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  • Motion Studies:Vitalism in Gertrude Stein's Work
  • Juliana Chow (bio)

As I say a motor goes inside and the car goes on, but my ultimate business as an artist was not with where the car goes as it goes but with the movement inside that is of the essence of its going.

Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition"

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1917, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas drove their first, specially ordered Ford motor car from Paris to Perpignan. As delegates of the American Fund for French Wounded, they traveled to deliver medical supplies, often gave rides to the soldiers themselves, and eventually set up supply stations in Nîmes and then Alsace where they stayed until the end of the war. Stein would later call this their "war work" (Autobiography 189), a work which had so much to do with this car that it would change the way Stein conceived of her other work, her "ultimate business as an artist" (Lectures 195). For Stein, the Ford does a work analogous to what she does, which is the work of the motor inside—both a mechanical movement and a creative, generating movement. This is composition, after all, and the car goes in the way composition does by moving mechanically like the hand that moves, but also moving generatively like the mental process of writing. The car does the kind of work that Stein does, and it does a work for her by becoming the figurative and literal carrier for her work. This is particularly true when the car is not moving, but going; that is, when its movement both works as composition and works for Stein's composition so that she can write and not drive, but still be "going." She even composed "Composition as Explanation" while sitting on a Ford car—not writing and [End Page 77] driving at the same time but writing and "going" with the car, which happened to be stalled at a repair shop.

For Stein, in "Portraits and Repetition," the Ford is a way to talk about "the American thing [that] is the vitality of movement" (Lectures 173), and she conceives of her writing, what she calls "portraits," as having that vitality of movement, that principle of going. Via a constellation of tropes that connects the car to "going," and "going" to America, and America to "living," and "living" to "moving," and "moving" to cinema, Stein's lecture is as lively as the talking and listening she speaks of when in conversation with her "very lively little aunts" (168) of Baltimore. Just as each of those terms insists on motion with a different emphasis each time, the movement that Stein finds lively is an insistence that turns repetitious and redundant motions into something dynamic, but perhaps also mutable and restless. However, movement is an ambiguous and enigmatic act in more ways than one. One can be moved without moving, as Stein is when writing or sitting in her car. As animation, moving is both physical and psychic, expressed and interiorized. Stein's characterization of the "essence of its going" as a vitality and her insistence on liveliness remind us that the movement she is so interested in is, after all, life itself. As she writes in "Portraits," "we have living in moving being necessarily so intense that existing is indeed something, is indeed that thing that we are doing" (182). The gerunds of "doing," "living," and "existing," so intensely emphasized and belabored with other "-ing" words in this sentence, live because they are in motion in the present continuous tense. Further, the "something" that Stein uses as a periphrasis for life is, in effect, a pin that does not pin down its object-in-motion, allowing movement to carry "something" that does not stay still. What movement carries and transports is the "going" and "moving" of life, and this is in part why motion is so captivating and so evocative in even its most mundane, imperceptible, or precarious forms—pero si muove, said Galileo.1

Yet Stein's car, which she named "Aunt Pauline" after one of her aunts, is an oddly personable figure for life and...


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