- The Composition of Sense in Gertrude Stein's Landscape Writingby Linda Voris
Linda Voris's The Composition of Sense in Gertrude Stein's Landscape Writingis, quite simply, a game-changer for Stein scholarship. This important monograph proposes a radical new critical approach to Stein's work by adopting an interpretative methodology that is both drawn from and receptive to what Voris argues was Stein's own approach to composition and meaning, one developed in the 1920s and inspired by her study of landscape, especially the landscapes of Paul Cézanne's country, Provence. Having come out the other side of this compact but intellectually rigorous study, I am still trying to figure out exactly how Voris did it. The virtuosity of Voris's close readings and the book's sheer intellectual achievement mark it as a monumental contribution to the field of Stein scholarship.
The study consists of seven chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. Following a dense introduction ("The Force of Landscape"), Voris conducts a meticulous study of Stein's writings of the early 1920s, limiting herself to "texts written in succession and over a brief period of time" (p. 3). That the study is "limit[ed]" is Voris's proposition, but I never felt the study to be lacking in content or scope (p. 3). While Voris anchors her study in 1920s Provence, the landscape followed Stein back to Paris in the form of several of Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire(1904) paintings, which remained prominently displayed on Stein's atelier walls.
Voris contends that Stein's writings domake sense—contrary to the claims of figures such as Wyndham Lewis—and that she is the author who can finally provide readers with a key to these supposedly hermetic texts. Voris is not the first scholar to claim this, but her theory on Stein's "unique" and "radical epistemology" is one I think Stein herself would be satisfied with and one that has done full justice to the complexity of Stein's work (p. 3). Voris proposes that Stein's use of a "landscape homology" across successively composed texts in the early 1920s "enact[s] a radical epistemology, a mode of understanding the interrelatedness of meaning, experience, and language practice"—an epistemology wherein "what constitutes meaning … is understood as compositional rather than representational" (pp. 3, 2). In the writings from this period, Voris argues that Stein "reconfigure[s] explanation with the temporal properties she has explored in landscape writing so that explanation unfolds with a quality of immediacy" akin to seeing, or experiencing, landscape (p. 13). But how exactly does Stein do this? And more specifically, how does she do this without conforming or reverting to what Voris calls "the mimetic basis of representation" (p. 13)? A particular achievement of this book is that Voris [End Page 458]manages to outline convicingly howStein alternately looked at landscapes and translated this visual experience of spatial composition into a textual environment and a compositionally bound textual experience.
Voris suggests that Stein's engagement with the visual goes far beyond that of her contemporaries, and indeed, this book makes Stein's indebtedness to Cézanne explicit. I have long accepted Stein's insistence that her study of landscape was an essential facet of her aesthetic credo and development. At the same time, however, I have felt that critical studies of Stein's engagement with the visual arts often rely on appropriating the techniques of the artist or movement in a way that renders their dynamic compositional approach metaphorical. Voris manages to avoid this pitfall while explaining how Stein's study of landscape manifests in her writings and how exactly Stein took visual elements and repurposed them into language. This major achievement is to be commended, as it was no doubt difficult to bring the study together in such a nuanced, lucid, and authoritative manner.
Contextualization comes through the work of William James and Gilles Deleuze, who provide a happy counterpoint to...