This blog post is about a story titled “Melanctha” by Gertrude Stein, a novelist who lived at about the same time as Renoir and Picasso. Picasso painted a portrait of the author that this blog post is about. Picasso painted a portrait of the author in eighty sittings that spanned a year, and finally ended by painting out her face and replacing it with a mask.
I recently came across her writings in a book by the name of “Three Lives”.
The description of the writings in the introduction was very intriguing, so I picked up the book.
In the introduction, I read that Gertrude had had a very high opinion of the importance of her writing and had once said “think of the Bible and Homer, think of Shakespeare, and think of me”. In the introduction, I read that she considered the second story in “Three Lives” about a girl called “Melanctha” to be “the first definitive step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature”.
The story did not disappoint.
The language in “Melanctha” was very different from anything I’ve ever read, and it produced a very pleasant sensation. The language was very different, and it’s about the language that I want to write.
One interesting thing about the language is that in some parts phrase patterns appear in pairs and with a rhythm.
Here is an example of the pairing of sentences that is so interesting in the language:
“Jeff Campbell sat in his room, very quiet, a long time, after he got through reading this letter. He sat very still and first he was very angry. As if he, too, did not know very badly what it was to suffer keenly. As if he had not been very strong to stay with Melanctha when he knew what it was that she really wanted. He knew he was very right to be angry, he knew he really had not been a coward. He knew Melanctha had done many things it was very hard for him to forgive her”
In some parts, the repetition gives rise to sentences like.
“Good night now, Dr. Campbell, I call you if I need you later to help me, Dr. Campbell, I hope you rest well, Dr. Campbell.”
I found an essay on Stein’s work online that said that Stein had tried to write memory-less literature, where the literature kept itself always in the present by not relying on the reader’s memories of past sentences.
But it seemed to me that there was a sort of similarity with impressionist painting if you considered the granularity of language used in rendering the story.
What Gertrude’s writing had in common with impressionist paintings, it seemed to me, was a form of broad, rough brush-strokes.
So, it seemed to me that the phrases that were often repeated in quick succession, fused within themselves to became separate units of expression, and therefore the smallest units of expression that Gertrude’s stories were built of were not single words, but phrases made of many words, making the language richer and more beautiful.
There was also a certain musicality in the prose. There was a certain way for certain phrases to be repeated time and again, like a musical theme, for example, the line “what you mean by what you were saying” which, with its variants appears time and time again in the story.
Finally, I found it hilarious to read in the story a passage that was very similar to things that Ramana Maharishi and Osho had said about “thinking” that I had quoted in an older blog post in November https://aiaioo.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/contradictions-in-some-thoughts-on-thinking/.
I had quoted the following:
To bring about peace means to be free from thoughts and to abide as Pure Consciousness. ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi
Thoughts can create such a barrier that even if you are standing before a beautiful flower, you will not be able to see it. Your eyes are covered with layers of thought. To experience the beauty of the flower you have to be in a state of meditation, not in a state of mentation. You have to be silent, utterly silent, not even a flicker of thought – and the beauty explodes, reaches to you from all directions. You are drowned in the beauty of a sunrise, of a starry night, of beautiful trees. ~ Osho
I had quoted the above and commented that those who wrote that must have thought a lot about thinking.
In the story “Melanctha” there was a meme that was similar to the above lines that I had quoted.
I quote from the story:
“Don’t you ever stop with your thinking long enough ever to have any feeling Jeff Campbell,” said Melanctha a little sadly.