Being in Her
I’m going to read a passage from Gertrude Stein’s endless, impossible novel The Making of Americans, which she wrote over several years from about 1906, finishing it in 1911. It wasn’t printed until 1925 and then in a limited edition. It’s really one of the monuments of our literature, and of world literature. I think it belongs with Proust and Henry James. In a way it’s like a sequel to The Golden Bowl: If Adam Verver had brought Charlotte back to Nebraska, she might have gone bonkers the way that some of Stein’s characters do. She had ambitious aims for this project; she says early in it that “this is now a history of every kind of them, of every kind of men and every kind of women who ever were or are or will be living.” She divided people up into categories and then subdivided them; categories like “independent-dependent” and “dependent-independent,” “attacking-resisting” and “resisting-attacking.” The book’s heroine, Julia Dehning, was of the “resisting-attacking” school. Stein evolved these categories, somewhat, in her studies of psychology in the early 1900s at Harvard, especially in experiments in which she gave subjects assignments of automatic writing and then used their reactions to decide in which slot they belonged. The categories become subdivided; one of the things that makes the book so fascinating is the endless combinations of them. Stein said, in a book called The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans, “I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally, if you listened with great intensity, you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different.” That’s what’s so wonderful when you immerse yourself in the tide of this novel. It’s somewhat like listening to a piece of music by Philip Glass or John Adams in which a theme is repeated over and over with such subtle variations that you don’t get them at first, and then you realize that the whole situation has changed, that you’ve sort of lost something, and you’ve got to go back, but you can’t, because it’s music, or a tide of words.
After many years of pretending that I’d read this book, and making several attempts (never getting beyond about page 30), I decided to actually do it several years ago, and I’m very glad that I did. I would like to do it again although I’ve already read it about three or four times since I had to read every sentence, I think, at least that many times. This is about young Julia Dehning. “The Dehning family living was then a fairly free, very rich, very decent, very right-American living.” Actually they live in what is probably the suburbs of Oakland, although Stein refers to it under the name of “Gossols” or something.
As I was saying in the beginning of telling Dehning family living, the Dehnings liked country house living, they liked very well fairly free, perfectly decent, quite generous very rich right american living. They certainly did live this thing.
Julia was then the oldest of the Dehning children, George was considerably younger and Hortense was a good deal younger than George Dehning, Julia was then the beginning of Dehning completely american living. This is a description of her being and of her living, of her loving and of her marrying, and of all of her living. Julia then was an american. Julia had her own being in her, she was of a kind in men and women. This is to be now a description of being in her and of living in her.
Each one is inside them being that one. Mostly every one has some way of feeling living in them. Each one has ways in them that are in other ones living with them.
Mostly every one has living having some kind of meaning to them. Very many like it that they are doing something, living, working, loving, dressing, dreaming, waking, cleaning something, being a kind of a one, looking like some one, going to be doing something, being a nice one, being a not nice one, helping something, helping some one, winning, conquering, losing, forgetting, being an influence in being a living one being a dead one, having courage to be going on living, having a troubled living, being a worried one, cleaning themselves all their living, learning something, beginning something, forgetting something, ending something, liking old things, leaving something, liking everything, liking pretty nearly nothing, being disgusted with everything, liking new things, leaving pretty nearly nothing, liking changing, liking being a quiet one, liking fighting, being one making a peace between all men and all women, and all women, and all men, fighting things out to finishing, being honest in living, being failing for a reason, being just failing, being just succeeding, being lucky, being an unlucky one, being a really completely successful one, being one submitting to everything, being loved by every one, being one submitting to almost nothing, being one certain that one should be one submitting to being a good one, being hated by a good many who come to know them, being certain of spending money, of being saving, being one loving god, being one loving living, being one loved by god always in being living, being one loving god and living, being one needing religion, being one not needing anything for living, being one not needing any one, being one not needing any religion to support them, being one afraid in living, being one always shivering with living, being one not having any realization of shivering in living, being one liking eating, being one liking thinking, being one liking waking, being one certainly not afraid to be dying, being one liking starving, being one liking to do anything, being one liking to be resting, being one liking working, being one certainly not afraid of doing anything, being one liking to be in pain for themselves or some one, being one liking cold days in out door living, being one liking rainy days around them, being one liking hot sunshine on them, being one certainly not afraid of anything, being one getting sick with cold or hot or raining weather on them, being one not liking any fresh air on them, being one not able to be breathing without much fresh air on them, being a funny one, being one not liking funny ones, one not liking queer ones in living, being one liking swimming, being one tired of ocean bathing before they have really been in more than twice in a season, being one excited with learning anything, being one needing everything because anything was food to living for that one, being one being excited at leaving anything, being one learning always a little something, being one not thinking very much about anything, of any one. There are all these ways then of having living having meaning and there are innumerable other ones, do not crowd so on me all the other ones, I know very well there are very many other ones, I know very well I am not knowing all the ways men and women are feeling living, I know very well I am not knowing all the ways any one can have living have meaning.
This, incidentally, is the voice of the narrator, which very often comes in to talk about the progress of the work and who was not exactly Gertrude Stein just as Proust is not exactly the narrator of À la Recherche du temps perdu.
I know very well I do not know all these things. I know very well I could be very happy knowing everything. I know I am quite a happy one knowing something of being. Now I am always hearing of ways some have of feeling living and they come crowding and I am resisting so that I can be slowly realizing and always I am knowing I can never really be knowing all the ways there are of feeling living, all the ways there are of having living having meaning. I am knowing something of kinds of being in men and women, I could know sometime, if I could know completely all I could be knowing, all the kinds there are of men and women. I am comforting now my feeling by saying this thing in my complete feeling again and again. I am beginning now a history of living, of feeling living, of living having meaning in Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland. I have been telling something of the kind of being each one of them had in them. I will tell very much more about the being each one of them had in them.
Julia Dehning was all her life resisting any changing in attacking. She was always resisting not attacking and so she was an obstinate one not hearing what any one was saying. She was always listening to every one who had a way of doing anything, and had nervousness in doing it then, she was always all the time then resisting being any kind of an attacking one that she had not always been in all her living, she was harshly doing everything that she knew about from hearing any one who was doing anything and she was all her life resisting any changing in her attacking. She was then the daughter of Mrs. Dehning and Mr. Dehning as I am saying.