Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Valentine from Satan

This last weekend, Dick Cheney, former Vice President under George W. Bush ("Dubya"), was tramping the media road hawking his new book Heart: The Story of a Patient, A Doctor, and 35 Years of Medical Innovation, co-authored with his physician, Jonathan Reiner, M.D. Cheney was interviewed on the television news program 60 Minutes, by Sanjay Gupta. In it, Cheney appeared in cheerful contrast to his formerly frail self, and seemed to be prepared for one last lap of political partisanship for the radical conservative Republican agenda. Viewers were treated to a gruesome shot of Cheney's actual diseased heart, just removed from his chest, lying in a stainless steel pan beside the operating table. It was a deep red color, even redder than the image below. As it was explained, Cheney's original heart had grown immense inside his chest; without a transplant, Cheney would probably have been dead by now.     

As everyone knows, Cheney was the "real" President of the United States, Bush II serving in that capacity in name only. The real architect of American domestic and foreign policy was Cheney, who directed his superior's actions as a puppet-master does his puppet. There is no question that Dubya believed in what he was doing, but he lacked the intellectual nuance to formulate and implement action. That was Cheney's strong suit, having been a former Presidential advisor, with a vast personal knowledge derived from practical experience. Our real President was Dick Cheney. It was Cheney who engineered the Congressional resolution for the preemptive invasion of Iraq, the concoction of fake "intelligence" designed to "prove" that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace and American security. The real culprit for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, of the thousands of American service deaths, of the hundred of billions of wasted American dollars, was Cheney. Cheney's personal interest was as former CEO of Halliburton, a giant defense contractor which stood to make billions from the Mid-east conflicts. Cheney's personal wealth, derived primarily from Halliburton, is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million dollars.     

There are many kinds of evil. There's the evil of the naive ignorance of the implications and consequences of great power, wielded without a sense of import, the willing servant of villainy. This was Dubya's evil. Then there's the evil of a fatalistic malice, which feeds off vanity and an inebriation of raw power, manipulating events behind a screen of secrecy. Cheney didn't need to be President. Indeed, being President carries too many distractions. Much better to be the shadow architect than the wooden figure-head. 

Since leaving the Presidency, George W. Bush has been effectively silent. No one knows better than he does how odd and telling his incompetence would appear, now that he has no immediate "handlers" to feed him policy agenda and fake rational justifications for his opinions. We've had figure-head Presidents before; Reagan was a good actor who could regurgitate his lines flawlessly, an ability honed during his years as a Hollywood B movie heavy. No, the real President was Dick Cheney.

Now, after three years of recovery from heart replacement surgery, we're treated to a polished, rosy-cheeked Cheney, smiling and tapping the table with righteous optimism, forging ahead with renewed vigor, ready to help his daughter Liz's Wyoming Senatorial campaign, offering advice on foreign policy, recommending military intervention in Syria and Iran. The old devil has been outfitted with a new heart, and has years more mileage added to his balance-sheet. 

Does America deserve another dose of Cheney's brand of common sense demagoguery? Apparently, the media believes it does. It likes lapsed radical old warriors like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, to give the country some "perspective" on the political spectrum. 

The enticing tidbit which Cheney revealed last week was that, due to his severe heart condition, he actually prepared a letter of resignation, to be submitted to Dubya, in the event of his incapacitation, just a few days after being elected to office in 2000. If only God had seen fit to take Cheney from us then, how much less destructive our nation's course might have been? It's sad to contemplate. Are we expected now to be inspired by Cheney's miraculous endurance and recovery?  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Indian Summer

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have what is often called a "Mediterranean climate"--by which is meant a temperate zone median, without much wide fluctuation in temperature extremes. Just a few miles inland, temperatures soar into the 90's (and even the occasional 100's). Just a few miles north, the annual rainfall jumps up, from an annual mean rate of about 28-30 inches per year here, to 60 and more in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Typically, on most nights, we get a damp marine fog that is sucked in to the Bay by the warmer air in the Central Valley. Typically, we don't get below freezing for more than a couple of days a year, sometimes none at all. Our summers aren't that hot. Another regular aspect is our "Indian Summer"--which comes each year in October, or even November--days when the temperature may climb all the way up to 80 degrees, at a time when most of the rest of the nation is getting snow, freezing temperatures, or thunderstorms. Most of our weather comes to us from the Northern Pacific Ocean, but the brunt of the systems is almost always born north of here. Santa Rosa can be drowning, while San Jose is having a typical annual rain total of 22 inches. That's the dividing line--we're right in the middle. 

Which is one reason why so many people--refugees from the freezing North, or the stifling South-- migrate to "Sunny California" where you can retire to 9-10 months of vacationing a year. When I was growing up in the 1950's, people who were "native" to the state were almost in the minority, because so many people had come here from someplace else. 

Here are two new drinks appropriate for our Bay Area Indian Summer weather--balmy days to celebrate the good life, a brief respite before the dependable return of Winter. Global warming has meant that our usual weather patterns are becoming rather unusual. But, whatever the pretext, life goes on. Living on a hill, as we do, means we will never become inundated by a rising sea, even if we lived another 100 years. In another 1000 years, perhaps people will routinely live to be 130 years. Odd thought. Cheers!     

Indian Summer I 

4 Parts (Cabo Wabo) Anejo tequila*
2 parts Key Lime Liqueur**
1 part Triple Sec
1/2 Part fresh lime

Shaken and served up

*Take your pick with the tequila, there are a lot of choices to be had.
**I suspect that this concoction could be easily imitated simply by putting some cream and sugar into simple lime juice. Mixers and aperitifs are usually proprietary recipes, but this one seems pretty straightforward (though it might even have a little gin in it).

Indian Summer II

3 parts dry vermouth
2 parts cocchi
1 fresh lemon juice
1/2 part triple sec

Shaken and served up

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Gift Outright

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

I have always wondered about the message of this poem of Frost's, which was published in 1942 (but written as early as 1936), and read, by Frost, at President-elect John F. Kennedy's inaugural ceremony in January 1961. I can distinctly recall watching Frost on television at the time. The telecast was facilitated in my junior high school library, where a handful of us (I was a second year student at the time, in 8th grade) viewed it. I had campaigned for Kennedy that Fall, going door to door with my white, blue and red plastic Democrat hat, handing out leaflets. That was about the apex of my patriotic feeling for America; I don't think I've felt that good about my country since. 

But Frost's poem, which he read instead of the poem he'd composed for the occasion, has stayed with me over the years, and I've turned the lines (and their meaning) over and over in my mind, in time, and have come to think of it as a much more complex work than it first seemed. 

The poem has traditionally been viewed as a jingo-istic, smugly complacent excuse for the forceful colonization of the New World, full of righteous presumption. Frost has been seen as defending America's claim to occupancy, as if it were a sacred privilege, setting aside three hundred years of ambiguous, conflicted history. 

But Frost was never more complex and ambivalent than when he seemed to be making broad statements. In nearly every line he ever wrote, there is a slipperiness, a slyness, which withholds full assertion in the interests of ambiguity. "Not so fast," Frost often seems to be saying, if you think you've caught him, "what do the words actually say?" Frost often seemed like a kind of aphorist, whose clever rhymes and phrases sounded like Biblical homily mixed with a dose of Franklin's Poor Richard, the trusty New Englander's taciturn skepticism turned into art. 

In the first place, there is the issue of voice and personification of address. Is Frost speaking in his own voice--the "voice of the poet"--or in the generalized voice of his people (Americans). The personal pronoun, after all, is "we" not I. In other words, before we impute any motive to the writer of the poem, we have to acknowledge that the poems is, in effect, a dramatic monologue, rather like the expression of a Greek Chorus. You could say then that the sentiment in the poem is not in any sense Frost's, but a dramatic exposition of a certain feeling or dialectic which the writer is representing. It is certainly possible to deduce patriotic fervor in a writer who handles the question of national sovereignty, but we'd be wrong if we simply identified Frost with the statements made in the poem. 

The title of the poem, The Gift Outright, announces the poem's ostensible subject-matter, the whole meaning and implication of giving and receiving gifts. There's a lightly religious tinge to the word gift, which is often used in hymns and devotional texts to signify God's generosity, or humankind's debt to the creator. Anything given outright suggests that there are "no strings attached," that what is given is given without reservations, without implied debt or recompense. This sense then, of generosity, and/or of a simple right of possession, is clearly implied by the title. Whatever has been tendered, can be accepted with a clear conscience, without guilt, without moral obligation.

That first line, "The land was ours before we were the land's" is one of Frost's most famous, not least because its meaning, while pretending to be clear, is really very vague. In what sense can you possess something before you've occupied it? Or, in what sense can an inanimate object, such as a body of land, possess its occupants? People may lay claim to something simply out of hubris or an excess of confidence, but it doesn't become theirs until they actually occupy it. Or, again, it may be possible to be possessed by something you identify with or feel an attachment to or an affection for, simply by long, determined occupancy. You can own a sentiment simply by duration; but owning a piece of land, or especially a nation or a region or a whole continent, is a more complicated matter. And to return to our earlier observation, who exactly are the stand-ins for the "we" of the poem's voice? Are they all just Americans? Or are they some amalgam of natives and colonials and slaves? Is it possible even to speak of a country and its inhabitants as broadly as the poem implies? Has America ever been as unified and monolithic as the "we" voice implies it is, or could ever be? Perhaps the poem's greatest presumption of all is Frost's intention to speak for "all" in such a generalized way. And, to be precise, just what gift is being given, and to whom, and by whom? Who but a deity is empowered to give away lands?   

The second line sounds more straightforward, "She was our land more than a hundred years/Before we were her people." In other words, we didn't have a country of our own, we were mere colonial settlers, subservient to the Mother Country (England). England owned her colonies, so we weren't "her" (the land's) owners. "She was ours/In Massachusetts, in Virginia . . . still colonials" etc., but "possessing what we were still unpossessed by/Possessed by what we now no more possessed." That last phrase is a tricky one, much like the poem's first line. What does Frost mean by it?

He seems to be making a distinction between different classes of ownership, one kind which is the official title (like a deed to a property), the other a connection which goes deeper, as a man's connection to a land which he works (as in farming or building a water-mill), takes sustenance from, and nurtures. 

We know now from history--perhaps we always knew, though our super-awareness of our own culpability has been a bit delayed by our human vanity--that the Native American populations had rights and claims that we simply ignored. The "indians" didn't have customary property and land-use traditions, though we made "treaties" and "contracts" with them, designed primarily to hoodwink them out of their birthrights as people occupying a place for a long time. There's an ironic tension here between the rights of possession Frost suggests about the Colonists, and the rights of those from whom these properties and rights of access were stolen. But it's also important to remind ourselves that Frost, again, is speaking through a generalized chorale of voices, not as an ordinary citizen making historical arguments to explain a naked appropriation.     

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,

This has a much more direct and less conciliatory tone about seizure and possession. Frost suggests that Americans deliberately "withheld" some power or prerogative, as if our sense of our own destiny was simply an option, instead of an inevitable tendency. 

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

The argument here begins to seem even more self-serving, as if the only issue of conscience was in the realization of our (Americans') own "right" to make of the new continent what we chose to, as if it had always belonged to us, even before we "occupied" it--as citizens of our own declaration. It is almost as if the only kind of independent spirit of action lay in throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, rather than in stealing the country from its rightful aboriginal inhabitants. "Surrender" has a passive connotation, whereas what is being described is anything but passive. The conquering and settlement of the West--from Ohio all the way to the Pacific Coast--aside from the legal purchases and annexations (Louisiana, Alaska, parts of the Southwest)--was a simple seizure, involving military conflict and diplomatic treachery. 

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

This has a charmingly innocent ring to it--"such as we were" is deliberately non-commital and bland, "we gave ourselves outright/To the land vaguely realizing westward." We gave ourselves to the land sounds, again, like a very evasive rationalization of what was, indeed, a violent taking, not a "vague" "realization". But sandwiched between these two parts of a single sentence is the parenthetical 

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

The taking we know occurred was never something "given" but something seized. To describe America's settlement of the North American continent as a "surrender" or as the passive acceptance of a gift (from whom?) seems like a wholly undeserved exoneration, the whitewash of the Colonial myth of taming the wilderness and turning the empty land to profitable account. 

But Frost of course realized all these implications, and understood that the dramatic expression of them was a poet's license. To stand in place of a nation's conscience--of a nation you love and believe in--involves a deeper exploration of her character than any un-nuanced patriotic declaration. The poem isn't an anthem to the promise of America's destiny, but a portrayal of the myth we created to justify our avarice and selfishness. Frost is holding up a mirror to our half-hearted commitment to the spirit of ambition and exploitation which lies just below the surface of the official American character. 

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Here the protagonist of the poem is transformed from the "we" of the first 14 lines, to "she" (the nation we would become). Personifying the nation as a female entity is a crucial and abrupt turn at the end of the poem. It is almost as if the choral body is claiming an innocence that it knows is bogus. Could innocence excuse the transgressions America committed in its own interests? 

It's important, I think, to note that Frost makes no claims for America's usual politically correct hallmarks. The poem isn't an argument in favor of blind devotion; it's a portrayal of a certain over-simplified vindication, through the glass of an American chorus of voices. It has the familiar rhetorical sound of formal speechmaking, the sort of language we're expecting to hear at a funeral, or at the consecration of a special piece of ground. It's even a little stiff-backed in its manner. It has the '"sound" of purposeful credence, even as it displays a pompous self-regard. 

On balance, Frost's poem is a dramatic panel against the backdrop of a larger historical panorama--not intended to make us feel either  a national pride, nor a personal conceit. A country, as Frost is careful to insist, that was, and is unstoried, artless, unenhanced. On balance, the poem poses a challenge, not the challenge that America posed for itself--to conquer an empty continent that lay before us as if it were a gift from God--but for a future of accomplishment. 

Frost is a poet of representation; he rarely makes direct unambiguous statements, except lightly or in jest. There is a kind of objective distance he sets up between his personal view of the world, and the assertions that he makes in his verse. He usually speaks in a "voice" that he learned to cultivate in his poems, a kind of rustic New England voice, grudging, clever, diffident, and not very friendly. One wonders what Frost the man felt about his fellow citizens--their attitudes, their history, their presumptions. He didn't suffer fools gladly. There's a fierce independence in his character. I don't think I'd have wanted to know him, but I still find his poems very compelling, despite their formal blandness. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tropic of Capricorn


Un remo flotante
       sobred las aguas
fue tu solo epitafio


An oar floating
       on the waters
was your only epitaph.

--Pablo Antonio Cuadra from "Songs of Cifar, 1967-1977"

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Stein and Knitting and Time: An Almanac of Probable Subjects (with Notes)

This post is a reflective response to a recent podcast, Talking Tender Buttons, featuring a panel/response group moderated by Al Filreis, and including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bob Perelman, Julia Bloch and (by remote connection) Ron Silliman. The link to the podcast is via Silliman's Blog, here: 

Back in the mid-1970's, after I had dropped out of graduate school, and was rather at loose ends, I contemplated returning to Berkeley to pursue a thesis on the writings of Gertrude Stein. There was at that time a department full professor named Richard Bridgman, who had published a book, Gertrude Stein in Pieces [1970], and I met him in his Wheeler Hall office, probably in 1973, to explain my interest in Stein, and inquire of him whether he thought such a thesis might be welcome in the department. He responded negatively, to my surprise, saying that as a result of his thorough-going study into her work, he felt serious literary attention devoted to her writings would not be a worthy pursuit. As a result of that meeting, I decided to put off returning to grad school, and ended up starting work for the government about a year later. It was a turning-point for me, not just in my work-life, but in my attitude towards Modernist literature. I had been reading Stein's work for several years, and it seemed to me that there was fertile ground for study and appreciation, ground which had not even been acknowledged, much less developed in the academy. The English Department at Berkeley was on the threshold of a convulsive period of change, a change which would turn much of the official critical and appraisal values of art and literature in the preceding half century on their head. I'm not sure I understood that at the time, but I did have an inkling that the recognition of Stein's contribution to the history of experimental writing, and of the understanding of experimental processes in art, was in its infancy. Whether or not the revelation of that possibility would ever be acknowledged officially was another question.

While still an undergraduate at Berkeley, Robert Grenier, my poet-teacher during my junior and senior years there, had introduced me to selections from Tender Buttons [1914]. How such obviously obscure and odd and fascinating work could have been written three quarters of a century before, by a woman living in Paris, was a mystery beyond my comprehensions then. But its liberating qualities remained a touchstone for me in the succeeding years, and when I left graduate school in 1972, I continued to delve into her other writings, and found that TB was but a small morsel in a great banquet of delights and mysteries. The more of her work and lectures I read, the more I realized how original her position had been with respect to other Modernists, and what a revelation her insights and accomplishments were, not only in light of her own work, but to other writers and painters as well. She had much to teach me. That she might be ignored, or dismissed, or even condemned by the regnant centers of artistic or academic power, couldn't have mattered to me, since I had no conflicting commitments in my life, having abandoned professional writing and teaching for the "secular" workplace.  

Listening to the Tender Buttons podcast yesterday, brought all of my accumulated thoughts and concerns of the past 40 years or so back to attention, and I thought this might be the opportunity to enumerate some of the ideas I've had about her work over time. A list like this is by no means exhaustive. The proof of the value of Stein's work is in the wide variety of applications which may be brought to bear on her work and life--applications, in many cases, which she actively anticipated and even considered. Indeed, one of the aspects of her personality was her keen awareness and sensitivity to the social milieus and contexts not just of her work, but of her presence in the world--its reception and the meaning and importance of that reception. She understood, I feel, that her writing had a palpable future, a measure of appreciation that she would certainly not live to see; and in addition, she understood (and was not above manipulating) the public media world against which her experimental investigations (and rather exclusive "life-style") were shown in ironic relief. Her identity as a Jewish intellectual, and an openly co-habiting Lesbian, required that she adopt stances--by turns supremely confident, at others indulging comic self-caricature.

So here is a kind of almanac of probable areas of study or inquiry, which have occurred to me over the years, as a result of my reading of her work, and reading and thinking about her life.        

Stein and time.  No time.

There is no question that one of the primary departures that Stein undertook, after publishing Three Lives in 1909, was to abandon narrative. Narrative--by the time of late Henry James [The Golden Bowl (1904), The Ivory Tower (1917)], and early James Joyce [Ulysses was composed beginning in 1914]--had become, in a creative sense, exhausted. In the work of both late James, the Joyce of Ulysses, as well as the somewhat later efforts of Virginia Woolf, we can see a frustration both with the temporality of sequence, and with the limits of the sentence and the paragraph to adequately portray the complexities of thought and feeling. Stein's solution to this problem, which she had addressed head-on in The Making of Americans [written 1906-08, but not published until 1925], had led her to perceive that the landscape of contemporary narrative prose was either exhausted (and probably beyond her specific aptitude or interest); or she saw other possibilities, largely in the new early Modernist painters (Picasso, Matisse, Gris, etc.), which suggested objectifications of representation that she could make more out of than just telling "stories". Besides, she was no longer interested in interpreting the course of American life (i.e., of Sinclair Lewis or John Dos Passos), as she had chosen to live permanently in France in a kind of determined state of quixotic exile. The "continuous present" one experiences in Stein's experimental writing is a consequence of her rejecting all temporal development, in favor of focusing on the progress of her mind through language. This rejection of past and future, or an unfolding of event, constitutes a repudiation of mimesis. Her work exists in a nominative flatland of named things and relationships, infinite in its enumerations. Nothing is quite "real" except the verbal qualities which suggest interactions and stitches in the duration of consciousness. Once you get over this hurdle in her work, it all makes sense.          

Stein and knitting.

I used to wonder what it was about Stein's work that made it "feminine". As a self-confident Lesbian, she possessed a forthrightness and a certainty about her place and function in the world, which was supported by her financial security. Her confidence in her own work was of the kind that takes as perfectly natural a sense of its own necessity and value. One of the qualities of Stein's experimental work is her use of the woven variation. For those familiar with her work, there is repetition, nesting, steady augmentation, and an overall design of color and contrasting elements which evolve out of the process of the order of her words and phrases.

Knitting is a complex art, and one whose particularities and variations aren't a metaphor for Stein's work on any scientific level. But there is an imaginative process which is similar in its methodology in experimental writing like Stein's, in which the accrual of apparently simple, though subtly continuous altering, functions is allowed to develop into larger structures which carry the valence or bias of those functions. Threads of meaning interlock and reappear, but do not build into complete pictures or related sequences of event. There is something comforting about her work, a comfort which is akin to the settled devotion to a task, rather than the working out of problems which constitute the usual business of fictional or non-fictional prose. Stein's work exists only in the time of its reading, not as reference to another spectrum of event. Its ostensible "subject" addresses only the play of its immediate, undulating surface. It is not "about" in the sense of being an account of another thing; without its own self-referentiality, it quietly dissolves into nonsense. It can be replayed, but not re-told. In that sense, it has the quality of pure music.      

Stein and narration

Stein was perfectly capable of making adamant sense, and this was something she did over and over again in her letters, and in her conversation and lectures--as well as in her "straight" prose accounts, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933], Lectures in America [1935], Picasso [1938], Paris France [1940], Wars I Have Seen [1945], and so on. She may be the first important author who acknowledged the demarcation between popular and academic audiences, addressing each discretely, playing to each one with an amused irony of their difference and contradictory natures. She understood how providing each with a coherent "story" could satisfy their respective curiosity and hunger for digestible meaning(s). Her academic audiences wanted architecture and tropes; he popular audiences wanted fun and bite-sized treats. She provided both.     

Stein and Childhood - In the Round

From her earliest works, Stein's language plays with the juvenile apprehension of reality. Much of it is simplistic enough to be read by children, and in 1939 she published a book, The World Is Round, intended specifically for children, with illustrations by Clement Hurd. In Stein's cosmology, aesthetic productions are deliberately roundThis circularity has a functional purpose not just in the style of her writing--its rhythm and tenor--but in what she saw as the self-referentiality of the artistic act. This roundness is demonstrated by the sanctimonious and often frustrating repetitiveness of her phrases and sentences. Their "nonsense" quality--like deliberate gibberish which delights the childhood mind--is both stubbornly naive and covertly witty. Stein--the voice of her writing--is by turns matronly, child-like, and authoritative. Like a child, she will make over-simplified pronouncements as if they were revealed wisdom, and then be amused by them, with perfect delighted mischief. Her writing often seems to taunt, or tease the reader, as if it were a kind of game. This kind of behavior seems contradictory in a serious writer; she is challenging the limits of the relationship between author (artist) and reader (audience), asking what the ground-rules are, and imagining new play-books.         

James and The Making of Americans

The Making of Americans is a steamroller of gerunds. The participial insistence--they were listening and they were making conversation a conversation about food as they were thinking and eating and tasting what was being said--has an accretive propulsive inertia that overwhelms the reader. The continuous happening of event in this flat time-line erases separate agency (individual volition), and makes everything two-dimensional. Tenses and individual perception are erased. Whereas James had sought to delve more and more deeply into the involved connotations and iterations of thought, feeling and implication through an increasing complexity of sentence structure and multiple points of view, Stein sought to escape from these complications by simply ignoring them or pretending they didn't matter. The abstraction of modern painting, in which form and recognition were stretched and transformed, had shown her that an attempt to alter reality was as interesting an enterprise as attempting to mimic or mirror it; she could create interesting works of prose without having to be accountable to the vivid outlines or relations of people, society or the phenomenal world of inanimate objects, colors, sounds, shapes, etc. It opened up a whole realm of possibility. Things could be things without having any other intended or necessary purpose. The Making of Americans today looks and feels like some immense monument to a dead tradition, almost a camp performance intended to block future efforts. I have described it, elsewhere, as a kind of cathartic throwing-off of the yoke of responsible narration; she could think of having disposed of that duty once and for all. The Great American Novel.            

Stein and Cubism

Much has been made over the decades about the relation between Cubism as a technique of the modern movement in painting, and Stein's concept of literary form. Hemingway's early stripped down prose style in his first published stories appears to owe a debt to Stein's syntactic tricks--the build-up of conjunctive phrases, the reduction of event to a series of basic statements, the directness and lack of any descriptive or interpretive leavening. It's difficult to define precisely how Picasso's visual language affects Stein's work. There's a mosaic quality in some of the canvases which derives from Cezanne's patchy constructions; the Pointillists and the Fauves used bits or daubs to build up larger visual pictures. The closer you get to those canvases, the more they resemble computer generated screens, whose totality is revealed to be made out of dots. If an object could be seen from multiple angles simultaneously, then the limits of space in time in a painting might be overcome. The result could be intriguing but ultimately fragmentary. In writing--where time is a continuous tape running from the beginning to the end, with pauses and rests, and varying speeds, and nodes of meaning, and echoing relationships among words and things--you could literally examine things or groups of things, successively holding them up and turning them this way and that to reveal their opposite sides--their three-dimensional form(s).              

Stein and Domesticity

Stein established a permanent lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, beginning in 1908, a relationship and commitment which lasted until Stein's death in 1946. The domestic world of their household was in many senses traditional, with Alice performing the "feminine" duties, while Stein produced her serious work and entertained guests in her atelier. The works of art and furniture which they acquired over the years were taken into this interior world, and became talismans of their highly articulated life together. In Stein's writing, the immediate settled locus of her speaking voice comes out of a strong sense of place, of being in place. This sense of being is the actual "subject" of much of her experimental writing, of the speaker's pace and wending of meditation. The voice of her work does not strive to get outside itself, or to reach out to the world at large for issues or interest; it is content to peruse things in idleness, in the quiet seclusion of her study. On the circumscribed common of her meditative surface, she toys with and regards things the way a curious child might. The thinking and circling and fidgiting are like knitting, or any domestic task one might engage in, in the protected precincts of the home. Also, we now know that Stein's and Toklas's relationship was characterized by a complex private language, hermetic and intense, emotional and meticulous. Both were creatively engaged with the world: Toklas handled the practical requirements of their life together, while Stein addressed the world of art and philosophy. Together they were a self-sufficient unit that functioned efficiently and got a lot done.     

Stein and Genius

There is a sense of presumption in nearly everything Stein did, a cockiness which is partly the consequence of her financial position, and partly an over-compensating insistence to balance the anxiety of being a woman artist, a lesbian, a Jew, and a kind of gifted amateur among artistic (or literary) professionals. She was reportedly a haughty egotist, convinced of her own artistic genius, and she was not embarrassed to condemn younger writers and artists whom she regarded as her inferiors. At a time, during the 1920's, when her work was little more than a rumor in America (or anywhere for that matter), she presumed to tell Hemingway and William Carlos Williams what she thought of their attempts. She could be cutting and malicious. This sense of her own genius was a myth constructed partly out of her prescience in being among the earliest champions of Matisse and Picasso and Gris, and partly out of the astonishingly novel compositions, most of which she was obliged to self-publish, since there was no publisher who would dare to. By the time she came back to America, in the 1930's, the "reputation" of her "influence" and literary conjurings was large enough that she could use it as a launching pad to assume the populist image of the diminutive little grandmotherly figure, the genius she always had known herself to be.         

Stein and populism

When Stein came to America after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933], she was lionized and satirized in the press. Her lectures and interviews made her an object of curiosity but she understood how her public persona could be put to good use. She maintained a kind of double identity, one side the serious private experimentalist, the other the media puppet of A Rose is a Rose is a Rose, and she was content to let both versions co-exist. And when the Americans liberated France, she seized that opportunity to celebrate her own patriotism, welcoming the young soldiers and waving the stars and stripes for the cameramen. Whereas on the one hand, her exile from America symbolized a dismissal of the cruder aspects of American culture, its provincial commercialism, its artistic backwardness, she was not against showing the colors when it served her needs.        


This only scratches the surface of a possible array of the aspects of Stein's character, and the different categorical headings one might enumerate. And I intend to cover more of them in future. Among the subject areas, I would include Stein and Class, Stein and Toklas, Stein and Jewishness, Stein and Hermeticism, Stein and Self-Publication, Stein and Sexism, Stein and Automatic Writing, Stein and Exile. Biographies of Stein provide fruitful areas of research as well. One good recent book about her is Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, edited by Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer [University of California Press, 2011]. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

As If There Were No Tomorrow -- Four Concoctions (Delayed)

Popular historians describe the "Roaring Twenties" as a kind of dionysian revel in which people were inebriated, partying, senselessly throwing inflated money around, and generally getting into mischief. The first great American fortunes of the 20th Century were being made and spent, and the children of the rich were just getting their sea legs for the latest yacht race in the harbor. Of course, this fantasy was never true, though yacht racing as a pastime continues to live on.   

This last week, the America's Cup races were held in San Francisco Bay. Don't ask me to describe the technicalities of the elimination process, which reduced the number of participants to just a small handful of competitors, because I can't. Actually, I'm not much interested in sailing, never having been sailing in my life. (I know people who do, and have, but none who took the sport seriously enough to want to compete in races.) Sailing a sailboat is difficult at best, and often dangerous, especially when the seas are rough and the weather uncooperative. I haven't any desire, at this late date, to volunteer as a deck-hand on a sail boat, and I don't have any rich friends who own one, so the likelihood of my being involved in any sailing venture is nil. Owning a boat is an expensive hobby, and isn't something one undertakes lightly, as I surmise. 

The America's Cup

The self-made billionaire Larry Ellison, whose company Oracle is among the most successful software companies in the world, decided that he wanted to "challenge" the "holder" of the "cup" in 2013, and the race was contended in the San Francisco Bay. The style of the boats competing for the Cup has changed over the last century and a half, the present versions being "wing-sail catamarans" with multiple hull designs. These are what I like to call the new "formula one" racing boats. The America Cup races were "sold" to the City of San Francisco as a tourist and revenue-generating event, and there was some controversy about whether this was really going to be a suitable investment for the Bay region. Like most ordinary people, I suspect, I wasn't very concerned about the financial side of it, I just had mild curiosity about the sport itself. 

As a spectator sport, viewing is limited to watching from the shore. Like most large-scale events, it was more efficient and revealing to see it filmed from helicopters and "chasing boats" which circle around the action, than simply to sit in low grandstands on the shore--in this case, along the Marina Green along the Crissy Field near the San Francisco Yacht Club harbor. Wife and I had the occasion to be near the yacht racing event a week ago today, when we were queuing up for the annual Friends of the San Francisco Public Library book sale, held here each September. There were groups of avid photographers gathered at the ends of the Herbst Pavilion piers, which were wind-blown promontories from which to catch glimpses of the racing craft as they plied back and forth from East to West and back again over the waves of the Bay. Not being a sailing buff, it wasn't clear to me who was "winning" but it was clear that when the big vertically mounted sails were in a strong following easterly, the boats were almost elevating at 50 miles per hour!, with white spray flying. 

The money it takes to mount a craft and a crew to sail competitively is such that only the very rich can participate. Contenders represent "clubs" so the Golden Gate Yacht Club was officially the challenging entity, though the actual winner of this year's competition was Oracle Team USA. At the end of the competition, Team Oracle overcame an enormous deficit of eight points to win on the final day of racing.    

Yacht racing is clearly a holdover from an earlier era, when rich men made public demonstrations of their power and wealth. New Money supplants Old Money, and the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. Rich men still like to show off, and there is of course the pride of nationhood which infuses everything that involves people from different countries competing with one another. The rest of us just get to watch and marvel at the spectacle, the same way we do professional baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, auto and bike racing, or the international Olympics. But yacht racing is so exclusively a sport of "kings" (or knights of commerce), that it's difficult to imagine oneself ever having a hoot in hell chance of participating--even in our dreams.

So, in the spirit of imagination, vicarious and mild, here are a few recent cocktail mixes I've come up with at the stainless steel bar in our kitchen. I haven't had the inspiration to name them, though I think they all qualify as contenders in the free-for-all of mixology. After a day of racing, one could do worse than hit the local tavern for a celebratory toast, or two.  

As always, these drink recipes are by proportion. (One needs to be able to navigate homeward after indulging, so moderation is always recommended, unless you're already in your digs, or have made arrangements to have the chauffeur available with your car.) We live in a time of diminishing prosperity in America these days, as the post-war boom continues to wind down, and the fruits of our hyper-indulgent means continue to be more concentrated among the top 1 percent of the economic pyramid. Yacht racing's days may be numbered, but we can still dream of a time when the playthings of the rich carried the spirit of our folly. We play to win, or do we simply play to play? Who can say? Cheers!                  

3 Gin
1 Galleano
1 Cocci
1 Cointreau
1.5 Lemon
Shaken and served up

3 Gin
2 Peach Schnapps
1 Fresh Lemon
1/2 Triple Sec
1/2 Pomegranate Liqueur
Shaken and served up

4 Bourbon
1 Becherova Liqueur
1/2 Drambuie
1/2 Angelico
Swirled and served up

3 Bourbon
3 Ginger Beer
1 Amaro
1/2 Fresh Lime
Swirled gently--in order not to over-excite the Ginger Beer, which is carbonated--and served up