“Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” by William H. Gass, pp. 69, 75-76, 81, 112, 118, 122
Books contained tenses like closets full of clothes, but the present was the only place we were alive, and the present was like a painting, without before or after, spread to be sure, but not in time; and although, as William James had proved, the present was not absolutely flat, it was nevertheless not much thicker than pigment. Geography would be the study appropriate to it: mapping body space. The earth might be round but experience, in effect, was flat. Life might be long but living was as brief as each breath in breathing. Without a past, in the prolonged narrowness of any “now,” wasn’t everything in a constant condition of commencement? Then, too, breathing is repeating — it is beginning and rebeginning, over and over, again and again and again.
Gertrude Stein liked to begin things in February. Henry James has written The Golden Bowl and it will take a war to end the century, not the mere appearance of a pair of zeros on the mileage indicator. Never mind. Although the novel as it had been known was now complete, and Gertrude has meanwhile doubled her fifteen years without appreciable effect, still there was in what was being written (Nostromo, last year; The House of Mirth, just out; and The Man of Property, forthcoming), for instance, that socially elevated tone, the orotund authorial voice, the elegant drawing-room diction, that multitude of unfunctional details like flour to thicken gravy; there were those gratuitous posturings, nonsensical descriptions, empty conversations, hollow plots, both romance and Grub Street realism; and there so often remained the necessity, as Howells complained, to write with the printer at one’s hells, therefore the need to employ suspense like a drunken chauffeur, Chapter Vs and other temporal divisions as though the author commanded an army, and all of the rest of the paraphernalia required by serialization and the monthly purchase of magazines.
She saw how the life of the model had been conferred upon the portrait. And in the central story of Three Lives (they were still stories), she captured the feeling she wanted in words.
All that long day, with the warm moist young spring stirring in him, Jeff Campbell worked, and thought, and beat his breast, and wandered, and spoke aloud, and was silent, and was certain, and then in doubt and then keen to surely feel, and then all sodden in him; and he walked, and he sometimes ran fast to lose himself in his rushing, and he bit his nails to pain and bleeding, and he tore his hair so that he could be sure he was really feeling, and he never could know what it was right, he now should be doing.
The rhythms, the rhymes, the heavy monosyllabic beat, the skillful rearrangements of normal order, the carefully controlled pace, the running on, the simplicity, exactness, the passion…in the history of language no one had written like this before, and the result was as striking in its way, and as successful, as Ulysses was to be.
We have bought a poodle. What shall we name it? We can, of course, confer upon it a name we idly like, and force it to conform, or we can study the beast until it says “Basket.” Yet the poet seeks the names of things because she loves the names. Al-ci-bi-a-des, we call out. Ai-e. Ai-e. Alcibiades.
…you can love a name and if you love a name then saying that name any number of times only makes you love it more, more violently more persistently more tormentedly.
(“Poetry and Grammar”)
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 appearance, 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.
Repeating is also naming. Pumpkins have names. They are called pumpkins. But what is the word ‘pumpkin’ called? Not Fred, not William, not Wallaby, but ‘pumpkin’ again. And so we seem to be repeating when we are speaking in the meta-language, or the overtongue. A division of ‘pumpkin’ into ‘pump’ and ‘kin’ is not a carving of a pumpkin. Nor is the finding and baking and eating of one any damage to the word. An actor’s gestures name the real ones. Suppose, behind your back, I am making fun of you by imitating your hurried, impatient, heavy-shoed walk, or like an annoying child I echo your talk as you talk; then a round is being formed, a ring made of reality and its shadow, words and their referents, and of course I can dance with my image or with yours very well, mock my own methods, and suddenly discover, in the midst of my game, a meaning that’s more than a vegetable’s candle-lit face.
There were people who were no more than their poodles. If their little dog didn’t know them, who would they be? Like mirrors they reflected what fell into them, and when the room was empty, when the walls were removed and the stars pinched back in the sky, they were nothing, not even glass.