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 some sentences which she believes have the emotional balance of the paragraph:
a. It looks like a garden but he had hurt himself by accident.
b. A dog which you have never had before has sighed.
c. A bay and hills hills are surrounded by their having their distance very near.
Compare these with Sterne’s:
d. A cow broke in tomorrow morning to my Uncle Toby’s fortifications.
Or with this by Beckett:
e. Picturesque detail a woman with white hair still young to judge by her thighs leaning against the wall with eyes closed in abandonment and mechanically clasping to her breast a mite who strains away in an effort to turn its head and look behind.
All right, we have answered the bell. Suppose we broke that action into parts: opening the door, coming down the stairs, mewing with annoyance, and so forth: how easily we might combine them in other ways, in new sentences of behavior, new paragraphs of life.
Mewing with annoyance reflects a state more subjective than the others. Mewing with annoyance is an event of lesser size, though it, too, is divisible. All are audible acts, unlike the secretion of saliva. Our sentence must manage them—their motion, weight, size, order, state of being—must be themselves events, must pass through space the way we pass when we skip down the stairs to the door.
Let’s begin with a sentence without any special significance, selected the same way we might curiously pick up a piece of paper in the street.
In the middle of the market there’s a bin of pumpkins. Dividing this sentence as it seems natural to do, we can commence its conquest:
a. There’s a bin of pumpkins in the middle of the market.
b. There, in the middle of the market, is a bin of pumpkins.
c. A bin of pumpkins? There, in the middle of the market.
d. A bin of…pumpkins? There? In the middle of the market?
We can make our arrangements more musical:
e. In the middle. In the middle of the market. In the middle there’s a bin. There’s a bin. In the middle of the market there’s a bin.
f. In the middle. In the middle of the market. In the middle of the market there’s a bin. A bin. In the middle of the market there’s a bin. In. A bin. In. In the market there’s a bin. In the middle of the market—pumpkin.
g. Middle of market. Middle of. Middle of. Middle of market. Middle of bin. In the middle of market a middle of market, in the middle of market there’s a middle of bin. In the middle of market, in the middle of bin, there’s a middle of pumpkin, there’s a middle of in.
h. Pumpkin. In in in. Pumpkin. In middle. In market. In bin.
Much of this is sing-song, of course, but the play has only begun. Besides, this is just a demonstration record. The words themselves can be knocked apart, rhymes introduced, or conceptual possibilities pursued.
i. Middle of market. Riddle of. Middle of. Riddle of market. Middle of bin. Not thin when in. When hollow in huddle then kindle pumpkin.
j. Pump. Pump ump. In the middle. P p. Um, there’s a bin. Pumpkin.
And so on, and so on.
Such games soon give us an idea of the centers of conceptual energies in any sentence, its flexibility, a feel for the feelings possible for it, all its aural consequences; and to a child who is eagerly looking for a skull to carve some Halloween horror on, our celebration of the sentence will seem perfectly sensible.
The procedure is thoroughly analytical, however. It treats the elements of the sentence as if they were people at a party, and begins a mental play with all their possible relationships. Gertrude Stein’s work rarely deals very happily with indivisible wholes.
Sometimes she treats a sentence as if it were a shopping list, and rearranges every item in happier orders, much as we might place knicknacks on a shelf, considering whether the spotted china dog might be seen to better advantage in front of the jade lizard and nearer the window, or beside the tin cup borrowed from a beggar in Beirut.
Sometimes she lets us see and follow every step, but often she neglects to give us the sentences she began with, and we find ourselves puzzled by distant results.
Think next what might happen if we considered the sentence to be composed of various voices: in short, a play. For what else is a play? It simply cites the separate sources of its sentences.
h. 1. Martha. Pumpkin.
Mary. In in in.
Joseph. In middle.
John. In market.
M. & M. In bin.
A musician would have no trouble in seeing how a single sentence might be treated as the consequence of a chorus, nor would a modern painter find it hard to imagine the dissolution of his plate, bread, vase, and fish into plastic elements he then rearranged in a new, more pleasing way.
Gertrude Stein did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any other writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they are wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms. Here is a description of some of them from “Poetry and Grammar”:
…my sentences…had no longer the balance of sentences because they were not the parts of a paragraph nor were they a paragraph but they had made in so far as they had come to be so long and with a balance of their own that they had they had become something that was a whole thing and in so being they had a balance which was the balance of a space completely not filled but created by something moving as moving is not as moving should be.
She understood reading, for instance. She sometimes read straight on, touching the page as lightly as a fly, but even as her mind moved there would be a halt, a turning, the eyes rising and falling in a wave, and she realized that the page, itself, was artificial, arbitrary with respect to the text, so she included it in the work as well, not as a thing or an action, but as an idea.
j. 1. Page one. Pump. Pump ump.
Page two. In the middle.
Page three. P p.
Page four. Um, there’s a bin.
Page five. Pumpkin.
The understanding was, as she read, not only tormented by the physical make-up of the book, it was often troubled, too, by the content, which it had difficulty in making out. The poem does not repeat itself, but I do. I read the first four lines, and then I reread the first two. Now I am ready to go on, and I jump without a qualm to the second quatrain. Soon, however, I am back at the beginning again. There are interruptions, too. Alice asks me what I would like for dinner. Company comes. Time passes. Other texts may even intervene, many strange words from all directions. Why not, she thought, formalize all this, create something new, not only from the stops and starts and quarrels of normal thought, but from the act of attention itself, and all its snarls and tangles, leaps, and stumbles.
She is not always satisfied to merely render the phenomenon. Sometimes she chooses to involve us in it. By removing punctuation, for instance. I am reading her sentence about her sentences, which I quoted above, and sliding over words as though through mud:
…not filled but created by something moving as moving is not as moving….
I must pick myself up. Reread until I get the hang:
…not filled, but created by something moving, as moving is, not as moving should be.