notes for talk at the panel "Why Is Gertrude Stein So Important?" at the ALA.
We get from avant garde modernism, by which I mean we get from Stein, the contemporary literature that we deserve. That in short is why Stein matters.
But what is Stein? I want to tell several stories about the Stein that we deserve.
One is the Stein that appears in the publication context of her time. And as example here I want to talk some about the 150 or so pages of Stein were published in the various issues of the journal Transition. Transition was edited mainly by Eugene Jolas while he lived in Paris and it came out monthly from 1927 until 1932 (after 1932 it came out less regularly, first from the Hague and then from New York, until 1938). So it interestingly, although not uniquely, charts the development of avant garde modernism before World War II. When Jolas reprints Tender Buttons in his journal Transition, he doesn’t just put it in the journal on its own. He puts it in a larger context, in a section titled “America,” which includes not only work by other American avant gardists such as A. Lincoln Gillespie but also work from a diverse range of genres and cultures such as fairy tales of the Aztec and Inca periods, a Mexican statue, a Columbian figure, and a Peruvian bowl.
The Stein that appears in Transition is one that is in dialogue with the wide variety of arts that are new to Europe as a result of imperialism. The editorials and reviews and essays of Transition make an argument that avant garde modernism’s forms are reflective of a Europe changed by imperialism, a Europe suddenly very much aware of how different cultures and their arts and their languages are entering and shaping European centers, over and over. Jolas does not really use the words “imperialism” or “colonialism,” he does again and again relate the avant garde to economic and political changes. Again and again he argues that this writing, a writing that at moments he calls a declaration of linguistic independence and at other moments the revolution of the word, was indebted to the disruption of the center.
But also, I’m interested in how some of the things that get said in accusation or dismissal about this moment, which with the arts other than writing gets called primitivism, are actually nuanced and complicated in the pages of Transition. Jolas not only juxtaposes work that is geographically and generically diverse, but also influence is often presented as a two or more way street. His juxtapositions of various arts point to disparate connections between the art of empire and the art of the colonies. There is little in Transition that suggests authenticity or any singularity of origin. The elsewhere becomes heterodox as the journal as a whole includes not just Aztec sculptures from the past but also contemporary paintings by Hopi artist Polelonema; not just Cuban sound poems but also poems from colonial Guadeloupe poet St John Perse. Modernism, the pages of Transition suggest, is contingent and full of uncertain rhythms and unexpected connections. And while Jolas’s juxtapositions do not manage to sidestep the provisional and asymmetrical ways that forms from the colonies enter into empire, they do manage to avoid primitivist assumptions of the colonies as pure and collective.
I am not saying anything new here.
Another story. The story that I was taught about avant garde modernism in school was that around 1913 Stein published Tender Buttons (or around 1908 Italian poet Tommaso Marinetti proclaimed the beginnings of futurism or around 1910 Roger Fry organized his exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” or . . . ) thus beginning an aesthetic revolution that breaks the constraints and conventions of nineteenth century national European literary traditions. I was taught that this was primarily an overturning of one western literary practice with another western literary practice. I was taught in other words that the conventions of nineteenth century literature began to be seen as restrictive by a certain small group of writers and they thus reacted by indulging in a sort of formal convulsion that used “new” or “strange” forms of writing to break from these restrictions. Basically, I was taught that the west made up avant garde modernism all on its own.
I should have known better; it was the late 80s and early 90s after all and postcolonial theory was unavoidable. But I didn’t and so I carried this story with me to a job teaching literature at a state university in the middle of the Pacific. Because I was a new teacher I had to teach a lot of introduction to literature courses. In one course, an introduction to poetry and drama, I assigned Antigone, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his sonnets, Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Hawaiian playwright Alani Apio’s Kāmau. The works that I chose were somewhat accidental, a combination of meeting the requirements (a Greek and a Shakespeare), works I had taught before (Tender Buttons), and one that I wanted to think more about (Kāmau). I was not intending to make a point about avant garde modernism.
Yet in this island of competing and complicated identity claims in the middle of the Pacific, students forced me to read Stein in new and exciting ways. One argued that Tender Buttons illustrated the Hawaiian concept of hakalau, of looking astray. Another argued that it was written in a form of Pidgin, a European pidgin. Out of this I realized something that Peter Quartermain argues, that Stein’s multilingual childhood and her adult life in voluntary exile had more to do with her writing than I had previously realized. But I also realized that the forms of avant garde modernism that I had been seeing as “new” or “strange”—the polyvocality, the disjunction, the repetition, the unconventional syntax, the lack of a narrative arc—are actually, as my students kept patiently pointing out to me, the exact same techniques used in oral literary traditions. It was through this moment that I learned to listen to claims such as Fanon’s that “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” The Tender Buttons that is in Transition is the same Tender Buttons that those students in Hawai’i were reading.
But I really don’t need all this round about-ness, all this talking about how others pointed out something obvious to me about Stein because I could also just as easily quote Stein. When Stein writes in “What Is English Literature?,” “As the time went on to the end of the nineteenth century and Victoria was over and the Boer war it began to be a little different in England. The daily island life was less daily and the owning everything outside was less owning, and, this should be remembered, there were a great many writing but the writing was not so good.” She says something similar in her round about way about how those nineteenth century national literary traditions were feeling a little less than useful in a changing world.
Stein is writing in a time when cultures and their languages and their literatures are uncomfortably hitting up against one another. While avant garde modernism was certainly a reaction to nineteenth century national literary conventions, it was a resistance that most likely felt crucial to its writers not because nineteenth century national literary conventions suddenly felt merely boring or so-nineteenth-century at the beginnings of the twentieth century but because imperialism had dramatically changed so many things. When Stein was in Paris writing in Tender Buttons “act as if there is no use in a centre,” 600,000 troops and 200,000 workers were brought into France from the colonies. European immigration to urban areas such as Paris was also very high at the time.
Still… it is not that Stein is writing an imitative oral poetry in a time of high literacy, but she is drawing from something closer to what Kamau Brathwaite calls (speaking about contemporary poetries) “the notion of oral literature,” something approximate but not directly imitative, something oral and yet literate. And just as critics such as Brent Hayes Edwards, Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten and others have complicated the idea that the primary influence for western black traditions is orality, it also makes sense to complicate the other side of this argument: that Euro-American avant garde modernism draws primarily, even if in resistance, from the literate European American tradition.
If we accept Edward Said’s and other’s claims that European nineteenth century national literatures are tied to the rise of the bourgeoisie and thus also tied to the rise of colonialism, then avant garde modernism’s move away from European national literary traditions could cautiously be read as reformatory. Much about this work severs the one on one relationship between national literatures and national languages. This story of cultural exchange that comes out of Stein’s work is built more around uneven attempts at universalisms (are there any other sort?) than contained multiculturalisms or respectful diversities. I have struggled as I wrote this with finding the proper term for this unequal exchange that it is not hybridity nor syncretism nor fusion. But that also does not damn with charges of appropriation. There is undeniably no mutuality here but instead there is some sort of creeping, undercover international formal migration. At moments then, how imperialism shows up in modernism looks naïve: Eliot talking about the primitive and his drum. But it is not only naïve.
Yet at the same time, do I need to remind this?, avant garde modernism is very much a colonial literary tradition. It is not an anti-colonial one. As is obvious, again and again even as avant garde modernism critiques those 19th century colonial literary traditions and at the same time it colludes with the politics of colonialism that figure the colonies as primitive and the empire as civilized. And yet I still think that to really begin to understand literature’s possibilities as not only representing but also being attentive to the contemporary moment, a moment of globalization, requires not only acknowledging avant garde modernism’s culturally inflected formalism but seeing it as a complicated thing, one that is neither all critique nor all collusion. It would be absurd to suggest that avant garde modernism is innocent--that it is as we say at the turn of this century, “multicultural”--but it also might be missing something to avoid discussion of how it might have felt to certain turn of the century intellectuals impossible to not use the forms of oral traditions, or how it might have felt as if doing this was something that required a certain blindness or a certain allegiance to nineteenth century national literatures.
As oral traditions are social, networked traditions, avant garde modernism at its best attempts a version of a social, networked writing. It is at moments attuned to finding different connections amid the frequencies of language, amid the noisy way that words and literary forms are public business. The usually stable configurations between languages and national identity are frequently questioned. The linguistically atypical works in English of Stein force readers of English to no longer be comfortable in their English language skin. They point to how no language is a native language, how every language is formed out of other languages. Avant garde modernist works also often attentively expand the aesthetic into the social without neglecting relations, entanglements, implications. They often point out that when it comes to the improvisations of literature, connection never really obeys the rules. It is not linear. It is webby and tentacled and intrusive and disordered.
But back to that contemporary literature that we deserve. I am again stating something obvious, that like it or not it is modernism that has shaped the contemporary whether in reaction or in imitation. So it matters how we read it. Those who tend to see a formalist avant garde modernism tend to read the poetries of the last half of the twentieth century as formalist. Those who see a western avant garde modernism tend to assume that the west created its experimentalism in isolation. But a different avant garde modernism, one about that webby dialogue between cultures, points to a webby, tentacled late twentieth century poetry. And this is the contemporary poetry that we deserve.