Trimalchio is forever young. As we read about him in delighted shame, we invest him with all the immortality of our desires. Down the ages his name will change, but he will not. Look at the Jumbotron, reader! Have you ever been silly? High above you on the screen, the billionaire Paul Allen is now throwing money away on his yachts and his Science Fiction Museum. Henceforth, forever, your own silliness will be both known to the universe and safely dead with you. Have you ever been unreasonable? Because the display on the Jumbotron now shows the billionaire Howard Ahmanson bankrolling the creationists of the Discovery Institute, nobody will have to know about that time when you too denied to yourself the truth of death. There will be more billionaires to come, too, because desire will never die. Watching the forecast on the Jumbotron, we suddenly understand how good that news is. In Petronius’s original report, Trimalchio communed with his guests in meat and drink and then acted out his funeral. The guests escaped. They — we — had been returned to life.
We like that happy ending, and so it has become a genre. But some stories in the genre don’t fit well into any idea of a canon. What are we to do, for instance, with the tale of a billionaire who furiously buys multimillion-dollar house after multimillion-dollar house in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, then partially demolishes his purchases and abandons their remains? The billionaire is eighty years old. Does he have long-term plans for a future that, in his case, isn’t going to arrive? And why has he used one of his now vacant lots as a dump for dozens of enormous garden statues, and why does he putter around with gardening tools among his ruins? What sort of Eden might this billionaire have in mind? He isn’t saying. As of the page we’ve reached so far, his story is unsatisfactory.
The story isn’t satisfactory and the billionaire isn’t saying, but we all want somebody to say. Therefore, in partial satisfaction of that desire of ours, the canon has authorized release of a term into the lexicon of journalism: “eccentric billionaire.” The term doesn’t explain anything, but at least it has the outward generic form of a characterization. It signifies “apparent violation of convention; mysterious character with plot function to be revealed later in the story.” Until the next Dickens comes along, that will probably have to do. In any case, it will equip us with some nomenclature to help us think the billionaire has been pinned down for us to observe. Of course, in what the media call real life and you and I call genre convention, the billionaire hasn’t been pinned down. He refuses to talk to the media, leaves town to evade confrontation, seems to have found a way to silence anyone who has dealt with him, and in any case can’t or won’t speak English. But the phrase “eccentric billionaire” grants us the illusion of control over those epiphenomenal details. The billionaire has his billions, but we have our word “eccentric.”
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
This poem, one of Stevens’s last, bears an uncharacteristically hopeful title: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” It may imply that we can attain to knowing — knowing what the word “eccentric” might mean, knowing therefore what the billionaire thinks, knowing some answer to the question “Why?,” knowing — if we can just bring ourselves to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs, and head outside.
But recent discussions of Gertrude Stein’s life from 1933 to 1945 remind us once again that of course there is no outside. Is it even possible to think of Gertrude Stein in, say, 1943, as someone with a life separable from the words she wrote then? Words that have successfully evaded genre, words that have no more concern for other people’s categories than a billionaire with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in his man purse has for other people’s laws? Bewildered, a blogger covering the controversy for The New Yorker reports that some of those other people seem actually not to want to know Stein — or, at any rate, seem be be making an effort not to want to know about Stein.
The title of that post, “Why Won’t the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?” comes to us from the courtroom, where witnesses are formally asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” The title of Charles Bernstein’s recent study in archival scholarship, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight,” comes from the same venue. Both titles share the optimistic assumption that there is a god — that is, a stable source of meaning — and that furthermore this god is a helpful god, a cheerfully obliging setter-straight of records. After he got done laughing at the joke, Wallace Stevens might disagree, and so might the history that Gertrude Stein lived through and helped, with her outlaw words, to write.