“What is the answer? In that case, what is the question?”
I would like to talk about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, but in order to do that we must first take a step back and discuss the light, the context, in which is best to regard Stein and her work. Trust me. It’s a necessary step when addressing this book because to understand Stein, one must consider the climate of the artistic world that surrounded her.
Gertrude Stein was an American writer who moved to Paris in 1903, and remained in France for the remainder of her life. She hosted a Paris salon where the leading figures of modernism in art and literature would meet, such as Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald (of the F. Scott variety), and Matisse.
Cubism: where objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstract form with multiple viewpoints to represent the greater context
Stein said, “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cezanne, and this gave me a new feeling about composition. Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but which was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing.” (I swiped that quote from a PowerPoint slide in my American Literature II class – thanks, Dr. Cassel 😉 )
So when reading Gertrude Stein, don’t get caught up in the meanings of the words she uses, and instead consider her words like paint being applied to a cubist image. Each bit of paint has a purpose, but it may not necessarily be your traditional understanding of that image. Got it? I’m sure you do. Here we go.
Here is a small poem from Tender Buttons:
A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.
Still with me? Yeah. See what I mean? Good Lord. I hope you aren’t trying to read this under the influence. I can’t really tell you not to, though, as I sit at the computer in my own state of giddy intoxication. I am many things, but a hypocrite is not one of them.
As I said earlier, one must not consider Stein’s poem as a whole. To do so while assigning traditional sense to the words she uses makes it disjointed, repetitive, and perhaps even nonsense. It reads like a stream of consciousness. As a lifelong voracious reader, how am I supposed to read Stein’s words without allowing them their meaning? My chest hurts, this suddenly feels like a Mad Lib.
When first unpacking this piece, the first thing that came to my mind was an automobile. In the early 1900’s, Ford’s Model T automobile was indeed a “sign of extra” and most definitely an “established color,” as Henry Ford himself is quotes as saying, Any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Then, the poem’s “no curve” and “extra loud clash” potentially becomes about a car accident. That would indeed be a great loss, potentially in more ways than one.
In contrast, a friend felt it was about the expatriates’ sentiments of the time period that they could not express themselves in art and literature the way they wanted in America, and this constant clash is why they moved to France. To move from your country would indeed be a great loss, and great restitution.
Or, perhaps the lack of curve means that the umbrella won’t open, even though there is cause to open it. Why won’t this Mildred open it? Has she lost it? What if she thwarted a robbery, and busted it over the head of a seedy villain, and it is now stuck? Are there zombies?
Okay, I acknowledge I went too far on that last bit.
The amazing aspect of art is that neither of us are wrong, excluding the bit about the zombies.
The most beautiful thing about literature and art is that cliche of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Writer and director Joss Whedon says, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” Regardless of a writer’s or painter’s intent, everyone has their own interpretation of the piece that has been drawn from their own experiences, emotions, and lifestyles.
You should give more poems from Tender Buttons a chance. I was intimidated and very put off at first when I tried reading this book, but now that I understand the light that it must be read, I am enjoying it significantly more. Gertrude Stein is a fascinating woman, and if they decide to make a Biopic about her extraordinary life I nominate Tom Wilkinson for the role.