Gertrude Stein and the Natural World
When we look for nature in literature, we often do so with
expectations of one or two kinds. We might first search out
the human, the unavoidable subject as it catches itself in a
tearful, crude, pensive or otherwise notable act centered
within nature -- that is, nature as we see it or as we think
we see it, the unvanquished focus of human attraction. We
may also expect to discover the human subject as an
accretion of literary idiom through which the natural
world's flora and fauna (including the human) support a
rigged alternative, a textual refuge or counter-world where
the natural draws our attention as an ironic condition of
the overarching writerly atmosphere, a peripheral
attraction. We read Gertrude Stein with expectations of this
second kind. We do this because Stein's idiom is undoubtedly
anterior to nature. Hers is an experiment in linguistic
figures that express imaginative apprehension of the
orthodox, including conventional treatments of nature and
When we introduce questions of "nature," "the natural" and
"the natural world" with respect to Stein's immense opus, we
simultaneously truncate our inquiry (because there is
apparently very little natural imagery to attend to) and,
quite the contrary, lay open a mine of new concerns with
regard to definition, use and effect. In other words, we
find fresh reasons for perusing Stein's texts and, more
significant, we begin to identify the generous but deeply
repressed improvisations that inform Stein's sense of the
Although we may not readily see this, Stein is a
naturalist in an experimental mode, reconstituting the
natural by way of experiments in form and discourse. Stein's
objective is to recover primary processes of perception and
thought and, as she reasons, "to express things seen not as
one knows them but as they are when one sees them without
remembering having looked at them" (Picasso).
Her hallmark anti-narrative, for instance, caricatures
standard exposition in which thought is constrained by a
thoroughly unnatural syntax of chronicled events. As newer
currents in cultural criticism (Berry, Chessman, Doane) have
noted, Stein's initial compositional strategy evolves
thematically from the nineteenth-century novel of manners
and family narrative; however Stein's resistance to realist,
instrumental discourse becomes apparent as early as in her
third novel, The Making of Americans, whose story is
cannibalized by a narrator that must continually begin the
chronicle, self-reflectively circling the chronicler's own
origins as text. In A Long Gay Book, another early,
self-reflective composition, Stein strives to disrupt
received notions of narrative form and logic and "to write
the life of every individual that could possibly live on
earth" ("The Gradual Making..." 139). Ellen Berry infers
that Stein here turns realist and narrative logic "against
itself," revealing its "incoherencies" and "inconsistencies"
since conventional narration is "ideologically constructed
and not 'natural'" (43).
To replace the unnatural realist model, Stein reaches for
the nearly ineffable "naturalism" of a writer on the brink
of her subject matter, the writer writing. In effect, she
anticipates Derrida's dictum concerning writing as
difference as she imparts the particulars of her "continuous
present" which stands in as a neo-reality and natural world:
Everything is the same except composition and as the
composition is different and always going to be different
everything is not the same. So then I as a contemporary
creating the composition in the beginning was groping toward
a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again
and again and then everything being alike then everything
very simply everything was naturally simply different and so
I as a contemporary was creating everything being alike was
creating everything naturally being naturally simply
different everything being alike. ("Composition as
We read "naturally simply different" as an ironic defense,
of course, since it recurs as an echo-y datum of apparent
insecurity, enforcing the special pleading of "beginning
again and again." In her unpublished notebooks, though,
Stein insists that beginning again is "creative thinking,"
an antidote to "sentimentality, logic chopping, idedistic
[sic] conceptions, mania..." She elaborates, "Real thinking
is conceptions aiming and aiming again and again always
getting fuller, that is the difference between creative
thinking and theorising" (cited in Walker 94). Further, in
reflecting on her early compositional strategy in works like
The Making of Americans, Stein argues self-referentially
that what seems like repetition is something quite
different. A great many think that they know repetition when
they see or hear it but do they.
A great many think that
they know confusion when they know or see it or hear it, but
do they. A thing that seems to be exactly the same thing may
seem to be a repetition but is it...
...what I wrote was
exciting although those that did not really see what it was
thought it was repetition. If it had been repetition it
would not have been exciting but it was exciting and it was
not repetition. It never is. I never repeat that is while I
am writing. ("Portraits and Repetition" 173, 178-179)
Decades ahead of post-existentialist lines of argument,
Stein stipulates that the self-aware and self-responsible
writing process is essential; enmeshed as it is within both
the receptive and productive processing of stimuli, it is
"existing as a human being, that is being listening and
hearing is never repetition" (179). The work writing itself
-- this is the natural, inclusive, "exciting" subject matter
of her composition.
Nonetheless, specifying what can be construed as the
natural in Stein's work and describing her use of it lead to
far corners of an insecure, confusing and altogether curious
lyricism. Were Stein's natural world solely the result of
idiosyncratic definitions or odd employment, we might not
want to examine her texts so closely. Stein's triumph over
her insecurity and apparent confusion is what totally
engages us. And, in part, the effects of Stein's natural
imagery imbue this triumph.
Samuel Beckett acknowledges, backhandedly, Stein's unusual
commitment to her project. In a 1937 letter to a German
acquaintance Beckett writes that she "is doubtlessly still
in love with her vehicle, albeit only in the way in which a
mathematician is in love with his figures..." Beckett gets
it half right. Stein's lifelong project is precessed within
a relentless science, but not a science of numbers or
Rather, Stein's subject matter and her treatment of subject
matter derive from nineteenth-century influences, not only
the novel of manners, as noted, but also her early exposure
to Darwinian evolutionary theories, the phenomenologist
teachings of Spinoza and Santayana and, more personal, the
pragmatic philosophy and psychology of William James with
whom she studied and conducted original research while an
undergraduate at Radcliffe. Historicist Clive Bush asserts
that Stein's mode of investigation is under James's direct
influence, concentrating on "habit, environment, language,
emotional expression and time...fascinated by the nature of
behavior in pre-conscious states, problems of
perceptions..." (265). With regard to a pre-conscious state
such as memory, John Searle's identification of this as
"potentially conscious" (173) illumines the salient
distinction advanced by Stein between being alert to the
"existing" of a writer writing versus her merely remembering
as she writes. Stein resists the potential consciousness of
memory, and in "Portraits and Repetition" she turns to a
familiar analogue to explain why:
Funnily enough the cinema
has offered a solution of this thing. By a continuously
moving picture of any one there is no memory of any other
thing and there is that thing existing...
...I continued to
do what I was doing in the Making of Americans, I was doing
what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous
succession of the statement of what that person was until I
had not many things but one thing.
...and I did a great many
times, say it, that somebody was something, each time there
was a difference just a difference enough so that it could
go on and be a present something... You see that in order to
do this there must be no remembering, remembering is
repetition, remembering is also confusion. (176, 177-178)
Implicit in Stein's cinema analogy is the relative parity of
differences that "could go on" and be a "present something."
Donald Sutherland infers that this parity amounts to a
"doctrine of Being and Essences," possibly an influence from
George Santayana, another of Stein's teachers at Radcliffe
(6). Sutherland supports his supposition with an anecdote
about his own first encounter with Stein. He and a number of
other undergraduates "hovered and milled about her" when
Stein suddenly "made a little sweeping gesture out in front
of her, and said, 'How is one to describe all this?'" He
All this was disconcerting, because there was
nothing in front of her but a casual bunch of Princeton
boys... What she meant was the immediate phenomenon before
her, the actual group as it moved and composed itself and
made noises before her, that for her was adequate subject
matter, the phenomenon or thing which like all other
phenomena or things, was, so to say, in God. (5)
Accordingly, we might categorize Stein as a phenomenologist
as well as an experimental naturalist, much in the spirit
(if not the method) of William James, particularly when she
focuses on human states. But what method of experiment does
she employ? Stein offers a clue in the following.
then I listen and come back again and again to listen to
every one. Always then I am thinking and feeling the
repeating in every one...
As I was saying loving repeating
being is in a way earthly being. In some it is repeating
that gives to them always a solid feeling of being. In some
children there is more feeling and in repeating eating and
playing, in some in story-telling and their feeling. More
and more in living as growing young men and women and grown
men and women and men and women in their middle living, more
and more there comes to be in them differences in loving
repeating in different kinds of men and women, there comes
to be in some more and in some less loving repeating. Loving
repeating in some is a going on always in them of earthly
being, in some it is the way to completed understanding.
Loving repeating then in some is their natural way of
complete being. This is now some description of one. (The
Making of Americans 266, 270)
Unlike her mentor William
James, Stein takes aim against a fast- moving target, and
Stein's method of observation is aesthetically grandiose and
scrupulously recursive (as is her lyric). But the "loving
repeating" she discovers, we must remember, is not the
writer's memory; it is what the writer perceives. She
listens to everyone or, to be more accurate, "every one"
with the intent of reaching a deeper structure or what she
calls "bottom nature." In the beginning all have "loving
repeating being strongly in them, some of them have
attacking being as the bottom nature... [others] have
resisting being as the bottom nature..." etc. Stein's
naturalism, then, is inclusive in scope, haunted by
redundancy, yet militant just the same and all the more
remarkable in its unmeasured observations of human
plenitude, folly and joy.
As noted, Stein's experiment in language is anterior to
focused representations of the "natural world." Sherwood
Anderson asserts, for instance, that Stein's language
creates a "life in words." The emphasis here, I believe,
rests with words. Regarding Stein's experiment vis a vis
other kinds of writing, William Carlos Williams captures the
subversive intent embedded within the wordcraft:
philosophers, scientists, religionists, they that have
filled up literature with their pap? Writers of a kind.
Stein simply erases their stories, turns them off and does
without them, their logic (founded merely on the limits of
the perceptions) which is supposed to transcend the words,
along with them. Stein denies it. The words, in writing, she
discloses, transcend everything. (21)
As for Stein's own
view on the weight of words, she claims that Picasso, Gris
and other Cubists attached typography and newsprint to their
canvases "to force the painted surface to measure up to
something rigid, and the rigid thing was the printed word"
(The Autobiography 92).
According to Stein, a malleable
illusion on canvas is rendered as artifact once it brushes
up against language. Stein, we might say, similarly deploys
the word to impeach the logic of standard expository prose.
The more mature work, nourished by clear reference to the
natural world, finds Stein redeploying her lexicon, easing
it into lyricism. With regard to her word choice in Tender
Buttons, for instance, Stein claims that she was "very much
taken with the beauty of the sounds as they came from
me...an extraordinary melody of words and a melody of
excitement in knowing that I had done this thing"
("Portraits and Repetition" 196-197). Texts from Stein's
middle and late periods substantiate the view that she grew
into a richer, more varied aesthetic and, as a consequence,
a more "natural" lyricism. While we regard Stein as
novelist, playwright and, perhaps, poet, it is in these
later works that her gifts for the pastoral take firm hold:
Pigeons on the grass alas... Short longer grass short longer
longer shorter yellow grass... If they were not pigeons what
were they... If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what
were they. He had heard of a third and he asked about it it
was a magpie in the sky... (Four Saints in Three Acts
In this passage the lyric maps onto lived
experience. Stein relates that what she perceived and felt
emotionally were improvised as she walked through the
It was the end of summer the grass was
yellow. I was sorry that it was the end of summer and I saw
the big fat pigeons in the yellow grass and I said to
myself, pigeons on the yellow grass, alas, and I kept on
writing pigeons on the grass, alas, short longer grass,
short longer longer shorter yellow grass pigeons large
pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass, alas pigeons on
the grass, and I kept on writing until I had emptied myself
of the emotion. (Personal interview, cited in Bowers 139)
have anecdotes (Imbs, Souhami) about Stein's frequent
outdoor writing sessions, how picnics and country drives
provided placid backdrops for composition ostensibly
addressed to a bewildering jumble of topics, but in fact
transcribed in nature's company, unnamed cows, trees, birds
and such. Stein writes in The Autobiography, "I like a view
but I like to sit with my back turned to it." Yet in later
compositions, cows and such do get named, again and again.
John Ashbery observes, "Stein throws in an orange, a lilac,
or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our
world, that she has been talking about" (108). Ashbery
concludes that, among other devices, words such as these
which reflect the natural world create a "sudden inrush of
clarity" that is
likely to be an aesthetic experience, but
(and this seems to be another of her "points") the
description of that experience applies also to "real-life"
situations, the aesthetic problem being a microcosm of all
human problems. (110)
Given the daring reach of her
naturalism, Stein's aesthetic experience can be cast,
perhaps, as both a microcosm of "human existing" and a
macro-alternative to outworn methods of its representation.
As mentioned, writing on the brink of coherent subject
matter is yet another point, her naturalism stretching
toward the continuous present. Stein's naturalism indeed
stretches even further to situate the act of writing within
the time-present process of an artist "conducting life,"
making "composition what it is," making one's work "compose
as it does." Again in "Composition as Explanation" Stein
It is understood by this time that everything is
the same except composition and time, composition and the
time of the composition and the time in the composition...
No one thinks these things when they are making when they
are creating what is the composition, naturally no one
thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be
formulated has been made.
Composition is not there, it is
going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for
us naturally. (516)
Her argument in paraphrase: Writing and
other kinds of artistic composition are of the moment and in
this sense natural. Composition is not reflective or even
particularly conscious until it is "formulated," until it is
"there." And, by extension, it is this non-reflective and
pre-conscious "conducting life" that is closest to nature,
as "naturally no one thinks..." until one is out of the
What constitutes the composition, according to Stein's
formulation, is a spinning pointillism of many natural
fragments, although not all of these are imagistically
reflective of the natural world. Carl Van Vechten, Stein's
friend and editor, claims she "followed Cezanne's procedure
of filling in every inch of space on the canvas with
details, each of which is of equal importance" (ix). Stein's
details comprise both domestic and natural images, but also
include body parts, physical and mechanical objects, baby
talk, items from science, history, religion, philosophy and,
as the above passages indicate, references to psychology and
artistic composition, in addition to bland generalities like
"every one," "all," "some of them," as well as semantically
empty terms like "this," "that," and "and."
The free-association of these linguistic fragments creates,
on first reading, a bounty of "word salads" (Fifer 70) or
what Stein herself describes as a "monster," a lyric that is
often "awkward" to read, let alone comprehend (cited in
Bowers 102). Ellen Berry describes a reader's mental
exertion decoding Stein as an act of imagination similar to
the mental state the author herself attains to generate the
text, a state of mind that "requires a paradoxical or split
act of attention -- a relaxed hyperattention, an unconscious
hyperconsciousness, a borderline state of awareness a little
like insomnia" (18). Cynthia Secour, on the other hand,
looks beyond a reader's exertion and resistance, and sees
"how the mind creates meaning" from the "ordinary" and
A monster, a borderline state, no matter how we go about
describing our experience reading these texts, we by
necessity engage in the transference of their intensity. It
is as if Stein's authorial process of making the work takes
hold in our own time-present process of reading. To
illustrate, and with reference to one of the most difficult
works, Ashbery reads Stanzas in Meditation in "almost
physical pain...to accompany the evolving thought," but amid
the complexities, flashes of understanding appear:
It is for
moments like this that one perseveres in this difficult
poem, moments which would be less beautiful and meaningful
if the rest did not exist, for we have fought side by side
with the author in her struggle to achieve them. (110)
Moreover, while there are many instances of Stein's
impenetrability and her distance from the natural world,
there are a good number of counterexamples in which her
meaning is apparent and her imagery redolent of nature and
nature's subworlds of love and domesticity. Elizabeth Fifer
identifies a series of recurring images as "private
metaphors" for bodily joy and Stein's love for her partner
Alice Toklas. Insecure about public declarations of passion,
Stein turns to household images like sewing, cooking and,
especially, sweets, jams, cakes and such to compensate for
Domestic and natural imagery are intertwined as in the
famous "As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story." Cow occurs in
many of Stein's texts as a disjointed metaphor whose
references alternate among sexual orgasm, sexuality in
general, and "the mythical idea of lesbian birth" (Fifer
55). We may argue, today, that by blending this sort of
imagery with other elements Stein repressed those sexual
references that would have been objectionable in her own
era. We can also trace a pattern of more overtly sexual
expression, emphatically so in Stein's later work. For
example, in the "As a Wife Has a Cow" text we find bold
linguistic-replicas of the ecstatic: "Not and now, now and
not, not and now... And in that, as and in that, in that and
and in that... Having it as having having it as happening...
My wife has a cow." In "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" we read,
"To be regularly gay was to do every day the gay thing that
they did every day."
Recent criticism suggests that Stein has been marginalized
over the years because she broaches her sexuality, even if
by way of repressed, private images. It is more interesting,
I think, to proceed on the basis that Stein is a central
modernist and an historicized figure available for
postmodernist critique. Stein's exploring her own identity,
at first metaphorical and later more strident, provides
evidence of her relevance to a feminist analysis in which
"insecurity" and "confusion" are "privileged sites of
production, particularly production around or about
questions of gender" (Cope 200). What makes Stein central
within the modernist rationale is her linguistic regimen in
which volatile images of self and nature, love and
domesticity are enlisted to raise havoc and, in
postmodernist parlance, to destabilize the verisimilitude of
pallid, traditional discourse.
Stein's use of language to break down convention is, of
course, perplexing, deliberately so. Yet her later lyrics
succeed in reconstructing human experience, an achievement
all the more perplexing since the reconstruction evinces
such enormity of effort in improving upon conventional
representation. Two verse-sentences from Stanza XV in the
notebook manuscript of Stanzas in Meditation (cited in Dydo)
summarize the opportunities Stein affords her readers to
join her "struggle" to achieve meaning, that is, to
re-experience her improvised natural world. The first
sentence offers us a communal subject, "they," which we can
surmise substitutes for the unspecified human capacity to
Should they may be they might if they delight In why they
must see it be there not only necessarily
But which they
might in which they might
For which they might delight if
they look there
And they see there that they look there
see it be there which it is if it is
Which may be where
where it is
If they do not occasion it to be different
what it is.
Ulla Dydo assesses these lines as inexcerptable
hesitations that provide "no discrete statements that can be
isolated" (114). To the contrary, beyond hesitations, these
lines constitute a conceptual level of representation,
fluctuating states of mind not only in the process of
"perceiving something," as Dydo correctly assumes, but also
creating something "necessarily" and "(f)or which they might
delight" as Stein puts it. Stein intimates that human
observation can make a virtue out of its own necessity to
see "if they delight/In why they must see."
Stein is instructing us in the tantalizing rudiments of the
contemplative life, a life of delight in looking as well as
seeing, and of pleasurable inquiry into the "why" of seeing.
Furthermore, Stein decides wisely not to leave us dangling
from an abstract promontory. In the second verse-sentence
she turns to a familiar, observable, natural world to quiet
In one direction there is the sun and the moon
In the other
direction there are cumulus clouds
and the sky
In the other
direction there is why
They look at what they see
very long while they talk along
And they may be said to see
that at which they look
Whenever there is no chance of its
not being warmer
Than if they wish which they were.
Perception and thought, the essential condition ("there is
why/They look"), and concomitant human languaging ("they
talk along") are immersed in a stark skyscape of sun, moon,
cumulus cloud and a good chance of warmer climes to come. In
Stanzas in Meditation, one of Stein's last works, natural
imagery serves as backdrop and reward, if you will, for
protracted human observation, both a necessity and a
potential virtue for writer and reader. Stein's employment
and control of this imagery come as a shock, given the
disjointedness of what came before. It is this shocking
recognition, however, that belies dismissive readings of her
opus as confused or merely mathematical. What is natural for
Stein is freely associated, pointillist-like and at times
overwrought with fragments, but that is arguably the
ultimate point. To refer again to Stein's conception of
artistic composition, she is "conducting life," rather than
"formulating" ideas, and in the process she is "conducting"
nature, as well.
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