North Side: Gertrude Stein
Speculations, or Post-Impressionism in Prose
By Mabel Dodge in Arts and Decoration March 1913.
Post-impressionism, consciously or unconsciously, is being felt in every phase of expression. This article is about the only woman in the world who has put the spirit of post-impressionism into prose, and written by the only woman in America who fully understands it.--Ed. Note.
Many roads are being broken today, and along these roads consciousness is pursuing truth to eternity. This is an age of communication, and the human being who is not a "communicant" is in the sad plight which the dogmatist defines as being a condition of spiritual non-receptivity.
Some of these newly opened roads lie parallel and almost touch.
In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history. In her impressionistic writing she uses familiar words to create perceptions, conditions, and states of being, never before quite consciously experienced. She does this by using words that appeal to her as having the meaning that they seem to have. She has taken the English language and, according to many people, has misused it, or has used it roughly, uncouthly and brutally, or madly, stupidly and hideously, but by her method she is finding the hidden and inner nature of nature.
To present her impressions she chooses words for their inherent quality,
rather than for their accepted meaning.
Her habit of working is methodical and deliberate. She always works at night in the silence, and brings all her will power to bear upon the banishing of preconceived images. Concentrating upon the impression she has received and which she wishes to transmit, she suspends her selective faculty, waiting for the word or group of words that will perfectly interpret her meaning, to rise from her sub-consciousness to the surface of her mind.
Then and then only does she bring her reason to bear upon them, examining, weighing and gauging their ability to express her meaning. It is a working proof of the Bergson theory of intuition. She does not go after words--she waits and lets them come to her, and they do.
It is only when art thus pursues the artist that his production will bear the mark of inevitability. It is only when the "elan vital" drives the artist to the creative overflow that life surges in his production. Vitality directed into a conscious expression is the modern definition of genius.
It is impossible to define or to describe fully any new
manifestation in esthetics or in literature that is as recent, as near to
us, as the work of Picasso or of Gertrude Stein; the most that we can do
is to suggest a little, draw a comparison, point the way and then
To know about them is a matter of personal experience; no one can help another through it. First before thought must come feeling, and this is the first step toward experience, because feeling is the beginning of knowledge.
It does not greatly matter how the first impress affects one. One may be shocked, stunned and dismayed, or one may be aroused, stimulated, intrigued and delighted. That there has been an approach is what counts.
It is only in a state of indifference that there is no
approach at all, and indifference reeks of death. It is the tomb of
A further consciousness than is already ours will need many new forms of expression. In literature everything that has been felt and known so far has been said as it has been said.
What more there may be for us to realize must be expressed in a new way. Language has been crystalized into four or five established literary forms, that up to the present day have been held sacred and intranscendant, but all the truth cannot be contained in any one or in any limited number of molds. A. E. the Irish poet, says of it:
The hero first thought it--
To him 'twas a deed;
To those who retaught it
A chain on their speed.
The fire that we kindled,
A beacon by night,
When darkness has dwindled
Grows pale in the light.
For life has no glory
Stays long in one dwelling,
And time has no story
That's true twice in telling.
And only the teaching
That never was spoken
Is worthy thy reaching
The fountain unbroken.
This is so of all the arts, for of course what is true of one must, to be justifiable, be true of them all, even to the art of life; perhaps, first of all, to that one.
Nearly every thinking person nowadays is in
revolt against something, because the craving of the
individual is for further consciousness, and because
consciousness is expanding and is bursting through the
molds that have held it up to now; and so let every man
whose private truth is too great for his existing
conditions pause before he turn away from Picasso's
painting or from Gertrude Stein's writing, for their case
is his case.
Of course, comment is the best of signs. Any comment. One that Gertrude Stein hears oftenest is from conscientious souls who have honestly tried--and who have failed--to get anything out of her work at all. "But why don't you make it simpler?" they cry. "Because this is the only way in which I can express what I want to express," is the invariable reply, which of course is the unanswerable argument of every sincere artist to every critic. Again and again comes the refrain that is so familiar before the canvases of Picasso--"But it is so ugly, so brutal!" But how does one know that it is ugly, after all? How does one know? Each time that beauty has been reborn in the world it has needed complete readjustment of sense perceptions, grown all too accustomed to the blurred outlines, faded colors, the death in life of beauty in decline. It has become jaded from over-familiarity, from long association and from inertia. If one cares for Rembrandt's paintings today, then how could one have cared for them at the time when they were painted, when they were glowing with life. If we like St. Marks in Venice today, then surely it would have offended us a thousand years ago. Perhaps it is not Rembrandt's paintings that one cares for, after all but merely for the shell the ghost--the last pale flicker of the artist's intention. Beauty? One thing is certain, that if we must worship beauty as we have known it, we must consent to worship it as a thing dead. "Une grande, belle chose--morte." And ugliness--what is it? Surely, only death is ugly.
In Gertrude Stein's writing every word lives and, apart from the concept, it is so exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced, that when read aloud and received as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music. Just as one may stop, for once in a way, before a canvas of Picasso, and, letting one's reason sleep for an instant, may exclaim: "It is a fine pattern!"--so listening to Gertrude Stein's words and forgetting to try to understand what they mean, one submits to their gradual charm. Huntley Carter, of the New Age, says that her use of language has a curious hypnotic effect when read aloud. In one part of her writing she made use of repetition and the rearranging of certain words over and over, so that they became adjusted into a kind of incantation, and in listening one feels that from the combination of repeated sounds, varied ever so little, that there emerges gradually a perception of some meaning quite other than that of the contents of the phrases. Many people have experienced this magical evocation, but have been unable to explain in what way it came to pass, but though they did not know what meaning the words were bearing, nor how they were affected by them, yet they had begun to know what it all meant, because they were not indifferent.
In a portrait that she has finished recently, she
has produced a coherent totality through a series of
impressions which, when taken sentence by sentence,
strike most people as particularly incoherent. To
illustrate this, the words in the following paragraph are
strenuous words--words that weigh and qualify
conditions; words that are without softness yet that are
not hard words--perilous abstractions they seem,
containing agony and movement and conveying a
"It is a gnarled division, that which is not any obstruction, and the forgotten swelling is certainly attracting. It is attracting the whiter division, it is not sinking to be growing, it is not darkening to be disappearing, it is not aged to be annoying. There cannot be sighing. This is this bliss."
Many roads are being broken--what a wonderful word--"broken"! And out of the shattering and petrifaction of today--up from the cleavage and the disintegration--we will see order emerging tomorrow. Is it so difficult to remember that life at birth is always painful and rarely lovely? How strange it is to think that the rough-hewn trail of today will become tomorrow the path of least resistance, over which the average will drift with all the ease and serenity of custom. All the labor of evolution is condensed into this one fact, of the vitality of the individual making way for the many. We can but praise the high courage of the road breakers, admitting as we infallibly must, in Gertrude Stein's own words, and with true Bergsonism faith--"Something is certainly coming out of them!"