Monday, November 19, 2007

Composition as Obfuscation: A Brief Reply to Gertrude Stein's "Composition as Explanation"

Just for fun, here's an essay I wrote a few years ago for a class I was auditing. It was a great course, thanks in great part to my friend Leslie's terrific teaching. She showed us the importance of writing for clarity, but looking back over this piece today, I realize that I may have missed her point...and perhaps even my own. See what you think.

First, read "Composition as Explanation."

In "Composition as Explanation," Gertrude Stein argues that literature never exists in just one time; it exists in both in the time of the original creation and in the time of every reader who peruses it. Put another way, times change, and with the passage of time, society's perception of a text also changes. A work once ignored or jeered at becomes a classic; current events put a new perspective on old works. (The resurgence of interest in Orwell's 1984 when the titular year finally came is probably the most famous example.)

Unfortunately, Stein is willfully exclusionary in her prose, and to many readers this very interesting argument is completely drowned by a sea of repetitive topic strings and distracting metadiscourse.

Topic strings are useful tools, but tools can be used with grace, as in the case of a watchmaker with a precision screwdriver, or with brute force, as the farmer uses a sledgehammer to pound fence posts. Stein uses the farmer's approach.

"Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one."

Stein's metadiscourse is equally lacking in subtlety. Phrases like "By this I mean this," and "So far then the progress of my conceptions…" aren't just harmless throat-clearing by the author; they actively boggle the reader's mind.

Even some additional punctuation, a few commas here and there to give readers a chance to breathe, could have clarified this article. But Stein deliberately chose not to give her audience any mercy.

And that takes us back to our very first class, when we discussed writing as a weapon. "Composition as Explanation" is actually a fairly insightful piece, but it is also an exclusionary one. Only readers with the will and resolve to struggle with the article can ever catch a glimpse of its meaning. And by doing so, they have gained admission to Stein's club, though only after suffering through an initiation as cruel as any frat-house rite.

Articles like this can lead many to wonder if the price of admission to Stein's elite circle of knowledgeable readers is too high.

Stein obviously has profound wisdom to share. It's a shame she's determined to share it only with a privileged few.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The part that resonates the most with me is this line:

"If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic."

We ARE indolent! Even if we weren't, we are trained towards it by our culture of high informational awareness. And being indolent, we see no other way of being than the status quo -- don't change the channel, I want to see what's coming up in next week's episode.

On the other hand, beholding the naked, unfettered beauty of Creation would be the kind of experience that must wipe out the soul. If you've ever looked upon a true masterwork and felt like weeping before it, well that's just microscopic in comparison to the way the Universe really works. If we want to retain a sense of self, then we can only behold so much beauty -- better it be the pop culture icon than something that would destroy the psyche.

At the very least, for the soul indolence is comforting, beauty is irritative. Isn't that strange? You'd think it would be the other way around. I think Gertrude Stein vastly understates this thought, but then who has the scope of personality to see the whole truth of Universal beauty? At least Classic beauty we can comprehend, as it's something that has been thought about, compartmentalized, quantfied, and packaged for mass consumption, and that, I think is the art of Composition. It sublimates the beauty of Creation into something that can be comfortably explained; and comfort, of course, leads to indolence...