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  • "In Conversation":Gertrude Stein's Speaker, Message, and Receiver in Painted Lace and other Pieces (1914-1937)

Many patterns of discourse sustain interest throughout the lengthy and often impenetrable pieces in Painted Lace. Stein's shifting strategies and unsettling switches of tone and topic keep readers attentive, if frustrated, even when meaning seems deliberately obscure or too private to unlock.

One of the most fruitful systems of thought to follow in these hermetic early works involves imaging and tracing the "conversations" of Stein's personae. She is in dialogue not only with readers, but with her lover, Alice B. Toklas, and also with various manifestations of her salon, both the knowing inner circle of friends and the judging but more distant outer circle of acquaintances, Stein's "public," including possible censors.1

Stein's narrators not only hold recognizable conversations with different listeners but also mention various "conversations" throughout Painted Lace. During the two decades of its composition, the conversations in her literary salon and in her writing undoubtedly interacted. Both can be seen as ways of "testing" different versions of the self on auditors with many [End Page 465] possible identities. For the purpose of analysis, the conversations in Painted Lace can be divided into speaker, message, and receiver. This essay first considers utterances from the point of view of the one making them, then looks at the kinds of "cut" messages delivered, and last, examines the various audiences for the speaker's often convoluted oratory.

The Speaker: A Split Self

The self parades here under many guises—"I can exist in conversation," the text asserts ("Painted Lace" 7). Because the speaker can invent both questions and answers, or record them from those fragmented sounds around her, the split self she represents can revel in her freedom to tell (however confidentially) about intimate matters, to deny when necessary, or even to abolish speech and information entirely.

But behind the imperturbable exterior where "they were not indicated neither by their actions nor by their ownership" ("Talks to Saints" 108), the real world is also embodied, questioning the self and identifying one of its incarnations, the socially prohibited lesbian.

She said I am.Why don't you.Because it is unannounced.Well cannot a duchess sir.A royal duchess has ways of averting disaster.

("Nest of Dishes" 106)

Although asserting she has been momentarily unified, solidified in the one identity of the "I am," her precise name remains covert and "unannounced." The private circle is enclosed by a hostile outer circle of conversants, just as the fantasy is enclosed by the conscious mind that directs and monitors its revelations. Only by privileging the aims of the speaker, turning her into an imperious self (approaching yet finally avoiding the pun on queen) can sexual identity be revealed without "disaster" to the social self.

Such internal conversations reflect the multifaceted unconscious. It is "essentially composed of the immense clamor of language which the subject anticipates in addressing himself to the other . . . the individual unconscious is formed within a network of language, made up of . . . appeals and responses, of desires and interdictions" (Vergote 209). As Lacan has pointed out, healing this division involves a continual process of refashioning and self-deception.2 Only the creative act, which for Stein specifically means writing or sexual love, can temporarily suppress the [End Page 466] division in the self and the distance between the self and the object, "closing off the gap of human desire" (Mitchell and Rose 46).3

What does the split self mean for the initiator of these conversations Stein's speaker has with reader, lover, prohibiting parent, and censoring public? The speaker has no stable territory on which to position herself; she has no fixed boundaries. Her constantly shifting persona can create no solid and unified self-image. She cannot reflect a totality—only parts, by turns, in segments. So she can never have a complete self—even reflected in the other who listens and responds—only separate entities, none of whom is completely valorized.

Stein is always aware of the fictitious nature of the category of sexuality to which she has been assigned by birth, but her attempts to...


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pp. 465-480
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