was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania
, of educated German-Jewish immigrants
. Her father, Daniel Stein
, was a traction-company executive
, who had become wealthy through his investments in street railroads
and real estate
. His business took the family for four years to Vienna
, when Stein was a child. In 1879
the family returned to America
. She made several cultural trips to Europe
with her parents (Kimbel 278).
In 1893 Stein entered Harvard Annex (now Radcliffe College) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She studied psychology under William James (1842-1910) and experimented with automatic writing under his direction. James also visited Stein in Paris in 1908. After studies at Johns Hopkins medical school, Gertrude Stein moved to Paris. She lived there from 1903 with her brother Leo, and from 1914 with her life companion, Alice B. Toklas, an accomplished cook for the salon's guests at the 27 Rue de Fleurus flat, near Luxembourg Gardens. Her salon attracted intellectuals and artists to discuss new ideas in art and politics. In the atmosphere of creative energy, Stein also wanted to produce modern literary version of the new art. Her first novel, Q.E.D. (1903), remained unpublished until after her death - perhaps because of its intimate, lesbian nature (Kimbel 284).
As a writer Stein made her debut with Three Lives (1909), clearly influenced by the Jameses, novelist Henry and psychologist William. The book was based on a reworking of a late Flaubert text called Trois Contes. She and her brother started to collect works by contemporary painters. She also tried to connect theories of Cubism to literature, as in the essay Composition as Explanation (1926), which was based on her lectures at Cambridge and Oxford.
After differences emerged between the Cubists and the post-Impressionists, Stein sided with the former while her brother Leo championed the latter (Mellow 364).
It was also well-known that Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein were lovers. They lived together and Alice frequently spoke for Stein and vice versa as a husband would for a wife in that time. That having been said, Stein never publicly stated that she was a lesbian. She was however, very outspoken about her distate for patriarchy. Gertrude Stein always equated fathers and fathering with authority, especially arbitrary authority. Stein herself said “There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing” (Yearsley 434).
In her book about Picasso (1938) Stein recalled that in 1909 the artist showed her some photographs of a Spanish village to demonstrate how Cubist they appeared in real life. According to Stein, Picasso's paintings, such as 'Horta de Ebro' and 'Maison sur la colline' were almost exactly like the photographs.
Stein lauched her modernist literary style with The Making of Americans, a family history and history of whole humanity. It was written between 1906 and 1908 but not published until 1925. In it, Stein tried to translate Cubist paintings into a prose form and present an object or an experience from every angle simultaneously. The effect was reinforced by minimal use of punctuation. She was also fascinated by automatic writing. Automatic writing is writing allegedly directed by a spirit or by the unconscious mind. It is sometimes called "trance" writing because it is done quickly and without judgment, writing whatever comes to mind, "without consciousness," as if in a trance. It is believed that this allows one to tap into the subconscious mind where "the true self" dwells.
From the United States Stein's friend Mabel Dodge wrote with enthusiam about the Armory Show. It presented in 1913 modern, revolutionary artist to the American public. Her article, which compared Stein's writing to Picasso's Cubism appeared in the magazine Art and Decoration, and sold at the show. Although Stein met Dodge only a few times, their correspondence lasted over 20 years (Mellow 367).
In 1914 Stein published the poetry collection Tender Buttons. It presented a series of still lives, such as A Chair, A Box, Roastbeef, and End of Summer. Each of these is characterized by unexpected phrases that collide. When England declared war on Germany, Stein was visiting the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in England, with her lover Toklas. After a brief trip to Majorca in 1915 they returned to Paris, joining the American Fund For French Wounded. She and Toklas received the French government's Medaille de la Reconnaissance Française in 1922 (Jarraway 3).
Gertrude Stein’s use of language was one of the things that made her one of the most controversial figures in early 20th century art and literature. She explored almost every literary medium; novels, biographies, plays and even opera. The work discussed herein is one of the two operas she collaborated on with the composer Virgil Thomson, entitled Four Saints in Three Acts.
The opera tries to be a picture, an opera in which the text defies the urge that a narrative work has, and that is to become tangential, or rather to tell a story that either tried to illustrate or digress from the message at hand (Albright 570). Stein claimed that her writings were addressed to the eye, not the ear, which may not be obvious by her use of homophones. Ironically, when one reads a Stein poem, one gets her message more clearly because although homophones sounds alike, they are usually not spelled alike. So that when one hears “Prepare for Saints” it is known that the listener must prepare themselves for saints, not that one has to prepare four saints for something. Stein herself thought of the saints as a portrait, an everlasting tableau. The Cubists painters of her time were known to make people see paint, and then a painting. Stein used her pen as a paintbrush, to make people see words, and then writing.
Even in discussions of how she writes and why she writes, Stein
uses words to paint a picture.
“And so it was natural then when I wanted saints that they should be Spanish saints. There are saints everywhere. There have been saints in Italy and in France and even in Germany and I suppose in Austria, I do not know anything about them, but the important saints have been Spanish and Italian and that is natural enough… A saint a real saint never does anything, a martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing, and so I wanted to have Four Saints who did nothing and I wrote the Four Saints in Three Acts and they did nothing and that was everything. Generally speaking anybody is more interesting doing nothing than doing something.” (Albright 572).
It becomes clear from reading her casual correspondence, like that above and then comparing it to word written for publication, or as in the following example, performance, that this is no more or less Stein’s way of expressing herself to the best of her ability.
“To know to know to love her so
Four saints prepare for saints.
It makes it well fish
Four saints it makes it well fish” (Stein P.1)
The curtain rose on those words underscored by a steady oom-pah rhythm that was usually reserved for the old-fashioned music hall or the marching band, certainly not for the concert hall or opera house. No one could have possibly understood what Stein was writing about. Let’s break down the passage and think about possible meanings. “To know to know to love her so.” This is obviously an analogy to the adage about Jesus, “To know him is to love him.” However, this sentences uses the feminine “her” so that it can either be referring to a woman in the same respect, that is to say as a woman as a saviour. It could also be making the shocking postulation that God is a woman. Later in the opera, we come to the conclusion that the “her” whom Stein is referring to is St. Theresa, or rather to the two St. Theresas, as the role is split between two actresses. This also becomes clear when one knows about Gertrude Stein’s life and her relationship with her companion, Alice B. Toklas. “Therese was one of her nicknames, so Saint Teresa is in some way related to Alice B. Toklas” (Suleski 41). “Four saints prepare for saints.” Here is one of Gertrude Stein’s many homophone exchanges, which work incredibly well in a sung medium, because there is no text to read. When hearing it, one can easily assume that the line is “For saints, prepare for saints” which is just a repetition. I also believe that as well as an introduction to the opera, it also connotates the preparedness one must face in order to enter heaven, where one would usually see saints.
The next line can be looked at many different ways. “It makes it well fish.” The mention of fish right after the the mention of saints brings to mind the Biblical story of the loaves and the fishes. The word well could be used as a verb, basically saying that it makes something well up with fish. And a saviour, even a female one, should be able to perform the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Also, since we know that the last person mentioned was a woman, Stein may have been using the derogatory term “Fish” for a woman, but using it herself, she was empowering the term. “Much of Stein’s writing…has been devoted to demolishing and placing the worn-out conventions and hierarchical order of discourse invented by patriarchal society” (Yearsley 447). What follows in this patriarchal world of language is the what follows in any non-balanced society: non-inclusive language lends itself to oppresive language. The exact coinage of the term “fish” for a woman is sketchy, but it had become a common term by that time that I’m sure Stein knew about. It was a perfect example of her idea of “too much fathering.”
Knowing full well that this would be the first thing the audience would hear, Stein packaged a great deal of meaning into the first few lines of the opera.
When Stein wrote the libretto she wrote it in the style of the epic poem, much like Homer, with an omniscient narrator speaking in verse and with no delineation as to a specific character persona or which character spoke when. This was in keeping with her habit of creating “landscape plays,” where there is a balance between the static feel of a landscaped painting and the action of a play (Watson 154). Stein herself said of the opera, “In Four Saints, I made the Saints the landscape. All the saints that I made and I made a number of them because after all a great many pieces of things are in a landscape. All these saints together made my landscape” (Watson 155).
This technique of turning the opera into a painting, especially one as static as a landscape painting was surprisingly well-received, even if it was not completely understood. During the first intermission, all the murmurs were about the libretto. Some members of the opening night audience, which consisted of critics, art patrons and artists themselves asked, “But what is going to happen if we acquire a new species of opera in which the words of the poet do not convey any thought?”, and others followed with “Of course it is nonsense, but who cares?” (Watson 276).
While a painting can evoke an emotion or capture a given moment, for the most part, a painting does not tell a story per se. For most playwrights the entire reason for writing is to tell a story from beginning to end, but for Stein a play is an enactment of what is not a story. For her, drama is the opposite of narrative. A play expresses the essence of what happened rather than the expression of what happened. It concerns familiar things, from pigeons to nuclear war. “Stein achieved an extraordinary defamiliarization of these things, first by blurring the boundaries between one character and another, and second by paralyzing any sense of plot development: the opera demonstrates the artistic principle of decentered composition, in which each area is of equal importance, thereby allowing no suspense, no climax and no denouement” (Albright 578).
It would seem that Gertrude Stein has an unorthodox way of looking at just about everything that had to do with the written word. Her attitude about grammar was much the same. According to Stein, if one wanted to understand grammar, all one had to do was just look out a window: the landscape forms itself according to the same principles that determine the shape of a sentence. (Albright 580). It is not hard to understand why many people refer to Stein as a Cubist, a term almost completely confined to visual artists. Her love of adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions over what she called “listless nouns” was inspired by her contention that those were the words where the action took place, the painting of the picture happened in those words (Albright 582).
Cubism, like the majority of modern art, is often regarded as exceedingly difficult to analyze, and harder still to understand. Many viewers of cubist works by artists like Picasso and Braque misunderstood and derided the pieces. This misunderstanding is probably due to the purposeful distortion of form employed by these artists. The intent is not to obfusacte the meaning, but to more fully capture it. In terms of visual artists, Cubism was almost completely attributed to Pablo Picasso, a man whom Stein admired greatly. Stein collected his works almost fanatically. It seems fitting that the term was used for her work as well as his.
In Four Saints in Three Acts, some of the passages are reminiscent of children’s singing games, where langauge was used in simplistic and often nonsensical rhymes. “One two three four five six seven all good children go to heaven some are good and some are bad one two three four five six seven” is one of several that appear in the opera and seem to have a feeling of heavenly inspiration, in spite of their simplistic nature (Stein 45).
One more example of Stein’s grammatical visual field.
“Letting pin in letting let in in in in in let in let in wet in wed in dead in dead wed led in led wed dead in dead in led in wed in said in said led wed dead weddead sead led led said wed dead wed dead lead in led.”
Almost at once one can see the pun on let in and the word inlet although the word inlet is never used, however the l in let is soon turned into a w and let becomes wet. Then the t becomes d and the rhyme becomes led-wed, a wedding march. This wedding march becomes a funeral procession when led becomes dead (Albright 590).
One can see so many shades of a new language being formed. How easy it would have been to say what the sentence means, how much clearer it would have been. One begins to notice, however, that when something is clearly stated, as it is in regular narrative form, a judgment or a bias is stamped on to it, or at least a manipulation of emotions wanted by the writer. Contemporary writers use common experiences to bring the reader closer to the action, using either common experiences, or archetypes that affect the collective unconscious. Contrarily in this instance, the burden of the meaning is on the reader, and having done so, the reader feels that he or she has created the meaning themselves and it is their emotion, unaltered, unmanipulated. Because the paragraph is nonsense to some, those who have found meaning in it have put their own meaning into it. It is not the author’s work anymore (Voris 12).
Four Saints in Three Acts paved the way for non-linear narrative to find its home in the opera house. Both Philip Glass, the contemporary minimalist composer and Robert Wilson, the avant-garde contemporary stage director have said that their opera Einstein on the Beach was heavily inspired by Four Saints and may never have come into being had it not been presented (Watson 265).
In summary, we see the meeting of three worlds here. The world of music, the world of the spoken word, and the world of visual art. It is only the latter two that we have spoken about at length here, and even that is significant.
All of Stein’s writing has been classified at one time or another as cubist landscape or at the very least pictorial, but it is with Four Saints in Three Acts that Stein put the visual mirror up to her page and saw what it looked like.
In this day and age, I am looking at Four Saints in Three Acts from my point of view, knowing full well how far this genre has come, with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and the avant-garde greats owe at least part of what they are to Gertrude Stein. What I see in this piece still astounds me. It broke ground on so many levels: it was the first mainstream opera to have an all African-American cast. It was one of the first contemporary operas to go to Broadway. It led the way for more commercial productions with all African-American casts like the Gerhswins’ Porgy and Bess. My own question is why Four Saints in Three Acts is not performed more often. It is a masterful work that comments on our lives to this day. Whether or not the piece is an allegory about war, racism or religion will probably never truly be known. In a way, the piece makes me think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, where the author specifically states in the foreward to Lord of the Rings, the piece is not an allegory by any means (Tolkien XI). However, the work is constantly used as an allegory for war and insustrialism. The distinction lies in what I like to call applicability. The piece may not in fact have been written with the allegorical intent, but it has allegorical applicability, meaning that one can see parallels in life today even if they weren’t intended. A stunning example of this is the line “If one can kill 5,000 chinamen with the push of a button” (Stein 4). This line from the opera was written close to twenty years before World War II and many years before the idea of a nuclear weapon was part of the public’s consciouness. Today, who could hear that line and not think about nuclear war. This piece is part of our American heritage, written by two Americans, albeit expatriates, they still managed to capture the American spirit in this moving and evocative piece.
Another work I would like to discuss is Stein’s incredible piece, Patriarchal Poetry. "For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be . . ." (Stein 106). After the first paragraph of Patriarchal Poetry announces Stein's desire to unfasten and "carry away" the structures of patriarchal language, poetry, and culture. Trying to retain the pictorial character of this occurrence, Stein not only leaves out nouns but also undoes grammatical structures to give her language more of a dynamic, ever-shifting, quality. The repetition and variation of the same phrases “for”, “before”, “let it”, “to be” combined with the absence of punctuation marks, creates the impression of language in a melted state, free to combine and mix in ways unexpected, unacceptable, or even repressed by traditional practices. In order to spell what transpires "before to be before to have to be"—before language turns into its tradition forms—Stein's texts become her special form of code, in the continuous process of transposing the space before words into the written text.
In "Poetry and Grammar," Stein proposes to subvert literary practice, its penchant for nouns and their definitional function, by means of writing as it were apart from substantial meanings and thereby gaining access to what she terms the "intense existence" of things and the world. (Voris 20). "I had to feel anything and everything that for me was existing so intensely that I could put it down in writing as a thing in itself without necessarily using its name" (Stein 300). For Stein, "intense existence" refers to things regarded in terms of life as ever-changing into the moment—rather than as objects endowed with an essence and definable by means of nouns or substantives. The intensity Stein has in mind describes the character of each happening, its configuration and circumstances, which have no real meaning in linguistics. Existing to evade grammatical and semantic categories, and Stein's writing proposes to revise and adjust literary language accordingly.
Re-imagining thinking away from concepts and definitions, away from its practices of objectification, and toward its poetic form, makes Stein's work central not only to the avant-garde's revision of aesthetics but also to the critique of modernity and its cultural manifestations. The relevance of Stein's writing is less in terms of specific representations, images, or cultural practices and more with respect to the very elements that make up the order of representation (Voris 24).
In Patriarchal Poetry, it is not the images of femininity that Stein takes apart but instead the discussion of patriarchal culture: objectification,definition, possession through thought, ignorance of difference, progression, the use of propositions. Stein appears to engage with language in order to put her critique into play at the roots of language, as it were, where it can most disconcert and put into question language practices that other radical discourses still have to follow, even if their "content" may explicitly criticize them. Beyond this, however, the emotions that Stein's texts produce, her playfulness and irony, serve purposes that reach across literary practice, into its cultural and social significance and into the potential inherent in the social functions of art (Voris 29).
In "Patriarchal Poetry," the declared literary, cultural, and, by extension, philosophical aim is the resistance to patriarchal culture and its dominant "poetry":
How do you do it.
Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.
Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
Patriarchal Poetry a piece.
Patriarchal Poetry in peace.
Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.
Patriarchal Poetry as peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry
Patriarchal Poetry or peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry
or pieces of Patriarchal Poetry.
Very pretty very prettily very prettily very pretty very
prettily (Stein 133).
Ironically playing "piece(s)" against "peace," Stein indicates the desire and the possibility of withstanding Patriarchal Poetry and leaving it "in pieces" rather than "in peace." Although Stein's poem makes clear, in the above quote, that we have to "return" to Patriarchal Poetry, since there is no easy exit from patriarchal forms of culture and writing, the trajectory of this return and the shape in which Patriarchal Poetry will find itself depends above all upon what kind of writing one performs and upon the use to which one puts language.
Works like Patriarchal Poetry suggest that Stein's literary practice moves toward uncovering the link between elemental linguistic configurations and their potential to both identify and destroy the "patriarchal grammar" of the world: its uses of the relations of difference, dependence, and power. As Stein indicates in How to Write, grammar holds the key to the order of the tradition seeks to repeat and perpetuate. The repetitiveness of grammar, its insistence on following rules, reflects for Stein the cultural order that links stability with the figure of the father and with patriarchal power—the order of sameness, repetition, and predictability that erases difference. The last line of Patriarchal Poetry is one of the most telling examples in this context: "Patriarchal poetry and twice patriarchal poetry" (Stein 146). Stein's linking of this repetitiveness and predictability of grammar with the central role of nouns in language suggests that the everyday itself is "patriarchal"—structured and regulated by the hierarchical rules of representation that assure the dominance of the "more valuable" forms of objectified knowledge (Voris 35).
At the same time, though, "Grammar is in our power" (Stein 73) It is open to revision, transformation, and rewriting, the operations that Stein's texts continuously perform on their language and inherited conventions. Identifying the chauvinistic complicity of traditional grammar with the grammar of culture — "Grammar is contained in father..." (Stein 99).
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The World of Gertrude Stein. Online. http://www.ellensplace.net/gstein1.html 20 Sept. 2002