Gertrude Stein’s Dog

When two people or more people are sitting with less than four feet of space between them—a distance that could easily accommodate the spoken voice—and they are texting to each other or to other others elsewhere, what they are doing is writing their autobiographies. Although written in 1937 when not every kitchen had an electric stove, Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography (Exact Change, Cambridge, 1993) has resolutely confirmed for me that something important is being realized by everybody’s rapidly paddling thumbs.

In Hollywood Gertrude Stein met Dashiell Hammett whom she admired because in his books things moved along and she’d asked him why, in the 19th century, men who were writers created the most wonderful kind of male characters while the women writers did only create characters who were like themselves and now, in the 20th century everything has switched and the men write only characters who are like themselves and the women are the truly inventive writers and why was that. Hammett’s answer was that it had to do with loss of confidence which the men no longer had but now women writers did so to hold themselves intact and make themselves handsome and good they could only make themselves and no other male character. This, Stein reasoned, was why everyone writes autobiographies. “Anyway autobiography is easy like it or not autobiography is easy for any one and so this is to be everybody’s autobiography.” But other things come into it as well. One of the things is to do with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas after which Gertrude Stein had become a famous writer. With the celebrity came a public and the inside, which she believed should remain inside was now more outside than she would have wished for comfort. Elaborating further on this clear difference between inside and outside, and talking and writing, Stein pointed out that when talking is taken as being the same as writing then topsy-turvy ensues and the inside is not inside and neither is outside outside whereas, she asserts, “I like the inside to be inside and the outside to be outside, it makes it more necessary to be one.” A unity of being or a sure sense of self and a palpable, hands-on grasp of her own identity were issues this new fame made suddenly acute.

Autobiography is fine, better than that and maybe all that was possible since it was also possible that the novel could no longer be written due to lack of dreaming. And this was because of the publicity and about that and identity Gertrude Stein had real concerns. Publicity was so prevalent, so quick and fecund that it produced all the personalities anyone could ever create and about whom they would write novels. It was no longer necessary to dream them; the need to be dreamed into existence and captured in stories had been supplanted. It was all there in the dailies, as regular and plain as milk delivered to the door cold in glass bottles. “And so autobiography is written which is in a way a way to say that publicity is right, they are as the public sees them. Well yes.”

In his bedazzling book, My 1980s & Other Essays (2013, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York), Wayne Koestenbaum begins the section “Heidegger’s Mistress” with a short quotation from Walter Benjamin who had also noticed no one was dreaming enough. “We have grown very poor in threshold experiences. Falling asleep is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us. (But together with this, there is also waking up.)” That wonderfully productive state of indeterminacy is absent from our lives leaving us susceptible to the cold bath of eyes-open attention. In his autobiography of this period of his life—at once unguarded and oblique—Koestenbaum draws his character for us through his responses, encounters and reflections on the decade of the ’80s. Who he was, how he lived, what he was reading, the subjects which were of interest, the temporal tenor of the world he inhabited—all this is given us in short or long essays, aphorisms and fragments carefully conceived and crafted. From this assembly, in whichever way we wish, we can come to know, in some measure, the author as he perceived himself or as we may read him to be in the 1980s.

Walter Benjamin appears early and often. How not? And Barthes and the very beautiful essay “In Defence of Nuance”, which Koestenbaum had written as the foreword to the 2010, Hill and Wang edition of Barthes’s A Lovers’ Discourse. On the first page of his opening essay Koestenbaum lets us know he’s taking the autobiographical form seriously, but at first sets some distance between himself and the deed, inserting an academic imprimatur, taking “autobiography seriously as a historical practice with intellectual integrity.” And then he’s into it and away, deciding to become, like Michel Leiris, “A self-ethnographer” and through Tzvetan Todorov, entertaining the relation between fantasy and autobiography. And closer to the truth, too, Stein would say, since who you are when you are remembering isn’t the who you remember or who you are when you’re writing your autobiography anyway.

Koestenbaum tells us “both Barthes and Benjamin worked in aphoristic fragments and assembled the pieces according to schemes nearly aleatory,” which is what he does too in My 1980s and I add Stein to the list here with her interruptions, asides and backtracks (the way a telling and a conversation go) and even with this run-on narrative and sentences whose head and tail you seek for yourself, and the insertion seemingly at random (but not likely so) of repeating themes and threads and the brightly illuminated (at least for me) repeats of dogs and moons as affirming beings. More on dogs and moons later.

Stein names identity as primary focus. The “being one” of the inside is the source of identity and when the outside tampers with what she fears is a permeable skin between the two states (of inside and outside) she husbands her identity more closely. When you’re looking at autobiography you’re looking for the “I” and the accompanying subjectivity. Koestenbaum begins looking at Barthes, and “A Lover’s Discourse” by telling us right off that the key to Barthes’s mind and body is the word laceration. A necessary wound and he wrote about Barthes, “He knew that subjectivity—consciousness—demanded an initiatory experience of being ravished.” Also, “Where there is a wound there is a subject.”

Isn’t it the case that “I” must be present and awake for the wound to be felt? Am I exceeding my reach in suggesting that consciousness, subjectivity and Stein’s “identity” are the same sought-after goal? Koestenbaum tells us the word laceration, he tells us Barthes’s lifelong fight (in the gentlest way) was against the banal and quotidian received wisdom and that his mission was to rescue nuance (to highlight or foreground that in any way would be to undermine its careful pursuit). When you picture Stein’s formidable bulk and think of Picasso’s famous portrait which she did come to replicate as her own mirror image over time, then the small and elusive angora rabbit smoke puff nuance isn’t something you would identify with Gertrude the person and writer. But she was, in fact, subtle and her focused pursuit of getting it exactly right—all of it was so that the essence and form, that nuance, were there for the careful and intelligent reader. I see them, Barthes and Stein, aiming for the same red bull’s-eye circle. Koestsenbaum says, in the Discourse, “The lover wants to escape incarceration-within-discourse to reach the anodyne state where nuance replaces topicality, where irrelevance outshines pertinence.” This is what Stein wanted for her writing, for the narration to be McLuhan’s medium, but so clear and translucent that it stands alone as its own object, subject, form—a Paul Scheerbart glass vessel, a transport to another plane of apprehension, a new form narration.

Thornton Wilder with whom Stein worked said he understood in conversation what she meant for her writing to be. She explained that to date in all her writing—poetry, plays, sentences and paragraphs she still hadn’t written what she wanted her writing to be. She outlined it: “I would simply say what was happening,” and she went on, “which is what is narration and I must do it.” She told him that description and telling what happened is like writing in a newspaper, with illustration, and is history, “but is not a simple narrative of what is happening not as if it had happened not as if it is happening but as if it is existing simply that thing.” The young writers she encountered and the few whose work she admired have something of that. Max White “makes a very clear line coming out of his writing…clear and as if everything was there not in the air but in being clearly there”; Sam Steward’s writing is clear and “has in it more than clarity,” both of them succeeding, she says, in saying something more than they say and Wendell Wilcox is even better in that “he has a feeling for meaning that is not beyond what the words are saying and of course that does make more brilliant writing and that is what he is doing.”

Too much doing is a condition about which Gertrude Stein and Charlie Chaplin commiserate. Stein tells him and her avidly following Hollywood audience, awe-struck by her fame and success that “the business of an artist is to be really exciting and he is only exciting when nothing is happening, if anything happens then it is like any other one,” a conundrum of a piece of information for anyone seeking to equal her publicity. For Chaplin, talking in the pictures was too much happening and limited the creative possibilities and here, to her rapt California followers is the most confounding piece of all. Stein told them, when queried on the secret of her attention: “By having a small audience,” and she went on, sensing their confusion, “really to have the biggest publicity you have to have a small one, yes all right the biggest publicity comes from the realest poetry and the realest poetry has a small audience and not a big one, but it is really exciting and therefore it has the biggest publicity, all right that is it.”

And here is where her theory of dogs and the moon comes in. Publicity has to do with our being defined outside and how everyone knowing you makes tenuous the you you worked to make and know and then you are changed. Well it’s a question and causes a tremor just in its being a question. Dogs, though, she reminds us, are just as they’ve always been. But even for the immutable canine who knows his essential being well and doesn’t question it, there are changes. To do with the moon which also doesn’t change but the relation between dogs and the moon has changed. Once its appearance as a full white disk would surprise the night of a dog out in it and the dog would bark as an expression of wonder or in acknowledgement. Then there were electric lights and cars with lights and this was so much happening that the moon was overlooked and so it is with publicity and being in the world. No longer, Stein laments by way of telling the danger of too much—an example she engages a number of times—are dogs excited by the moon which excited them because it did nothing. Now lights don’t excite them so now the moon is also gone.

In intense moments of self-doubt—whatever the spur or situation that provokes them—there is a fleeting state that has you questioning your presence. Am I invisible, you ask, as you psychically pat yourself down to reassure yourself of your physical reality. This is when you most need another being to know you. “I am I because my little dog knows me. But was I I when I had no written word inside me.” “It’s funny about money. And it is funny about identity. You are you because your little dog knows you, but when your public knows you…” and in a brief fallow period after the success of Alice B where she found she did little writing that pleased her, “it was then I began to think about am I I because my little dog knows me.” This taut wire of self-musing or reassurance—guy lines or a tightrope or a tone to pluck and sound—dogs and moons, take her out of the writing or bring her back to it—this writing that is one with her being. “Things belong to you and writing belonged to me, there is no doubt about it writing belonged to me.”

One more thing. Dropping it in here the way Stein dropped the walking marathon she watched when the Chicago police cruiser took her to see it as part of touring her through the night city. It fits here because it connects to that liminal sliding state between wakefulness and sleep and into and out of which these walkers—wraiths and shadows—moved. That mostly lost productive state about which Benjamin wrote, that generative cache of imagination out of which a novel’s characters could emerge, that kind of slant space that allows for nuance, that receptive space inhabited by a dark-draped film audience. “There is a difference between waking and sleeping and most generally one does know the difference between waking and sleeping not always but almost always,” Stein wrote on seeing the marathon’s participants, “but here there was nothing neither waking nor sleeping, they were all young ones and they were moving as their bodies were drooping.” She described the couples and the ones who were no longer couples moving on alone, drooping alone, barely moving. Not a laudable state, not a celebration but directly cueing her having seen again a day or two earlier the film writer Jacques Viot who told her that writing for films was not like writing for theatre because “a film audience is not an audience that is awake it is an audience that is dreaming, it is not asleep but it is always dreaming.”

About Barthes’s early first love recorded by him in endless, almost book-length letters, Koestenbaum wrote, “In small, private, pointless disreputable books—books of nothing—begin the responsible tomes a culture later uses to interpret its dreams.” “In dreams begin responsibilities.” wrote William Butler Yeats and Delmore Schwartz. And out of some state of wakefulness we write our autobiographies.

Volume 33, Number 1: Influence

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #129, published March 2014.

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