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 natural imagery.

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 natural.


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 Explanation" 520)

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 numerical theory.

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 continues,

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.

Always 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:

What are 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 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 604-605)

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 Luxembourg Gardens:

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)

We 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 asserts:

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 composition.

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 "irrational" (308).

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 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 clearer expression.

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 observe.

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
To 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
From 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 the scene:

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
They look 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.

Works Cited

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