Karin Cope. Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live With Gertrude Stein.
This is a surprising book. Its title might suggest a study of works Stein created in conjunction with other Modernist artists. I anticipated, for example, that the celebrated opera she wrote with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, would figure prominently in the book. But the term "collaboration" here, as Cope's subtitle hints, exceeds a focus on oeuvre to encompass Stein's most passionate personal engagements, those interdependencies marked by an intimate dynamics of "mutual support, struggle and reinforcement" (96). The principle relationships addressed are those with Picasso, Alice B. Toklas, and the reader (including Cope herself, including us).
The more startling surprise of the book, however, is formal. A quarter of the way into the book, which has proceeded in a fairly familiar critical mode, another voice emerges, marked by italics. This voice creates a productive rupture in the discursive flow of Cope's criticism, challenging her, prodding her, encouraging her, agreeing, disagreeing, asking for clarification. Sometimes the effect is one of Socratic dialogue, sometimes the other voice asks straightforward questions ("What happened to Bookstaver"? ), and sometimes the voice is incredulous ("All of that? Are you so sure? Come on!" ).
Isn't that just a cheap way to pre-empt the reader's own critiques?
I think it allows for more expansive discussion. There's room here for uncertainties, contradictions, changes of heart, all that's habitually repressed in critical discourse. Cope does what she suggests Stein does: "She never summarizes her struggle. Instead, she acts it out and subjects you to it" (132). It's collaborative, inviting the reader in.
Feels to me more like I'm eavesdropping. And as with all eavesdropping, there's a lot that's just boring, questions like, "Where were we?" (132).
I find those questions refreshing. They're elastic figures that allow for digressions.
You just like them because you've read this book while chasing after a one year old. You need help keeping your place.
Excuse me for refusing to excise my living and being and body from my thinking.
You've picked up a lot of dangerous ideas from this book.
You get the idea.
Shut up, I'm trying to return to my review. Cope's unusual dialogic foray is humorously apt, where it crops up, on the cusp of her psychoanalytic complication of Primitivism. At one point I wondered to myself--Cope's book attunes you to the myriad conversations you have with yourself in this solitary vocation of scholarship--how long is she going to keep this up? A quick flip ahead revealed the italics just keep on going, Cope finally relinquishing the conversational format only to welcome more voices into the discussion, the third part of her book appearing in the form of a play.
"What Happened, Playing with Gertrude Stein" isn't likely to be performed anywhere. At times one gets the impression it is a repository for all the research and speculation the author couldn't fit anywhere else. Much of it is comprised of lengthy quotations, Otto Weininger's requiring particular endurance. It's hard to imagine anyone but a Stein scholar taking much interest. But then, who's reading this book anyway? People who are grateful to find all these little research tidbits, people who are accustomed to reading drama on the page. It helps that Cope takes up some of the compelling mysteries of Stein's life, particularly the question of her remaining in Vichy France during the war and her "collaborative" agreement to translate Marechal Petain's speeches in 1942. The main characters of the play are three professional scholars who, after debating a number of intriguing conundrums in Stein studies, are recruited to perform in Stein's "Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters," which is reproduced in toto at the conclusion of Cope's play. By the end they are "murdered" only to rise again, laughing, a fitting finale to a work of criticism that would kill off a certain mode of constrained, humourless scholarship. What Cope is after is the provocation of our imaginations, our passions, and her formal innovations incite us to change our ways of reading and writing.
Interestingly, the most passionate and moving section of the book features a single authorial voice. It's as if the other voice has left the room for a moment, and I am finally in a tete-a-tete with the author, who recalls the heartbreaking experience of reading the Stein/Toklas love notes in the wake of her own break up. This generous passage exemplifies the author's commitment to an honest, passionate approach to scholarship, one that avows our emotions, bodies, memories, imaginations. Cope prefaces the book by recalling the various theoretical impositions she had previously visited upon Stein, rigorously following the fashions of the academy in pursuit of a definitive account. While she doesn't admit that passion and affect are themselves actually the academic fashion of the moment, "affect" one of the most ubiquitous terms over the past few years, one forgives her this oversight when faced with her utterly original and genuinely passionate project.
After a long period of meagre critical response to Stein's work, the last couple of decades have seen the flourishing of Stein studies, to the point where one hardly expects to read anything terribly fresh regarding the oft-considered issues of Primitivism, the Stein/Picasso nexus, and the Stein/Toklas relationship. But Cope's formal eccentricities are matched by (and contribute to) her intrepid and insightful investigations. Her interrogation of Stein and Picasso's Primitivism, for example, is neither dismissive nor laudatory, instead taking it beyond a narrative of formalist borrowing to one of nuanced historical and psychoanalytic resonance. She devotes much discussion to the production of Picasso's famous portrait of Stein, delivering a compelling argument that it was Stein's presence (creative, intellectual, bodily) in his studio that sparked a radical change in his work. The scandalous implication that Stein was a crucial architect of Modern Art recalls the claim Nadine Hubbs makes in her recent work, The Queer Composition of America's Sound, that Stein created (via Virgil Thomson, via Aaron Copland) America's national musical idiom. Such theories begin to account for the magnetism of Stein and her works. This magnetism itself, even in its most visceral sense, is also subject to Cope's unabashed critical eye, as she sets aside the feminist taboo of devoting too much attention to the body, the appearance, of the female writer, and asks why we love to look at pictures of Gertrude Stein.
Passionate Collaborations is an eccentric necessity; it is replete with important research for Steinians and serves as an inspiring model of creative scholarship for all academics. Thankfully Cope doesn't imitate Stein's writing--such imitations are always unsatisfying--but what she does give us arouses the reaction we often have to Stein, that complex of responses that includes surprise, irritation, and pleasure.
University of Windsor
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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