"Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot"

by Michael Gold first published in The New Masses
Gertrude Stein recently returned to America after an absence of many years. In Paris, where she lived as a forbidding priestess of a strange literary cult, Gertrude Stein accumulated a salon frequented by some of the outstanding names of the modern art world and acquired the reputation of a literary freak. People either gaped at her published writings, or laughed at her incomprehensible literary epigrams- "a rose is a rose is a rose ."

She was looked upon by those who believed in her as the greatest revolutionist in the history of contemporary literature, and by those who scoffed as the perpetrator of a gigantic literary hoax.

As it happens, neither of the two opinions is wholly correct. Her "revolution" resembles a literary putsch, and if her writing is "a hoax" nevertheless she earnestly believes in it.

In essence, what Gertrude Stein's work represents is an example of the most extreme subjectivism of the contemporary bourgeois artist, and a reflection of the ideological anarchy into which the whole of bourgeois literature has fallen.

What was it that Gertrude Stein set out to do with literature? When one reads her work it appears to resemble the monotonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums. It appears to be a deliberate irrationality, a deliberate infantilism. However, the woman's not insane, but possessed of a strong, clear, shrewd mind. She was an excellent medical student, a brilliant psychologist, and in her more "popular" writings one sees evidence of wit and some wisdom.

And yet her works read like the literature of the students of padded cells in Matteawan.

Example: "I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me and this you see remember me. In this way one fifth of the bananas were bought."

The above is supposed to be a description of how Gertrude Stein feels when she sees Matisse, the French modernist painter. It doesn't make sense. But this is precisely what it is supposed to do- not "make sense" in the normal meaning of the term.

.. The generation of artists of which Gertrude Stein is the most erratic figure arduously set out not to "make sense" in their literature. They believed that the instincts of man were superior to the reasonings of the rational mind. They believed in intuition as a higher form of learning and knowledge. Therefore, many of them wrote only about what they dreamed, dream literature. Others practised a kind of "automatic writing" where they would sit for hours scribbling the random, subconscious itchings of their souls. They abandoned themselves to the mystic irrationalities of their spirits in order to create works of art which would be expressions of the timeless soul of man, etc. The result unfortunately revealed their souls as astonishingly childish or imbecile.

The literary insanity of Gertrude Stein is a deliberate insanity which arises out of a false conception of the nature of art and of the function of language.

A leisure class, which exists on the labor of others, which has no function to perform in society except the clipping of investment coupons, develops ills and neuroses. It suffers perpetually from boredom. Their life is stale to them. Tasteless, inane, because it has no meaning. They seek new sensations, new adventures constantly in order to give themselves feelings.

The same process took place with the artists of the leisure class. Literature also bored them. They tried to suck out of it new sensations, new adventures.

They destroyed the common use of language. Normal ways of using words bored them. They wished to use words in a new, sensational fashion. They twisted grammar, syntax. They went in for primitive emotions, primitive art. Blood, violent death, dope dreams, soul-writhings, became the themes of their works.

In Gertrude Stein, art became a personal pleasure, a private hobby, a vice. She did not care to communicate because essentially there was nothing to communicate. She had no responsibility except to her own inordinate cravings. She became the priestess of a cult with strange literary rites, with mystical secrets.

In this light, one can see that to Gertrude Stein and to the other artists like her, art exists in the vacuum of a private income. In order to pursue the kind of art, in order to be the kind of artist Gertrude Stein is, it is necessary to live in that kind of society which will permit one to have a private income from wealthy parents or sound investments. With this as a basis, you can write as you please. You can destroy language, mutilate grammar, rave or rant in the name of the higher knowledge. Nobody will disturb you. And in time perhaps you can impress or intimidate a certain number of critics and win a kind of reputation.

Gertrude Stein has won the reputation. She returns home to America after an absence of thirty-one years to find herself an object of curious respect by book clubs and lecture societies, and front page news for the newspapers.

Which seems to me to be proof that with enough money and enough persistence a madman can convince a world of his sanity. Gertrude Stein appears to have convinced America that she is a genius.

But Marxists refuse to be impressed with her own opinion of herself. They see in the work of Gertrude Stein extreme symptoms of the decay of capitalist culture. They view her work as the complete attempt to annihilate all relations between the artist and the society in which he lives.

They see in her work the same kind of orgy and spiritual abandon that marks the life of the whole leisure class.

What else does her work resemble more than the midnight revels of a stockbroker throwing a pent-house party for a few intimate friends? Would it be possible to have either of these symptoms of degeneration except in a society divided into classes? Is there not an "idle art" just as there is an "idle rich"? Both do nothing but cultivate the insanity of their own desires, both cultivate strange indulgences. The literary idiocy of Gertrude Stein only reflects the madness of the whole system of capitalist values. It is part of the signs of doom that are written largely everywhere on the walls of bourgeois society.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/stein-per-gold.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:50 EDT