Gertrude Stein’s Biographical Body: More Than Remains
The test of a “politics of poetry” is in the entry of poetry in the world in a political way.
–Barret Watten, “The Conduit of Communication in Everyday Life”
As I say all novels are soothing because they make anything happen as they can happen that is by remembering anything. But and I kept wondering as I talked and listened all at once, I wondered is there any way of making what I know come out as I know it, come out as not remembering. I found this very exciting. And I began to make portraits.
–Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition”
“She has always made her chief study people” (TAAT, 45), and ultimately, transgressed the genre formalization that depicts people within standard biographical terms. Gertrude Stein divined her own methods for presenting her impressions of others. Within an increasingly industrialized culture, she considered the attempted representation of people to be a production of personas that risked a formulaic confinement. Stein’s acute awareness of assembly line manufacturing spurred her to work against the commodification of language – and make language her own, more than ever. That commodification continues to limit the activity of how we identify and label individuals, so that our pre-packaged culture dispenses rigid versions of people or “types,” thus belying the possibilities language can inspire. Beyond the obvious cardboard cut-outs of “right” versus “left”, another result of such characterization practices can be seen through the popular trend in memoirs and biographical works. These books perpetuate the mythos of America: pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps, overcoming odds, etc. as if there were no other noteworthy ways of living to admire.
These “rememberances” at base evidence a historicizing condition. Someone is remembered within the context of certain circumstances, achieving particular goals, etc. Additionally, such recollection assumes the rubric of proper grammar and syntax as a prerequisite for comprehension. The static popular use of words served as “soothing rememberances” for eased consumption. For Stein and others now, it is the equivalent of being spoon-fed prescriptive paths for life. Her own biographical notes illustrate her resistance toward the “easy road.” Stein’s various portraits and biographical pieces ignored grammatical laws and brought language into focus, while bearing no regard for soothing or instructing audiences by example, and thus, her work confounds the commodifying impulse and elevates the “text-as-object” condition. Industrialized production would lay down for writers the dictates that disguise the materialism of language and obliterate the need for people to actively handle words via their imaginations, and thus, their own emotional predilections. Readers seek to know the meaning of the story, rather than working with the text-at-hand, infusing, constructing, and enacting meaning as a collaborative effort, as an action. Consider the old metaphor of selling a house: the realtor finds it easier to sell a house under the mythology of “how many good, familial times will be had” through the obtainment of the product, rather than on the actual design or by speculating on the unglossed potentialities of what may happen once you’ve moved in. Likewise, words were just vehicles, a product meant to deliver an end result, until Stein’s concern with their presence caused unrest among the critics.
Comprehension, as based on common grammar and artifice, Stein felt, makes “all novels soothing” because it simply familiarizes the way language is used. This familiarization produces the desired, prescriptive result. For the conditioned reader, the stories delivered may resemble the meat of life; they can be the tales that reveal life’s lessons, titillate or make us cry. However, that conventional writing style does not identify some essential truth ready for us to learn and live by. Rather, it anticipates a common readerly response and attempts, through rule abeyance and manipulation, to deliver the anticipated story-lesson. Stein undertook the development of a different science, one that did not divide the intellect from the emotion of the individual. Wisdom was not to be limited to the reader’s “correct” understanding of the lesson therein. The molecular structure of the sentence did not belong to a literary science of naturalization but came under the determinations of the individual scientist, philosopher, and person to test their own hypotheses, according to instinct, whim, and whatever other personal calculations might come into play. In Stein’s work, words were not stand-ins for other realities. The lines and phonemes became tangible realities themselves.
[To be continued]