- Sense, Science, and the Interpretations of Gertrude Stein
One must make an optic, one must see nature as no one has seen it before you . . . I mean by optic a logical vision, that is, with nothing of the absurd . . . I conceive [art] as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work.—Paul Cézanne, 19041
Of the many hostile reviews Gertrude Stein received in her lifetime, the award for Most Vitriolic would probably go to one written by Michael Gold. In 1936 Gold labeled Stein "a literary idiot," claiming that her work represents "an example of the most extreme subjectivism of the contemporary artist," and that it is on a par with "the monotonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums." Stein possesses a "strong, clear, shrewd mind," and "was an excellent medical student, a brilliant psychologist," but her work looks, said Gold—fine-tuning the theme of mental derangement—"like the literature of padded cells in Matteawan." Only good Marxists, his review concludes, will properly be able to see through the "mystic irrationalities" that Stein's work represents: "They see in the work of Gertrude Stein extreme symptoms of the decay of capitalist culture" and "the same kind of orgy and spiritual abandon that marks the life of the whole leisure class."2
Whether or not we agree with Gold about capitalist decadence, he is surely not the only reader to wonder whether Stein's work is an exercise in self-isolation. An association between "extreme subjectivism" and the experiments of early twentieth-century literature has been made by readers of all stripes, [End Page 581] whether they are sympathetic to the modernist project (e.g., Marcuse, Adorno, Bloch) or more skeptical (e.g., Lukács, Daniel Bell). There are certainly reasons for seeing Stein's texts as even more "solipsistic" than those of her contemporaries. One of the characteristics of Stein's work, however, is the regularity with which it has been justified, by both Stein and her readers, as the very opposite of what such commentators imagine. Indeed, far from seeing in her writings "the most extreme subjectivism of the modern artist," Stein and her defenders have in fact frequently singled them out for their deeply objectivist, realistic, and scientific qualities. "Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude," writes Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:
She has produced a simplification by this concentration, and as a result the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose. . . . [Poetry and prose] should consist of an exact reproduction of either an outer or an inner reality. . . . .
To be sure, Stein is not the only early-twentieth-century writer to have seen herself in such terms. But given her background in experimental psychology and medicine, it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than with almost any of her contemporaries, the language of science is seen as an appropriate vocabulary to use in describing her work. What Luc Ferry says about the "hyperclassicism" of the twentieth-century avant-garde generally is especially true of Stein's work: it is "guided by the project of imitating a real," a "real" that, though no longer "defined as order," acts as "the artist's 'objective'," and that grants a "scientistic component" counterbalancing charges of obscurantist narcissism.4
What are we to make of such claims? In what follows, I want to explore some of these Steinian appeals to science and to ask what kinds of problems and pitfalls they potentially engender. My first two sections are an act of reconstruction, sketching, first, certain claims made by Stein and her admirers about the nature of her "experiments," and second, how these claims manifest themselves in her work. In sections three to five, I shall be casting doubt on many of these critical and authorial descriptions, and suggesting how we might justify Stein's enigmatic writings without dubious appeals to "exactitude" and mathematics. It is not hard to determine why an artist such as Stein would invoke science as a model. Given the prestige of empirical science in our culture...