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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.4 (2006) 946-956

Presence, Deixis, and the Making of Meaning in Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
Markus Poetzsch
Assistant Professor of English, Department of English and Film Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University

A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since.

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, 58

After a hundred lines of this I wish to scream, I wish to burn the book, I am in agony. ... Some one has applied an egg-beater to my brain.

Anonymous, 38

The criteria of conventional literary criticism cannot function with a book like Tender Buttons.

Norman Weinstein, 57–58

Whether expressed through the torment of an egg-beaten brain or through the outright abandonment of critical and exegetical conventions, the bewilderment experienced by readers of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons has abated little since the book's publication in 1914. Among the earliest reviewers this bewilderment tended to redound upon the figure of Stein herself – plain-spoken but enigmatic, evidently intent on provocation, perhaps revolution, but always wrapping the terms of contention in layers of 'riddling poetry' (Perloff, 158), an enemy of nouns who nonetheless speaks, like a pupil of Swift's Academy of Lagado, in things. Stein's teasingly elusive presence in the text became, and indeed continues to be, inextricably entwined with questions of meaning. Where Tender Buttons is concerned, the invocation of presence as a theoretical framework by which to decipher meaning – what Timothy Morris defines as the 'poetics of presence' (1) – is a particularly enticing exegetical strategy because the reader is from the outset set adrift on a shifting sea of verbal flotsam without either compass, sail, or anchor:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary. ...

(Stein, Tender Buttons, 9)

Presented with such a fleeting spectacle, such an apparently systemless system, critics have not uncommonly contended that Stein is herself the object of her textual 'pointing.' Carolyn Faunce Copland, for example, concludes from her reading of Tender Buttons that the author is 'unconcerned [End Page 946] with anybody's reality but [her] own' (84) and that the text is simply an expression of that reality. Notwithstanding the elegance of such a position, it represents a somewhat unsatisfying commentary on presence in the text. Not only does this reading fail to advance a methodology by which Stein's 'reality' may be rendered more perspicuous or comprehensible to the common reader, but it does not account for the implied value of the work or offer a rationale for defending it from charges of idiosyncratic nonsense.

To invoke the poetics of presence in the modernist context is invariably to appeal to some notion of genius, a term which in a sense aims to reconcile textual obscurity with obvious and enduring value. '[A]n aura of illegible authority,' as Bob Perelman points out, 'surrounds the modernist genius, offering a lure for endless study' (1). Stein clearly was not shy about appropriating and manipulating the distinctions of genius. She not only applied the term to herself with conspicuous liberality (perhaps most notably in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), but the bulk of her literary endeavours, one might argue, was directed to a consolidation of her place among the geniuses of the age. As Perelman observes, her seemingly endless output of words was 'not a selfless meditation: she insisted on its value as masterpiece and her own value as genius' (130). Among the early critics who struggled to find meaning in her masterpiece, the idea of nascent value, of a worthy if not entirely successful experiment, prevailed. Edith Sitwell, for example, despite chiding Stein for her 'insuperable amount of silliness,' nevertheless concedes that she is doing...


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