My May 16 post about the cliché language of Charles Bernstein’s claim that he is “setting the record straight” about Gertrude Stein’s survival in Vichy France made the deconstructive point that if a record is a record, it can’t be set straight. It’s a point that Bernstein’s own poetry has always made, of course. The crookedness of the record is basis of the great ironic joke that is Language poetry. So when he picks up his crooked pen to write clichés like “setting the record straight” or “by hook or by crook” or “when push comes to shove” (in a text that bears unspoken reference to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the bicycle racetrack where Parisian Jews destined for the death camps were confined without food or water) Bernstein is writing out the joke once again, and this time with a punchline so funny that it achieves self-deconstruction.
That was all I said on May 16. My post was about Bernstein, not Stein. But on the University of Buffalo’s e-mail list about poetics it drew a couple of responses about Stein and the record, so here’s the part of my reply where I do talk about Stein.
“As to my own biographical take on Stein, I hardly have one. She was hardly the only American author of German Jewish descent to feel embarrassed or distressed or even pained by her genealogy. The ironist Nathanael West had that problem and dealt with it interestingly, by donning a mask and proceeding to wear it until it killed him. (Nobody expects a man named Nathan Weinstein to be a reckless driver, so when Nathan Weinstein changed his name he also started driving so recklessly that his friends refused to get into his car. Not long afterward, as these things go, he drove through a stop sign, and that was that for Nathanael West. He was 37.) By contrast, Walter Lippmann, the highly serious father of modern media punditry, was merely uninteresting. He attempted to pass like Anatole Broyard, and to even hint to him that you knew he was Jewish was to break off all communication with him, forever. Considered as a Jew with a biography, Stein may have been personally either interesting or uninteresting, but of course her language is always interesting. That is (among other things), it helps us understand the difficulty of attaching the word “problem” to any human being.
“Which is to say that Gertrude Stein was a great poet. But surely (this is a modest enough idea, isn’t it?) none of us is going to claim that being a good (i.e., competent) artist is the same as being a good (i.e., virtuous) person.
“And surely the example of Bernstein’s language means that we aren’t warranted in reading Bernstein or Barbara Will or Stein or anybody else as if they were journalists, uttering clichés but asking us (because — what’s the cliché? — their hearts are in the right place) not to pay attention to them. If only the sign that Nathanael West drove through had said not ‘Stop’ but ‘Aporia.'”