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Randa Dubnick. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984. 161 pp. $19.95.

Over thirty years ago, Donald Sutherland described Gertrude Stein's experimental writing as a "Wonderland or Luna Park for anyone who is not too busy." The new Stein studies, enriched by insights from poststructuralist theory and linguistics, take the difficulty of Stein's writing as serious business in itself, relaxing the demand for thematic coherence. Dubnick's study of Stein's obscurity is typical of this trend, advancing the thesis that Stein was a serious theoretician of language who anticipated the radical practices of postmodernists such as Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Samuel Beckett. Drawing upon Roman Jakobson's seminal essay, "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" (1912), as well as upon the semiotics of Saussure and Roland Barthes, Dubnick argues that Stein's obscurity derives from a strategic oscillation between two poles of language: metonymy (contiguity) and metaphor (similarity), both of which normally must be present in order to produce conventionally intelligible utterances. Alternately suppressing one pole of language in favor of the other, Stein created two obscure styles, epitomized in the contrast between the prose of The Making of Americans, where syntactical contiguity is extended and vocabulary is suppressed, and the more poetic style of Tender Buttons, where syntax is suppressed in favor of a concrete, noun-centered vocabulary. Assuming Stein knew exactly what she was doing, Dubnick provides a concise overview of the generative [End Page 672] structure and function of Stein's manner of extending and breaking the syntactical structures that organize our perceptions of a coherent world.

One of the by-products of schematizing Stein's interest in language is a renewed appreciation and emphasis upon the issues surrounding her much-discussed interest in cubism. It would appear that Stein, like the cubists, arrived at a manner of using signifying elements to call attention to the operation of signs themselves and to the principles underlying verbal as well as nonverbal signification. Acceptance of Dubnick's argument that Stein's two types of verbal obscurity parallel the development of the analytic and synthetic phases of cubism ultimately rests on accepting another pair of analogies, the similarity of picture planes to syntax and of noun-selection to picture pieces. The analogy to cubism then offers a way of characterizing Stein's gradual progress toward abstraction—not with reference to subject matter or genre, as other critics have done, but primarily in terms of unusual connections among items otherwise spatially and temporally disjunct. Dubnick labors carefully to make these connections, with the result that Stein's interest in cubism now appears relevant not only to her experiments with verbal portraits but also to her entire range of concerns with language.

The effort to stretch the broadest principles of linguistics to encompass nonverbal modes of signification is likely to be most convincing to those who already appreciate the scale of the semiotic project: to discover the common ground of the languages of art. Dubnick does not explain, however, why Stein would have been trying to achieve effects gained by a systematic exploration of obscurity, leaving her attitudes toward audience and history undiscussed. Rather, it is Dubnick's intention to remedy what she calls the "polemics and emotionalism" of earlier Stein criticism by placing the writer's concerns within strictly rational bounds. Inasmuch as linguistics produces a more precise description of stylistic features, as is especially the case in Dubnick's analysis of Stein's asyntactical pieces, we can take Stein's experiments with language seriously. Armed with such insights into textuality, we may well wish to return to historical and cultural considerations in order to gain a better understanding of why it is Stein herself who raises the question of the seriousness of her intentions, having so often observed the effects of her obscurity with anxiety and bemusement. [End Page 673]

Anita Helle
Iowa State University


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