Sunday, May 13, 2012

Puzzling Gertrude Stein: A Year and a Day of "Sacred Emily"?

Gertrude Stein

A graduate student whom I know introduced me to Gertrude Stein's poem "Sacred Emily," a 367-line poem of obscurity if I ever read one! Exactly 367 puzzling lines like "Electrics are tight electrics are white electrics are a button" and "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." I know the poem is precisely 367 lines because the student mentioned the fact. I know further because I've counted. Twice. Why? Because I wondered if it were actually 365 or 366, either of which might signify one exact year. But it's 367 lines. Why? A year and a day? Does it start out on January 1st and end on January 1st the next year? An entire year and a new beginning? I searched to see if any scholar had written on this but found nothing.

On an distantly 'unrelated' note, I came across an article that goes with the above photo of Stein wearing a rare smile: "Tender buttons to push: Gertrude Stein's overlooked political past" (National Post, October 18, 2011), by Robert Fulford, who -- prompted by Barbara Will's Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) -- asks a very good question:
Among the facts most people know about Ezra Pound, his attraction to Italian fascism and his hysterical anti-Semitism rank near the top of the list, whatever his accomplishments as a poet. Those who revere Martin Heidegger's philosophy aren't allowed to forget that he passionately identified with Hitler. Art lovers who admire Filippo Marinetti, the founder of the Italian Futurist school, know that he was also a propagandist for Mussolini.

There are other poets and philosophers and high-grade intellectuals who spent decades of the 20th century in thrall to fascism or communism. The intersection of art and totalitarianism is a dangerous site for reputations. Anyone studying modern culture arrives reluctantly yet inevitably at this hard truth.

But Gertrude Stein? She rarely appears in that light. Among the millions who know about her, who can [mis]quote "A rose is a rose is a rose" and even make a stab at defining its meaning, very few understand that her political record is shadowed by fascist connections . . . .

Stein, while a modernist in literature, saw herself as a conservative[, was a friend of the Nazi collaborationist Bernard Faÿ,] and believed France should be conservative. The most powerful right-wing publicist was Faÿ’s friend, Charles Maurras, who believed France had been degraded by Jews, Freemasons, Protestants and foreigners.

How could Stein, a foreigner as well as a Jew, maintain genial relations with people holding that view?

How indeed? It is inexplicable. But historical truth is often ineluctable, particularly the historical truth of personal motivations to people's actions, and emphatically so with such a puzzler of poetic puzzles as the affable, ineffable Gertrude Stein.

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At 8:45 PM, Blogger Linda Ryan-Harper said...

I was watching "Shadowlands" the other night and Joy Gresham, a Jew by birth and wife of C.S. Lewis, supposedly took the view in her atheistic youth that in 1938 one was either a fascist and conquered the world or a communist and save it. She was a poet as well. It's amazing that the soul of a poet and the soul of a fascist, communist or capitalist can live in the same body. And the warrior-poet? Fuhgid aboud it.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for a poetic response . . . and it is quite amazing.

Jeffery Hodges

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