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.

http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/2012/05/push-and-shove-hook-and-crook-bernstein/

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.'”

 

Push and shove, hook and crook, Bernstein

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight

Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.”  Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”

As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.

Text 2: “By hook or by crook.”  Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.

Kielce, Poland, July 1946

Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”

Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.

But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”

Arranging, deepening, enchanting night

 Click to enlarge.

At sunset on December 29, 2011, this was Honolulu’s Koko Marina. Just off to the right of the scene there was a house illuminated for the season with a great big cross, but in honor of Mr. Stevens I left it to the dark.

Forever, illustrated

A

They’re junk, these words shedding a thin dust of history as they collect around a smiling picture. In the pile, “01 Jul” has nothing to do with “Forever.” “Forever” is inside the picture’s margins, but it could just as well be outside with “01 Jul.” Because it has no place it must be, it has no reason to mean. On its emptied envelope, it can’t help us to remember. It can’t help us to picture.

 

B

Making itself remember that it originated in a light seen and experienced, an image lifts itself out of the darkness between words and becomes real.

 

Click to enlarge.

River, crying

On his Facebook page, the poet Alfred Corn plays himself as the educational version of Whitman’s Spontaneous Me: a Socrates who bestows questions, instant by instant, on the corpus of poetry. Professor Corn’s May 4 question, for example, was: “Can a poem indict or pronounce judgment and still be a good poem? Is, for example, Neruda’s poem about the United Fruit Company a good poem?”

Neruda aside, the answer is “Of course.” But on the Facebook page the exercise generated much excited brow-furrowing among the friends. The reason for the excitement may have been only pedagogical: Corn teaches modern literature, and in the here and now (any here and now) it’s hard to predict what is likely to last. Still, even here and now it wouldn’t have taken much effort to recall The Divine Comedy. If the words “poem,” “good,” and “judgment” have any meaning, then of course The Divine Comedy is a good poem, and of course it pronounces judgment. Indicting and pronouncing judgment are what saturnine temperaments do, and if someone with a saturnine temperament also happens to be a great artist — say, a Dante or a Swift or a Goya — then we’ll get great art that pronounces judgment.

So far, so sophomore survey. If it slipped the minds of Corn and his friends, the explanation may be no more shameful than a desire for unshadowed pleasantness during the act of reading. After all, garden statuary throughout the English-speaking world speaks to that desire by making a little verbal gesture of motto and performative self-description:

Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” Ezra Pound took uncompromising exception to this sunniness. For his own motto and and self-description, he took a long view of himself in the third person, declared that third person “out of step with his time,” and then explained in bibliographic detail:

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

That was in 1920, and as of 2011 Pound has long since fallen into step with the academic calendar. But it seems likely that sundials and their poem are still the more convincing pacers-off of time. From their garden in 2011, sundial and poem invite us to join the orbit of Facebook and become part of its unending cycle of nervous small talk and reassuring consolation.

But the inconsolable among us may still need the poetry of judgment for the different way it teaches us to look toward the sun. Consider Psalm 137, for instance.

 


“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
From the Chludov Psalter (9th-century Byzantine).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chludov_rivers.jpg
Photoshopped for color and sharpness

 

This river doesn’t follow the law of cycles. Its course is linear, with a beginning and an ending. It begins in the wordy cry of an uttering mouth, and it comes to an end at the margin of the parchment, where the words run out and (as the idiom has it, but usually not this literally) nothing remains to be said.

 

 

Once it has reached that wordless space, the psalm pronounces its judgment. Its penultimate verse is, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” In the English of the King James Version, the term “happy” has its old sense of “fortunate,” so this verse plays a grim, delphic word game with the vocabulary of gift exchange and reward. But where there are no clouds, the delphic must give up its smiling secrets. Irony evaporates from the words, they begin radiating a heat as dry as desert rock, and the psalm ends: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

When he drew those words, the artist of the Chludov psalter understood that in this text the river and the man must be one. Where there is no water cycle, every loss is irrecoverable and every word spoken is a word that is gone. Where the words run, man and river are one cry. In the light by which we read the cry, every hour is sunny.