Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Tender Buttons as Narrative Fiction"

by Douglas Messerli

Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons (New York: Claire Marie, 1914); reprinted by (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991) and (Los Angeles: Green Integer: 2002)
Douglas Messerli Modern Postmodern Fiction: Toward a Formal and Historical
Understanding of Postmodern Literature
(Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1979)

When, in late 2007, I taught a course at Otis College of Art + Design, I found that my students were particularly engrossed in Tender Buttons, and after discussing a great many of her entries from the three sections of the book—Objects, Food, and Rooms—I discerned that today’s readers do indeed make a great amount of sense out of work that at one time seemed radically disjunctive.

There are several reasons for this, including several generations of poets writing today who were highly influenced by Stein—particularly the “Language” poets—who have helped contemporary readers to attend to the multiple meanings of words and the associations they generate as opposed to narrative structures based on mimesis. The world of Stein’s works is a world of language.

Accordingly, when the students asked me, at the end of our discussion, whether I felt Tender Buttons was a collection or an unusual kind of narrative fiction, I quickly concluded that I now saw it more as poetry—that indeed almost all of Stein’s works (with the exception perhaps of her more publically conceived biographies and autobiographies), no matter which genre she attempted, might be described as poetry.

Soon after, I ordered of a copy of my PhD. dissertation of 1979 on “Modern Postmodern Fiction,” a work I’d not read in years. I was highly amused to see how strongly I had argued that Stein’s book of 1914 was a narrative fiction. Although in some ways, I don’t think it truly matters—one might easily describe it as a narrative fiction based on poetic principles—I do think that it helps to explain why this work, in particular, has been more readily accepted by readers than others of her books as a masterpiece, and how Tender Buttons, despite its linguistic density, appears more open to readers than, say, Stanzas in Meditation or even a work “advertised” as a novel such as A Novel of Thank You.

It may be interesting, consequently, to reprint some of my comments on Tender Buttons from that dissertation.

My comments on Stein follows a long discussion on the role of character in the Modern Postmodern fictions I considered, ending in the claim that if “narrative is grammar,” as it is in many of the works I discussed, “ then there is no need for characters at all.”

In Tender Buttons, the work Stein turned to after A Long Gay Book, character is almost non-existent. Although it superficially appears to present objective reality—the book is organized around categories of Objects, Food, and Rooms—Tender Buttons is closer to a narrative fiction in which language replaces character.

To assert this immediately presents problems. In large, critics have treated this work as poetry, a treatment justified by the brevity of the prose passages and the use of a highly condensed, rhythmically patterned language. But just as Stein in more interested in the word “typewriter” rather than the object in space in her To Do, so in Tender Buttons is she less interested in the objecthood of things than in the linguistic potentiality of a thing brought into narrative flow. In this respect, the work is not a series of definitions or descriptions of things, as many critics have attempted read it. Rather, as Neil Schmitz recently has written, in Tender Buttons Stein began “to extrude the referential content of story from her narrative and to replace it with the drama of writing itself, the experience of language” (“Gertrude Stein as Post-Modernist: The Rhetoric of Tender Buttons,” Journal of Modern Literature). Each object mentioned in “Objects,” for instance, serves not as an aggregate thing which, in the prose following, is anatomized or given a metaphorical equivalent; rather, it serves as a point of departure for a flow of linguistically organized associations. “A Petticoat,” for example, sparks a series of four short phrases: “A white light, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.” While these phrases may first seem descriptive—especially since the first of them, “a white light” sounds adjectival—the reader quickly grasps that even if “a white light” suggested itself to Stein as an adjective of petticoat, the phrase quickly became nominative. The nouns “disgrace,” “spot,” and “charm” emanate from their associations with white, not with petticoat. Indeed, because of the interrelatedness of “white light” and “rosy charm,” and of “disgrace” and “spot,” there is something almost narratively sequential about these nouns.

Similarly, “A Blue Coat” is immediately thrown into narrative action:

A blue coat is guided guided away, guided away, that is the
particular color that is used for that length and not any width
not even more than a shadow.

“Red Roses” “collapse” and become “a little less hot”; “A Shawl” becomes “a hat,” “a hurt,” “a red balloon,” an under coat,” and “a sizer a sizer of talks”; “A Dog” gets transformed into “a little monkey” that “goes like a donkey.” In almost every case, language in action takes over. As Schmitz describes it:

The denotated world collapses, its tables and orders break up,
awash in process… Words as buttons fastening side to side,
signifier to signified, become tender, pliable, alive in the quick
of consciousness.

Is such a narrative flow of consciousness, however, fiction? A world as depopulated as Stein’s would obviously have had nothing to do with fiction as defined by James—or by critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Ezra Pound noted that there are two ways of looking at the world: either the artist can see himself as the “Toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions,” or he can see himself as “Directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely observing and reflecting.” For Stein, as well as for other figures I consider in this work—Djuna Barnes, Wydham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce—to present man at home in the world, to record what is observable was ultimately not a true choice; for these authors the world “out there,” nature, was a great emptiness that as for Primitive man, had no meaning except with what man endowed it. As representative of mankind’s spiritual and natural birthright, a character such as Barnes’ O’Connor, for example, pursues only one action in Nightwood; he talks, talks endlessly throughout the book. For these writers, man, on the brink of nothingness, dare not stop talking, “bragging, lying, singing, pretending, protesting, swearing everything into being and swearing everything away.” To stop “swearing into being and swearing away” is to become silent, and like Beckett’s Murphy or Lewis’ Vincent Penhale, is to die. Language is man’s only tool with which he can build up a world in which to live, and in that fact, the flow of language is character, and, accordingly, is perhaps the truest and most necessary fiction of all.

Later in my dissertation, I discuss Tender Buttons in terms of the structure of narrative fiction, exploring the concept of style as structure.

In some of Stein’s works one encounters structures that are no longer inclusive, but are intrinsic. In works such as Tender Buttons Stein does not order her material in terms of an overall structure, but structures the individual passages in terms of style.

In her lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein remarks that she always sensed a crucial difference between paragraphs and sentences: “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are.” In order to test this, “to break down this essential combination,” Stein notes, she made the sentences of The Making of Americans “enormously long… long the longest paragraph,” creating in them a balance akin to that of the paragraph rather than of the normal balance of the sentence. In some sentences, Stein claims, she succeeded in “creating a balance that was neither the balance of the sentence nor the balance of the paragraph….” What she had discovered, she asserts, is a “new balance that had to do with a sense of movement of time included in a given space….” And in How to Write she experimented in expressing this new balance in shorter sentences. In the end, both these long and short sentences become something in their own right that was “a whole thing,” that had a balance of unfilled space “created by something moving as moving is not as moving should be.”

What comes out of this interest in a new “balance” of sentences is Stein’s emphasis in works such as Tender Buttons upon the noun in motion—not the motion as in a sequence of addition (as in counting one, two, three, four), but as in a sequence in which each element, each nominative or other clause, is given new potential (as in counting one and one and one and one).

This interest in grammatical structure might at first appear to be a narrowing of focus. But in its effects this shift of emphasis is additive. For what Stein posits here is a structure that is as dynamic in its treatment of language as the most inclusive form is in terms of content. In this sense, such a structure is as dynamic as an encyclopedic fiction, but is simultaneously so intrinsic that it does not go beyond the boundaries of the sentence. One might liken it to a situation in which all the structural energy the Old Testament is focused into the space of a single paragraph. Obvious, Stein makes such claims. But my point is that rather than viewing Stein’s concentration on a grammatical structure, her focus on style, as opposed to a generic form, as a kind of reductivism, one should understand it as an attempt to expand the restrictions normally imposed by the structures of narrative art. Somewhat like Lewis’s vortex, Stein’s balanced sentence in motion concentrates all energy into one place, and in so doing frees fiction from having to imitate the broader patterns of life inherent in the generic forms.

I have previously hinted at how this works in Tender Buttons in my discussion of character. However, a further example must be examined in order to better understand Stein’s approach.

A Waist

A star glide, a single frantic sullenness; a single financial grass
Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the
rush, make the bottom.
A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there
is no reason to say that there was a time.
A woolen object glided. A country climb is the best disgrace,
A couple of practices any of them in order is so left.

In the very first sentence one can clearly see how the noun is put in motion: although the “star” in the first clause, for example, reads as a adjective modifying “glide,” because it reads so queerly (upon first reading it is nearly impossible to cognitively grasp “star glide”) one senses it as a noun in the possessive case (a star’s glide), and consequently, one reads the first clause forward and backwards before he is able to move on to the next. The second clause, moreover, does not add to the reader’s understanding but forces him to begin anew. One comprehends “sullenness,” but may have difficulty connecting such an emotional state with “a single”; and the connotations of “sullenness”—silence and reserve—seem to be at odds with “frantic.” This confusion thus puts stress on the adjectives, so much stress, in fact, that “sullenness” is converted almost from a condition into a thing. And once more, before one can comprehend the clause, he is faced with another. In its repetition of “a single,” one may be led to believe that the new phrase will provide some elucidation; but just as before, a series of adjectives confounds a comprehension of their object. Although one readily understands “financial greediness,” he can only wonder what “grass greediness” is—unless one understands this as a greediness for land—and how a world denoting excessiveness can relate to “a single.” In this first sentence of “A Waist,” in other words, one is faced with nominative clauses that move seemingly to their own logic rather than according to a referential, preconceived one. To rephrase Stein’s description, such clauses move as moving is, instead as moving should be. Each element, each clause, is given new potential instead of functioning accumulatively.

It is only when the reader gives up his attempts to “make sense” of this sentence, when he abandons his attempts at cognition, that he can discover the “balances” by which Stein has structured it. The most obvious of these is a “one, one and one, and one and one and one” pattern of adjectives in these three clauses; each clause is given one more adjective than the previous. However, in perceiving that one may also uncover Stein’s pattern of consonants by which she has interlinked the whole sentence: the “s,” “f,” and “g” sounds. By marking these consonants, one can immediately see the most important factor of balance.

a star glide, a single frantic sullenness,
a single financial grass greediness

When this pattern is linked with the internal consonants “d” and “n,” and when the vowel variations in each clause are taken into consideration, one readily discerns that what may have appeared as formless is actually one of the most carefully constructed sentences possible. If one has been previously misled, it is because in a sentence like this the form comes directly out of the spoken language instead of out of a language directed into written form which, accumulating with other sentences, reflect man and his experience. The language of Tender Buttons, in short, is not a tool to be used in conveying reality; it is that reality. And in this regard, Stein’s words seldom work as symbols that call up associations relating to life experience; for they are themselves living things, are signifiers in their own right. Form, accordingly, does not go beyond the sentence or, at most, the paragraph; there is no overall structure to be uncovered in the work. There is mostly repetition—sentence after sentence, each alive in its own combination of moving, non-accumulating clauses, balanced into a structure that seldom crosses the boundary of the period. In this manner, lifting fiction out of organcism, away even from conventional nonorganic forms, Stein took narrative beyond the borders even of Northrup Frye’s archetypal patterns of literary activity.

This does not mean that “A Waist” or Tender Buttons as a whole is without human reference. The second and third sentences of “A Waist,” for example, are quite obviously sexual in connotation; and if one interprets the “star glide” of the first sentence to have something to do with dancing, it is possible to sense of flow of events that all relate to “a waist” as affected by love (suggested by the “frantic sullenness,” “greediness,” and “star glide” dance of the first sentence), sex (implied in the concern with objecthood, and in the verbs “hold” and “make” and the nouns “dark,” “rush,” and bottom” of the second and third sentences), food (perhaps the cause of “a remarkable change,” a suspicion supported by the incomplete platitude, “there was a time” [when I was thin?]), clothing (the “woolen object” of the sixth sentence), and movement in space (the “country climb” and “star glide” which tie together the first and last sentences). It is these very things—love, sex, food, clothing, and spatial movement—one must remember that are the central concerns of Tender Buttons. And disjointed and nonorganic as the overall structure is, the repletion of these very human concerns encourages one to further identify the work as a narrative entity.

Miami, Florida/College Park, Maryland, September-August 1979
Revised, with notes, Los Angeles, July 14, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2008).

Copyright (c)2008 by Douglas Messerli

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