- Sapphic Primitivism in Gertrude Stein’s Q.E.D.
Feminist critics have long seen Gertrude Stein’s writing as a dialectical negotiation of patriarchal language and social conventions, an attempt to change the terms of masculine signification in order to represent the feminine, the lesbian, and the unconventional. 1 Eager to celebrate once-silenced white female—and especially lesbian—writers as progressive foremothers, however, many white feminist critics have also exercised a measure of “unknowing” concerning racial stereotypes in Gertrude Stein’s early writing, allowing her a certain freedom from accountability. As Eve Sedgwick points out in the case of the homosexual closet, a “powerful unknowing” (77) can “collude or compete with” organizing knowledges that help to structure or buttress oppression (4). Indeed, even the critics who do attempt to address and unravel the elaborate racial taxonomies that structure Stein’s early narratives seem to fall into the trap of the racial categories as Stein sets them up, replicating the very illogical equivalences which form the core of discursive racial “knowledge” in texts such as Q.E.D. and “Melanctha.” 2
To complicate these byzantine tangles of unknowing, critics must consider the fundamental instability and ambivalence of the racial stereotypes from which this unknowing proceeds. Stein’s “overtly” lesbian novel Q.E.D. (1903), which later became the “overtly” racialized “Melanctha” in her 1909 Three Lives, took up various scientific discourses [End Page 547] which attributed sexual deviance to non-white peoples, dramatizing the signifying gestures through which such discourses consolidated knowledge as power. Yet Stein’s professed “forgetfulness” concerning the autobiographical Q.E.D., which she never published, and her decision to rearticulate that text’s sexual concerns through black characters for publication in “Melanctha,” strongly suggests that the “unknowing” of her lesbian closet was structured at least in part by a racist cultural closet in which white female desire could be expressed only through displacement onto racial drag. The persistence of this problem of how to read Stein’s racial stereotypes suggests that feminist critics must begin recontextualizing lesbian modernist writers such as Stein in light of their use of national and colonial racial discourses. Such a recontextualization might explore, in part, the degree to which the articulation of lesbian subjectivity and polymorphous sexuality within modernism’s self-conscious discursivity contests these discourses. 3
Defined in the work of Michel Foucault as “regimes” of knowledge which help to police and normalize entire populations, the notion of discursive formations has proven enormously influential to scholars exploring colonialist texts, as well as those concerned with sexuality. Discourses such as the those Edward Said identifies in European thought as “Orientalist,” and which Toni Morrison asserts structure American identity by means of “a distancing Africanism” (8), have been central to the constitution of modern national and gendered identities. Many lesbian or bisexual modernist writers—Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, Nella Larsen, and Djuna Barnes, to name a few—deployed colonizing “primitivist” tropes in part to suggest a history for the queer, polymorphously perverse female subject, grounding her nature as precivilized or, after Freud, pre-Oedipal. These tropes rendered lesbian sexuality intelligible, perpetuating in literary discourse the nineteenth-century practice by sexologists and scientists of racializing nonnormative sexual practices. Sander Gilman has shown how throughout the nineteenth century the scientific and medical establishments drew equivalences between those people deemed to be racial and sexual outsiders, labeling and policing homosexuals, non-European peoples, and white women by producing discourses fixing them as “deviant.” Gilman points out that in the peculiar logic of nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific racism, black female sexuality was pathologized in gynecology textbooks as both deviant and lesbian: “By 1877 it [End Page 548] was a commonplace that the Hottentot’s anomalous sexual form was similar to other errors in the development of the labia . . . leading to those ‘excesses’ which are called ‘lesbian love’” (89). 4
I should like to contextualize Stein’s writing both as part of a scientific discursive tradition of racialized sexuality and as marking the beginning of a certain strain of modernist writing I will term “sapphic primitivism.” This term owes quite a bit both to Shari Benstock’s notion of “sapphic modernism,” which makes...