INTRODUCTION BY THORNTON WILDER
This book grew out of Miss Stein’s meditations on literary masterpieces. Why are there so few of them? For what reasons have they survived? What qualities separate the masterpieces from the works that are almost masterpieces? The answers usually given to these questions did not satisfy her. It was not enough to say that these books were distinguished by their “universality,” or their “style,” or their “psychology” or their “profound knowledge of the human heart.” She thought a great deal about the Iliad and the Old Testament and Shakespeare, about “Robinson Crusoe” and the novels of Jane Austen—to quote the works that appeared most frequently in her conversation during the months that this book was approaching completion—and the answer she found in regard to them lay in their possession of a certain relation to the problems of identity and time.
In order to approach their treatment of identity and time Miss Stein made her own distinction between Human Nature and the Human Mind. Human Nature clings to identity, its insistence on itself as personality, and to do this it must employ memory and the sense of an audience. By memory it is reassured of its existence through consciousness of itself in time-succession. By an audience it is reassured of itself through its effect on another—“ ‘I am I,’ said the little old lady, ‘because my dog knows me.’ ” From Human Nature, therefore, come all the assertions of the self and all the rhetorical attitudes that require the audience—wars, politics, propaganda, jealousy, and so on. The Human Mind, however, has no identity; every moment “it knows what it knows when it knows it.” It gazes at pure existing. It is deflected by no consideration of an audience, for when it is aware of an audience it has ceased to “know.” In its highest expression it is not even an audience to itself. It knows and it writes, for its principal expression is in writing and its highest achievement has been in literary masterpieces. These masterpieces, though they may be about human nature are not of it. Time and identity and memory may be in them as subject-matter—as that existing at which the Human Mind gazes—but the absence from the creative mind of those qualities has been acknowledged by the vast multitudes of the world who, striving to escape from the identity-bound and time-immersed state, recognize that such a liberation has been achieved in these works.
If then Miss Stein is writing metaphysics, why does she not state her ideas in the manner that metaphysicians generally employ?
There are three answers to this question.
In the first place, a creative metaphysician must always invent his own terms. Even though his concepts may have something in common with those of his predecessors—with such concepts as subjective, objective, soul, imagination, and consciousness—he cannot in certain places employ those terms, because they come bringing associations of (for him) varying validity and bringing with them the whole systems of which they were a part. The contemporaries of Kant complained (as the contemporaries of Professor Whitehead are now complaining) that the philosopher’s terminology was arbitrary and obscure.
In the second place, Miss Stein is not only a metaphysician; she is an artist. In varying degrees artists, likewise, have always sought to invent their own terms. The highest intuitions towards a theory of time, of knowledge or of the creative act have always passed beyond the realm of “text-book” exposition. When the metaphysician is combined with the poet we get such unusual modes of expression as the myths in Plato, the prophetic books of Blake, and the difficult highly-figured phrases in Keats’s letters. Miss Stein’s style in this book might be described as a succession of “metaphysical metaphors.” On the first page, for example, we read:
“If nobody had to die how would there be room for us who now live to have lived. We never could have been if all the others had not died there would have been no room.
Now the relation of human nature to the human mind is this.
Human nature does not know this.…
But the human mind can.”
(Human Nature, hugging identity-survival cannot realize a non-self situation. The Human Mind, knowing no time and identity in itself, can realize this as an objective fact of experience.)
Similarly, further down we come upon the question:
“What is the use of being a little boy if you are growing up to be a man?”
(Since the Human Mind, existing, does not feel its past as relevant, why does succession in identity have any importance? What is the purpose of living in time? One cannot realize what one was like four seconds ago, four months ago, twenty years ago. “Only when I look in the mirror,” said Picasso’s mother, “do I realize that I am the mother of a grown-up man.”)
This book is a series of such condensations, some of them, like the plays and the “detective stories” about pigeons, of considerable difficulty. These latter, it is only fair to add, have, with a number of other passages, so far exceeded the delighted but inadequate powers of this commentator. The book presupposes that the reader has long speculated on such matters and is willing and able to assimilate another person’s “private language,”—and in this realm what can one give or receive, at best, but glimpses of an inevitably private language?
The third reason that renders this style difficult for many readers proceeds from the author’s humor. Metaphysics is difficult enough; metaphysics by an artist is still more difficult; but metaphysics by an artist in a mood of gaiety is the most difficult of all. The subject-matter of this book is grave, indeed; and there is evidence throughout of the pain it cost to express and think these things. (It is not without “tears” that Human Nature is found to be uninteresting and through a gradual revelation is discovered to be sharing most of its dignities with dogs.) But Miss Stein has always placed much emphasis on the spirit of play in an artist’s work. The reward of difficult thinking is an inner exhilaration. Here is delight in words and in the virtuosity of using them exactly; here is wit; here is mockery at the predecessors who approached these matters with so cumbrous a solemnity. One of the aspects of play that most upsets some readers is what might be called “the irruption of the daily life” into the texture of the work. Miss Stein chooses her illustrations from the life about her. She introduces her friends, her dogs, her neighbors. Lolo, about whom gather the speculations as to the nature of romance, lived and died in a house that could be seen from Miss Stein’s terrace in the south of France. She weaves into the book the very remarks let fall in her vicinity during the act of writing. Similarly at one period, Picasso pasted subway-tickets upon his oil-paintings; one aspect of the “real” by juxtaposition gives vitality to another aspect of the real, the created.
But why doesn’t Miss Stein at least aid the reader by punctuating her sentences as we are accustomed to find them? And why does she repeat herself so often?
A great many authors have lately become impatient with the inadequacy of punctuation. Many think that new signs should be invented; signs to imitate the variation in human speech; signs for emphasis; signs for word-groupings. Miss Stein, however, feels that such indications harm rather than help the practice of reading. They impair the collaborative participation of the reader. “A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should live it.… A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make yourself know yourself knowing it.”
The answer to the charge of repetition is on many levels. On one level Miss Stein points out that repetition is in all nature. It is in human life: “if you listen to anyone, behind what anyone is saying whether it’s about the weather or anything, you will hear that person repeating and repeating himself.” Repeating is emphasis. Every time a thing is repeated it is slightly different. “The only time that repeating is really repeating, that is when it is dead, is when something is being taught.” Then it does not come from the creating mind, but from unliving forms. Sometimes Miss Stein’s repeating is for emphasis in a progression of ideas; sometimes it is as a musical refrain; sometimes it is for a reassembling of the motifs of the book and their re-emergence into a later stage of the discussion; sometimes it is in the spirit of play.
Copyright © 2013 by Gertrude Stein. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.