Gertrude Stein's Difficult Paper

It should be no surprise that one can write productively about Gertrude Stein's writings in terms of money. Born into wealth, she spent her own money to publish her many books; when necessary, she sold off paintings that she'd been given or had purchased to finance further publishing ventures. And when she became famous in France, after the end of World War II, and was asked for her autograph, she'd sign her name on a paper banknote.

And yet few of her readers or critics have used money to read and understand her notoriously difficult texts. Most have preferred to describe and praise them by citing their supposed similarity to modernist musical compositions or Cubist paintings. But these approaches encounter two problems: 1) though non-verbal, both musical compositions and paintings can be "about" something, that is to say, can refer to or even include objects, meanings or actions that are other or different from their own; and 2) Stein herself was a forceful and determined critic of all forms of supposed similitude and sameness, especially the idea that women are the same as and "like" men.

Let us take as our first example Stein's celebrated coinage, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," which she originally made in 1913 and repeated in "Lifting Belly," which was written between 1915 and 1917. Taken from Shakespeare's famous claim that "a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet," Stein's version is often understood as a child-like but poetic playing with words, in particular, with nouns. Stein herself can be cited as support for this understanding. In "Poetry and Grammar," written around 1930, she explained that,

When I said
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
Now let us think of poetry any poetry all poetry and let us see if this is not so. Of course it is so anybody can know that.

But Stein's reference to "a ring" indicates that something else is at work here, namely, a critique of both linearity and linear forms of counting. In the same text, she writes,

After all the natural way to count is not that one and one make two but to go on counting by one and one and one as chinamen do as anybody does as Spaniards do as my little aunts did. One and one and one and one and one. That is the natural way to go on counting.
The unnatural way of counting presumes that it is possible to ignore the differences between things, even between things that appear to be different. Without this presumption, it is impossible to "Compare something to something else. To be rose" ("Patriarchal Poetry," written by Stein in 1927). It is only patriarchal poetry that presumes to see strings or lines of similarities where there are actually circles or rings of differences: "Patriarchal poetry shall be as much as if it was counted from one to one hundred." There can be no mistake here: (coined) money and capitalist profits (returns on investments) are clearly implicated by the critique of patriarchal poetry: "Patriarchal poetry means in return"; "patriarchal poetry obliged as mint to be mint to be mint to be obliged as mint to be"; "patriarchal poetry in coins." Like money, patriarchal poetry sees itself and pretends to be the measure of all things, no matter what they are.

Stein never named or claimed that she was writing a "matriarchal poetry," or a poetry that was beyond the binary opposition between patriarchal and matriarchal. But, in "Lifting Belly," she provides a phrase that is very useful in this context. As if recording a conversation, she writes, "What did you say to excuse me. Difficult paper and scattered." Against the counted coins of patriarchal poetry, Stein sets the scattered sheets of her difficult paper. Mind you, this isn't an opposition of money to barter, or monetary exchange to gifts or potlatch. This is an alternative or opposition within money: "Lifting belly has sparks./Sparks of anger and money"; "Lifting belly has money." Patriarchal poetry is to coined money as "difficult paper" is to paper money. And difficult paper is paper money with "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose./In print on top."

Introduced into the American political economy in fits and starts between 1830 and 1880, paper money was quite familiar to Stein, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1874. That is to say, the trauma of the replacement of scarce precious metals with readily available paper products had already been experienced. But it continued to echo in her work: in "Lifting Belly," Stein says, "Does it make any difference if you pay for paper or not" and "Believe that I use the best paper that I can get." But Stein and her era knew a different trauma, one that was unknown to the 19th century: hyper-inflation. Though coins might be de-valued during political crises, they rarely became utterly valueless: they could always be harvested for the precious or useful metals out of which they'd been minted. But paper money, which could be printed at will or without the expenditure of large amounts of labor or gold held in reserve, is subject to inflationary trends so severe that sometimes it is no longer worth the paper that it is printed on. During an economic depression, it might take a wheel-barrow full of banknotes, or a bill with a denominational value of 10 million, to buy a single apple.

Under the guise of repetition or, rather, repetitiveness, hyper-inflation appears in Stein's writings as both a theme and a compositional method. She writes in "Subject-Cases: The Background of a Detective Story" (1923):

Before and more, more than that before, more of it than before, more than that of it and they say it changes, as change, as to change for them to change and to exchange, exchange parlors for parlors. To exchange and to be in a parlor and to change from being in that parlor to being in another parlor, in this sense, to change a parlor and to exchange to feel funnily, very funnily to feel that there is more advantage than there would have been than they would have had.

(Note well that an "exchange parlor" is a place where "change" in one currency can be "exchanged" for change in another.) Hyper-inflation is only a catastrophe or an absolute loss to patriarchal poetry and its linear logic of what counts. But to the discourse or poetric practice of difficult paper, hyper-inflation is a distinct "advantage." In the terminology of "Lifting Belly," hyper-inflation is a credit: "I credit you with repetition"; "Lifting belly is a credit." Swollen or hyper-inflated by repetition, the lifting belly (a credit to female fertility) gives birth to a new form of poetry, that is, a poetry without grammar.

-- Bill Not Bored, January 2005