky
any attempt to generalize about twentieth century writing -- any attempt to use chronologically-biased labels in anything but a strictly chronological way -- leads to manifest absurdity. I've seen "Gertrude Stein as Postmodernist," "James Joyce as Postmodernist," and "Laurence Sterne as Postmodernist"; in fact, the "Postmodern" label seems to be applicable to any writer with a sense of humor.

These absurdities can only be kept unmanifest through ignorance. And these labels are primarily used in defense of an ignorance clung to through laziness, careerism, or the desire to maintain a restricted and reactionary canon.

If you see that the head of a university English department writes only about T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, you might guess that he hasn't read very widely or very carefully. (You might also guess that you wouldn't want any of your friends to become sexually involved with him.) But by switching his avowed topic to Modernism (with, of course, Eliot and Lawrence as his sole citations), our prof now pronounces on hundreds of writers.

. . .

Condensed Time Since movies began, they've been swapping techniques with dreams. I think that's because they share a structural problem: how to maintain different rates for elapsed time and for narrative time -- expressing years in an hour, an hour in minutes -- in a medium where the narrative is directly experienced rather than related.

Rather than come to grips with this problem, the filmmakers of contemporary Hollywood tend to simply give up, appending more and more running time to avoid the question of condensation, and saddling clumsy voice-over narration onto the broken back of the "direct experience":

Hi-ho, Sliver! and away!
In another way, all narrative art, including written narrative, condenses time: creator time vanishes into the much shorter audience time. A novel may take a month or fifteen years to write, but almost always takes less time to read.

And with movies the time compression is even more extreme, especially if we start talking about people-hours....

Now, although there's always the possibility that I'm falling into the food-in-a-tube fallacy, it seems to me that this compression -- story as time-compactor machine -- is key to the pleasure taken in the curiously strong arts of narrative. As evidence, when there's little or no such compression -- as with the semi-automatic writing of Gertrude Stein or Lionel Fanthorpe, or the semi-automatic early moviemaking of Andy Warhol -- the results, fine though they are, seem more lyric than narrative.

We must think further on this, if we can do so without falling asleep....

Although a narrative work's creation takes more time than any single incident of its consumption, a certain type of audience (mine) may revisit it so often that audience-time eventually sums up bigger than creator-time. I know for certain that I've accumulated more days reading The Glass Key than Dashiell Hammett took to write it.

My type of audience includes most of the critics in the world, and we aren't shy about flattering ourselves (e.g., Barthes's "Those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere," undoubtedly referring to Joseph Campbell). But there's something distinctly unelevated about surrounding ourselves with these papered and videoed units of time, like so many Everlasting Gobstoppers, and I don't believe we escape the market through our repetitions any more than a kid with The Lion King T-shirts, action figures, picture books, and computer games fights the power by insisting on watching the original work again.

Instead our re-reading and re-viewing gives us the chance to treat time itself as a commodity -- something to collect, to hoard, to revel in -- becoming misers of time, diving and wallowing in our libraries for all the world like Scrooge McDuck....

Scrooge McDuck

. . .

A Novel of Thanks a Bunch

Before the communicable diseases of friendship faded, friendship faded.

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Community Service for the Public Domain

Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934
by Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice

I picked this up for its genealogy. How could've I possibly guessed that would entail sex?

During her life with Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein's writings began in shared notebooks, the earliest drafts marbled with coded promises of "cows" for Toklas and "babies" for Stein. Shaping and revising a finished work consisted largely of removing or abstracting specifics reversing the usual How to Write advice throughout assuming shared handling by lover-author and lover-typist. A wikierotica de-eroticized.

"There is a public for you but no publisher."
- Henry McBride to Gertrude Stein, Nov. 15, 1920

And there was a community for her but a community gated against all but two, as Toklas successfully resisted Stein's attempts to widen her sphere of collaborators.

What to make of this writing's translation from messaging couple to unknowing reader? After the polish of abstraction and decontextualization, does any meaning inhere? Or was blinding-white mineral-leached refinement the goal?

Of course, in one way or another, most literature has been dislocated from a community to a public. See, for example, Ron Silliman's insistance that poetry can only be written as a sworn member of a poetic tribe, although poetry from outside the tribe can sometimes successfully be read. Stein/Toklas present just an extreme example of this more general mystery, most extremely in "Stanzas in Meditation," a difficult work which became undecipherable when most instances of the words "may" and "May" were hurriedly removed in expiation of Stein's old relationship with May Bookstaver.

Dydo-with-Rice draw the line there, treating those changes as textual corruption where other changes are treated as craft. Too blatantly mechanical to sustain the faith? And they seem uneasy at Stein's submitting Georges Hugnet's French lyrics to her usual process too profane an origin?

How to Read? Their evidence is brought not quite to bear on that question.

. . .

Salomé, What She Watched

(Written for The Valve)

Fenitschka and Deviations by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Dorothee Einstein Krahn
The Human Family (Menschenkinder) by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Raleigh Whitinger
Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé, ed. Ernst Pfeiffer, tr. Breon Mitchell

Two-and-a-half stories into Menschenkinder (timidly Englished as "The Human Family") and I'm pleasantly surprised by their oblique viewpoints, the suggestive opacity of their sweeping gestures. By eight-and-a-half, my cracked fingernails are pawing the door while I whimper for air, air....

The last book to dose me like this was No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith, three years' worth of noticed utterances ("found texts" understates its inclusiveness), sorted alphabetically and by number of syllables. Against the author's advice, I read it front to back. (Not at one sitting, but still.)

For all I remember, two-thirds of the way through someone in Goldsmith's circle discovered true love and a revitalizing formula for social progressivism. If so, the next two hundred pages of advertising, trash-talk, and D. H. Lawrence warhorse scribbled them away. Goldsmith's big white volume flattens all layers of a life that seems not to have been unduly dull, solitary, or settled into solid shallowness as far as the mechanically-aided eye can reach. No there there, or anywhere else either; no under; no outside. Nothing but an unbreakable but by no means scuff-free surface. The discursive universe as the wrong side of a jigsaw puzzle.

I wouldn't imply any aesthetic affinity between Lou Andreas-Salomé and Kenneth Goldsmith. But the horror conveyed by both is an emergent formal property whereby the self-traced boundaries of a free-range spirit are established as crushingly limited.

Twelve stories by Andreas-Salomé have been translated into English. All were originally published in 1898 and 1899 and probably written in the same two-year burst. About half the stories have a male point-of-view; about half a female; some split down the middle. Although some include long letters or soliloquies, only one is in the first person. Elements and settings and character types and plotlines appear and re-appear trains, hospitals, mountain walks, hotels; doctors, artists; older men, slightly less older men; seductions, spellbindings, disillusionments, untrustworthy re-affirmations in never exactly replicated configurations, with just enough variation to convince us that a solution won't be found.

The puzzle is constant: There's a singularly intelligent and beautiful woman. (The traits are inseparable in these stories.) And all human value is placed in slavish idealization of the (almost always) gender-defined Other. Whether it's a case of male worshipping female, female worshipping male, or (rarer, dismissable) female worshipping female, such idealization is shown as irresistable but unmaintainable, thrashing between the fetishized parties —"I must sacrifice all for you!" "No, I must sacrifice all for you!"— and usually snapped by a sexual outburst.

(I confess that two of the twelve stories do offer "solutions", but both are so absurdly inept that the effect's more revolting than reassuring. According to one, a woman [or Woman] finds fulfillment only in childbirth; transparently the appeal of the theorized child is its strictly theoretical state as inseperable Other. Otherwise, the stories show far less interest in children or mothers than in fathers. Mothers aren't bright, or ambitious, or heroic. At most, they're embarrassing. And one such mother embarrassingly points out the egotism of the second "solution" offered: wait until the imperfect Other is safely dead, produce an idealized portrait, and rest content in mutual [but not consensual] redemption.)

As an exercise in spritual discicpline, I'd wanted to avoid gossip while reading Andreas-Salomé's fiction. But these exercises in objective solipsism are so clearly trying to work something out that my resolve crumbled, and I found, in the autobiographical essays she wrote more than thirty years later:

In the dark of night I didn't just tell God what had happened to me that day—I also told him entire stories, in a spirit of generosity, without being asked. These stories had a special point. They were born of the necessity to provide God with the entire world which paralleled our secret one, since my special relationship to him seemed to divert my attention from the real world, rather than making me feel more at home in it. So it was no accident that I chose the material for my stories from my daily encounters with people, animals, or objects. The fairy-tale side of life hardly needed to be emphasized—the fact that God was my audience provided adequately for that. My sole concern was to present a convincing picture of reality. Of course I could hardly tell God something he didn't already know, yet it was precisely this that ensured the factual nature of the story I was telling, which was why I would begin each story, with no small degree of self-satisfaction, with the phrase:

as you know

[After losing faith in God] I continued to tell my stories before I fell asleep. As before, I took them from simple sources, encounters and events in my daily life, although they had suffered a decisive reversal as well, since the listener was gone. No matter how hard I tried to embellish them, to guide their destiny along a better path, they too disappeared among the shadows. [...] For that matter, was I even sure that they were true, since I had ceased to receive them and pass them on with the confident words "as you know"? They became a cause of unconfessed anxiety for me. It was as if I were thrusting them, unprotected, into the uncertainties of the very life from which I had drawn them as impressions in the first place. I recall a nightmare—one which was often retold to me—which occurred during an attack of the measles, when I was in a high fever. In it I saw a multitude of characters from my stories whom I had abandoned without food or shelter. No one else could tell them apart, there was no way to bring them home from wherever they were in their perplexing journey, to return them to that protective custody in which I imagined them all securely resting—all of them, in their thousandfold individuality, constantly remultiplying until there was not a single speck of the world which had not found its way home to God. It was probably this notion which also caused me to relate quite different external impressions to one another. [...] It was as if they belonged together from the first. This remained the case even when the sum total of such impressions gradually began to overload my memory, so that I began to use threads, or knots, or catchwords to orient myself within the ever more densely woven tapestry. (Perhaps something of this habit carried over into later life when I began to write short stories; they were temporary aids in getting at something which was after all a much larger coherent whole, something which could not be expressed in them, so that they remained at best makeshift.)

And later:

[...] nothing can affect the significance of any thing, neither murder, nor destruction, unless it be to fail to show this final reverence to the weight of its existence, which it shares with us, for, at the same time, it is us. In saying this I've let slip the word in which one may well be inclined to see the spiritual residue of my early relationship to God. For it is true that throughout my life no desire has been more instinctive in me than that of showing reverence—as if all further relationships to persons or things could come only after this initial act.

It's easy enough to guess why such a person would have felt attracted to Freudian methods.

To return to her fiction, for those who'd prefer not to commit themselves, one Menschenkinder story is online. The books' most representative highlights might be "Maidens' Roundelay" (with a full double cycle of other-idealization and self-disillusion) and "Fenitschka" (which begins with near date-rape and ends years later in an ambiguously liberating act of forced voyeurism).

Having suffered the effects of full committal, I'm inclined to favor the two least representative stories. "On Their Way" is a black comedy of criss-crossed class incomprehension in which a young couple fail at romantic suicide but succeed at idiotic boyslaughter. "At One, Again, with Nature" stares aghast at the iciest of Andreas-Salomé's girl geniuses. Inventing California-style boutique organic produce, mocking country cousin and sugar daddy, romping with colts, kicking poor pregnant servants out in disgust, and anticipating the final solution of Ethan Edwards, Irene von Geyern escorts us out of the sequence into a harsh and welcome winter's wind.

These two don't solve the problem of Andreas-Salomé, but they do solve the problem of Story: an Other given the small mercy of The End.


peli grietzer asks:

How come all these large scale radical textual experiments operating by a linguistic rather than representational principal (No. 11...., Sunset Debris, etc.) end up being lauded for their sense of suffocation, melancholy and quiet hysteria?

I also like them for this very reason, it's just that it seems like all technically referential works guided by a non-mimetic logic end up being prized for the same emotional effect, that doesn't seem to have much to do with the actual specific non-mimetic logic they operate by.

I've noticed a similar trend among reviewers. (It may be just the default establishment mood in which to take any odd and encompassing work: the earliest defenders of James Joyce similarly treated him as a conduit of Waste-Land-ish moping.) But, for me, one of the meta-interesting things about radical textual experimenters, as with twelve-tone composers or free jazz musicians or three-chord garage bands, is that they don't all sound alike. Trying to articulate how that magic's managed may be among the most amusing challenges available to contemporary critics. Can we do any better than "voice"?

For the record, I wanna say that all of Silliman's work (including Sunset Debris) leaves me pretty cheerful, and the same goes for Gertrude Stein and Jackson Mac Low. On the other hand, the carefully crafted movies of Jean Eustache distill the bitterness of human limits into something finer than either Goldsmith (intentionally) or Andreas-Salomé (unintentionally) do by "accident".

For that matter, Goldsmith himself credits the development of his technique (and this message) to the influence of Andy Warhol, whose movies and fine art don't really effect me that way although maybe the Factory novel a would if I could stand reading it.

peli responds:

What I was really reminded of by your description of "No. 11.... "is the experience of watching season 2 of, let's say, Buffy when you're already a veteran of all seasons + Angel. Know what I mean? Knowing the resolving of the big point of narrative interest which just took place is going to be trivial from the perspective of five seasons later, not by a grand artistic architecture utilizing this trivialization, but just by everything moving on to different narrative interests that negate earlier ones (Oz and Willow being great great greatest love, later Willow and Tara being far more great greater love).

The obvious analogy with life actually devalues the poignancy of this, I think : in art we expect climaxes not to be retconned away meaninglessly, so it hurts more.

. . .

Jeepers, Creepers, and Peepers

"The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" by Sianne Ngai,
Critical Inquiry Summer 2005, Vol. 31, Issue 4

Aesthetic theorists and researchers traditionally start from the Beautiful and Sublime. Having tangled questions of taste with investigations of experience, they then traditonally fall face-first into complete muddle.

So, as simultan kindly surmised I would, I like what Ngai's doing with Minor Aesthetic Categories. All I have to add to her essay relates to what it specifically isn't about. I mean, it says "the Avant-Garde" right in the title; I can't complain I was misled. But I think its High Art focus leads it to romanticize, overstate the centrality of, and miss some distinctions in cute-directed violence.

* * *

Impugning sincerity is tricky business. Goths genuinely are cute, and I'm sure as many kids go to art school because they're goths as the other way round. Nevertheless, sincere or not, there's no challenge when a contemporary fine-artist brutalizes the cute, or pretends it's a menace. In some cases, as Ngai kind of admits, it's macho-brat kicking against being perceived as trivial. In a lot of cases, it's just a cut-rate version of surrealism's habitual degradation of the desired. In all cases, it's easier to market "edgy" than "adorable".

In contrast, I admire Joe Brainard and Frank O'Hara for the conviction of their cuteness for refusing to buckle under fear of what the guys would say.

There are other artists, true, some inside, some outside high art circles, that I admire for the conviction with which they beat cuteness up. These come in two flavors.

  1. Kids who torture and maim their own toys. There's a lot of self-loathing in the play. Two obvious (and contrasting) examples from underground comix would be Vaughn Bodé and Rory Hayes.
  2. Kids who torture and maim other kids' toys. Here resentment is more important than identification: Tex Avery's sympathies didn't lie with the Disneyesque Sammy Squirrel. Although partly inspired by a photo of the director as an ugly baby, I have to believe similar hostility fueled the most hideous of all cuteness desecrations: Bob Clampett's original Tweety Bird. With its huge eyes and feet, sticky nakedness, and horrid leer, the creature's regressed past fluffy chick to fertilized egg: NEOTENY GONE TOO FAR.
Lizard About to Blow Balls Off at Flower: Vaughn Bode
Type 1
Shit-Eating Grin: Bob Clampett unit
Type 2

* * *

cute, a. 2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as CUNNING a. 6.

Gertrude Stein's book answered the riddle "What's cuter than a button?" Minima Moralia, on the other hand, I'd call cunning.

As those near synonyms (and as shithouse rats) indicate, "acute"'s move to "cute" was aphetic but not antonymic. (Speaking of etyomology, a scholar who keeps the OED so close as Ngai does will, I hope, be entertained to learn that "till" is not a shortening of "until".) The cutey-pie's wide eyes and soft skin signal receptivity and resilience.

Cute Eugene the Jeep is quiet, sure, but also indestructible and omniscient. Doghouse Reilly is notoriously cute. Young John Wayne is by no means harmless, but he's observant, non-judgmental, and cute, whereas old John Wayne is damaged, vindictive, and decidedly not cute. When Charlie Chaplin shambles on broken at the end of City Lights, he's definitely harmless, but he's no longer cute.

In nineteenth century North America, where both usages began, I suppose an infant might've seemed "cunning" in its sheer makedness: the extent to which the infant manages to resemble a perfectly engineered doll. "What a piece of work is a baby!" But the OED's "acute" citations seem to instead point towards "sensitive to impressions" and "having nice or quick discernment."

The most surefire "Awwww!" shot in movies is the one which shows an audience of children spellbound by a movie. And here's Chris summarizing a recent study of folk comparative psychology:

The baby scored really high on experience (higher, in fact, than the adult humans, including "you"), but really low on agency. This seems to imply that people feel like babies are experiencing everything, but have no will. I'm not exactly sure what to make of that.

More than just the viewers' vulnerability associates aesthetic response with cuteness.


I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use silence, exile, and cute.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.