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Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science
Stanford University Press, $55 (cloth)
It may be a good time for Gertrude Stein. Recently her writings achieved the imprimatur of the Library of America in a trim, two-volume set; Richard Kostelanetz, editor of several Stein anthologies, will soon publish another Gertrude Stein Reader; there’s to be a Gertrude Stein exhibit in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before long; and in a high Episcopal ceremony that would doubtless have amused her, Stein was inducted last fall into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Poets, writers, and composers continue to take her seriously, and at last academics are following suit, or so suggests Steven Meyer’s ambitious new book. A cross-disciplinary study, Irresistible Dictation interprets Stein’s writing in a literary context (including Sterne, George Eliot, Wordsworth, Goethe, and Shelley) as well as alongside Emerson, William James, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. Further, Meyer bridges the putative gap between literature and science—C.P. Snow’s dreary “two cultures”—by acknowledging Stein’s background in science, particularly her medical training at Johns Hopkins, and arguing that her nonrepresentational writing, or literary experiments, stands shoulder to shoulder with contemporary neuroscience, biology, and the work of, say, Suzanne Langer. This is a tall order.
To fill it, Meyer claims that Stein’s writing is itself a form of experimental science: “It is not just that her ideas about writing were influenced by science,” he argues; “she reconfigured science as writing and performed scientific experiments in writing.” What’s more, since she experienced words as existing in three dimensions—“words you hold in your hand,” as she once said—she intends to reproduce in the reader an experience of the composition “as it has already been experienced by the writer.”
The history of Stein’s shift from representational to experimental writing is familiar to Stein enthusiasts. After Q.E.D. and the foray into naturalism best exemplified by “The Gentle Lena” of Three Lives, Stein graduated to her magnum taxonomy, The Making of Americans, in which she tried to discover what she called the “bottom nature” of everyone through an exhaustive “complete description of everything.” Composed in long, periodic, repetitive sentences that loop about one another in choral, recursive, or soporific fashion, depending on one’s point of view, The Making of Americans convinced Stein that “a description of everything is possible,” which meant “it was inevitable that I gradually stopped describing everything.”
Instead, she began to transform writing, “ordinarily treated in science as a means whereby experiments are reported and analyzed,” Meyer explains, into “a medium for original scientific experimentation and speculation in its own right, of cooking up new smells and new meals.” Enter the “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” of that great tour de force,Tender Buttons, one path to which is neuroanatomy. By providing much new information about Stein’s medical career, Meyer treats Stein’s interest in science not as a byway along the road to a startling literary style but as crucial to its development. Oddly, though, Meyer contends that Stein, as an undergraduate experimenter in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, was “understandably ambivalent about the impoverishment of experience so characteristic of this environment.” Yet this environment inspired Stein’s earliest work, both stories and scientific papers that, in significant ways, don’t seem all that different from one another. In fact, their similarities reinforce Meyer’s argument.
However, Meyer is interested mainly in Stein’s relation to William James and the way her compositional practices may have been shaped by him and, later, by her neuroanatomical training at Johns Hopkins, particularly under the tutelage of Franklin Mall and Lewellys Barker. Unfortunately, Meyer does not concern himself with Stein’s commitment to medicine per se or to the nervous diseases of women, which she planned to study and possibly treat; nor is he particularly engaged by Stein’s relation to the Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, whose writings on the cinema may usefully be compared with Stein’s belief that her own writing, as Meyer notes, is cinematic—that is, “a new way of understanding sight and sound in relation to emotion and time.”
Of course, Meyer can’t do everything. What he does—wonderfully well—is suggest why Stein slowly begins to remove her writing “from the dictates, respectively, of place and time,” and what that removal portends. Stein’s radical compositions do not try to reproduce an already-existent reality, as Meyer points out; her words create the reality of their making, which, Stein insists, is intrinsic to American writing: “the disembodied way of disconnecting something from anything and anything from something.” Meyer explains that “in contrast to the British, Americans and their words were relatively easily abstracted from their circumstances and might wander off in any direction, whether on the page or around the country.” Or as Stein puts it, “they began to detach themselves from the solidity of anything, they began to excitedly feel themselves as if they were anywhere or anything.” Detachment—or disembodiment—of this sort is not an “old-style” or transcendental idealism, Meyer quickly adds. For Stein, writing is an activity and not a substance, transcendental or otherwise.
In this, Stein’s work bears comparison with Emerson’s later work. In fact, the connection between Emerson and Stein is one of the several great pleasures of Meyer’s study, and it is from Emerson that Meyer takes the title of his book. “Irresistible dictation” is our fate, said Emerson in his essay “Fate,” but “if there be irresistible dictation, this dictation understands itself.” Irresistible dictation, then, is something like Stein’s automatic writing—not because writing is an unconscious (deterministic) act but because it is a deliberate, self-determining, and conscious one whose aim is to reproduce in the reader the very feat of composition itself: composition, Stein suggests, is its own explanation.
If Meyer’s argument occasionally fudges—Stein insisted she had no subconscious reactions, and he believes her, or at least he deftly switches his terms on this, claiming Stein was fending off sexist critics—his discussions of her writing are consistently superb. In his hands, “Bee Time Vine” charms us all over again and “Mrs. Emerson” yields new linguistic possibilities, as do Stein’s portrait of Picasso, her prose poem “Old and Old,” her incantatory “Wherein the South Differs from the North,” and several of her exploratory experiments in grammar such as “Sentences and Paragraphs” or “More Grammar for a Sentence.” (“Sentences are not natural paragraphs are natural and I am desperately trying to find out why.”) Meyer expertly shows how Stein attends to every aspect of writing: space, spelling, negation, sonority, sequence, psychology, intonation, rhythm, punctuation. Taking nothing for granted, she trades on our most settled expectations, upending them until, as she says, “Is it settled. / Settled is it. In attention.” Stein is smart. Stein is fun.
Meyer is smart, too. He is serious. Irresistible Dictation isn’t just another reading of Stein, however excellent; it is an argument for Stein’s significance to a wider humanistic endeavor. “By now it should be clear that when I speak of the correlations of writing and science,” Meyer observes in his rousing conclusion,
I am not simply alluding to the fact that in her writing Stein exhibits a perspective similar to that articulated by this cohort of late twentieth-century speculative biologists, nor even that she shares with James, as with Emerson and Whitehead, ‘the rather cold metaphysical picture’ of Essays in Radical Empiricism. . . . Writing and the biological sciences are not merely correlated. Viewed from one direction, biological investigation (like all scientific investigation) involves ever more complex extensions of writing practices, ever more broadly distributed technologies of writing; viewed from the other direction, writing is itself an extension or externalization of the human central nervous system. Writing, then, is a function of neurology; the life sciences are a function of writing; and investigations such as Stein’s of the organic mechanisms involved in writing ought to prove no less suggestive for biological research than Stein found James’ biocentrism to be for achieving her own experimental objective of an ever ‘fuller’ understanding of her ‘self-understanding’ compositions.
This is heady stuff; but this is a heady book, not for the weak of heart. Well-written, cogent, and enlightening, Irresistible Dictation opens up areas of investigation long overdue in Stein scholarship while it returns us to the irresistible pleasures of Gertrude Stein, who confronted fate and rose—rises—to the occasion.
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