Friday, October 29, 2004

Tender Buttons

My friend Joey Keenan, who is a poet, has been urging me to read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for ages. When I finally did, it was mind-blowing--a total "paradigm-shift" experience.

Tender Buttons shockingly tosses narrative overboard, and chooses to concentrate on language--its rhythms, sounds and textures. Stein wrote it in 1912, after she had moved to Paris, then the epicenter of the art world. She loved Cezanne's paintings and constructed her prose poems with repetitive phrases and sentences the way he built up his paintings with self-consciously repetitive brushstrokes.

It's pretty clear now that the course of twentieth century art would have been radically different if not for Cezanne. Both Picasso and Matisse (the two leading artists of the first half of the century) have said that neither cubism and its heirs nor abstraction in art would have resulted the way they did, without Cezanne.

In Cezanne's view, art needed to transcend its chains to slavish realism, to "merely imitating nature". Art, in other words, needed to reconstruct reality, not merely reproduce it.

Gertrude Stein said about Cezanne: "He gave me a new feeling about composition. I was obsessed with this idea of composition. It was not solely the realism of the characters but the realism of the composition which was the important thing."

Here are a couple of typically incantatory, digressive (not to mention non-sensical) sample-fragments from Tender Buttons:

"Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men."

"A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away, that is the particular color that is used for that length and not any width not even more than a shadow."

I mean, how can one read that and still try to make conventional realistic "sense" of those sentences?

Gertrude Stein's publisher, the poet Donald Evans, nailed the book brilliantly:

"The last shackle is struck from context and collocation, each unit of the sentence stands independent and has no commerce with its fellows. The effect produced on the first reading is something like terror."