Here’s a theory—or elements of a theory—of the comic. In this theory, the comic contains or embraces six elements. The first is the quality of deadpan, of impassivity; for example, deadpan brilliance. The second attribute in this theory of the comic is repetition: repetition, repetition, repetition, often with small variations. The third element is a defect, an apparent defect, of affectivity, of feeling—feeling seems inappropriately distributed or expressed, and sometimes it seems to be lacking, or missing, where one might expect it. The fourth element: a defect—an apparent defect, anyway—of cognition, of understanding what one is doing, what the person is actually doing—which makes the audience feel, in some sense, superior to the person acting. The fifth element: inappropriate behavior. Examples of that might include being nice, relentlessly nice, when perhaps another reaction would be more plausible; or being outrageous, being bold, being impertinent—very impertinent, cutting through pretensions, calling the emperor someone who has no clothes. The sixth attribute: childlikeness. Childlikeness, which might express itself in sentences like “I was interested in St. Louis . . . and it was enormous . . . and we found the Mississippi.” That’s the kind of language a child might write in a letter home. In what I call a theory of the comic—it isn’t the theory of the comic, I don’t know what that would be—I’m not describing the main tradition of the comic as embodied in language, in words. I’m not describing the main tradition of comic discourse, but I think I am describing the main, or a main, tradition of the comic as a performance, a performance which is often rather short on words, which might in fact be mute, and largely expressed in physical behavior. The tradition of the comic that I’ve described inductively is, for instance, very well embodied in silent comedy. Think of the films featuring Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Chaplin.
In literature the comic is usually wit, verbal wit. It tends to be compact, or even impacted. Think of the many theories of the comic in literature and discourse. The first that comes to mind is the prologue by George Meredith to his wonderful novel The Egoist. In film comedy, in comedy of performance, there is another tradition that includes such salient features as the refusal of the tragic (it’s not simply that the comic performance isn’t tragic, or it isn’t unhappy, or it isn’t melancholy—it embodies elements that are a refusal of the tragic); the promotion of an idea of comfort, the comfortable, the pleasant life, the arts of happiness, which come through as sublime or cheerful egoism, self-centeredness, which other people find comic. It makes them laugh. The theory of knowing that is relevant to the comic is essentially a theory of non-knowing, or pretending not to know, or partial knowing. One of its illustrations might be endless enumeration of all possibilities, which would include being x and being non-x, and these discussed sequentially, as if what is being proposed is the equivalence of all; the leading traits would be cheerfulness, content, and a sense of completeness.
By these standards, which, as I said, I think are much more standards of performance than of discourse, Gertrude Stein is not only one of the greatest comic writers of literature written in English, but probably the most original, precisely because she invented a way, or discovered a way, of representing, in language, the standards of the comic that come from performance rather than discourse.
Gertrude Stein has accompanied me my whole adult life; I’ve been reading her since I was a college student, and continue to read her regularly. In thinking about Stein, reading Stein, looking again at Stein, I’ve realized that there is an extraordinary continuity in her work. Her very first book, Q.E.D., was written at the beginning of the last century, 1903; it was never published in her own lifetime. Q.E.D. is usually described as pre-Steinian; it doesn’t have the manner, of course, that we recognize as distinctively Steinian. The book is largely autobiographical. It concerns a trip to England that Adele, the central character, makes with two other women, as Stein herself did.
The last month of Adele’s life in Baltimore had been such a succession of wearing experiences that she rather regretted that she was not to have the steamer all to herself. It was very easy to think of the rest of the passengers as mere wooden objects; they were all sure to be of some abjectly familiar type that one knew so well that there would be no need of recognizing their existence, but these two people who would be equally familiar if they were equally little known would as the acquaintance progressed, undoubtedly expose large tracts of unexplored and unknown qualities, filled with new and strange excitements. A little knowledge is not a dangerous thing, on the contrary it gives the most cheerful sense of completeness and content.
Well, there it is! The whole thing, right there, in the first paragraph. The people would be “abjectly familiar,” “there would be no need of recognizing their existence”—what do you do with some kind of very superior feeling, which makes other people, for the most part, seem “mere wooden objects”? You see no need of recounting their existence, you don’t have to tell their story, you only need a little knowledge, and somehow this leads to “a most cheerful sense of completeness and content.” We hear, in these sentences, of course, a very heavy imprint of Henry James. As everyone knows, Stein was a star pupil of Henry James’s brother, the great William James, and it’s interesting to see that this Jamesian style is the one that she first used. I would maintain that the sly toboggan ride, from the Jamesian abstractness of description to the full Steinian manner is actually very logical.
An Acquaintance with Description was written in 1926, and here of course is the full Steinian manner:
An acquaintance with description.
There is an arrangement as berries. There is also an arrangement as loopholes. There is also an arrangement as distance. There is also an arrangement as by the way. There is also an arrangement as at first. There is also an arrangement as to be. There is also an arrangement as disappointed. There is also an arrangement as why and let. There is also an arrangement of poplars that give a great deal of pleasure. There is also an arrangement that it can be twice chosen. There is also an arrangement which is advantageous.
Again, you hear those key words, words of happiness and of an epistemological procedure that is inclusive, always inclusive, of contraries, and suggests the equivalence of contraries, and therefore, in some sense, draining affect, draining emotion, and certainly draining the possibility of a tragic reaction. The very nature of tragedy is that choices have to be made and things which are opposite truly oppose. Here’s another passage, a little bit later, from this wonderful text, An Acquaintance with Description:
How do you do happily happily with that happily with that. There is a difference between twice one one and leaving it be chosen that they do not any of them always like that. Not only if this is theirs too to have it be that it can send and consent and finally letting letting that if when after that it should be not only recalled but estimated not in case and care for that to be as much as much as much to be sure leaving leaving it for this at once nearly by all. All of it at one time easily.
Again, happiness, ease. A later book called Ida, published in 1941, has the same modality, the same encyclopedic idea of happiness, and of the equivalence of all possibilities, which I think is the essence of the comic vision and the opposite of the tragic vision. Here’s a passage:
One day, it was before or after she made up her mind to be a twin, she joined a walking marathon. She kept on moving, sleeping or walking, she kept on slowly moving. This was one of the funny things that happened to her. Then she lived outside of a city, she was eighteen then, she decided that she had had enough of only being one and she told her dog Love that she was going to be two she was going to be a twin. And this did then happen.
Ida often wrote letters to herself that is to say she wrote to her twin.
Dear Ida my twin,
Here I am sitting not alone because I have dear Love with me, and I speak to him and he speaks to me, but here I am all alone and I am thinking of you Ida my dear twin. Are you beautiful as beautiful as I am dear twin Ida, are you, and if you are perhaps I am not. I can not go away Ida, I am here always, if not here then somewhere, but just now I am here, I am like that, but you dear Ida you are not, you are not here, if you were I could not write to you. Do you know what I think Ida, I think that you could be a queen of beauty, one of the ones they elect when everybody has a vote. They are elected and they go everywhere and everybody looks at them and everybody sees them. Dear Ida oh dear Ida do do be one. Do not let them know you have any name but Ida and I know Ida will win, Ida Ida Ida,
from your twin
(One can’t help thinking that the choice of the name Ida was largely governed by the first letter of the name.)
Ida sat silently looking at her dog Love and playing the piano softly until the light was dim. Ida went out first locking the door she went out and as she went out she knew she was a beauty and that they would all vote for her. First she had to find the place where they were going to vote, but that did not make any difference anywhere would do they would vote for her just anywhere, she was such a beauty.
As she went she saw a nicely dressed little girl with a broken arm who threw a stone at a window. It was the little girl’s right arm that was broken. This was a sign.
So when Ida arrived they voted that she was a great beauty and the most beautiful and the completest beauty and she was for that year the winner of the beauty prize for all the world. Just like that. It did happen. Ida was her name and she had won.
Nobody knew anything about her except that she was Ida but that was enough because she was Ida the beauty Ida.
By comic, I don’t mean anything really different from funny. And by a comic writer, a great comic writer, I mean a comic persona; I mean a persona; I mean a constructed voice. In one sense, you can think of writers as being mono-voiced or poly-voiced or polyphonic, and Gertrude Stein, along with Beckett and Thomas Bernhard and a few others, is certainly one of the ultimate mono-voiced, single-voiced writers. But this, of course, is a persona. By comic writer, I mean a comic persona. And finally by defect of understanding and childlikeness, I don’t mean to suggest anything other than the ruthless intellectual brilliance and the adult imperiousness of this wonderful writer.