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Late Stylist: Gertrude Stein’s Affective Time

Hyunjung Kim, Texas A&M University

3rd July 2020

‘Art’s autonomy shows signs of blindness,’ writes Theodor W. Adorno.[1] In Invalid Modernism(2019), Michael Davidson observes that Adorno metaphorically links ‘blindness to willed unknowing’ to begin his theory of aesthetics ‘to represent art’s refusal of the mimetic, the familiar, the true.’[2] To rewrite these statements, perhaps a little more poetically, we might understand an Adornian sense of willful blindness as an effort in search of different modes of seeing, connecting, and living by pursuing an active negation of the existing relations we have with otherness. Evoking Gertrude Stein’s perhaps most quoted line, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,’ this willful blindness reads as a gesture to attune to rose differently, to acknowledge that we see rose differently, to sense blue in what has been so long associated with red, or to imagine a shape that does not necessarily take the form of rose at all. Or we might also say, with the first line of Tender Buttons(1914), ‘A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass’, Stein obscures the original shape and purpose of a glass, making it ‘blind’ and thus opaque, impermeable, and impermissible.

What happens when we sense ‘not red’ in red or ‘not rose’ in rose? This question brings us to think about Stein’s conception of time, which is inseparably tied to her experiment with language. The stacking of same words and similar sentence structures in Stein’s work resists a linear progression of time, disrupting one’s easy reading experience. With the ‘thick’ language, to borrow Sianne Ngai’s words, or with the chronic mode of writing—which does not aim for conventional narrative structure—that Elizabeth Freeman finds in Stein’s short story ‘Melanctha’, Stein suspends time and retains presentness, confusing the ‘normal’ use of language.[3] Creating a sense of textual otherness, ironically with ‘sameness’ resulting from repetition, Stein’s experiment echoes what Adorno finds distinct in the late style of Beethoven, particularly Missa Solemnis, one that he sees has the most ‘unfathomable, elusive, enigmatic quality.’[4]

Considering Adorno’s understanding of Beethoven’s late style as ‘the prototypical modern aesthetic form’, Edward Said writes: ‘The power of Beethoven’s late style is negative.’[5] Said senses an ‘abstract energy’ inherent in late style that does not necessitate historical and conventional interpretation.[6] For Adorno this is a differently formed energy that derives from transformation of ‘harmony into the dissonance.’[7] Resonating with such mode of ‘’dissonance,’ Said excavates ‘incongruous temporality’ in C. P. Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ (1910), where linear progression of history is desynchronized by sounding ‘as if to an Odysseus whose journey home to Penelope is already charted and known in advance, so the full weight of the Odysseybears on every line.’[8] Already infused with the sensual pleasure of Ithaka, the lines bring ‘the place’ here and now, rediscovered ‘not as goal or telos for the homeward-bound hero but as an instigation for his voyage.’ The emphasis put on the ‘process not development’ – in other words, present not future – echoes Stein’s insistence on ‘composition’ and the concept of ‘continuous present’.[9]

Bearing such sense of presentness, Cavafy demystifies utopian journey, erasing Ithaka’s stance as telos, and makes the place all the more earthy and reachable by condensing every word into touchable materiality in every line while also pressing and impressing the reader with pleasurable amount of density. The affective density in this non-futuristic mode of writing embedded in ‘Ithaka’ reverberates through Stein’s way of writing. While Cavafy may pursue non-futurity with fairly comprehensible semantics, Stein moves beyond with her words that are not conceptualized but rather ‘pressed’ against each other within their own relationality before reaching specific meanings just like how we ‘press’ each other by ‘impression,’ as Sarah Ahmed writes.[10] Ahmed continues: ‘“I” and the “we” are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others.’ Stein’s indigestible semantics stops the reader at every word to take some time, yielding moments of wonder. But with such suspension, Stein’s words press, impress, and affect the reader by evoking an ethical gesture, a mode of holding back and retaining one’s judgement, as her writing forces such momentary immobility. Here are some lines from Stein’s ‘Ada’:

Some one who was living was almost always listening. Some one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was telling about being one then listening.[11]

The ‘impression’ we get from reading these lines may be that the jump between the mode of living, listening, loving, and telling is ‘almost always’ inseparable, and these three conditions begin over and over again, stacked in lines. The way Stein emphasizes ‘presentness’ is not only about insisting using words afresh, but in fact, about recognizing the shifting dynamic between the similar and the different. The difference between the mode of living, listening, loving, and telling remains minimal, but the four (or more) ‘-ings’ of life are never reduced into a single act. They are inseparably linked almost to the point at each they are indivisibly done, but the four actions remain distinct moments of life. This is why Stein’s text comes too late with its meaning but at the same time too early with its affective pressing, abounded with diverging temporalities. Stein’s nouns, in a similar vein, turn into an active verb to continuously (im)press the reader by not settling into one definite signification: what is a rose? They press each other and the reader, with a reticent and persistent repetition, letting the reader reimagine time, relation, and queerness in the world. Oscillating between lateness and earliness, in the infinite rhythms of language, Stein’s work begets affective temporalities that may have yet arrived, but it always makes those strange times visible and feasible yet unsettled and unresolved.


[1]Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theorytrans. Robert Hullot-Kentnor (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998), p. 1.

[2]Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019), p. 1.

[3]Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Elizabeth Freeman, Beside You in Time(Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

[4]Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Alienated Magnum Opus: On the Missa Solemnise’, Beethoven, the Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 144.

[5]Edward Said. “Thoughts on Late Style.” The London Review of Books, 26: 15 (2004).


[7]Theodor W. Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven.” Essays on Music,trans. Leppert, Richard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) p. 564.

[8]C. P. Cavafy, ‘As you set out for Ithaka / hope your road is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery. // […] May there be many summer mornings when, / with what pleasure, what joy, / you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; / may you stop at Phoenician trading stations / to buy fine things, / mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, / sensual perfume of every kind— / as many sensual perfumes as you can; […] // Keep Ithaka always in your mind. / […] // Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you wouldn’t have set out. / She has nothing left to give you now. […]’; Said, ‘Thoughts on Late Style’.

[9]Ibid; Gertrude Stein, ‘Composition and Explanation’, Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932(New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 520.

[10]Sarah Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life(Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 10.

[11]Gertrude Stein, ‘Ada’, Writings 1903-1932, p. 277.

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