Stein is a writer whose status as cultural icon—symbol of Parisian cosmopolitanism and open homosexuality, standard-bearer for difficult modernist writing, target of relentless parody—tends to overshadow her actual work. Hejinian admits that she doesn’t expect anyone in her audience to have read Lucy Church Amiably, the 1927 text which is the lecture’s centerpiece. In Stein’s own lifetime the situation was little different; she feared, Hejinian tells us, that her “identity,” the fixed public self that accompanied her celebrity, might overwhelm her “human mind,” the fluid, less definable self of everyday life. Yet Hejinian contends that Stein is important precisely because she is not alone in this predicament, and that Stein’s study of the relations between time and identity, labor and freedom, has much bearing on our own age. Her lecture recovers for us a bit of Stein’s human mind and offers a fine example of what literary scholarship can be.
Positions of the Sun: Latitudes and Lucy Church Amiably
Russian Formalist theory of the early 20th century made an important (and now familiar) distinction between plot and story. The story of anything is its strictly chronological unfolding, what happened in precisely the order in which it happened. The plot is the order in which those happenings are arranged artistically—the order in which they are offered for experience—liberated from their chronology, retimed, and given over to a different logic or logics. But there’s more to the plot than that.
The story is sequential. Therefore, in apposition, the plot should be consequential—and it is, but not within the same parameters as those of the story. The story transits and retransits the plot, crisscrosses it, often paying it little attention as it pursues its own set of possible consequences or transgresses against them, as was the case, for example, in the writings of the Marquis de Sade.
The plot includes not just the arrangement of the story elements but also all the artistic devices that are brought into play—digressions, puns, an inconsequential bird’s flight across an otherwise undisturbed sky.
Gertrude Stein describes such birds “in the sky of the landscape in Bilignin,” which is the inspiration for Lucy Church Amiably. “Magpies are in the landscape that is they are in the sky of a landscape, they are black and white and they are in the sky of the landscape in Bilignin. […] When they are in the sky they do something that I have never seen any other bird do they hold themselves up and down and look flat against the sky. […] They look exactly like the birds in the Annunciation pictures the bird which is the Holy Ghost […].”
With its structural and lexical motifs and their particular syntactic organization—and, in the little passage I just quoted, a small allegorical element—, the plot lays out the landscape of the work.
It is in the casting of its plot that a work of art generates recurrence and establishes patterns, analogous perhaps to the micro-systems current in a landscape, whether urban or rural, domestic or social. The plot draws things out into the serious imaginative game of art.
The notion of an artistic plot, with an explicit analogy to a plot of ground and hence to a landscape, puts the concept into a spatial frame. This belies one of this talk’s principal concerns, which is with temporal quality in high modernism and late modernity. It is also concerned with temporal quantity, but that is in most ways itself a qualitative problem, suffusing whatever sense one might have of a good life.
But framing matters in terms of landscape is inevitable in what follows, since, in the context of its temporal concerns, what I intend to talk about is based on a textual landscape, drawn from an actual one in which the author was living. The text from which I’ve drawn the ideas I’ll attempt to lay out is Gertrude Stein’s Lucy Church Amiably, a work that Stein described in the “Advertisement” at the front of the book as “a return to romantic nature that is it makes a landscape” and “a novel of romantic beauty and nature.” The landscape from which it draws is that of a region of France through which the Rhone flows just to the west of the French Alps. Lucy Church Amiably is a modernist text, written in 1927 and first published in 1930 as the initial offering of Plain Editions, the press that Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein created for the sake of publishing Stein’s work. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, Lucy Church Amiably is currently in print, but it is one of the less frequently read works of Gertrude Stein, whose works are not frequently read in any case. I don’t expect anyone in the audience to be familiar with the book.
In talking about this work—as a landscape of some temporal turmoil—I want to lay out a nexus of interests, one of which is an interest in the nexus per se—in nexicity, if you will—as a reality principle that structures what I will call, after Theodor Adorno and Edward Saïd but with my own twists on it, late work, as well as the conditions on which lateness reflects: everyday life.
The artistic imagination has gravitational pull—it attracts the world around it.
The distinction between foreground and background evaporates; as a relative concept “background” loses reality, and it disappears as an organizing principle of context. Everything enters the foreground, everything is pulled near. The imagination increases its magnetic charge by doodling or muttering, scribbling or humming while things flicker in increasing proximity.
The strength of the temporal charge of these things in return is a measure of their vitality.
For Gertrude Stein in 1927, spending the summer in the French countryside near the Rhone, the asparagus in the garden, the cascading of a nearby waterfall, the church in the town of Lucey some 6 miles to the east, and the rising bulk of Mont Blanc 55 miles beyond, all came to the imagination with equal force.
In her writings of the period—her landscape period, from approximately 1925 to 1934—Stein was exploring an area of explicit concern—narration—and particularly narration configured somewhat along painterly lines, with the significant proviso that it must be temporally charged.
For Stein, the problem for narration was that of creating “a whole thing, being what was assembled from its parts was a whole thing […]. [B]eside this there is the important thing and the very American thing that everybody knows who is an American just how many seconds minutes or hours it is going to take to do a whole thing. It is singularly a sense for combination without a conception of the existence of a given space of time that makes the American thing the American thing, and the sense of this space of time must be within the whole thing […].”
Time is a problem, American or not, given to narration, since it is in the nature of narration to give an account of change, even if, as in Stein’s novel Lucy Church Amiably, the changing occurs along courses of circulation or within microsystems of distribution. Lucy Church Amiably has the narrative (and also the theological) structure of a tableau vivant.
Vitality is the good temporality of life, just as life is the good inherent to time. That is Stein’s theological proposition. And it is offered not only out of a euphoric joie de vivre but also out of a dysphoric experience of temporal anxiety that had (and has) become an inherent feature of everyday life in its condition of lateness.
Hypotheses regarding the nature of time, or even verification of its reality, as distinct from its reality effects, are presumably matters for physicists to take up. To consider the reality effects of time, on the other hand—how people feel its plenitude or dearth, its capaciousness or confining insistences, the pleasures or pressures it brings, the size and pace of its increments, our ability or inability to fit into it, etc.—the consideration of such experiencings of time is a problem less for physics than for various branches of metaphysics and for history and art; it is also a topic for philosophy in its classical phase, or as it occasionally bears on art, as deliberative examination of the character of the good life.
Time has also been a matter that economists and socio-economic engineers have addressed, though, apart perhaps from Marxist or Marxian economists, economists often seem more interested in theorizing the means for getting the maximal profit rather than the maximal good out of time.
The good of the good life is of several, sometimes incompatible sorts: on the one hand, the good of happiness—consciousness of pleasure, a sense of well-being, consciousness of love—and, on the other hand, the good of fulfilled obligations: work, dutifulness, accomplishment, productivity, good citizenship. The latter are predicates of the good person; the former those of the good life. They co-exist but are generally incompatible.
I would speculate that, over the past two or more centuries, with the spread of what one might somewhat glibly call capitalocracy, despite propaganda from the commodity world to the contrary, emphasis has shifted from admiration and idealization of the good life to pressures on the individual to conform to a model of the good person, with goodness here appropriated to norms of dutifulness and productivity rather than to the eccentricities of delight, with consumption, though we are told that it contributes to individuation and delight, contributing to the networks that bind us to dutifulness.
In the first paragraph of the opening, dedicatory passage of Minima Moralia Adorno says, “What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.” I would agree, except that the principal things referred to in this sentence—“the sphere of private existence,” “consumption,” “material production”—no longer exist as they did in 1945, when Adorno wrote that paragraph. Consumption, productivity, and private life are, in our contemporary techno-culture, virtual as well as real, and as abstract as the time they take up in absorbing one another.
The temporal anxieties that afflict modernity and then postmodernity reflect somewhat different experiences of time. For Gertrude Stein, it is modernity, not postmodernity, that is the relevant temporality, but there are features in her work that, in being elements proper to lateness, foreshadow postmodernism—which contains lateness—perhaps even as its defining trait—in both its catastrophic and its resistant forms.
Modernity, of course, is the offshoot of industrial capitalism and of the commodity culture that it provides. The translation or transmutation of labor and time into product (as commodity)—as the site of what Marx famously termed time-congealed labor (obfuscated, mystified, fetishized—and in some sense allegorized, as a value-bearing fragment of an exhausted life in its indecipherable past)—this process went on at a relentlessly steady pace, and for a significant segment of the laboring population—although not for a member of the established middleclass like Gertrude Stein—everyday life was a matter of endurance, even suffering. It was not, however, generally fraught with panic or frenzy. The capitalist owner-manager might hound the workers, but the worker was not, so to speak, self-hounding. The figure of the exemplarily self-motivated worker—the so-called self-starter, the self-administering, self-martialing, adrenalin-fueled, competitive worker—the over-achieving contributor—belongs, rather, to postmodernity, in which what had been a middleclass work ethic spread into all strata of the general work force. In the transition, the senses of urgency that had formerly been imposed on the worker, are now composed by him or her. That sense of urgency, as long as it was imposed, remained unprocessed, in the current vernacular sense, where “to process” means “to internalize.” But with a shift in the nature of work from production to service, and from mechanical to technological modes, and with a shift in class-identification that seems to be commensurate with postmodernity’s technological and service-orientation, it is precisely process rather than product that is the focus of work. Or, rather, process is product. Such, in any case, is one account—cursory and over-simplified, but not altogether wrong. Under a regimen of maximal processing, maximal internalizing, we become our own owner—the other who drives us is ourself. The self with no time.
A determining feature peculiar to modernism’s particular temporality coalesced within modernity at a very specific moment—namely 12 noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883, when the standardization of time, brought about largely by relentless pressure from railroad and manufacturing interests, went into effect.
There was resistance.
Local populations in the U.S., for a variety of reasons, felt affronted that their time was to be superseded by someone else’s (and that the hour was to be based on that of the Greenwich [British] meridian tended to add to the effrontery). Boston, for example, was horrified to think that it would share noon with cities in the Deep South. Reform-minded people were concerned, too, at the corporate take-over of time. William B. White, a Congregationalist Church pastor in Boston, for example, “rose up and denounced standard time as an immoral fraud, a lie and a ‘piece of monopolistic work adverse to the workingman’s interest.’”
Western Union, too, was slow to come around, as a significant part of its business involved the selling of time. Beginning in 1877, Western Union had dropped a time ball every day at noon, local New York time (as determined by astronomical observation). In addition to allowing immediate observers to regulate their watches and clocks, the dropping of the ball also telegraphed a signal to paying subscribers, including the principal watchmakers of the city.
The commercial interests won the day, and at twelve o’clock noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883—“the day of two noons”—the standard went into effect. People in cities “gathered at jewelry stores and near public clocks” to see what would happen. According to the account given in Michael O’Malley’s Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, “Crowds of several hundred began forming in front of New York’s Western Union building as early as 11:30 a.m., to await the time ball’s drop. In Boston a similar crowd of about two hundred waited with ‘a sort of scared look on their upturned faces’ [St. Louis Globe Democrat].
The standardization of time, along with the invention of the telephone and the spread of electric lighting, produced “in the decades after 1880, a generally heightened sense of punctuality and urgency about time and clocks, a new and widespread formality in the experience of time in everyday work and life.” Among other things, an ability (or lack thereof) to cope with time became a class marker; “highbrow” theatrical and musical performances started punctually, “lowbrow” entertainments kept a more casual relation to clock time. “’Unpunctuality,’ a Boston newspaper claimed in … 1884 …, ‘shows a relaxed morality in the musical community.’ Indifference to time stigmatized the late-comer as a moral leper and a social inferior.”
The temporality in which modernism found itself was that of standardized, administered, and, with the advent of World War I, ultimately militarized time.
Postmodern temporality, on the other hand, (the time we have—the time, let’s say, of late and global capital), on the other hand, is experienced not as administered but as atomized—as unadministratable, uncontrollable, indeed out of control, a temporality that is everywhere and nowhere. With the advent of time-free, free-time, but also time-consuming technological instruments, we have all-time at our fingertips and no time for anything.
Email, cell-phones, list servs, wikis—these are all also place-less, and in them one finds oneself and others rendered simultaneously unplaced and replaced: unplaced because it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you have your technological device at hand, and replaced because this technology moves you, re-places you, virtually. Technology shares this power with ideology. We are shadowed ominously by the possibility that we can be replaced in another sense, too—that our presence in the system is arbitrary, impersonal—that we are signs rather than signifieds—signs rather than significant.
The high drama of Gertrude Stein’s struggle against insignificance and administered identity was only in its incipient stages in 1927, when she wrote Lucy Church Amiably, much of it in a state of pleasure—albeit an increasingly cloudy pleasure—over the beauties of the countryside in southwestern of France, where she and Alice B. Toklas, after considerable machinations, had secured the “summer house of our dreams.” When they first spotted it, it was occupied by a French naval lieutenant, who was stationed in the area with his family. The lieutenant had no intention of giving up the house, but, either serendipitously or as a result of months of behind-the-scenes machinations by Stein, Toklas, and some of their influential friends, the lieutenant was precipitously transferred to Africa. Stein’s success in acquiring the house surfaces in the novel:
Lucy Church rented a valuable house for what it was worth. She was prepared to indulge herself in this pleasure and did so. She was not able to take possession at once as it was at the time occupied by a lieutenant in the french navy […] there inevitably was and would be delay in the enjoyment of the very pleasant situation which occupying the house so well adapted to the pleasures of agreeableness and delicacy would undoubtedly continue. And so it was.In this passage, Stein casts herself as Lucy Church, driven not so much by the pressure of the autobiographical truth but because Stein’s purchasing power provides her with a landscape, and in this sense it has the compositional force that Lucy Church in the novel, and, more importantly, her original, the eponymous church in the small town of Lucey, likewise commands. Both are able to command the field. Both establish a prospect of stability (a gravitational field) by incarnating the virtue of mobility (the moveable center that allows us to imagine time and experience a present moment in it).
Composition is a critical phenomenological possibility for Stein. It harbors the pragmatic truth of space and time in their application to human experience and to the work of art insofar as it attests to that experience.
She addresses the topic in “Composition as Explanation,” her enormously successful first public lecture, which she delivered in England, once at Oxford and once at Cambridge, the summer before she began Lucy Church Amiably.
The lecture builds on a realization she had come to after prolonged visual engagement with modernist realism. As she said in a 1946 interview, “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cezanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that impressed me enormously….”
This insight, meanwhile, had emerged from another, which Stein had come to in the process of writing her 1000-page novelistic study, The Making of Americans. The gist of this discovery is that it is through one’s everyday habits that one makes oneself—which is also to say that the business of life—the process of living—and the being of individuality—the “bottom nature” of the individual—are inextricable.
In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein attempts to summarize this pair of insights—that each thing in a composition is of equal importance and that particulars make themselves what they are over time, which is to say by being what they are again and again.
Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing […]Stein wrote “Composition as Explanation” in 1926. During the following year, unnerved by her brief moment in the limelight of celebrity in England, she continued to explore, first in Four Saints in Three Acts and then in Lucy Church Amiably, the certainties that the pronouncements of “Composition as Explanation” claimed to establish. And she found herself returning to it a near decade later, in 1935, in the aftermath of her visit to America as a public figure, a famous personage. In becoming suddenly well-known, she had acquired an audience, and this had imposed on her what she termed “identity”—and the effects were devastating. She felt she had lost her mind—or, to be precise, her human mind. “Tears come into my eyes when I say the human mind,” she writes in The Geographical History of America. “To understand a thing means to be in contact with that thing and the human mind can be in contact with anything. […] Any minute then is anything if there is a human mind.” In the aftermath of her visit to America—her venture into the media-saturated climate that has created post-modernity—Stein felt she had acquired (or been afflicted with) identity and lost her compositional power. “Think of how very often there is not, there is not a human mind and so any minute is not anything.” The Geographical History of America is at many points a heart-broken work, in which the general happiness—the temporal success—of Lucy Church Amiably, only occasionally disturbed by ripples of anxiety, had been overthrown. She had been administered an identity, itself a product of administered time—what, in The Geographical History she calls history. “Now identity remembers and so it has an audience and as it has an audience it it is history and as it is history it has nothing to do with the human mind. […] identity is history and history is not true because history is dependent upon an audience.”
Composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are that composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. […] The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain. (Library of America Stein, I, 522-23)
Perhaps time is nothing more than a term for a feeling about the quality and quantity of one’s life and of the period in which one is living it. Or rather, it is the medium for feeling—as light is the medium for seeing. It is mere ambiance—with the ubiquity and yet perturbability of the everyday and its small, crucial increments of difference.
Everyday life is comprised of the subhistorical details of numerous strata of experienced and unexperienced life. But it is everywhere a product of history-shaping forces (class dynamics, technologies, received and inherited ideas, established practices, derived expectations, established roles, etc.); the forms of everyday life and the practices that are undertaken as an expression of those forms, even when the practices deform them, are suffused with history.
It is perseveringly quotidian, banal, filled with insignificance; it is the microcosm of biological maintenance. And that, of course, is utterly binding on us. The microcosmic business of staying alive constitutes the macrocosmic realm of the habitual that allows for viable habitation—sheer survival.
Ever the same, repetitive, rippling with recurrence, the everyday is nonetheless the realm most susceptible to chance, contingency, the random, the unforeseen.
It is the realm of the absurd but necessary—the meaningless and arbitrary, the given—to which one commits oneself (or is bound) in full knowledge of its meaninglessness, its absurdity, its triviality, and in fundamental need of what it provides.
It is the sphere of commonality, of shared necessities, shared conditions, to which we attend dutifully, obedient to its exigencies.
And yet it is the realm in which we individually exercise idiosyncrasy; establish our distinctiveness. It is the realm in which we carry out a rich and autonomous private life—a secret realm, the province of free time and the personal. It is the world of our individuality.
Everyday life is a realm of decisions, choices (and thus, in some sense, it is an ethical sphere); it is the realm of living with one’s choices—or of enduring conditions and circumstances over which one has minimal or no control.
It is the realm of the inescapable, and yet forgettable. And yet again, it is a realm binding us to memory, where the particulars of our way of being who we are are situated.
It is the realm of accumulation and proliferation—to quote Stein: “This leading to that as conferring plentifully what each one did” (Lucy Church Amiably, 31). But everyday life is also the realm of decomposition and degeneration—the province of (everything’s) aging—a realization that brings to mind a comment that Edward Saïd, makes about modernism: “Modernism has come to seem paradoxically not so much a movement of the new as a movement of aging and ending.”
Any set of predicates, then, or list of qualities or characteristics attributable to, or descriptive of, everyday life will turn up binarisms and contradictions. It is a terrain of incommensurabilities. Of seemingly assimilated unassimilables or invisibilized visibles. It is the realm of multiple discourses and of what, borrowing Jean-Francois Lyotard’s term, we might call their differends. But they generate, too, what I will term allegorical features of the nexus of everyday life, features, albeit not the only ones, that mark modernist works of everyday life as late—or as the precursors of postmodernism, which is the lateness of modernism.
T.J. Clark offers an explicitly Situationist description of modernism in The Painting of Modern Life, where he characterizes it as a response to the “shift within production towards the provision of consumer goods and services, and the accompanying ‘colonization of everyday life’”; this shift, and the colonized condition of everyday life that it produces, is what I am attributing to postmodernism, as the temporal effects of this shift take hold and people become aware that their everyday life is fully occupied, as well as preoccupied.
It is important to keep in mind the negative, as well as the positive, features of a nexus; the threads and the web they produce are crucial, but so too are the holes—as well as the contextual peripheries. The nexus produces what Tolstoy insistently termed a “labyrinth of linkages,” and, as is the case in all labyrinths, it includes dead ends, “false halts.” And there are, between the labyrinthine lines linking things, gaps—holes, open spaces. It is these that help mitigate against the totalizing force within the everyday of naturalized ideology, of history (“history,” as Saïd put it, “as a grand system to which everyone and every smaller narrative is subject”), and particularly subject to forgetting).
Within what Adorno and then Saïd term late style we can locate something of art’s response to the forces bearing on temporal experience and notions of the good life.
Late style is a term that Saïd, in his posthumously published On Late Style, takes from Adorno’s provocative and concise essay of 1937 titled “Late Style in Beethoven.”
The lateness to which Adorno refers is concomitant with biographical or biological lateness in the life of a given artist, discernable in works produced toward the end of his or her life. This style might reflect the artist’s ultimate vision of greater harmonies than the turbulence of youth and history reveal, “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity” as Saïd puts it; Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale or The Tempest are obvious examples and these are ones that Saïd cites.
“But,” Saïd goes on to ask, “what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?”
This is “late style” as Adorno describes it. As he puts it in the opening of the essay, “The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth.”
And he concludes the essay with the famous comment, “In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.”
For Saïd, “late style” is not only the style of significant artists near the end of their life but of significant art in the context of lateness generally—whether we call it late capitalism, or the late days of earth—lateness as it is now and has been for a century or more. As Saïd has said, “Literary modernism itself can be seen as a late-style phenomenon.”
Saïd explores an array of late style works in his book, but, like Adorno, he generally refuses to list the elements that might be said to be peculiar to it. What they effect, however, is fairly clear: resistance in the form of discord—a refusal or failure to effect internal harmony; resistance in the form of untimeliness—anachronicity; resistance in the form of incongruity—being out of place, a refusal or failure to fit into or achieve harmony with external conditions.
In writing The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein had been interested in typologies of human character. By 1927, a quarter of a century later, she was thinking about periodicity—about centuries. It was a topic she continued to explore. Thus, in Picasso, which she wrote near the end of the “landscape” period, she characterizes the twentieth century in terms that are much like those that Adorno attributes to lateness. “The twentieth century has much less reasonableness in its existence than the nineteenth century but reasonableness does not make for splendor. The seventeenth century had less reason in its existence than the sixteenth century and in consequence it has more splendor. So the twentieth century is that, it is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself, it is a more splendid thing than a period where everything follows itself.”
The splendor of which Stein speaks is instantiated in modernism’s great works of art. For Stein, I think, they exist as a counter to the forces of “identity,” whose damaging effects Stein had had a glimpse of during her visit to England in 1926 and would be devastated by in the wake of her visit to America. In Picasso, she gives an account of a crisis that the great painter was undergoing at the time she was writing Lucy Church Amiably—an account that I suspect is as much autobiographical, her own, as biographical. “For the first time in his life six months passed without his working,” she says. “It was the very first time in his life.” “He having a sensitiveness and a tenderness and a weakness that makes him wish to share the things seen by everybody, he always in his life is tempted, as a saint can be tempted, to see things as he does not see them. […] During these six months the only thing he did was a picture made of a rag cut by a string, during the great moment of cubism he made such things, at that time it gave him great joy to do it but now it was a tragedy.”
The struggle against identity (against seeing things falsely), and the tragic sense that accompanies it, is fundamental to lateness. In Lucy Church Amiably, Stein stages it phenomenologically, as an intrinsic element in the plotting of the everyday landscape that the novel is and is about.
The elements of lateness that I can point out begin syntactically, in a proliferation of verbal infinitives and lexical repetitions.
In Lucy Church Amiably, Stein no longer uses the participial constructions that were such a marked and substantive feature of her earlier writings—as, for example, in “Orta or One Dancing”: “She was dancing. She was asking any one who had been one expressing that meaning is existing to be one assisting dancing to be existing. She was dancing. Any one was then assisting that dancing be existing.” And so on. In Lucy Church Amiably, the participial tense, the continuous present, and indeed continuousness itself are no longer accurate to experience. Instead we have infinitives, and the strangely dark nuances that they cast:
To understand they undertake to overthrow their undertaking. This stand and to understand to undertake to undertake to overthrow to overthrow their undertaking.Lucy Church Amiably is a book of grassy, fine distinctions—of Jamesian distinctions (the James in question being, in this case, Henry, not William). Thus “in the corner there is an addition to destruction and so strangers will not be pleased and he and she have said that they will not do what they have not said that they will do,” and “he the son who is taller will not be especially anxious to be invited but as he was he was not to go. He did not mean to mean to be left lately.”
Repetition is a prominent occurrence in all of Stein’s work—it is not peculiar to Lucy Church Amiably. Indeed, for those, more frequent in her day than in ours, who bother to parody Stein, it is a readily available source of fun, disdainful though the fun may be. But repetition is not repetition in Stein. As she famously said, more than once, there is no repetition. Each thing that happens more than once happens at a different time and differently. This reiterative differing is constitutive of the thing, and of its visibility. Presence is temporal; it takes place not in isolation but in reiteration, by beginning again and again.
For Stein, what I am here terming “presence” is of utmost importance. A major function of a work of art is to sustain the vitality of the present—to sustain life in and as presence. The alternative is effective morbidity. But it is in the character of that presence—in its figurative peculiarity—that lateness, as a resistant negativity not unlike the one we find in Adorno’s dialectic, makes a stand.
Adorno sees this resistance figured in terms not of identity but as “non-identity,” resistant to being subsumed and administered in either an epistemological economy or a system of fungibility. Non-identity emerges from what Barbara Maria Stafford calls “the old opposition between Parmenides’s assertion that Being was identity and Heraclitus’s declaration that Being was difference.”
Non-identity is the means—the mediating presence, though it makes itself present by finding or making a gap—through which an individual in society or the aesthetic presence in a work of art or, let me dare to suggest, the good in life—evades domination. Non-identity is the shifty logic that undoes totalization, and screws up coherence. It has no place other than utopia (which is no place at all) or lateness—of the sort that I believe Stein, foreseeing the disaster of identity, plotted out in Lucy Church Amiably and populated with the kinds of grammatical and lexical reiterations I’ve referred to and with figures—characters, if you will—that are similarly reiterative.
One such is Lucy Church—or the Lucy Churches, whose various iterations include the church in the town of Lucey, with a cupola-topped steeple which provides Lucy Church with the occasional pseudonym of Lucy Pagoda. The incoherence of these iterations—their failure to consolidate into a single identity—spreads across the text. Even gender resists coherence; the names that move through the text include a frequently sighted Simon Therese, a Sarah Frederick, and various Marys (James Mary, and John Mary, and a Mary who marries a Mary and becomes Mary Mary, and William Mary).
William Mary was […] to come and he came and he was to come and he came and he had been and he had been William Mary he had been. He had been and he was then a pleasure to something something equivalent to right left and everything William Mary and individually coffee and individually wedding and individually acting and individually adding and individually left and left with him left and left with him additionally left and with him William Mary and his pleasure in this and this and this and this and one and a million of individual addition.Probably the most famous instance of Stein’s use of repetition, against redundancy, and for the sake of particularization, occurs in one of her best known sentences, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
During her travels in American in 1935, asked to explain the line, Stein said, “We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality to the noun. […] Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a…is…is…’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”
The effect of Stein’s non-identical, non-identifying “beginning again and again” is not just that it makes lateness manifest in the nexus of modernity but that it proffers lateness as that nexus—as its internal condition, a salutary incoherence.
To begin again and again is to stand repeatedly clear of the force of administered history. “There must be no remembering,” as Stein put it, “remembering is repetition, remembering is also confusion […] anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being […] is never repetition. It is not repetition if it is that which you are actually doing because naturally each time the emphasis is different just as the cinema” [from one frame to the next] “has each time a slightly different thing to make it all be moving. And each one of us has to do that, otherwise there is no existing.”
The topos of “beginning again and again” bears affinities with features that Walter Benjamin ascribes to allegory.
To allegorize is to speak of one thing in terms of another. That’s what the term means etymologically, in the original Greek, and that’s generally what it means in practice. But, in the allegorical figures that are of interest to Benjamin, the other of which the allegory speak is what the figures have lost from themselves. The figures exist as emblems of what capital History obliterates, which is little h history—the experience of being in time, with the possibility of the knowledge, the sheer memorability, of what has been. As Benjamin says (in The Origin of German Tragic Drama), “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” They embody lateness, as the loss of time.
But the allegorical also has constellating—or, in Stein’s terms, compositional—force. For Benjamin, it is the structuring principle of history, the gathering of historical particulars. For Stein, “beginning again and again” mobilizes particularity, rescuing things from the totalizing power of generality and time from the obliterating force of history. Beginning again and again makes time.
Temporal experience was something that Gertrude Stein had given much thought to ever since she liberated literary realism from its narrative condition and embarked on the radical experiment of mind and matter that became her early masterpiece Tender Buttons. The allegorical element that inhabits Lucy Chutch Amiably is not a tragic one, though it does harbor something of the pathos that is inherent to the temporal dispersal that is characteristic of lateness. But, there is a gravitational force that Stein’s allegorical figuration exerts as it undertakes its imaginative work. The landscape that Stein, as she put it, “tried to write […] down” in Lucy Church Amiably was “a landscape that made itself its own landscape.” As such, it exists in a rich and resonant temporal present, a site for a lively life (which is to say, for Stein, a good life—even a saintly one). This present temporality is not the specious eternal present of omnitemporality—expressed grammatically in sentences like “cows eat grass”—a timeless truism that has no true temporal reference point at all. It is, rather, a constellated present, replete with temporal reference points. It is the role of artistic composition—imagination—to make present, as the present, the experience of “two noons.” The bells of the Lucey church toll the hours: “2.30, 3.30, 4.30, 5.30, 6.30, 7.30, 8.30.”
“It is the pleasure of the very different difference every afternoon after noon.”