Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”

March 5, 2019

The title of Gertrude Stein’s essay, “Composition as Explanation,” ostensibly contradicts her literary scheme of raising form to the level of content.  The name seems to imply that this piece of criticism, or Stein’s composition in general, is designed to explicate something, when the power of her art lies in the very fact that it is beyond explanation—it’s words are what it is and it is its words.

In both her creative work and her criticism, Stein’s language is designed to favor demonstration over explanation; she doesn’t so much tell her reader about a concept as force them to experience it through her unusual use of form.  In “Composition as Explanation,” she says of her work

In the first book there was a groping for a continuous present and for using everything by beginning again and again.  There was a groping for using everything and there was a groping for a continuous present and there was an inevitable beginning of beginning again and again and again.  Having naturally done this I naturally was a little troubled with it when I read it.  I became then like the others who read it.  One does, you know, excepting that when I reread it myself I lost myself in it again.  Then I said to myself this time it will be different and I began.  I did not begin again I just began.

In this excerpt, Stein doesn’t merely summarize her earlier writing experience, but rather exemplifies that experience through writing.  In this way, she performs the converse of what her title suggests by establishing explanation as composition.  In the phrase, “By beginning again and again and again,” her form echoes the “groping for a continuous present” to which she refers.  Further, since the reader is not allowed to progress along the semantic pathway in the conventional manner, she is anchored in a continuous present; she is forced to linger inordinately long (in a trajectory that remains, true to Steinian form, an “inevitable beginning of beginning” rather than a beginning followed by an ending) on each word and phrase, returning to them again and again, sometimes in new iterations, and sometimes just as they were.

That  “Groping for using everything,” of which she speaks is embodied in her form.  Her repetition of words (such as “continuous,” “present,” and “beginning”) ensures that she milks every possible association or meaning from each word or phrase with each use. Eventually, like her reader, Stein finds herself “naturally a little troubled” when she rereads the creation to which she is referring. Because Stein breaks all boundaries, she identifies with her reader (“I became then like the others who read it”), and through experiencing her writing process, her reader identifies with her (or is totally baffled).

Stein’s poetics is emphatically modernist in its destruction of the linguistic past in order to make way for the linguistic future. That is, she doesn’t merely create language; she transforms it.  Time plays a tremendous role in this transformation: “It is understood” she writes,  “by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.” Therefore, she sees composition, or the manipulation of time in language, as her opportunity for change, and therefore uses it in order to confront her own changed time. She is writing poetry after World War I and, according to her, poetry, “because of the academic thing known as war” has “been forced to become contemporary.”

This forced contemporaneity implies that Stein is writing in a language that is dramatically different than that which preceded the war.  In addition, she is writing as a woman in a long tradition of “Patriarchal poetry./ Their origin and their history,” as she puts it  (“Patriarchal Poetry” 61).  Thus, she is faced with the challenge of being a writer in spite of two silencing factors (the war silences because there are no words to capture the horror and because language can never be the same after it, and the patriarchal writing tradition silences because it is demoralizing for a woman to write in a language made for men). For these reasons, the female modernist is faced with the challenge of writing in a dead language (at least creatively speaking).

Stein seems to realize that if she wants to use language, she must reinvent it. She stresses that after finding herself again within her text, she didn’t “begin again,” she just “began.” This implies that she wasn’t mimicking anything that came before (including her own work), but rather creating something entirely new.