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  • The Science of Superstition:Gertrude Stein, William James, and the Formation of Belief
  • Stephanie L. Hawkins (bio)

[O]ur science is a drop, our ignorance a sea. Whatever else be certain, this at least is certain—that the world of our present natural knowledge is enveloped in a larger world of some sort of whose residual properties we at present can frame no positive idea.

—William James, "Is Life Worth Living?"

Accuracy is by and by to be slightly poisoned by inaccuracy.

—Gertrude Stein, "The Universe or Hand-Reading"

Although Gertrude Stein's rejection of the supernatural—along with any accusations that her own writing derived from mystical sources—is well-documented in her autobiographical works, what Stein says and what she does in her writing appear to be at odds. Despite Stein's disclaimers, references to superstitions and prophecies abound in her works, a curiosity that has been mostly ignored in Stein's oeuvre.1 Stein was, at the very least, consistent in her inconsistency. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for example, Stein extolled the virtues of the mystical paintings of Juan Gris, even as [End Page 60] she affirmed the authority of her own empiricist approach to writing in all its visual detail and linguistic exactitude. Just as many turn-of-the-century scientists were caught up in the vogue of spiritualism and psychical research, so too was Stein herself captivated by metaphysical speculation, in spite of her self-professed agnosticism. Although Stein was a nonpracticing Jew, a variety of Christian saints populate her poetry and prose experiments. Stein's references to religion and the religious iconography of sainthood have been given considerable attention,2 but Stein scholarship has left untouched the references to superstitions that suffuse her works of the 1930s and 1940s, in which Stein was consumed by problems of identity and narration. In passages throughout Everybody's Autobiography, for instance, Stein most forcefully articulates her interest in the sign-systems with which superstitions and occult pseudoscience are engaged. In this sequel to the enormously successful Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she views superstitious belief systems from an anthropological perspective, claiming that it is only "natural to believe in superstitions and hand-reading and predictions." Stein goes on to indicate her personal preference for the more inaccurate art of "palm-reading" because "predictions are a little more frightening" (Everybody's 155). Stein's references to superstitious rituals and beliefs are features that call attention to the idiosyncratic narrative structure so characteristic of her later works and their eschewal of beginnings, middles, and ends. For Stein, the destruction of organic unity in literature also marked the demise of nineteenth-century narrative realism—a demise Stein was eager to hasten. In what follows, I propose reexamining Stein's theory of identity and narration in terms of her engagement with turn-of-the-century skepticism toward positivist science and toward the authority of formulations based on the observation of empirical evidence. An investigation of the competing scientific and pseudoscientific themes and narratives in Stein's poetry and prose helps to illuminate her complex theory of narration.

Rather than accord literal status to Stein's somewhat ironical statements about her attraction to palmistry, it is more important to understand such references to pseudoscience and superstitions as a modernist revision of what nineteenth-century science classified as real: the visible, physical, and quantifiable realm of material reality. For Stein the "real" is not only what can be seen, but more fully what an individual believes and the patterns, linguistic and narratological, by which those beliefs are formed. As I see it, Stein's thematic treatment of superstition in her experimental writings seeks to account for, and to a certain extent reproduce, the cognitive processes by which the mind engages the world. Though Stein claimed to be working [End Page 61] against the grain of nineteenth-century literary tradition, in her effort to capture the motions of the mind as it detects and interprets natural and cultural signs, she both incorporates and transforms conventional narrative.3 In Stein's works of the 1930s, the very act of writing is itself an index to the interior geography of the human mind...


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pp. 60-87
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