by Merrill Cole on Jan.12, 2012
In the 1932 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein assumes the name and voice of her life companion, playfully and in plain language overriding the boundaries a name is supposed to set. The narrator tells us,
I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius, and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead.
Most obviously, this passage operates as a roundabout means for self-aggrandizement—Stein speaks as another person in order to render herself praise. We could decide to applaud the spectacular audacity of this move, or we could criticize her for appropriating another woman’s identity. Looked at another way, though, the narrative set-up renders any unique identity equivocal. At the same time that The Autobiography does the work of establishing Stein’s celebrity, through the far-easier-to-read writing style of Alice B. Toklas, it throws into question the singularity of the “genius” it extols.
While the narrative mode itself dislocates the proper name in The Autobiography, some of Stein’s more difficult poetic texts use grammar, at the level of the sentence, to effect such dispossession. A proper name in Stein does not have to return to the same person, place, or thing. A proper name is not necessarily even a noun. It can be a noun in one place, it can become something else in another, or it can refuse placement altogether. I argue in my essay, “Remaking Sense: Gertrude Stein and the Names of the Father” that Stein offers us new methods of engendering meaning. Maybe it is a bit pretentious to refer to my own work, but it seems unavoidable. I would like to extend my insights by considering how Stein gives us a new grammar of naming, or a new relationship between names and grammar. A simple sentence from the 1931 How to Write indicates this: “Arthur is a grammar.” The narrator of The Autobiography informs us that “[s]entences not only words but sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s life long passion.” Writing Toklas’ signature belongs to a sustained poetic strategy of reconstructing the sentence, the nominal function, and the name.
The 1932 “Poetry and Grammar” seems at first to dismiss names. “Call anybody Paul,” Stein writes, “and they get to be a Paul call anybody Alice and they get to be an Alice perhaps yes perhaps no, there is something in that, but generally speaking, things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything to them and so why write in nouns.” But later in the essay, she indeed tell us why. She asserts that poetry “is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun.” The ultimate effect of such naming is to change the thing named, whether it be an ordinary noun or a particular person. Stein does not concern herself with refixing reference, or resignifying; she instead makes the referential function dance by ever returning to her subject, by beginning again and again.
The proper name has a special provenance in regular English grammar, which Stein plays to her advantage. In “Remaking Sense,” I argue that unlike other nouns, a proper name is the first guarantor of self. It situates us, as Jacques Lacan would have it, in the name of the father, giving us a name from which to speak. Like Lacan, Stein identifies the proper name with patriarchy. In the 1927 Patriarchal Poetry, she writes,
Patriarchal poetry needs rectification and there about it.
Come to a distance and it still bears their name.
The name marks the borders of one’s property, whether objective or subjective: to give things names, Adam-style, is to possess them; and to keep one’s own name is a prime concern. Stein subverts the proper name so important to patriarchy.
Names in Stein’s writing hardly ever stay themselves. As the 1926 A Novel of Thank You would have it, “[e]verybody can change a name they can change the name Helen to Harry they can change the name Edith to Edward they can change the name Harriet to Howard they can change the name Ivy to Adela. This makes it impossible for all of them to say what they mean.” Play becomes possible, Stein suggests, when the imperatives to proper naming and proper gender cease to set the limits of sense. In 1922’s “An Instant Answer or a Hundred Prominent Men,” we read, “[h]e can be a king or a queen or a countess or a Katherine Susan. We know that name. It has always been the same. At the same time every one shows changes.”
In Patriarchal Poetry, the words, “dinky pinky,” function simultaneously a put-down of the penis and as a loving reference to the clitoris:
Patriarchal poetry might to-morrow.
Patriarchal poetry might be finished to-morrow.
Dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky once and try. Dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky lullaby.
“Remaking Sense” concludes,
That we can so superimpose a contradictory sense implies neither the identity of feminine and masculine, nor the two genders as mutually exclusive, nor even Stein as patriarch, but rather the ability of [what she calls the] “human mind” to negotiate more than one register at once and think beyond sameness. Our desire does not have to return to the same place.
The question is, how might this negotiation and this thinking operate?
In The Autobiography, the narrator tells us that Carl Van Vechten “printed as a motto the device on Gertrude Stein’s notepaper, a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Just recently, she has made for him by our local potter at the foot of the hill at Belley some plates in the yellow clay of the country and around the border is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose and the centre is to Carl.” Stein recognizes that it is quite a challenge to say anything new about roses, but, as numerous commentators have remarked, she succeeds. Rather than resort to traditional symbolism or figurative language, Stein deploys bilingual punning, emphatic repetition, and a mobile grammar, in order to make the rose fresh. These three elements give the sentence an exceptional dynamism. “A rose is” puns on the French “arroser,” meaning “to water,” “you water,” or “they water”: the phrase is at once a static subject-copular verb construction in English and an active verb in French. In addition, we can hear the past tense active verb, “arose,” arise.
“Insistence,” Stein asserts in “Portraits and Repetition,” “in its emphasis can never be repeating because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything the same way because emphasis can never be the same not even when it is most the same that is when it has been taught.” In each of its four appearances in “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” the noun, “rose,” is something different because it insists. In ordinary English, one expects the linking verb, “is,” to be followed by a nominal predicate that is different from its subject, but in three times returning to the same noun, the noun’s meaning cannot go unaltered.
A reductive reading might understand the sentence as a simple assertion of the law of identity. “A is A is A is A,” though, disturbs the static equilibrium of “A is A.” In the lecture, “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein asserts,
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
These permutations of a common noun form part of a mobile syntax that does not allow a single word to tarry into its habitual grammatical slot. Modern English depends upon word order, rather than inflection, to determine the role a word plays in a sentence, so that most English sentences are linear. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” has a circular structure, a ring, reminding us of the children’s song, “Ring around the Rosie.” Repetitions of the same words nestle into each other like a matryoshka doll, or, to be more apt, like the petals of the featured flower.
Stein claims in Four in America that “in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” According to Jennifer Ashton,
The name of the rose is not red because of anyone’s experience of its redness. Moreover, the name of the rose is not red by virtue of pointing to something red. Rather than denoting a relation between the name and the redness of its bearer, each “rose” in Stein’s ring denotes instead a reference to redness that inheres in the name. If Stein can “really caress” the noun by rendering it as a name, it is neither the material form—the petals and thorns—of the floral object it denotes nor the material form—the sound and shape—of the word that denotes it. What Stein caresses in caressing the “rose” is the immaterial form—the very function of reference—belonging to the name itself.
Ashton, it seems to me, confuses two important insights. The redness of Stein’s roses is felt in the absence of any denotation of, or reference to, red. This is a separate matter than Stein’s use of what Ashton calls “the very function of reference,” which cannot accurately be characterized as “redness.” Stein’s roses are red because she defamiliarizes them, making, in Viktor Shklovsky’s terms, “the stone stony,” or the roses red. We might also note that the homophone of r-e-d red is r-e-a-d, suggesting that Stein gets us to read the word for the first time in a hundred years. What Stein accomplishes with the referential function is not something that “inheres in the name,” but something she makes the name do.
The original version of this most famous of Stein’s sentences occurs in slightly different form in the 1913 “Sacred Emily.” In this poem, the first article is absent, so the sentence reads, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” The absence of the article adds another dynamic, a play on a proper name—the woman’s name, “Rose.” It is quite possible to infer a woman behind the better-known formulation, especially considering the longstanding poetic symbolism of women as roses—“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” and so forth. The “Sacred Emily” version of the sentence, though, by placing the word, “rose,” in the grammatical subject position, without an article, leads us toward interpreting it as a proper name. Or, at least, proper for a moment, because as the insistence begins, the word permutates, soon no longer clearly a name at all.
A parallel fluctuation occurs in A Novel of Thank You:
Can one be deceived in Hope. Yes. Can one be deceived by Hope. No. Can one be deceived when one has refused to recognize her again. Yes. Will one be deceived after one has refused to recognize her again. No.
She and Eleanor think so.
The gradual shifting from an abstract noun to a woman’s proper name is not gratuitous, for if the masculine poetic tradition often reduces actual women to more or less bloodless abstractions, Stein, with “hope,” gives the abstraction a surprising female embodiment.
I would argue against reading the difficulty of Stein’s language simply as a register of the homosexual closet. Margaret Dickie maintains that Stein’s “coded language” provides a means “to conceal her subject from an audience unaware of the code and further afford[s] her an opportunity to switch codes or obscure references as her bravado battle[s] with her uncertainties about what she” encodes. I would agree with Ulla Dydo that “the need to conceal sexual references fails to explain” Stein’s language. It is also the case that Stein defines identity, along with memory and repetition, as aspects of a settled human nature, against which she poses “insistence” and the “human mind.”
In “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein discusses how in composing Tender Buttons, she felt “the need of making it be a thing that could be named without using its name.” “[T]he creating it without naming it,” she claims, “was what broke the rigid form of the noun the simple noun poetry which was now broken.” Let’s return to A Novel of Thank You:
Can one be deceived by Eleanor and by Hope if one refuses to be so if one refuses to recognize that it is so if one persists in refusing to do so if one has to have them as they are to be there and to do so. Can one be deceived by Hope and Eleanor if one has refused to recognize them again and continues to do so.
One can indeed refuse to recognize what’s going on with Eleanor and Hope, or Miss Furr and Miss Skeene, or Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. One can overlook the erotic insinuation in “dinky pinky,” “[t]oasted susie is my ice cream,” and “[l]ifting belly is delightful.” Stein’s writing does not define or explain a lesbian identity. Rather, her texts engender the erotic, enacting it without naming it.
Ashton, Jennifer. “‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy.” Modernism/modernity 9:4 (November 2002): 581-604.
Cole, Merrill. “Remaking Sense: Gertrude Stein and the Names of the Father.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 38:1 (January 2009): 84-99.
Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, & Place. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997.
Dydo, Ulla E. with William Rice. Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2003.
Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” 1916. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Ed. Paul A. Olson. Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1965: 3-24.
Stein, Gertrude. A Novel of Thank You. 1926. Volume Eight of the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New Haven: Yale UP, 1958.
_________. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. 1932. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932. Eds. Catharine R. Simpson and Harriet Chessman. New York: The Library of America, 1998: 653–913.
_________. Four in America. 1943. New Haven: Yale UP, 1947.
_________. How to Write. 1931. New York: Sun & Moon P, 2000.
_________. “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene.” 1912. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932: 307-12.
_________. Patriarchal Poetry. 1927. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932: 567–607.
_________. “Poetry and Grammar.” 1935. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1932–1946. Eds.Catharine R. Simpson and Harriet Chessman. New York: The Library of America, 1998: 313–36.
_________. “Portraits and Repetition.” 1935. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1932–1946: 287–312.
_________. “Preciosilla.” 1913. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932: 386.
_________. “Sacred Emily.” 1913. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932: 387-96.
_________. Tender Buttons. 1914. Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903–1932: 313-55.