Miss Stein, may I present Herr Bertolt Brecht and Mr. Dorian Gray?

In this exhibit,


Robert Doisneau’s two photographs of Paris during World War II show us the world capital of chic keeping up appearances beautifully. Look at the calligraphy and composition of a bakery’s explanation to its customers that there is no more bread because there is neither fuel nor flour. Its corners carefully trimmed, its margins as impeccable as snowy cuffs, the hunger text is volubly tasteful. Look, too, at the bicycle rickshaw, double-headed as it pounds through the snow in front of the Opéra. Click any image to enlarge it.






In Gertrude Stein’s twentieth-century America there was a whole pictorial genre of travel scenes like that second one, but on that side of the Atlantic the motive unit was a superhuman machine and the direction of movement was usually an advance to the front of the picture plane, not a retreat.

Grif Teller, “Giant Conquerors of Space and Time,” 1931

On either side of the ocean, however, Gertrude Stein experienced transport from a greater distance than this, and de haut en bas. “When I was in America [1934-35],” she wrote, “I for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane.” Remaining behind in France during the war, continuing to create chic out of her carefully rationed words, she was able both to supersede train and airplane and to rise above vitrine and pedicab. Herr Brecht once wrote her a song containing the line “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” but Mr. Gray offered her a beautiful portrait of himself for her permanent collection.

Source: Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984), 50.

Bernstein’s Stein and mine

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.'”