Gertrude Stein, c. 1945
(Photograph by André Ostier)
(Photograph by André Ostier)
Sense of continually going at foolish speeds along some sharp-angling river road in the black night, willow thickets and wash skittering through the careening movie of the highbeams. Liable to scoot off in a constant arc, sailing out into the willows, where the road turns explicably off, avoiding the bright slurry and waggle of water. Writing beyond the blunt exigencies of thinking. Do I think of Gertrude Stein’s sly opening to Fernhurst (c. 1904)? (No.) Nevertheless:
A guest of honor so custom demands begins an address with praise and humor and speaking to the ideals of the audience clothes the laudations in the technical language of the hearers’ profession. It is known that post prandial attention must be fished with this bait and only slowly rises to interest and labor. So the selected bandar-log begins his imitating chatter with the praise of repetition and a learned lady delights her audience with a phrase and bids them rejoice in their imperfections.(I rejoice here in my imperfections. I chatter irresponsibly, like a macaque, or any species of monkey.) One proceeds by latching onto whatever it is one latches onto, no covetousness or beleaguered “need” allowed. (See the swashbuckling Stevens, in “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” (1942), attempting to make the unrankable brash giddiness of poetry “superior” to philosophy:
. . . if the end of the philosopher is despair, the end of the poet is fulfillment, since the poet finds a sanction for life in poetry that satisfies the imagination. Thus, poetry, which we have been thinking of as at least the equal of philosophy, may be its superior. Yet the area of definition is almost an area of apologetics. The look of it may change a little if we consider not that the definition has not yet been found but that there is none.I know not what I do. Either. I “need” not know what I do. To work a space without definition, unbounded and defenseless, that’s one aim. To eschew the laudatory trappings, to voice in no technical language to none who profess. To talk tree-talk, willow-talk, the crepitant wastrel talk of water continually shushing through river rocks. And worry no foolishness of trajectory or vitesse. (You will inevitably leave some things behind.) Why do I find it such solace to read Stein’s measured modulatory timbre, its push become caress? Out of “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans”:
When you come to feel the whole of anyone from the beginning to the ending, all the kind of repeating there is in them, the different ways at different times repeating comes out of them, all the kinds of things and mixtures in each one, anyone can see then by looking hard at any one living near them that a history of every one must be a long one. A history of any one must be a long one, slowly it comes out from them from their beginning to their ending, slowly you can see it in them the nature and the mixtures in them, slowly everything comes out from each one in the kind of repeating each one does in the different parts and kinds of living they have in them, slowly then the history of them comes out from them, slowly then any one who looks well at any one will have the history of the whole of that one. Slowly the history of each one comes out of each one. Sometimes then there will be a history of every one. Mostly every history will be a long one. Slowly it comes out of each one, slowly any one who looks at them gets the history of each part of the living of any one in the history of the whole of each one that sometime there will be of every one.Dirge slowly, and inhabit the whole surround. Or scat abruptly, and decode, piecemeal, the scatter. Against my joy at “the tremors of fickle solemnity” of Stein’s Making of Americans lines, my dismay at pronouncements like (Stein to Louis Bromfield, “early summer 1932”): “I am working a lot I am trying to write a long dull poem like the long ones of Wordsworth and it is very interesting to do I was always fond of these long dull poems well anyway make the weather better and come to see us . . .” Against the complete, against the completory urge. For the slipshod, for the lurch without recovery, for the stolen kisses. Stein, again (“The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans”):
When I was working with William James I completely learned one thing, that science is continuously busy with the complete description of something, with ultimately the complete description of anything with ultimately the complete description of everything. If this can really be done the complete description of everything then what else is there to do. We may well say nothing, but and this is the thing that makes everything continue to be anything, that after all what does happen is that as relatively few people spend all their time describing anything and they stop and so in the meantime as everything goes on somebody else can always commence and go on. And so description is really unending. When I began The Making of Americans I knew I really did know that a complete description was a possible thing, and certainly a complete description is a possible thing. But as it is a possible thing one can stop continuing to describe this everything. That is where philosophy comes in, it begins when one stops continuing describing everything.That “continually busy” scientism with its reverie of “the compleat” continues to trouble and ordain la poesía norteamericana: one “need” look no further than Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet (now subsumed under some larger umbrage, the titularly-querulous Universe or the “selected bandar-log”-sounding Ketjak) . . . Is it not “philosophy” that “begins when one stops continuing describing everything,” but “poetry”? Wouldn’t Stevens, for one, think so?