Sunday, September 16, 2012
the more one saw her less
She wants to pursue her taxonomy project until it is complete, she needs, she says -- need is the word she uses -- "I am needing to have it in me as a complete thing" -- she thinks about the amount of time she will need to finish, then she thinks of death, which will stop her finishing, thinking it in that order, and by that I mean that she progresses from one idea to the next, writing as if she is addressing the page in genuine chronological time, putting down her plans for ideas -- "I am going to begin ..." and then not beginning whatever-it-is -- or maybe she's letting you know that in her opinion she is constantly beginning it, but in a nonobvious way, and that every point of the book is the beginning of the next part -- the arbitrary nature of beginnings, mere pin stabbed on map, or a similar idea -- Joyce in Finnegans Wake ending the book part-way through the first sentence -- Stein's style progressing through Americans as if this is a first draft, done over years, with the author changing during those years: not the no-time of a manuscript that has been redrafted until the conclusions the author came up with when she reached the end are integrated at the beginning.
The narrator learns her own point of view as you learn your point of view by talking about it, by pronouncing it through time and changing your mind as you go, I need to explain that again, I need to explain that in more detail, they're not getting it, I didn't mean that, I need to go over it again, re-arguing a point, going away into descriptions of your friends who illustrate your point, moving further and further out from the original beginning of the conversation, on the tightrope of speech, discontinuing some old baggage that seems irrelevant now -- the baggage of social wit phrases like "one whom one might like better the more one saw her less" -- you're past that -- but she doesn't go back and alter it. That's an interesting fact. She leaves the nineteenth-century language at one end of the book and lets it change into this computed language that works its way through permutations. At the end of the book she's still in the middle of her equations, this plus this plus this minus this, add this, take away this like an Oulipo looking for a movement.
There are millions of other books that seem self-knowing from the start, the style is consistent, their substance was organised for them before they began, they begin and end with their adult language fully-grown but hers grows, the more traditionally sophisticated style is the baby and the basic style with the small vocabulary must be the adult.
So too her friend Picasso put aside his academic pictorial accomplishments and tried to sort out an idea that was not completely like the old skill of perspective, trying not to make the traditional assumption, that if you paint the front and side of a house you can rely on the viewer to believe in the back, assuming that the painting never goes to sleep, it never loses sight of every part of its object, it has no areas of unconsciousness: in fact the back of the house is like sleep in the viewer: it is not there, it is dreamed of, it is intuited by signs, it is prophesised, the front of the house is the prophecy of the back.
But cubism assumes that the back of the house should be awake in the same way that the front is awake, ie visible, it tries to show us those parts multidimensionally, and Stein tries to project her literature into something with more than the normal number of dimensions: there is the assumptive movement at the start and then the nonassumptive movement at the end. And so describes the increments that her earlier sentences have assumed as if writing from an alien planet, and needs to explain to us these things.
She has learnt the inadequacy of knowledge, the impossibility of knowing everything in this small life, an idea that can be presented to you in many ways as all ideas can (we are besieged by tributaries) but the grasping of is difficult, and now I remember a morning at the Clark County Library when I brought up memory palaces in conversation but could not remember who wrote the Art of Memory, Ars Memorativa, saying Dr Dee when I meant in fact Giordano Bruno and then in fact kept hurtling on about Dee as if I absolutely meant Dee when I did not mean Dee and was skating on thin ice.
And I went out further and further, saying "the Ancient Greeks and Romans" -- not being able to remember who exactly promoted memory devices at that early time, or who has been said to have promoted them, or by what path they made their way to the Middle Ages. But only a vague cloud of anticipation.
And discovered as I spoke how little I knew, and how difficult to explain it was, and one listener actually had his mouth hanging open and I believe was staring at the cover of a book about Missouri which had been propped open like a fan and placed upright on a shelf. And Stein seems to be discovering the same difficulty but tries to overcome, and perhaps is groping around an idea that Wittgenstein expressed in his Philosophical Investigations like this, "We talk, we utter words, and only later get a picture of their life" (translated by G.E.M. Anscombe).
What a mimicry of knowledge I thought, as I talked about memory palaces, and, later, after I'd read the Investigations, I thought: but how did I know what I imagined I was mimicking?
Americans is a book written in the language of adamant statements, "It is..." "I will ..." "I am going to ..." but part of the lesson is doubt.