I am taking a class on prosody, and yesterday, Gertrude Stein and her work came up in conjunction with form. It led me to reflect on her and my reaction against words separated from meaning.
From 1940-1944, while other Jews in France were being systematically ferreted out and deported to camps, Gertrude Stein lived in cosseted comfort. She was an apologist and translator for Marshal Pétain and his Vichy government, and had publicly supported Franco in the 30’s. No amount of revisiting of Stein and her views can change that fact that during her years in France during World War II she never distressed or disturbed herself in any way about the horrors around her. Stein was an extraordinarily privileged woman with large influence; she never raised a dime or a word in defense of the persecuted.
Her work seems to me a means of self-aggrandizement, not a search for meaning, compassion, or reflection. For her purposes, the “materiality of language” that she promoted allowed her to ignore moral issues—or for that matter any issues at all. It was not about meaning. It was about language, pure sound, disjunctive context. Readers can ignore her politics to focus on understanding this new way to use language. But aside from whether or not you find this direction interesting or feel that there is no there there, it’s worth noting how its very structure facilitates moral blindness. A few good quotes can’t redeem this.
Is this a direction that serves the humanitarian heart of literature? Yes, we struggle in a miasma of discontinuity. We are besieged by horrific images in the midst of the quotidian and feel powerless against them. We go on living our lives. Still, isn’t finding a way to address this complexity the very definition of the task of art? And isn’t it one that Stein avoided?
Finally, it’s possible to be extraordinarily innovative and still have heart in your work–as illustrated by Dean Young, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, and so many others.