Gertrude Stein, Geographer: II

Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein; drawing by David Levine


Life is repetition, and in a dozen different ways Gertrude Stein set out to render it. We have only to think how we pass our days: the doorbell rings, the telephone, sirens in the street, steps on the stairs, the recurrent sounds of buzzers, birds, and vacuum cleaners; then as we listen we suck our teeth; those are our feet approaching, so characteristic the tread can be identified, and that’s our little mew of annoyance at the interruption, too, as well as the nervous look which penetrates the glass, the fumble with the latch, the thought: I must remember to oil this lock; whereupon we are confronted by a strange man who is nevertheless saying something totally familiar about brooms.

Suppose he is truly a stranger. Still, we have seen salesmen before, men before, brooms; the accent is familiar, the tone, the tie, the crooked smile, the pity we are asked for, the submissive shoulders, yet the vague threat in the forward foot, the extended palm like the paw of a begging bear. Everything, to the last detail, is composed of elements we have already experienced a thousand, and a thousand thousand, times. Even those once-in-a-lifetime things—overturning a canoe in white water or being shot at, pursuing a squirrel through the attic, sexual excess—are merely unusual combinations of what has been repeatedly around. Our personal habits express it, laws of nature predict it, genes direct it, the edicts of the state encourage or require it, universals sum it up.

The range of our sensations, our thoughts, our feelings, is generally fixed, and so is our experience of relations. Make an analysis, draw up a list. Life is rearrangement, and in a dozen different ways Gertrude Stein set out to render it. We are not clocks, designed to repeat without reminder, to mean nothing by a tick, not even the coming tock, and so we must distinguish between merely mechanical repetition, in which there is no progress of idea, no advance or piling up of wealth, and that which seriously defines our nature, describes the central rhythms of our lives.

Almost at once she realized that language itself is a complete analogue of experience because it, too, is made of a large but finite number of relatively fixed terms which are then allowed to occur in a limited number of clearly specified relations, so that it is not the appearance of a word that matters but the manner of its reappearance, and that an unspecifiable number of absolutely unique sentences can in this way be composed, as, of course, life is also continuously refreshing itself in a similar fashion.

There are novel sentences which are novel in the same old ways, and there are novel sentences in which the novelty itself is new. In How to Write she discusses the reason why sentences are not emotional and paragraphs are, and offers us…

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