Seven Simple Rules for Reading Gertrude Stein
If the reader unfamiliar with the work of Gertrude Stein is confronted right away by her various interpreters, he or she is apt to approach Miss Stein with undue apprehension at best, and avoid her altogether at worst. Reading Stein can be a pleasure, and an instructive one at that, if a few basic rules are kept in mind. What follows is by no means an exhaustive examination of Stein's writing, but merely a few handy guidelines to get a grasp on a body of work that often seems forbiddingly complex because often so deceptively simple.
Perhaps the first thing to understand about Stein is that her main focus is almost always on writing as such; she is constantly examining how writing is accomplished. What one has to say is relatively unimportant; she has little interest in plot as normally understood. Words and syntax for Stein often function without regard for conventional notions of meaning. A noun is a noun is a noun is a signifier. The signified is not necessarily irrelevant, but it can no longer be taken for granted. Stein probes how we use language to describe and define reality, and she does so by calling attention to the fact that we usually do so unconsciously.
By forcing us to try and make sense of what appears nonsensical, Stein is teaching us to read consciously and actively. We are not passive listeners of a master storyteller, but makers of meaning in the act of reading. The sensation is of creating the text right along with her. This helps establish one of Stein's key critical concepts, the "continuous present."
The problem of time as it relates to narrative was a constant concern for Stein. The problem with conventional narrative, as she saw it, is that the reader is constantly out of step with the present. You have to remember what happened two chapters back to make sense of what you are reading now, which of course also makes you speculate about what the next page has in store. Stein attacks the problem with what critics have called her "repetitive" style, or what she preferred to call "insistence." Inspired in part by the cinema, Stein proceeds frame by frame, repeating sentences over and over with slight variation. She approaches characterization the same way. A person's character, or "bottom nature" as she called it, is defined by the intensity of existence, not by what he or she does. So, instead of telling us stories about someone, Stein uses strings of general nouns, participles, and various tenses of the verb "to be" to define character through repeated behavior. She strives for the same effect, using different techniques, in her poems about objects and in her plays. She attempts to get at the essence of a thing or event without resorting to narrative. Sensitizing oneself to the sounds and rhythms of her writing in these pieces goes a long way to understanding it.
Aside from those terms already discussed, keeping the following in mind will help in understanding Stein's procedures. As we have seen, Stein is intent upon keeping the reader totally in the present moment, undistracted by past events or future considerations. As Stein points out, stories in and of themselves are not particularly exciting; the newspapers are full of them (I should note that Stein makes a distinction between "interesting" and "exciting", the latter being a necessity for creativity, the former merely incidental to it). Character and narrative involve description, and to describe something is to note its resemblance to something else. Resemblance in turn involves the act of remembering. For Stein, this is the antithesis of creativity, since true creation takes place only in the present moment. Stein defined genius as one talking and listening at the same time. One who is always talking is not aware of the demands of his age, one who is always listening is not responding to those same demands. Only the genius lives within her generation in the act of also creating it. For Stein, the true artist lives and works at the very crest of the wave of time--there is no margin for looking back on what has been done before.
So, without further ado, here are seven simple rules for reading Gertrude Stein. By all means, copy and paste them, highlight the whole bunch, reduce them to your tiniest type. Print them, cut them out, laminate them. Better yet, put them on a sheet of business cards. Keep one in your wallet and use another as a bookmark as you make your way through Geography and Plays. Give them to friends and family. They make a great Christmas gift.
7 Rules for Reading Gertrude Stein
1. Relax. Don't worry. Have fun. Stein is fun.
2. Stein is about the process, not the product.
3. Read out loud. Stein's syntax is not passive.
4. Signifier does not equal signified. Subject/object/verb equals sentence, not sense.
5.There is no paraphrase. Interpret at your own risk.
6. Stein does not tell stories. People and things have a "bottom nature" revealed in a "continuous present."
7. If you laugh out loud occasionally, you are on the right track.