Thursday, December 17, 2009

to have no sense of how

"She [Gertrude Stein] says it is a good thing to have no sense of how it is done in the things that amuse you. You should have one absorbing occupation and as for the other things in life for full enjoyment you should only contemplate results. In this way you are bound to feel more about it than those who know a little of how it is done.

"She is passionately addicted to what the french call métier and contends that one can only have one métier as one can only have one language. Her métier is writing and her language is english."

- Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Below: Picasso's portrait of Stein.


  1. Great quotation I liked the idea of having only one metie a lot, because by being more naive or less versed in other stuff you can avoid thinking too much about them, you can avoid the useless arationalitynd that frequentlly functions like a loop in your mind.

    I read a little about those womans, it was very interesting what was going on in paris at that time, they were true revolutionares, I also liked their liberal ideas but sadly I could never enjoy reading a hole book of her.

  2. Odd that she'd feel that way about exclusivity and ignorance --> when her salons were famous for bringing so many different kinds of artists into a reciprocating sphere. The text of our pages display rhythms of music in a notation of speech and thought. The structures of filmic narrative have reshaped much of modern literature. In fact, I think literature is the ultimate meta-form, absorbing the best of theatre, film, poetry, music, visual art, etc, etc. If you've ever seen Stein's walls you'll know there was a virtual pornography of art surrounding her at all times. Not only did she know a lot about visual art, she made a point of sharing what she knew, and shaping the kind of art she wanted to see arise in the world. She understood Picasso better than Picasso. And just from personal experience, the more I know about writing, the more I enjoy the art of the word.

  3. Stein was a close friend of the erratic Picasso, in this context, metier, I wonder what her opinion was of Picasso's foray into poetry. And an interesting perspective, does the over analysis of a work of art, a poem, say, remove its enigma, should a poet be asked for a definition of their work? Should a poet guard his / her inspiration as a magician guards a slight of hand?

  4. Mariana: the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas is generally regarded as Stein's most accessible work. It's one of my favourite books, funny in a way that only Stein can be funny, and a virtual who's who of early 20th Century art and literature. Otherwise most of her work is radical writing which demands radical reading. Not for everyone, but I love dipping into it, small doses, although if you have the patience larger doses can be very rewarding.

  5. Alec:

    “The structures of filmic narrative have reshaped much of modern literature.”

    Definitely. I’m not sure if you’ve read Philip Mead’s essay on Kenneth Slessor in ‘Networked Language’, but presents at least one convincing example of this. Slessor was a film critic and also involved in film production, and the ‘structures of filmic narrative’ are evident in his poetry (e.g. ‘Five Bells’). I’d argue that fiction and poetry became more filmic throughout the 20th century.

    “I think literature is the ultimate meta-form, absorbing the best of theatre, film, poetry, music, visual art, etc, etc.”

    So by ‘literature’ do you mean fiction / prose (seeing as you’ve said literature absorbs poetry)?

    Stein certainly surrounded herself with art and artists, and no doubt she knew a lot about art in general, but perhaps we should take her at her word, and consider that she didn’t know ‘how it was done’ in the case of, say, painting, and only permitted herself to ‘contemplate results’. That way she may have been able to preserve a sense of mystery, of magic, appreciating art as opposed to appreciating craft/technique. Which isn’t to say that these things have to be mutually exclusive, but perhaps it suited Stein to keep them separate as much as possible, so far as artforms other than her own (writing) were concerned?

    This quote from Stein appealed to me partly because of my own experience of painting and visual art, where I have very little experience of ‘doing it’ myself, and a knowledge of technique which is sketchy at best. I feel I can still appreciate painting without technical knowledge of the artform. I may wonder to myself, How did this painting come into being; how was it created? But then I’m satisfied that it just is, that it’s there and I can be in its presence.

    And what is this technical knowledge, except the knowledge of ‘how to do’ (techne) – the knowledge which the painter / visual artist needs to create their works? Perhaps such knowledge is useful for a critic, which is perhaps why (arguably) the best critics are also practitioners.

    Does technical knowledge of an artform necessarily lead to greater enjoyment of it? Does it necessarily lead to a ‘deeper’ aesthetic experience? How would we know? Perhaps to a certain extent these questions could be approached scientifically. Perhaps they already have been – in which case I’d be interested to read about it.

    Then there’s the question of métier. I’m first and foremost a writer, but I believe in crossing forms, mixed media, etc. Having said that, I’m happy to preserve my personal sense of mystery / blissful ignorance when it comes to painting.

  6. Mark: I’m not sure what Stein made of Picasso’s poetry.

    I like the word you’ve chosen, ‘enigma’. That’s what I was getting at in my response to Alec.

    Based on my personal experience, I’d say a poet should be careful about explaining his or her work. I can think of instances when someone has asked me about the meaning of a poem, and I’ve over-explained, and in doing so may have weakened the poem.

    What do you think?

  7. Let’s remember that Stein was doing something very strange when she wrote this book. She was writing the ‘autobiography’ of her lover Toklas, yet the star of the show was herself → Stein.

    I suppose what I find slightly repugnant is the perspective of the aesthete telling the naïf that they are possessed of the innocence of the noble savage. Stay primitive, she seems to suggest. Don’t worry your silly little head with idea and motivation. Yet Stein talks of such things as Cubism in the ‘Autobiography,’ a highly conceptual form of art. How would someone genuinely appreciate such ‘results’ without the Idea of Cubism?

    Most of our art forms have a departure point, where they leave the realms of instantly accessible. In Jazz you have Louis Armstrong who would be broadly appreciated, though few but aficionados could truly judge the results of Ornette Coleman’s Jazz. Classical music has similar range, as does all forms of music really. Or books, because unless you’re versed in literature, you’d be hard pressed to determine the ‘results’ of work by writers like Beckett, Joyce, Proust, or more recent writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Will Self.

    Then there’s the impossibility of ever being truly unaware of how a thing is done. If you’ve never picked up a guitar you’d still be blown away by seeing a virtuoso like Hendrix play. If you have played guitar, then the awe you feel is magnified in every nuance, but fundamentally the same. A great local poet is TTo, whose work is often bizarre and experimental. How would we understand properly his occasional genius if not for previous experience of ‘normal’ poetry? Or your own poetic adventures? ‘Virus’ for example, seems to ask for previous experience with both a form of music and the ritual that it is usually accompanied with. To someone who’d never been to a rave or heard techno, how would they properly judge your results?

    Mark asks a fascinating question. I might answer it by saying, knowing a little about something we love can enrich our experience, and knowing too much might be detrimental. It always depends on the book or the painting, but there's no slight of hand. For example, Degas is famous for painting beautiful ballerinas, but it’s probably best that it isn’t generally known that his view of women was dismal. He thought of those young women as lovely, proud animals — but animals all the same. Not much better than horses. Then there are writers like Anais Nin, whose writing wasn’t always great, but who lived a life that was in itself an expression of art that we feel enriched vicariously experiencing, whether it be through her diaries or the veil of her fiction.

    I suppose I’d say if we truly love something our natural inclination will be to know more about it.

  8. I agree, however, I have fallen into the trap of explaining / over-explaining when someone has misinterpreted the overall theme I have tried to communicate in a poem. I'm trying to develop a clear voice with vivid metaphors so if someone misses the point I fear I may have made a mistake with the tone, but this stems from my lack of confidence as a writer.

    I also believe that sometimes the poet is the last person who should be asked what a poem means as they are too close to the work, and an explanation would preclude others from enjoying the poem on a personal level.

    So, definitely, the enigma should be protected. This can be achieved with the simple counter question 'what do you think it means?' There are no rights or wrongs, and therein lies the beauty of art.

  9. I've been on the radio with Gertrude Stein. Where are you Stu? How is WA? It's bloody hot and humid over here and there are very few nice mangos.

  10. P.S. Comment moderation is cowardly.

  11. Alec, you seem to be arguing from all sides; I respect your negative capability on this. I consider my 'thing' with painting to be just a little experiment in enigma preservation. Perhaps I'll take up painting at some point and delve into deeper mysteries that way, as a practitioner. I'm certainly open to that possibility. ;)

    Mark, I agree that sometimes the poet is the last person who should be asked about the meaning of their poem. As poets we need to remember that, I think.

    Paul, I'm back from WA. It was pretty damn hot over there, but good to get away and catch up with family and friends.

    I've been thinking about the comment moderation thing for a while. I've now changed the comment settings. Removing moderation brings things into line with my views on censorship, etc, which have evolved over the last few years.

    This post is a good example of how moderation can stuff up the comment stream too, because in some cases you guys have posted comments without being able to read the preceding comment(s), making the discussion a tad difficult to follow if you read it from start to finish.

  12. Hey Stu. I don't know about my negative capability. In this instance you seemed more admirably in possession of it. So I hope I didn't come off too heavy handed --> kind of got excited by the subject matter more than anything. Cheers.

  13. Excellent comment flow, morderation affected or not, the flow of opinions on both sides would have made Gertude proud. A great departure from the standard comments of 'lovely', 'well done' etc. A discussion in the true Parisienne, Bohemian style, now pass the coffee and light me a Gauloise.

  14. That's the spirit! ;)

    Alec, I took a lot from your comments, so I'm glad the subject matter excited you.

  15. Hello there Stu,

    And first: always good to see the back of Moderation. It's a lot easier getting in and out of your comments box now. Like one of those ball turret gunners from WW II said somewhere (maybe), "So glad to be out of there, my style was getting cramped".

    Which leads me to the second thing:

    "She [Gertrude Stein] says it is a good thing to have no sense of how it is done in the things that amuse you. You should have one absorbing occupation and as for the other things in life for full enjoyment you should only contemplate results. In this way you are bound to feel more about it than those who know a little of how it is done."

    I think "she" was being a bit disingenuous. Throwing people off your traces by pretending you don't/didn't know what you are/were doing is not exactly a new trick, but it still works in a tight scrape, apparently.

    Nobody ever knew how without knowing how.

    (That "little" is all it takes.)

    Doesn't mean you have to wear your "little" know-how on your sleeve. But naïf is pretty difficult to pull off any more... Far more common are the "faux" variants. Like, for example, protesting "innocently" that one "has no idea how it is done..."

  16. This must mean Louis Vuitton has the know-how. Always considered him a bit of a knob, though. Shows how much I know.

    A designer handbag for Alice B. Toklas, now we're talking!

  17. Stu, I had comment moderation on when I used to use blogger to stop spammers, once you switch it off you have to enable the 'captcha' feature where humans must type in the funny jumbled characters. Unless this is a serious comment from 'Anonymous' in which case I admire his tenacity and the repetitive use of 'high heels' adds to the danger of the piece!

  18. Hey Mark, thanks for the tip. I actually have word verification turned on, but it doesn't seem to be working for some reason.

    However, I've changed the settings to preclude anonymous posts, which should hopefully prevent Louis Vuitton's evil minions from trampling me with their high heels and whacking me with their handbags.

    TC, it's clear that you're following this guy around!

  19. Stu,

    You're assuming this is a guy, but do admit, in truth only The Shadow knows which gender of darkness lurks within those dangerous handbags and above those wicked heels.

  20. Tom, you're right, I'm making dangerous assumptions!

    It's probably more likely that the Christian Louboutin / Louis Vuitton poster is in fact a bot. A bot with high-heeled boots and a handbag loaded with nefarious code...?