As Johanna Frank hinted at in “Resonating Bodies”, Gertrude Stein’s writing disrupts the traditional paradigm of reading wherein the writer’s thoughts are transmitted to the reader via the medium of text. Instead, the reader is implicated in the production of meaning and signification of the text; that is, reading Stein’s work requires active authorial creativity on the part of the reader. Maybe this is a leap, but I think Stein’s experimental (and experiential) mode of writing lines up nicely with Bhabha’s thoughts on “colonial non-sense” and “the problematic enunciation of cultural difference” (125). Bhabha highlights the difficulty (and maybe impossibility) of inter-cultural communication using the recurring “ouboum” of the Marabar Caves as a case in point:
“[the ‘ouboums’] are not naturalized or primitivistic descriptions of colonial ‘otherness’, they are the inscriptions of an uncertain colonial silence that mocks the social performance of language with their non-sense; that baffles the communicable verities of culture with their refusal to translate…The articulation of nonsense is the recognition of an anxious contradictory place between the human and the not-human, between sense and non-sense” (124-125).
Rather than using Bhabha’s article to analyze colonialism’s inherent linguistic contradictions and muddles, I think we can use it as an entrée into understanding how Stein’s prose works. Instead of looking at the problems of reconciling meaning across disparate cultures, I want to explore the production of linguistically ambiguous “sense and non-sense” in terms of different individual people. Stein illuminates this point in “Composition as Explanation”: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” Stein seems to be saying that writing, or “enunciation” to borrow Bhabha’s term, is necessarily a reiterative act that’s made new only by the subjective experience of the writer. There’s nothing new to write about, only new experiences to project onto the text in the process of meaning-making. I think Bhabha’s discussion of the “ambivalence of the on-going colonial present” (128) consequent with “culturally unassimilable words and scenes of nonsense” (128) sheds light on Stein’s description of “groping for a continuous present and there was an inevitable beginning of beginning again and again and again.” Stein’s ostensible word salad in “Four Saints” (e.g. “When. Then. When. Then. Then. Men. When Ten. Then. When. Ten. When then. Then. Then. Ten. Then. Ten. Then then. Saints when. Saints when ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten.”) could be seen to be the kind of “articulation of nonsense” Bhabha discusses. That is, “When. Then.” seems to acknowledge the contradictions and anxieties of expressing experience via language.
Bhabha writes, “Marshall Sahlins’s ‘symbolic synapses’ produce homologous differentiations in the conjunction of oppositions from different cultural planes” (128). In terms of Stein’s work, I see the “homologous differentiations” as words themselves. Individual words can signify approximately the same thing to different people, but can never capture exactly the same thing for everyone. Stein’s obsession with “beginning again” seems to say something about how the objective denotations of words will always be secondary to their subjective connotations. Bhabha discusses the “synapse” or “between” or Lacanian “entre” as the site of uncertainty in cross cultural communication, the point where meaning collapses into “enunciatory ambivalence.” This gap between expression and reception is where signification breaks down in Stein’s work as well. For example, the construction of the sentence “Pigeons on the grass alas” in “Four Saints” makes it seem matter of fact and descriptive. The phrase makes grammatical sense and that lends it authority and invites the reader to ascribe meaning to it rather than dismiss it as total nonsense.
I think I want to explore Stein’s musicality in my final paper. I’ll probably focus on Tender Buttons and how Stein uses sound to propel the reader forward even in the face of the interpretive morass created by the non-referential words of the text. I love Tender Buttons because it seems to offer islands of fathomability – phrases and sentences that actually seem to make grammatical and referential sense – at exactly the right moments so I never drown in the sea of nonsense. For example, the book’s first poem (if that’s the right word), “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS,” begins with seemingly indecipherable nonsense, but ends with a sentence that, for me, instinctively rings true:
“A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”
I think it’s the musicality of the first two sentences that make this poem readable and pave the way for the payoff of “The difference is spreading” at the very end. The sing-songiness of “A kind in glass and a cousin” makes up for the sentence’s lack of logical reference and enable the poem’s momentum. Without sentences like “The difference is spreading,” I’d probably give up on Tender Buttons by the end of page one.
I’ll probably use “Composition as Explanation” and a few of Stein’s many lectures to explore my theory. I also plan to draw from Ulla Dydo’s book Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises and Daniel Albright’s book Untwisting the Serpent, in which he proposes Stein as a “figure of dissonance” in the Modernist movement.