Partners in Crime

by Joan Retallack


Gertrude Stein: Do you see, nothing is surprising but a coincidence. A fact is not surprising, a coincidence is surprising and that is the reason that crime is surprising. There is always a coincidence in a crime.
                 There are so many ways in which there is no crime.

Blood On The Dining Room Floor

Here’s a coincidence. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things—coincidence, surprise. The latter as a positive aesthetic value. It’s one of those days composed of rushing here and there for reasons instantly erased by the completion of each task. I decide to turn on my car radio just as a woman’s voice is saying that complex thought in writing is always surprising. Does she mean it both ways? That it’s surprising to find complex thought in writing? That thought that does not surprise is not complex? We intuitively know that everyday life doesn’t conform to the simple outlines of well-made genres. In fact any event (and I include the acts of writing-reading, performing on or off the page in this active category) is surprising largely to the degree that it transgresses its own generic expectations. When it really does this, going beyond the calculated surprises of an artful plot, or screamingly censurable subject matter, it’s instantly recognized as a crime by those who police aesthetic expectations. (This is my 37 second history of the avant-garde.)

Is there always a coincidence in a crime? Of course, everything is, of course, coincidence and yet the aesthetic event that incorporates the kinds of coincidence one notices—the unsettling ones, the dissonant juxtapositions—is always surprising, is always a crime unless/until those juxtapositions become familiar, naturalized. Coincidence and surprise can be, though not most significantly, about content; their foregrounding is more a matter of what one notices when brought to a condition of exhilaratingly urgent attention. If literature is an engagement with possible forms of life—as all language games (written or spoken or performed) must be—there are perhaps too many ways in which there is no crime, too many forms that erase the urgency of wonder, bypass the most difficult questions of making meaning in a world whose borders exist after all only to locate scenes of transgression, a world whose increasingly self-conscious intimacy is imploding with multiplicity, mongrelism, collisions of perception, intention, desire. The other side of this energy, the explosion of forms that we’ve seen throughout the 20th century (likely to continue in this one) poses difficulties for traditionalists—e.g., narrators of coherency, tidy story-tellers as guardians of logics of identity and convention. The narrator of continuity is (albeit often unawares) at odds in a world whose vulnerabilities have more to do with contiguity. Contiguity is the spatial dimension of coincidence.  It is in fact the ill-fitting coincidence-contiguity of our reciprocal alterity whose energies continually disrupt longings for harmony, for smooth transitions, for the grand, clean sweep of self-assured narration, for the life that is the well-made story that is true to the life. 

That this equivalence doesn’t work could come as a surprise only in the context of literary institutions that have a constituent need to erase difficulty, most notably the literary market place. But, wait, this is beginning to look suspiciously like a story—story of early, middle or late capitalism reinscribing its brutally fetishized commodification and reification of—If I don’t stop it right here and now it might prematurely ejaculate its own conclusion. Stein stops me. Stein writes in her seven page, four chapter  “Superstitions Of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday A Novel Of Real Life”(1933):1

Do not bother. Do not bother about a story oh do not bother. Inevitably one has to know how a story ends even if it does not      

To make a “novel of real life”—as distinct from stylistic naturalism—it was necessary to pursue language, with its internal tensions between grammatical logics and radical unintelligibilities, as an active intersection that resists one to one correspondence with anything other than its own traffic patterns. Stein was acutely aware, as was John Cage, of the incommensurability of the multiple logics we experience and employ in different parts of our lives. Hence the cluster of questions that will always exist concerning the connection of connections within a work of art to the connections between persons and events and things in daily life. These passages from Stein’s “The Superstitions Of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday A Novel Of Real Life” examine precisely the same puzzle of poetics that Aristotle and countless others since have worked on—the relation between the unfolding logic of a lived day and the logic of time in literature:

    It is not at all confusing to live every day and to meet everyone not at all confusing but to tell any one yes it is confusing even if only telling it to any one how you lived any one day and met everybody all of that day. And now what more can one do than that. And doing more than that is this….
     Now I need no reason to wonder if he went to say farewell. But he never did. Fred Anday never said farewell to any one in a day no one ever does because every one sees every one every day which is a natural way for a day to be….Of course no dream is like that because after all there has to be all day to be like that. And all day is like that. And there cannot be a novel like that because it is too confusing written down if it is like that so a novel is like a dream when it is not like that.
But what is this yes what is this. It is this.2

Of course, an important characteristic of performance is that it usually doesn’t happen in all-day, ordinary time. (Aristotle based an entire Poetics on this fact.) And even if it did, it’s time could not be coterminous with everyday-life time, since the framing of an event as performance is in fact a kind of time-bracketing (as Cage called it) that transforms the time-sense (as Stein called it) within it. Hence the inherent urgency of performance is not only its ephemerality, but also the accident, coincidence, contingent constructedness brought into the foreground by that bracketing. That, when it works, is always surprising. The tenuous, tentative suspension of disbelief of an audience is always on the verge of betrayal. Yet as one is initiated into the logics of and by the event itself, one also feels less and less that it is arbitrary. Contingent but not arbitrary is not a paradox it is a condition of life principles that have to do with the complex interactions and interpermeabilities that constitute any event in the world. What is most likely to be read as arbitrary is a surprising interrelationship since the sense of necessity is entirely dependent on knowing that familiar principles or logical rules have been properly followed. Hence, not the arbitrary, not nonsense, but new sense—and the urgency of trying to make meaning of that new sense is another source of excitement in work performing in unfamiliar or very complex logical space-time. Logical space-time? This site invokes:

            a) The urgency brought on by a sense of contingent necessity.

            b) The urgency of making meaning.

            c) The ephemerality of understanding.

            d) The ephemerality of realization.

            e) The surprise of constant coincidence.

This set of conditions is applicable to bodies in live performance as well as to difficult texts. This is one reason why complex historical texts like Shakespeare’s or the Bible or even Ulysses or Finnigans Wake continue to fascinate, particularly in performance—e.g., those marathon readings of the latter. High levels of residual unintelligibility within the certified meaningfulness of a classic within a public context of even implicit construction of meaning summon a-e with minimized anxiety. The payoff will be real; the struggle is admirable when the work is a classic. That one can make only fleeting meaning no matter how intense one’s engagement is something we learn in our encounters with complex work from distant cultural space-time but, sadly, don’t tend to apply to contemporary work that is equally distant for different reasons or perhaps reasons of an interesting symmetry: the very old and the very new are similarly indeterminate. The former has a dissonance from having drifted away from habits of mind, the latter from just beginning to challenge them.

          Fleeting meaning is an obvious property of events unfolding in time, absent text or instant replay. The requirement of intensely alert attention of the sort that must make something of what is happening “before one’s eyes”—text or no text—makes us feel acutely what is more often a chronic condition—the piquant fact of being alive. The coincidence, the surprise of being alive, sensed not necessarily in these terms, but in an excitement cresting in every cell of one’s body. Needless to say this doesn’t happen in the presence of every performance, every text. To feel, for instance, as acutely alive as some do in the critical time-bracket constructed by placing a bet, anticipating news of the outcome at a roulette table or the races (some have argued that the addiction to gambling is about just this) the performance must have an urgency on which all—for the moment—depends. But what can that possibly mean in the realm of aesthetics?  I have no answer, just some tangential thoughts in the form of a puzzle: The poethical wager of performing or attending to (as audience) an engagement with the vivid distance of the hyper-textual/hyper-real is an extreme sport. 

          Some differences need to be marked. There is of course the extreme sport of everyday life, thank god, generally not recognized as such. There is also the extreme sport of what have to their detriment been known as the high arts. This is problematic if “high” is related to class; should not be problematic if “high” is related to “wire.” The best of the high wire arts require daring all around. One has to train for this in order to not burn out. This is a matter of highly charged poesis (making), not entertainment. This is very much about how one experiences a transformation of one’s sense of time and one’s role in making sense of what is happening—in frame of the event in the world as one experiences oneself an active part of this developing “it.” “It,” therefore, does not apply to the sur-real, which is something else entirely, what Gertrude Stein categorizes as dream time (a disengagement from the urgency of everyday life) and finds of no interest for her work. Dream time has an animal magnetism that collapses aesthetic distance.

           CASE STUDY: A German husband-wife team of architects are presenting their very evocative postmodern projects of cultural memory. How do you memorize (sic) historical catastrophes when our visual habits have changed so radically? she asks. Pictures are always in motion. We have to be in motion too. (In one of their projects they brilliantly answer the U.S. Congressional Librarian’s lament that we have become motion without memory. They have installed a decentralized holocaust memorial in Berlin. Images turn up as you round a corner or cross a street.) We (the audience) are seated in the raked auditorium of the Art History room at Bard College (north of NYC). They are on a stage, using a podium, being taped, showing slides. To put it succinctly, they get into a running argument (i.e., a fight) with each other that is edging into everything they do. Several in the audience are whispering, Is this a performance? The talk goes on in English, but with all of the slides showing German signs and posters, some one asks for translation.  “Bank, which means Bank,” she says. Is this a performance? The word TERROR appears on the screen. Is this like Bank? Has that word come into the German language? Why not Schrecken? Anxiety has permeated the room. No one dares ask anything more. “This area formerly with a large Jewish population.” “In this photo you see one of those problematic social moments.” (Elderly woman seated on one bench, man sleeping on another bench.) Why is this problematic? What’s going on?  Why has the question of performance/not performance, speaker v. performer become so important? 

          I won’t attempt to supply an answer, but I think this question points to critical issues of the performative vs. the real (no problem with the true at this juncture). I am reminded of Blanchot’s mini-aphorism: “Seeing implies distance.” The converse is of course true as well. One needs distance to see, to register certain kinds of things acutely. Our visceral contiguity with the real doesn’t allow that. Anxiety is visceral. To be anxious about the real state of their marriage, or whether they have a degree of scorn for their audience, or about a level of sophistication or subtlety one might not be getting, is to lose aesthetic distance. This is why audience participation (or assault) as theater never works as theater. The hyperreal that shimmers just because it is securely framed sometimes does work. This is the frame of the aesthetic wager. It is captioned thus: you are embarked; this is your extraordinary form of life for the space-time of the voyage; the voyage is the navigation of the shimmer; you needn’t worry about a thing; you may enjoy the illusion of infinite time…

And then the suddenness of not being there any more…any longer.

Lights go up. Second of silence.

One kind of time stops, another begins.

Something (like everything, but more blatantly) has come and gone with the speed

           of light and sound.

      And now the geometry of attention returns to…what?…normal? (How odd.)

     You look around, feel you must comment or ask someone tocomment. (How

        Time was when what time was was what time is is time what it was or is it

      what time is it when one large noun baking in the sun on aMediterranean

     island and now several phonemes emerge all about the same time about the

     same Figs.


Fig. 1

Message on answering machine:

Hello, my name is Lynn. I have a check in your name for $100. All you have to do is listen to the recording and follow the instructions.


Fig. 2

Achimedea meets Epicurus: And now the swerve from preceding logics is consummated.


Fig. 3

I give myself over to the titillating certainty that it is radically impossible to predict what poetry may make happen. My own performance (is it a performance?) can only be posited on a specific wager, i.e., on the constraints of radical unpredictability.

          By these three figs. I locate the coordinates of an experiment in framing a location for the construction of a process of cultural play as in “playing and reality”3 as in swerve here to not avoid…

          John Cage’s work was based on live performance and yet all over the world his presence as Epicurean swerve (Lucretian clinamen) was probably most often effected through the book Silence. Silence was experienced as an urgent text. In Leningrad it was translated and passed around among artists underground. Any banned document takes on urgency since it’s banning gives it the property of being an other possible world. That sense of heightened possibility reconfigures the geometry of attention. In the foreground is the language that is normally invisible, inaudible, unintelligible. It’s a radical coincidence that one can attend to other possibilities at all—outside the suffocation of official logics. It’s a matter, not of fact, not of institutions, but of happenstance—whom  you happen to know. That someone happened to come across Silence.  “Do you see, nothing is surprising but a coincidence. A fact is not surprising, a coincidence is surprising and that is the reason that crime is surprising. There is always a coincidence in a crime. There are so many ways in which there is no crime.” 

         A crime in Leningrad but also in other cultural preserves just because the unintelligibility to officialdom or to familiar preconceptions is what creates the occasion for a making of new meaning. The audience is invited to participate in the making of new intelligibility, that is, a new form of life. This need not be a major revolution—just a swerve of thought toward a use of history that enables a vital invention of self in the reciprocal alterity of the contemporary moment. This takes perspective and humor that can accommodate the terror (that means terror) and delight (that means something less certain) of our historical contemporary. It can happen in the performance of the writing on the page, e.g., in “Lecture on Nothing” in Silence. Or in dense texts that suggest permutative semantics, grammars, logics. Cage likened this state to that of being a tourist in everyday life. Stein likened it to being a foreigner (same thing?) —the foreigner that every contemporary artist must be. Stein: “Oh dear a foreigner. They did not listen to him be a foreigner”(Blood on the Dining Room Floor). It’s a poethos of contemporaneity that Stein articulates in her 1935 essay “How Writing is Written,”

Everybody is contemporary with his [sic] period...and the whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness...The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.4

That articulates what should be the spirit of every performance—you don’t know where it’s going but you know its on the way. Hence,

     If in beginning, if in a beginning, I begin to be connectedly and carefully and collectedly if I agree, if in beginning I agree, then I agree you agree and we agree.
If he can recall a boast of victory, I can refuse to be resolutely sure of what he and I both mean to collect.
     Now do you see that this is a thing to erase and eradicate.
Do you not see it clearly.
Let me refuse to repair it.5

           Poetry that performs on the page, as this does, should be performed off the page as well. All of Stein’s work happens to lend itself to this, not just the operas and plays. It does because it is work that retains its foregrounding of contingency precisely in its refusal to repair—to repair itself, to repair to something other than itself while asserting the specifics of its own lucidity. This presents the sort of occasion that performance is meant to rise to, yes/no?—a spacio-temporal articulation of fleeting lucidity.


1 Stein, Gertrude. How Writing Is Written, V.II of the Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1974. 24.

2 How Writing Is Written. 28-29.

3 To invoke D.W. Winnicott’s collection of immensely useful essays with that title, Playing and Reality

4 Ibid. 151. This is so close in spirit and language to so much of John Cage’s thought on the position of the contemporary artist (in particular “Lecture on Nothing”), that I think it precisely locates the nature of Stein’s influence on his poetics.

5 Gertrude Stein. “An Elucidation” in A Stein Reader. Ed. Ulla Dydo. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1993. 438.


Bio: Joan Retallack’s most recent books are MONGRELISME (Paradigm Press, 1999) and How To Do Things With Words (Sun & Moon, 1998). She is also the author of AFTERRIMAGES and Eratta 5uiteMUSICAGE, her book on and with John Cage, was recently reissued in paperback by Wesleyan University Press.  Retallack’s book of essays, The Poethical Wager, is forthcoming from the University of California Press. An essay on Gertrude Stein, “Readers & Writers, Partners in Crime,” is in the current issue of American Letters & Commentary.  Retallack is John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard College.


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