Thursday, April 15, 2010


Some months after she had left Johns Hopkins but while her supervisor, Lewellys Barker, was still trying to get her research published, Gertrude Stein defended her representation of sections of the brain by appealing to their clarity. Her language is striking; clarity for Stein means a physical cutting away, "clear[ing] away the underbrush and leav[ing] a clear road." This, she argues, is the substance of her contribution; her drawings are "diagrammatic," burning away irrelevancies and leaving only that which is to be known.

"Not that the books do not all tell the truth as I know it," she adds, "but that they tell so much more."

I usually think of revision in similar terms--a process of retrieving essences and slicing away error. It requires a certain emotional grimness.

I'm usually a big proponent of affectless writing; I abhor any suggestion that one needs to feel like writing in order to write. The inevitable emotional turbulence that comes with thinking one's writing is or is not going well, I tend to observe at a remove. I might be happy with my chapter or I might not be, but either way I'll work on it.

But for those times when I feel I have a mess on my hands and need to clean it up, clear away underbrush, leave a clear road, there is a feeling that I want--a slightly grandiose determination that wrongness will flee before my flaming sword.

Honestly, I think it works pretty well.

* * *

Unrelatedly: I am on a campaign to eliminate the word "congrats." It is a blot on the world's beauty.

Yes, my idea of clarity is remarkably similar to Gertrude Stein's; what of it?

The letter is not dated, but it is clearly from 1902. From the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, reproduced in Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), among other places.


Gladys said...

just to be clear, i sent you my last e-mail before i read this post!

Natalia said...

Ha - that wasn't directed at you or at anyone in particular, Gladys!

Gladys said...

Lol. Given the timing I figured you weren't talking about my later email. I just didn't want you to think that I read this post and then sent you a "congrats" email just to annoy you or something!