Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gertrude Stein and the end-times for language

No teacher, during my English-major undergraduate years, required me to read anything written by Gertrude Stein, but the literature about literature kept mentioning her name.  By repute, I gathered that Stein was a radical, artistically well-connected, feminist, living in Paris, confounding to understand, and either brilliant or unimportant, depending on who said so.  But everything I knew of her was second-hand.

Recently, as I re-read Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs, I read on the internet that Stein is alleged to have admired Grant or to have said she could not "think of Grant without weeping".  I began to seek the source of these claims.  It was necessary to resort to the deep web (proprietary libraries and databases that someone must pay for) to determine that the quote probably came from a book called "Four in America", written by Gertrude Stein and published in 1947..   I sought to find this book so that I could read the quote in context, but the book was not at all easy to get hold of.  An extensive search revealed there to be one copy in the Philadelphia Free Library, another in the Princeton University Library, and a used copy for sale via Amazon for $40.

Not ready to shell out $40 without at least a look-see, I asked a friend to check the book out of the Princeton University library for my perusal.  After sincerely attempting to make sense of the book, I then turned, in some desperation, to the book's 26-page introduction by Thornton Wilder.  Wilder's introduction turns out to be a masterpiece, and does a good job of explaining Ms. Stein's opacity--her deliberate near-repetitions which further develop an idea, and her occasional stunning insights, and her startling claims, her dense and mangled sentences, painstakingly and poetically mishapen by their maker.

I bravely plowed into the book and eventually, on the 77th and last page of the quarter of Stein's book devoted to Grant, I found the actual quote I had originally been seeking, which is: "I cannot think of Ulysses Simpson Grant without tears."  However, this lucid-looking sentence is the beginning of one of the most abstruse, dense, and discouraging paragraphs Stein has perhaps ever written.  And thus I conclude that the popular quote is generally mis-used on the internet, where people were taking it to mean that even the writer Gertrude Stein admired Grant, or perhaps that she felt his life was tragic.  Whatever she intended by the sentence (one of the few grammatically sensible sentences in the entire book), it likely wasn't that.  And the fact that so many people have passed the quote along, often somewhat mangled and without context, struck me as being noteworthy.

You see, the quarter of the book "Four in America" which is devoted to Grant (the other sections are titled "Wilbur Wright", "Henry James", and "George Washington") is not actually about Grant, although he is constantly mentioned.  Stein was perhaps interested in the fact that Americans admire Grant, but where Stein's writing is concerned, it is difficult to be sure of anything.  She seemed to have believed that we are now living in a sort of "end times" for language, that language now is strictly superficial in effect, its meaning hijacked by the idiotic, unceasing thought-stream in our heads.  According to her belief--and I'll have to say it makes a kind of sense--normal or regular writing never reaches our true self (the inner intelligence that ought to be running our lives instead of our egoistic thought-stream, which has enslaved us instead).  So she tried a variety of unorthodox mechanisms to cut through.

Possibly, to want to read anything by Stein has perhaps something to do with spiritual readiness, in the same sense that Wilder's introduction to "Four in America" mentions spirituality.  Where Stein uses "human nature", an Eckhart Tolle would later use "mind", and where Stein uses "human mind", Eckhart Tolle would later use "the real you" or "the observer of the mind".  But that both writers employ signposts to the same important matter is not in doubt.

But at last, I was satisfied!   I paid the $40 for the book via Amazon (for the Thornton Wilder introduction alone), and returned the borrowed copy to the university library.  The purchased treasure still sits on my shelf, and from time to time I open it to allow myself to feel more confounded than usual.

Thinking back to my youthful college education, I now understand that the professors themselves might have been bemused and confused by Stein's opus.  Requiring a youthful me to have read a Stein work would not been exactly like casting pearls before swine; it might have been much more like casting plastic before swine, with my swinish self unable to ingest the plastic no matter how much chewing went on.