Herself and Strangers
Who’s afraid of Gertrude Stein? I’m not, nor, I trust, are you. We’re paying tribute tonight to a Stein who may, at last, no longer be avoided and pigeonholed as a difficult, intransigent, unreadable colossus, but who may be approached as a locus of pleasure, welcome, ease, merriment, and nourishment. Finally, in the twenty-first century, let there be room for the lazy, libidinal, and ludic Stein, whose texts practice the art of happiness, and whose experimental methods have as much to do with a religious ceremony as with a properly literary act. Her verbal erotics are one long performative “I write,” serving as Stein’s substitute for the groom’s “I do” or the priest’s “I bless.”
We celebrate her because, although critics often pay lip service to her “cubism,” her works themselves remain underappreciated, their influence on postmodernity insufficiently acknowledged. Her reformation of customary linguistic practice offers readers a giddy way to reconceive overachievement and underachievement, failure and success, ardor and indifference, community and isolation. Gertrude alternated, in her self-mythologies, between Baby and Emperor. Let us emphasize the benign aspects of Stein as baby rather than her infantilism’s imperial malignities.
Even if you don’t enjoy yourselves tonight, you will be having a Steinian experience, for Stein, like the Marquis de Sade, wrote against the idea of audience. Stein wrote for no one but herself—well, almost. She also wrote for Alice B. Toklas and for their dog, Basket, and for a few strangers. Stein indulged in the pleasure of writing the way she wanted to write without compromise. Perhaps that is why today her idiom seems topical, contemporary, fresh, and deserving of celebration.