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Stein in Time: History, Manuscripts, and Memory

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 6, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 115-151 | 10.1353/mod.1999.0011

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Modernism/Modernity 6.1 (1999) 115-151

"There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind," Stein tells us in the epilogue to her novel, Mrs. Reynolds, a book about life in wartime France, written during the years 1940-1943. Stein's bellicose, quintessentially modernist declaration is worth our attention, as is the curious allegorical fiction to which it is appended, since her last novel and its epilogue place us precisely at a tangled interchange where concerns about identity, history, ethics, and politics converge in our century. Her assertion captures the simultaneous contraction and expansion of the modern subject: so tiny that its domain can be no bigger, of no more moment than a "state of mind"; so gigantic that it can push a world's war into the shadows as it commands an entire book about its "state." If we are conceiving the mind in its condition of maximum extension, we do not interpret the pivotal, ambiguous "except" as dismissive. Since nothing else is, who could imagine a book more thoroughly or appropriately saturated by history, or history more aptly situated in its properly subjective location? States on a map matter less than a mind's moods, its modes of being. But if, in looking from a different angle, we observe the mind in its contracted state, all that remains on the pages of Mrs. Reynolds are faint echoes of events occurring elsewhere -- events that might matter but that cannot be told--"aethereal rumours."

I aim in this essay to trace the outlines of this variable place Stein names a "state of mind" and to ascertain whether we might measure its position in time, in history. Stein and her texts present us with peculiar and important difficulties when we attempt to make these measurements, and the reasons for those difficulties derive from her understanding of the self's relation to time. Like any number of modernists, she concerns herself centrally with the faculty of memory and the discipline of reading the world historically. She is obsessed by temporality. But today, when socio-historical contextualization of a work of art has come to seem an essential component of any discussion of that work, when "the time of and the time in the composition" is of enormous, even unprecedented consequence, Stein proves doggedly resistant to our customary gambits for such temporal framing. She forces us to scrutinize the assumptions underwriting our historiographic practices. On the one hand, those practices are profoundly skeptical ones, as evidenced by the proliferation of studies that treat memory as the unavoidable, notoriously distorted and distorting lens through which we recall the past. On the other hand, our unsettling attention to memory is counterbalanced by a fascination with historical material, with actual things retrieved, with photographs and documents bearing witness to another time, with endless, telling details brought to light, with archives that promise wholesale recovery of the past. The general effect of this bifurcated historiographical practice often seems to be a confidence that, by both acknowledging the role of the recollecting subject in our accounts of the past and embracing the voluminous inventories that we have recovered from prior eras, we are closer than ever before to unprecedentedly accurate, psychologically nuanced positioning of texts, authors, and events in time.

Stein will not allow that confidence to persist unshaken, or the goal of recovery to stand unquestioned. I focus this essay on two of her texts--Mrs. Reynolds and "Phenomena of Nature"--both of which explore disjunctions among writing, interiority, events, and recalling and recounting the passing of time. Mrs. Reynolds poses questions about how we account for character and how we live in time, how we construe history. "Phenomena of Nature," together with the manuscript witnesses associated with that essay, provides us with a venue for considering the relations between time's passing and the act of writing itself. How are we to remember Stein's work? How should we recall it for readers at this century's end? How does she teach us to remember her? What obstacles does she deliberately place in the paths of our remembrances, and why does she desire that our attempts at recollection should prove difficult?

Over...


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