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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Passionate Indifference

Posted by Sean McCann on 02/28/06 at 10:15 PM

I recently had an interesting experience with an all but forgotten work of scholarship.  The text was Leon Katz’s legendary 1963 doctoral dissertation on Gertrude Stein--The First Making of The Making of Americans.  Katz is the cat who, following the discovery of Stein’s notebooks for The Making of Americans (found tossed in among the ms for the novel in her papers at the Beinecke), somehow charmed Alice B. Toklas into spending months reviewing the barely legible pages with him.  The pair worked together eight hour a day, four days a week from November 1952 to February 1953.  When it was over, the aged Toklas, who was writing her cookbook at the same time, had “a particularly bilious form of yellow jaundice.” Katz had an incredible lode of information. 

From Katz’s sessions with Toklas came some of the major posthumous revelations about Stein’s young life.  It was Katz, for example, who reported that Stein’s breakthrough story “Melanctha” was a nearly direct transcription of the earlier unpublished novel Q. E. D, and that Q. E. D. in turn was a nearly direct transcription of Stein’s passionately unhappy correspondence with May Bookstaver.  (Leo Stein had already pointed out the similarity between Stein’s two literary creations, but Katz confirmed the relation and explained the roots of both in Stein’s biography.) If it weren’t for Katz’s efforts, we’d never know what has turned out to be an endless source of critical fascination—that in “Melanctha” Stein turned her own experience in a miserable same-sex love triangle into a blackface tale of a frustrated heterosexual love affair.  But Katz was responsible for other significant revelations.  Among them was the fact that Stein, like so many of her contemporaries, had been briefly fascinated by that charismatic turn-of-the-century crank Otto Weininger and found in his bloviation a confirmation of her own philosophical instincts.  Another was the realization that much of Stein’s uniquely abstract style may well have begun as part of a campaign to obscure her own erotic misery from herself and others.

Katz published his major discoveries in an article that came out in Twentieth-century Literature and in an introduction to an edition of some of Stein’s early unpublished work.  But he never turned his dissertation into the book it surely could have become.  It took him 10 years to finish the dissertation itself, and apparently, if it weren’t for the sternly nurturing intervention of Mother Adele Fisk of Manhattanville College, then Katz’s employer, he might never have completed the degree.  Janet Malcolm recently told the story in The New Yorker and reported that the elusive Katz has been sitting on fascinating material for years now, and threatens to take it to the grave with him.

I’d been meaning to look up his dissertation for a long time.  But it was only recently that I found a copy in my hands.  When I finally got around to reading it, I was in for a surprise.  I’d been expecting to find a few nuggets of info if I was lucky, but wasn’t reading with any great enthusiasm.  Katz’s published work had prepared me to expect some careful philology and workmanlike prose.  What I wasn’t expecting was what I got—a vivid biographical portrait of the young Gertrude Stein and some pellucid critical writing.  Katz seems to have spent years trying to understand Stein’s early professional life and to patiently reconstruct the monomaniacal looniness of her first grand aesthetic ambitions.  He pulls off the rare—I think never quite matched—feat of taking Stein’s half-crackpot, half brilliant ideas seriously while maintaining enough critical distance to explain them clearly.  Here he is, for example, explaining the subject of the dissertation. 

Until 1911, when she finished her longest work, The Making of Americans, and so brought to an end one preoccupation that had governed her intellectual life almost from its beginning, she had labored at a single problem—with passion, with dedication, with monotonous persistence: the problem of describing “the last touch” of human being, or to put it another way, to pass beyond the practical acquaintance with human being that everyone has, to the total description of human being that no one had yet achieved.

That pretty much nails it.  (I love the middle series of adjectives—passion, dedication, monotonous persistence.  Is that not Stein’s prose as well as her project?) The rest of the ms follows out that ambition with remarkable patience and insight.  Along the way, there are countless keen critical insights and some juicy biographical details.  The story of how Stein subjected the needy, aspiring San Francisco painting student Annette Rosenshine to a brutal period of her unique approach to character analysis is especially poignant.  I also particularly enjoyed Katz’s lucid discussion of the different tonality of Stein’s first two major works, Three Lives and The Making of Americans.

As Katz explains, both works were driven by Stein’s fundamental obsession with the “rhythm” of human character and her conviction that it could be known in some way apart from the accidents of time and context—even as Stein denied that there was anything like a metaphysical soul standing behind the corporeal self that explained its identity.  The assumption drove Stein to the narrative freakishness and bizarre diction that can make Three Lives and parts of Americans the disturbing and moving books they sometimes are.  As Katz notes, the project makes Stein resemble some of her contemporaries who shared her interest in depth psychology, even while her maniacal consistency—and sheer indifference, or hostility, to the representational and pragmatic tasks of conventional narrative—made her version unique. 

In Strindberg, Joyce, and the Freudian novel, repetitive patterns of behavior are portrayed by fixed symbols—“tags” of recurring events, speeches, gestures, objects; the recurrent detail generally revealing the underlying repetition of behavior in accordance with certain patterns mapped by psychoanalysis or near-psychoanalysis.  It is, in other words, an as-if dramatization, which symbolic portrayal is by its very nature; but, it is not identical with recurrence.  It is an ornament that signifies to the reader merely that instances of repetition are going on.

Gertrude is concerned not so much with recurrent gesture, or the recurrent attitude, but with the recurrent rhythm of personality.  This is something that cannot be portrayed, cannot be symbolized, cannot be converted into other terms. . . .  Unlike the psychological types and categories into which people fall, the rhythm which they have cannot be described merely by relating it to the rhythm of others; for it can never be comprehended descriptively. . . .  [Stein] made the fantastic experiment of listening to, and watching, everyone she knew with immense concentration so that she could enter vicariously into his rhythmic pattern.

But, while the same obsession brought Stein from Three Lives to Americans her increasingly radical efforts to develop a non-tangible knowledge of personality led to an evident and remarkable shift in attitude and tone.  Katz describes it brilliantly, I think.  The atmosphere of Three Lives resembles Chekhov, Debussy, Schniztler, Hofmannstahl, and blue period Picasso.  Weltschmerz galore.  But the effect, he believes is almost purely incidental to Stein’s more serious concern with the “psychological concept” her work pursued. 

The incidental effect . . . is that the separate ‘rhythms’ of the characters momentarily in relation cause tragic, ironic, and in either case irrelevant differences in their patterns, so that the likelihood of two human beings yearning harmoniously for complete love and complete knowledge of one another is minimal.

But, Katz plausibly contends, Stein never had much of a commitment to that pathos.  Indeed, her deepest convictions militated against it.  Her unpublished notebooks, and Americans itself, suggest that Stein “regards the chief activity of human beings to be that of concealing from themselves the desperate realization of their own nonentity and non-relation, of their rupture with eternity in time, and their isolation from the universal in space.  Their habitual way of accomplishing this concealment, of asserting their ‘importance,’ is the way in which they are essentially “themselves.” In Americans, therefore, she came up with a method and incidentally with a tone to match that conviction. 

In color, it is bland; in feeling, it is neutral and sentimentally negative; in perspective, it is inclusive and universal rather than tightly focused and particular; in its concern with humanity, it is indifferent and uncommitted rather than moralistic and empathetic.

All in all, the tone of the book resembles the “passionate indifferentism” of Kafka and Beckett, as of the contemporaneous work of Stein’s friends—the cubism of Picasso and the large decorations of Matisse.  For Stein’s peers “the most immediately striking difference exhibited by their new perspective is the impersonality of the emotion of the man within the artists, and the overwhelming passion and almost violent assertion of this impersonal and dispassionate vision.” For Stein, Katz claims, it was the same.

All that looks kinda dated now.  But it’s fine criticism and captures a Stein long since—and, I think, mistakenly—forgotten.  By the time I finished Katz’s diss. I was filled with weltschmerz at its almost complete loss from view.  Get ahold of a copy of your at all interested in Stein.  It may be the only dissertation ever written that brought anyone wisdom and delight.


Comments

Thanks for revealing a hidden treasure.

Yes, Stein’s ostensible concerns should not be forgotten. But I remain skeptical. I respect Stein tremendously, & I have learned many things reading her, but I find her explanations of her work to be more often than not at odds w/the work itself, or at the very least, as oblique as the work itself. & Making of Americans is a supreme case of this problem.

As for her odd way of making sentences, another interesting text is Rosalind Miller’s Gertrude Stein: Form and Intelligibility, which includes all her freshman composition themes.  Stein made a virtue (and much more than that) of her weaknesses.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/01/06 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

Do you have any more glosses to offer on this “rhythm of personality”? Katz’s definition is mostly negative… And I’m intrigued.

It’s not apparently a matter of “repetitive patterns of behavior,” per Katz’s description of other modernists. But what it is then? Is it something like a rhythm of personality and impersonality? That can’t be right…

It’s a good post, this…

By on 03/01/06 at 02:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Good post, yes.

By John Holbo on 03/01/06 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me second CR’s questions. I too am intrigued and would like to talk more about all this.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/01/06 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t seen the New Yorker profile, Sean. Can you say anything about how to get a copy of the dissertation and about what the deal is with Katz’s other work?

By Ray Davis on 03/02/06 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okeh, so I’ll talk more about it, but I’m warning you, the distinctions are gonna be crude. I would say there are two ways of looking at the issue: seeing the sentences and paragraphs as expressions of some inner reality (reading through to personality) or seeing the sentences and paragraphs as creating a reality that is somehow both inside & outside at the same time. I go w/the latter, inspired by some hazy readings of Cavell on Wittgenstein. Hence my obnoxiously uninformed skepticism about Katz’s opinion.

But even though it’s easy to fall into the theoretical parsings of these issues, I would rather read Stein w/out the theory. Better than that, I think she has something the theorists don’t have, can never have. She’s doing it; they’re just talking about it.

I extend this preference into Stein’s own theorizing about her work, but I think even there her absolute committment to her writing technique saves her in the end.

As I said, these ideas are not sophisticated, so I would welcome any discussion that helps me refine & improve them.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/02/06 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to be so dilatory, guys.  I got my copy samizdat style, Ray, but I imagine if you have privileges at a university library you can get them to order a microfilm.  really, it’s a terrible shame the thing was never published, even as it stands. It’s a lovely book

CR, you can get a better sense of Stein’s ideas about personality and rhythm by looking at the Lectures in America and, if you can take it, some of the many places in Making of Americans that Stein engages in what I’d call methodological excurses--if there was a definite structure to excur from.  She talked in slightly different ways about it at different times, but in fundamentals was pretty consistent, I believe.  Basically, I think, she was struggling with a problem that mattered a lot to the philosophers she studied with (Royce, James): how to identify a substantial unity to the person without positing a metaphysical principle like a soul.  Rhythm (which according to Stephen Meyer she may have gotten by way of Whitehead) was the term she arrived at for a notion she’d referred to in other ways (repeating, bottom nature, kind of being).  Basically, I think you can look at it as her effort to come up with something like the idea of gestalt.  She thinks there is a pattern to individual behavior, informing everything each person does, but especially evident in their ways of talking, which can be intuited by especially discerning and committed observers--who act strenuously to ignore what people think they mean or do. 

That’s pretty straightforward--even if it took Stein years to resolve the notion--but it has some interesting appurtenances and literary consequences.  The most evident of those is the prose style (of Making of Americans solely, I don’t think at this stage in her career she had much of an interest in syntax yet, Lawrence), which in this light can be regarded as an effort to record, without any reference to symbol or association, the perceptions of an observer in the most concrete (yet abstract) way possible. But there’s also a strong ethical bent to all this, which involves the fact that most people are unaware of, and choose to ignore the fact of the repetition that determines their personality--and the mortality with which Stein associates it.  The genius, by her terms, is not a specially gifted creator, but rather a person who has the rare commitment to see the truths of heteronomy and death that the rest of us want to ignore.  Myself, I find all this pretty wacky, yet also interesting, and I agree with Katz that, even if inadvertantly, it led to some works of great expressive power. 

At the same time, I differ with you a bit, Lawrence.  It’s an interesting feature of Stein’s weird mind that she agrees with you that theorizing should be disdained (a legacy, I imagine, of her training with James)--even as she is (in my view, anyway) an utterly theoretical writer.  That is, she has ideas and agendas and is completely driven by them.  One thing that’s entertaining about Lectures in America is that its full of weird, yet more or less coherent ideas to which Stein was scrupulously faithful.

I should lay my cards on the table and say that one reason I appreciate Katz is that I’m unconvinced by the current predominant, antiformalist reading of Stein, which to my mind often ignores what Stein herself says pretty clearly about her own work.  Katz has lots of interesting information and writes incredinly clearly, so I can’t help but fantasize that if his book were published it would lead to a shift in opinion.  (Which may be in the offing, in any case.  Lots or recent interesting criticism on Stein that doesn’t quite fit the assumptions that have prevailed for the last twenty years or so.) It’s not only the psychological essentialism of her early work that’s downplayed, but other, related things Katz notes--like the fascination with Weininger or Stein’s severe turn against James, both topics all but ignored. 

But really the book is excellent and entertaining all polemical purposes aside. ach, the weltschmerz.

By on 03/03/06 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the interest of clarifying my own thought, may I ask why you call the criticism of the last two decades “anti-formalist”? I am probably over-simplifying things, but it seems to me given a form-content dichotomy, you are leaning heavily on content: the representations of perception in Making of Americans, the propositional content in Lectures in America. I have worried over these same issues in my own work & would welcome any help in this matter.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/04/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My library appears to have it on microfilm. I can’t decide whether to be excited that they have it, or pissed off that now I have to go look at some microfilm.

Very interesting post.

By Natalia on 03/05/06 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair question, Lawrence. I’m probably not being very precise with the term.  I mean at as, I think, Morton White first defined it and as I believe it’s still used in jurisprudence--basically to refer to any style of thought opposed to the regulative use of abstract concepts, theoretically, ethically, or aesthetically (i.e., formalism). I’d call it anti-platonism, but I think the term is rightly used also to refer to critics of naive empiricism.  I’m probably confused, but my philosophical sophistication and a metro card will get you on the subway.  What I mean by antiformalism, anyway, are styles of thought that put a conceptual, aesthetic, and ethical premium on contingency.  Personally, I’m basically in favor of that attitude, but I don’t believe Stein was (one reason, in fact, for her complaint against James), and so I think the ways of reading her that have flourished in the past two decades or so, have misconstrued her.

About MOA, for example, while I’m not sure Stein would want to call her writing the representation of perception so much as something like the enactment of it, I do think that’s her main concern.  She seems to me in that book entirely indifferent to literary form or aesthetic experience, except inasmuch as they threaten to distort the intuitive certainty about personal identity that she values.  It’s certainly possible, of course, to read the book and say there’s something about her prose that has an effect that has nothing to do with such concerns, but personally I don’t see much point to that approach and in some cases I think it leads actively to misunderstanding of the book.

For example, I think the now standard account of Stein’s reaction to Weininger claims that, whatever Stein said to her friends and whatever agenda she started out with, her prose in MOA undermines her effort to engage in the kind of systems of racial and sexual classification that Weininger sponsored.  The only problem with this argument is that it depends so far as I can tell on ignorance of Weininger (who wasn’t himself really interested in classification) and, I think, insufficient attention to what Stein actually writes.  It’s just a way, I think, for people to find a Stein they like.

LIA seems to me a much more interesting case because a lot of the propositional content runs at odds with the whole agenda of giving lectures and explaining.  I think that is intertestingly related to the form of the book and of other works from that period.  I find that Ulla Dydo and some others--Lisa Siraginian, Jennifer Ashton--have very interesting things to say about it.

By on 03/05/06 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the clarification, Sean. & the reference to M. White, which I will follow up. I have a fondness, or one might say, given my own philosophical sophistication (& lack even of a metro card!), a weakness, for jurisprudential thought. & in my way of looking at things, questions of “formalism” are the beating heart of a big, gooey problem that neither the pro’s nor the con’s have formulated well.

I think we may be closer in our thought than I originally imagined. My most recent attempts to explain what’s going on in Stein involve claims of her utter literal-ness. & Jennifer Ashton’s “Gertrude Stein for Anyone” essay is really great. I see from her online CV that she’s got something called “Modernism’s New Literalism” coming out, which sounds like it might be a big help.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/06/06 at 03:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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