Thursday, October 13, 2011

Repetition is Redemptive... in praise of a series, because we must TRY

 I was reading about Gertrude Stein ... the article was "Desperate Seriousness and Avant-Garde (Mis)Recognition in Some of Stein's Sentences," published originally in Modern Philology, Vol. 97, No. 2, Nov. 1999, pp. 220-233.  As you might conclude from his title, the author, David Kaufmann, concludes that "the public that Stein invites to dance is by definition limited. Stein courts obscurity and derision precisely because her authority as an artist rests on both philistine rejection and delectation of the cognoscenti" (231).  Don't you just love those last pairings... "philistine rejection" and "delectation of the cognoscenti."

Wow! One is tempted by this well-articulated coolness and sophistication. But one would do well to re-think.

The article quotes an argument from a book by Hal Foster, The Return of the Real. Kaufmann says that Foster claims that repetitions, a favorite technique in avant-garde work (see, for example, virtually any Stein work, except the Autobiography), are redemptive. But not for the reasons we or the authors might have thought. Foster writes that "the future the avant-garde looks to is not the one it has saved, but the one that saves it by putting it on the course it charted but could not see" (p. 29 in Foster, quoted in Kaufmann).  This is a very interesting use of time; but it is the sort of imaginative turn one must take to read any really "new" work. I really like this Foster, but Kaufmann moves on...

Kaufmann says that there is a pressure, in the university, to "legitimate difficult practices of writing and reading" (233) and he's not a fan.  Yet when I taught Stein in both basic composition and interdisciplinary classes, the students, at first reluctant, warmed to her prose. This happened when she was read ... aloud.  Thinking about the sounds and import of what we read --as we read it -- is not really a "difficult" practice. The students had fun with her, wanted to see what it would be like to write like her, but they liked Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, too.  They were travelling a middle road, the one Kaufmann claims is not there.

Aren't we all on "a course" we "charted, but could not see"?  W.B. Yeats said that "all life ... seems to me a preparation for something that never happens" ("Reveries Over Childhood and Youth," the Autobiography); his may not be the most optimistic view, but ... aren't we always in process? Isn't that what Stein teaches us? That we are thinking and looking and writing and listening, all at once?

Of course we have to screen out some stimuli and concentrate in order to create anything. Stein's way of concentrating was to write after everyone else had gone to bed. She tried to finish, she once said, before the birds began singing, because if she didn't, she would never get to sleep. Stein comes at us in waves, but I believe that her work is in ordered waves ... it is an attempt to get past that idea of "preparation for something that never happens."

A series of waves. A series of paintings. A kind of order (as Wallace Stevens said, in "The Idea of Order at Key West": "Then we,/ as we beheld her striding there alone,/ Knew there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang, and singing, made") that we need. I have been thinking about my series of nudes in just this way. Here is a painting, completed in the last two weeks, part of my "Odalisque" series:

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