Friday, August 19, 2016

translate more than translate the authority - Gertrude Stein dissolves meaning, or else creates it

My first pass at Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) is that the poet’s idea is to create writing in which the connection between the word and its meaning has been destroyed.  She uses common objects as titles, words with strong significations for most readers, words that are hard to separate from the thing they signify – apple, shoes, salad – and then, crack!, shatters the usual meaning and does not replace it with anything else.


Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

An ideal example, as the passage contains many of Stein’s strategies.  The first item in the list suggests that Stein is making associations with original word, perhaps expanding meaning, but then “carpet steak” suggests otherwise, or else the associations quickly become so private as to become meaningless to poor me.

Some amusing pairs like “seed clam” / “calm seen” make Stein fun to read aloud, and I can imagine a good performer working wonders with Tender Buttons, although I can also imagine the fun diminishing quickly.  A half-hour performance would feel long.

Finally, in the last phrase enough meaning returns to fill me with doubt.  That looks like a child begging for a bit of apple.  Pretty clear.  Maybe there is more meaning than I think.  Or maybe just enough meaning is simulated to suggest meaning without the bother of actually creating meaning.


It is a winning cake.


What is bay labored what is all be section, what is no much.  Sauce sam in.


It was a peculiar bin a bin fond in beside.

If I were to go all in on meaning – if I wanted to interpret the text rather than explain it conceptually – I would keep my eye on that little girl begging for an apple slice.  I would take Tender Buttons as an exploration of early childhood linguistics, like it is from the point of view of a child learning language fresh, when the arbitrariness of language is a source of mystery and pleasure.


Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot.  This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.

Is Tender Buttons joyous nonsense or dreary nonsense?  Every example I have picked is from the “Food” section of the book, which I enjoyed the most, and which lends itself best to my “childhood language” idea.  The “Objects” section was more purely baffling.  The “Rooms” section, a single long prose poem, more adult.  A number of interpreters have argued that Tender Buttons is, from the title onwards, full of sexual material.  I did not know how to break this code, until I got to certain parts of “Rooms”:

The sister was not a mister.  Was this a surprise.  It was.

For example.  So, yes, maybe there is something about life in the Stein and Toklas household in this book.  Maybe the references are too private, maybe not.

Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.

Still, my first guess is that the conceptual linguistic ideas are what matter.  Someone, circa 1914, had to demonstrate the concept, and here it is.


  1. Tender Buttons is a book I have picked up, looked over a few pages, and then put back on the store shelf. I just don't know what to do with this book. Some parts of it I think have to do with the sounds of words, like the puns in Finnegans Wake, but in a lot of it there's an opacity I can't do anything with except butt my head.

    I will say that, after reading Alice B. Toklas, I'm pretty sure that Tender Buttons contains much that refers to Stein's private life. But so obliquely.

  2. Just as I think, "ah, this is about the *sounds* of words," Stein runs a string which is clearly not about the sounds. Just as I think it can't be about the sounds, a nicely tripping passage pops up. So many devices are used that they undermine each other, I assume on purpose. Necessarily opaque, if the idea is to free words from meaning.

  3. i wonder if Stein knew anything about cryptology... maybe her work is a code of some sort?

  4. This would be the perfect book to include a coded message. Something as simple as "every 5th word in the middle section; every third word in the last section" would work. If only someone had the key.

  5. William H. Gass has an excellent essay on Stein where he shows that "Tender Buttons" makes a lot more sense than we think. It's a masterpiece of exegesis, and it's actually persuasive. But it didn't convince me to give TB a try.

  6. Yes, Gass is the most prominent of the "full of sex" interpreters. My guess is that putting the essay up against Tender Buttons itself will decrease its persuasiveness, although not its excellence.

  7. You underscore something important: quite a few writers of the era were obsessively concerned with the problem of words and meaning. The ultimate "experiment" was probably _Finnegan's Wake_, and I suspect Stein's stylist obsessions has connections with Joyce's in that novel. The imagists in poetry also come to mind. What was it about the early 20th century!

    1. Tender Buttons was written 25 years before Finnegans Wake, so possibly Joyce was influenced by Stein, yes. Certainly a lot of Modernists hung out together in Paris, gathered around Stein and Sylvia Beach.

    2. Published 25 years before, that is. Joyce was working on FW in the 20s. But surely he know of TB.

  8. Beginning in, say, the 1890s, there was a general shift in tastes, across all of the major arts, towards formal innovation - meaning among other things a lot more poetry about words, painting about paint, music about music - thereby ruining most of the arts for most people.

    Or, more narrowly, a lot of writers started taking avant-garde French writing seriously. The Imagists and Stein were just moving Stéphane Mallarmé into English. I don't know that Joyce was any more far out there than Raymond Roussel.

    1. "ruining most of the arts for most people"

      Hahah, that's a good one. I'm sure it's true, too. If I think about the Second Viennese School of music, I know just what you mean. People still hate that stuff.

  9. I saw that with my own eyes, just last month, at Tanglewood, an audience fleeing the imminent performance of Alban Berg. Maybe a third of the lawn audience left at intermission. Their loss.

    1. David Finckel drew a speech bubble on the cover photo of our copy of the Emerson SQ Berg CD: "Thanks for buying my music!" Everyone else wanted their Schubert recordings. Which are fine, of course, but there are an infinite number of "Trout" recordings out there already.

  10. What a fun book! Stein's method seemed pretty clear to me: she was putting words in new contexts and combinations, to make them fresh again. And she was explicitly following Picasso and Matisse, fragmenting and stylizing representation, without abandoning it completely, trying to break free of history. Joyce was doing the opposite in FW: jamming words and puns together to load words with as much history and conventional meaning as possible.

    There are certainly sexual references in Stein (you can't read much of her without recognizing those cows and caesars), but she was interested in many other things too. I suspect she may have put in sime pillow talk just to amuse Toklas while she typed up the day's work.

    My own theory, probably unpopular, is that American audiences' current rejection of modernism is rooted in puritanism. Artists should be making money and going to church, not screwing around and having fun. The common reaction I hear to art is "I guess they have too much time on their hands." Oh, those idle hands! Of course, this doesn't apply to the Second Viennese School, who were just as suspicious of pleasure.

    The search for meaning always puzzles me. I like "The Tempest," but I have no idea what it means.

  11. Honestly, I did not have much fun in the "Objects" section. Many of the entries in "Objects" look to me like they do abandon representation completely, e.g. "A CUTLET: A blind agitation is manly and uttermost."

    Thus the meaning is drained out of the words. I am more suspicious of the amount of meaning in art than most people are, but I am talking about something much more linguistically basic here - not the "meaning" of Tender Buttons or The Tempest, but of the word "salad." I classify a lot of dishes under that word, yet I still have a strong sense of what it means, and what it means ain't cake.

    All of this is fine. Had to be done. Every art had to do it in one way or another (link is to an Ellsworth Kelly print).

    I agree that this is really the polar opposite of what Joyce did, where every word has multiple meanings drawn from multiple languages, river names, etymologies, etc.

  12. Oh, yes. It's hard to tell how much representation Stein had in mind. I think it was Richard Kostelanetz who said that he thought he knew what she was doing, but didn't know if it was what she thought she was doing.

    I still find "Tender Buttons" (and some of the other works in that vein, like "Bee Time Vine") a blast, but I can understand why Stein returned to conventional syntax afterwards. The attempt to apply the principles of painting to language was a bit problematic, but I guess nobody got hurt...

  13. Yeah, what Kostelanetz said, that sounds about right.

    I did enjoy the "Food" section a lot, both reading around in it and reading it aloud. Maybe just because I like food, so I could create more associations on my own.