A Pail Of Clover, A Beauty Pageant: The Stein Way
John Cage — like Gertrude Stein — like any artist — provoked controversy. After an audience protested at a performance of a musical work created using chance operations, Cage targeted self-expression. The protest was self-expression and ugly, he said, whereas the music lacked self-expression and was beautiful. I believe him. I also think his statement beautiful (his acrostics beautiful, his quotations beautiful).
Beauty is the reader’s job.
Is it interesting?
Beauty as aesthetic criteria has scraped its way to the late twentieth century through being an effect of the mind.
Gertrude Stein — like John Cage — is a cerebral artist, concerned with new reading possibilities, and humour. Read me, you can read me, she is saying. She is not concerned with emotion, reader’s emotions are not her business. Characters and situations become structural rather than rhetorical effects: Stein herself drew the analogy of her writing with Cubism. Her writing is beautiful to the reader who experiences English as beautiful in itself, rather than as a means of description, a crutch for imagination. A reader’s imagination is not Stein’s business.
Stein’s ambition is that of Shakespeare or Whitman: to contain everything. Her everything is not historical or social, but linguistic and geographical, that is, the present. Stein’s oeuvre is an encyclopedic handbook of avant-garde writing. Her repetitions, syntax, semantics, rhymes and rhythms are explosive ground. Stein’s writing is closer (clover) to modern thinking than anyone before her in English, and her writing creates a new thinking in her/my mind: language is having its own adventure: the reader is invited, like an apostle, to throw off ego and take a ride. She is closer to zen than to Sophocles or Brecht. Now is happening now, and is happening again. Are you happy?
Stein is an image machine: in her writing the image has the inevitability of decor, it is post-symbolic and post-narrative. Her flowers appear in rivers. This outrages readers who want their flowers served on tea trays.
What Stein offers is democratic writing that avoids privileging character, description, plot or imagery. This avoidance of the garden path is more radical — revolutionary — than the marxist writings of the surrealists, for example, or Pasolini.
Stein is a bulwark; time.
Is this beautiful and who cares?
It’s as beautiful as reading, as neutrality or freedom. A one woman revolution in prose with a brilliant girlfriend, a succession of poodles and a smirk. I care.
Postscript: Beauty Tactics for the Avant-Garde