Saturday, October 20, 2012

Stanley Fish on Gertrude Stein on Cézanne

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, c. 1895 (oil on canvas).
I have a passion about connections between different kinds of art. On this blog, it's mostly been between music and painting (see here and here). Now, thanks to Stanley Fish's How to Write a Good Sentence (the link is to a review in the Financial Times by my fellow Grace Church parishioner, Adam Haslett), I know that Gertrude Stein's writing was inspired by Paul Cézanne's painting:
Usually a sentence does not deliver its meaning until the end, and only at the end do its components acquire their significance and weight. But what Stein wants is meaning to be present at every instant, to be always the same in weight and yet different as each word is different. Before Flaubert and Cézanne, she explains, "composition had consisted of a central idea to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but was not an end in itself." But then "Cézanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and it impressed me enormously," and as a consequence, she continues, "I tried to convey the idea of each part of a composition being as important as the whole" ("A Transatlantic Interview," 1946).
Is Stein right about Cézanne? In the image of the painting shown above, is the surface of the table as "important" (not in a structural but in a compositional sense) as the fruit, or the white cloth? Is the pot as important as the flowers, or the leaves? Cézanne's painting doesn't have the compositional drama of, say, Goya's The Shootings of May 3, 1808, in which the eye is drawn irresistibly to the man in the white shirt with outstretched arms. Still, one does notice things like the pot, the table, and even the walls, which have a mottled texture, more than one might in the work of many other painters.

What about Stein's writing? Fish gives us this sample:
When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it, what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with it to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.
--Lectures in America, 1935
Does every part of this long sentence have equal weight? The frequent repetition of the phrase "writing should go on" seems to give it particular importance. The words "completely possessed" and "most profound need" draw attention to what immediately follows them. There's a cute irony in her use of a comma just before "what had commas to do with it [?]" Nevertheless, this sentence is more flowing stream than marble monument. To say that every element of a sentence should "be the same in weight" (Fish's words, not Stein's) brings to mind Stein's contemporary Dorothy Parker's quip about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she says is a lie, including 'and' and  'the.' "*  But that, as Fish (and, I suppose, Stein) would agree, is a reductio ad absurdum.

Stein, and perhaps Cézanne, adumbrated the aversion to "privilege" that came to characterize "postmodernism" or "theory" in late twentieth century academic discourse. In painting, this was carried a step further by Pierre Bonnard, whose compositions are, as a whole, much busier than Cézanne's, and who frequently marginalized elements that would have been afforded pride of place in the works of other artists.

Fish continues his commentary on Stein with this observation:
The insight is theological, although Stein probably doesn't intend it that way. In a world created and presided over by an omnipotent God who fills all the available spaces, the distinctions between things, persons, and events are illusory, a function of a partial, divided, and dividing consciousness....If we would only...stop laboring to put discrete significances together in an effort to combine them into a larger whole, we would see, theologians tell us, that the larger whole we seek is already everywhere and that our very efforts to apprehend it themselves signify it.
Later in his book, Fish again ventures into theology, this time to deal with the vexed question of what it means to read the Bible literally. I'll discuss that in a later post.

Image thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
*I've seen this attributed to Parker about Hellman, whom she disliked intensely (and Hellman returned the favor) many times, but a quick web search found instances in which it was attributed to Parker about Mary McCarthy, and to McCarthy about Hellman, I'm sticking to Parker on Hellman. There was a famous exchange between the two when Hellman held a door open for Parker with the words, "Age before beauty." Parker, passing by, replied, "Pearls before swine."

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