Friday, July 30, 2010

Written, extruded

Here's the journalist Janet Malcolm on Gertrude Stein, chiming in with a long, woman-hating tradition (on which see DeKoven and Stimpson) of describing Stein's writing as a kind of bodily effluvium:
Her literary enterprise was itself almost entirely work-free. Mabel Dodge’s four-volume autobiography, “Intimate Memories,” begun in 1924 (after her fourth marriage, when she became Mabel Dodge Luhan), gives us a rare glimpse of Stein at her desk during the long visit she and Toklas made to the Villa Curonia in 1912. It was late at night, and Stein was “writing automatically in a long weak handwriting—four or five lines to the page—letting it ooze up from deep down inside her, down onto the paper with the least possible physical effort; she would cover a few pages so and leave them there and go to bed, and in the morning Alice would gather them up.” Stein never, or hardly ever, revised (a rare false start to “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” exists among Stein’s papers), and in “Everybody’s Autobiography”she said that she never wrote much more than half an hour a day (but added significantly, “To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day”). Stein didn’t even type her work; she just oozed into her notebooks and Toklas did the rest.

First of all, whuh? Really, we're going to just take Mabel Dodge Luhan at her word?

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I'm struck (and plain irritated) by the judgmental tone that Malcolm takes when it comes to Stein's writing. Lazy!, Malcolm scolds. "Work-free." It's as though Stein isn't writing so much as pooping. "Stein didn’t even type her work; she just oozed into her notebooks and Toklas did the rest."

There's a strange Protestant ethic running through the passage that suggests that there's something reprehensible about not doing your own typing (that is, if you're a woman!). Malcolm's Stein is indolent, lazy, not a worker but a sort of repulsive literary Jabba the Hutt (on which, again, see Stimpson).* Underlying this tone of revulsion is a sharp distinction, particularly inappropriate in Stein's case, between work and rest. If it's work, Malcolm seems to suggest, it's imbued with intention, attention, and is therefore art--and if it is not (as Stein might say), then not.

Where does Malcolm's work ethic get us in understanding Stein's actual writing?

Not very far, I think. Rather, I tend to think it gets us further in understanding a twinned horror of female literary accomplishment and the female body, which persists even at this late date.

*Full disclosure: Stimpson does not actually use the words "literary Jabba the Hutt." Probably to her credit.

I pretty much think Marjorie Perloff's review of Two Lives is right on, especially this part:
But then Malcolm—and this is what makes her book finally so unsatisfactory—has no use for the bulk of Stein's writing. She dismisses it early in Two Lives as "unreadable," making a sharp distinction between the "experimental writing" of Tender Buttons or the Portraits and nonfiction of the twenties and "conventional" work, like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the thirties to attract a larger public. I find this distinction dubious: even Alice B. Toklas uses a panoply of modernist devices, and certainly it has little or no plot or "rounded" characters. (94)

DeKoven, Marianne. "Introduction: Transformations of Gertrude Stein." Gertrude Stein. Spec. issue of Modern Fiction Studies 42.3 (1996). 469-483. Project Muse. Web. 25 July 2010.

Malcolm, Janet. "Gertrude Stein's War: The Years in Occupied France." The New Yorker (2 June 2003). The New Yorker. Web. 25 July 2010. This is an excerpt from her book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007).

Perloff, Marjorie. Rev. of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm. Common Knowledge 15.1 (Winter 2009). Project Muse. Web. 29 July 2010.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein." The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspectives. Spec. issue of Poetics Today 6.1/2 (1985) 67-80. JSTOR. Web. 18 April 2008.

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