Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading Stein (assigned)

GERTRUDE STEIN, Tender Buttons (required; any convenient edition).

Three Lives (1909), Stein’s first published book, was begun in 1905, before she had absorbed the full lesson of Picasso and the Cubists. Easily accessible and full of human interest, Three Lives, as an early work, does not provide an adequate measure of Stein’s capacity for innovation. Tender Buttons, published in 1914, accomplishes tnis. The little book is a landmark, since it is one of the first literary works in any language to provide a plausible counterpart for Abstraction. (The most attractive edition is the Dover one, but you can get Tender Buttons together with Three Lives in a cheap Mentor paperback.)

In writing the book she said she “needed to completely face the difficulty of how to include what is seen with hearing and listening.” Note the synaesthetic motif. Elaborating on this point Stein noted that it was her “first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm.” The last phrase seems to men that she renounced poetry in all of its forms, as prose was challenging enough.

As a first approach, it is best to read Tender Buttons in small sections. Nonetheless, it has a tripartite structure: objects, food, and room. Together these themes evoke Stein’s coupled, domestic life with Alice B. Toklas. More generally, they pertain to “woman’s sphere,” as conceived of a hundred years ago. (Some readers have detected sexual themes here and there, with hidden anatomical references.)

Broadly speaking, the book may be said to be about similarity and nonsimilarity, and about causation and noncausation. The first is shown in the unusual juxtapositions, possibly following Lautréamont’s talisman: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine on an operating table.”

Several stylistic devices put causality into question. The frequent use of the word “and” implies contiguity but not necessarily anything more. And the omission of question marks in sentences that seem to be questions, elides these sentences into a uniform whole. Declarative sentences and questions are all one thing. The suppression of the difference implies the zetematic (questioning) apprehension of reality.

Do what extent does Stein’s disjunctive technique resemble the compositional procedures of the analytic Cubist works of Gris and Picasso?

Observe her repeated citations of the colors red and white.



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