- Gertrude Writing Rose Writing Rose
Gertrude Stein's most famous repetition, "A rose is a rose is a rose," is itself repeated throughout her career, with each new context shifting it into a new meaning. One of the biggest shifts takes place in a children's book by Stein, The World Is Round, published in 1939. In that book it is no longer a flower that is in question but a little girl named Rose—a Rose who puts herself into question, questions her own sense of self. The new context makes Stein's words, then, into an expression of selfhood. It would be a mistake to read that expression as a simple insistence on self: Stein clearly distinguished between insistence and repetition (Lectures 167). Rather, repetition reflects the child's attempt to constitute a "self" and, at the same time, the impossibility of ever succeeding at that attempt.
As we encounter Rose at the beginning of Stein's book, we learn that she has two problems. One problem is the fact that the world is round, which has implications that we will consider in a moment. The other problem is everything that is not the world, everything that can be defined as the self. But how is that self defined? In the beginning, through a word—which poses a semiotic problem that I'm tempted to refer to as the name of the Rose: "Rose was her name and would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose. She used to think and then she used to think again" (1).
Here Rose is bothered by the relation between her name and her self. Stein too considered the possibility that what's in a name could form a person's self: "Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul call anybody Alice and they get to be an Alice perhaps yes perhaps no, there is something in that, but generally speaking, things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything to them . . ." (Lectures 210). It does something to Rose, though: "she used to think and then she used to think again." Her obsession begins to approach the proportions of a repetition compulsion. "Would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose and would she have been Rose if she had been a twin" (1). Folding in a corollary, Rose is now addressing the fact that the answer to "Who are you?" need not be a name. It can be a body, unique and physically distinguished from all that is "outside" it. But what if the body were duplicated, as it can be with identical twins? Where is the self's identity situated in such a case? Rose and the reader are forced to think again.
Rose thinks about such problems not only in regard to herself. She has a big white dog named Love (named after Stein's own white poodle) who never barks; yet on a drive in the country he suddenly begins barking when he sees a circus unloading its wild animals. Rose then sings a thoughtful sort of song:
How does Love know how wild they areWild and wild and wild they areHow does Love know who they areWhen he never ever had seen them before.(40)
From questions about the mystery of her dog's selfhood, Rose goes on to ask more generally "why wild animals are wild"—and of course can find no answers.
Rose's concerns about these issues can be contrasted with the apparent lack of concern evidenced by her cousin Willie. Here is one of his songs:
My name is Willie I am not like RoseI would be Willie whatever arose,I would be Willie if Henry was my nameI would be Willie always Willie all the same.(15)
But Willie protests too much, as another of his songs indicates:
Believe me because I tell you soWhen I know yes when I knowThen I am Willie and Willie ohOh Willie needs Willie to tell them so.(28)
The last line suddenly splits the Willie who was "all the same...