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“If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright.”

November 4, 2009

From Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Tender Buttons (1914):

GertrudeStein

Picasso's 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein.

NOTHING ELEGANT
A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest.

First, notice that Stein gives us a name for this bit of prose that doesn’t, in fact, name: “Nothing Elegant.” It is a negation, telling us only what the “object” in view is not. (“Nothing Elegant” appears in the section of Tender Buttons called “Objects.”) Stein teases us with a “deferral” of sorts. Nothing elegant, yes, but something what? The first sentence depends upon the clarifying structure of apposition—“a charm, a single charm”—but only to muddy things up even further. Whatever “single charm” it is we may have in view is “doubtful.”

The second sentence plays on logical “if/then” structures, but it does so only to subvert them. Stein puts logical structures to illogical use, as with the paradoxical idea of “letting inside in,” or as when she says, “If the red is rose…” Roses can be red, and are often said to be red; red can be “rose,” and also is often said to be. But roses can be white, yellow, pink, and so on; and red can be everything from vermilion to ruddy to carmine to ruby. The “gate surrounding” the “red” that is “rose” ever so slightly brings out the “floral” sense of the word “rose” (i.e., by putting it in the context of, say, a gated garden). Still, none of these things is “certain.”

Stein also puns on the “there/their” homonym pair in such a way as to make our voice unsure. Are we to read the sentence as follows: “and, there, places change”? Or are we to read it as: “and their places change”? Both possibilities are doubtfully present; if you read the prose aloud, you must make a decision as to what to do with your voice (i.e., you must either violate spelling and read “their,” or must resist the gravity that draws the word “there” into “playing the role” of possessive adjective). The word “certainly” merely tickles us with a suggestion of fixture and, well, certainty. Stein thereby uses the name of a thing to indicate its absence—a fine play of deferral very much in keeping with the joke implicit in the title of this prose-poem (if “poem” of any kind it is: does genre really matter here?).

Also, there is a kind of category error: the thing not named in the poem—the thing, we might say, that is “nothing elegant”—is at the same time “doubtful,” “certain,” “upright,” and “earnest” (and of course not “elegant”). No one “thing,” it seems, could have, or not have, all of these qualities at once. And notice further that setting “earnest” in implicit apposition to “upright” makes us think of what might be termed the “moral” connotation of the latter word (where “earnest” and “upright” are similar attributes of personal character). Whereas when we first encounter the word “upright,” we think instead, I suppose, rather more of its “spatial” sense, suggesting “verticality.” The dissonance of these two ideas further tangles up the works. Nothing in this bit of prose is either upright or earnest.

The effect of Stein’s prose, then, is to unsettle all the orderly grammatical, logical, and semantic categories according to which our language makes sense. She is writing against “class”—against classification, which is what makes her writing “queer,” as we often now say, with approbation. Or say that Stein writes against what Heléne Cixous, the French literary theorist, calls “The Proper”—against the very idea of propriety. (Later in Tender Buttons, in the prose-poem “A Little Called Pauline,” we encounter this statement: “There is no pope.”) Or for that matter, say simply that Stein tells us to stop making sense and play. And so we do. Reading “Nothing Elegant” aloud, as if it does make sense—which it is certainly possible to do—is sheer delight.

N.B. For a very fine reading of the whole of Tender Buttons, done by Cori Samuel for Librivox, click here. (“Nothing Elegant” occurs about eight minutes into the recording.) For the full text of Tender Buttons at Bartleby, click here; for the text at Project Gutenberg, click here. For the pages devoted to Stein at the “Modern American Poetry” site (hosted at the University of Illinois), click here.

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