Gertrude Stein and a Robin

IT was Whistler, was n’t it, who reported Nature as creeping up; and Wilde who, borrowing the idea, broached the suggestion, so disconcerting to the ever-abused bourgeoisie, that Nature is a trifle behind the times? So she is, though for aught we know her plagiarism may have in it something cocky and amused, like an adult consciously turned child for the moment, and cutting up and laughing at himself all the time he is performing.

This idea, if it deserves such a dignified nomenclature, came one morning while I was putting the finishing touches to a commutational, and perforce hurried, meal. Between gulps of coffee and attacks on a piece of toast that seemed, in its crisp mellowness, to beg for a more leisurely process of mastication, there came to me from the front lawn the voice of a robin, chattering away like an old dotard, and imitating — I remember this with the clearness of a miracle — the moderns. Yes, that is what this silly robin was doing, though why, I don’t for the life of me know, for she had no hopes of being reincarnated into a drawingroom poseur. It seemed to me that this particular robin was attempting to do for bird language what Gertrude Stein was doing for the English language. There was the desire — if not the capacity — to tell a story, and to do it, not simply, but with nuances of unintelligibility, symphonies of monotonous notes, bravuras of aimless repetition. I grew a little tired, after a few minutes, of that bird.

If you should happen to read a sentence of Gertrude Stein and hear a robin jabbering close on its heels, I am sure you too would be stirred by the curious resemblance. Heaven forfend that I should compare the supremely civilized and bravely experimental Gertrude Stein, matronly and superior among her Picassos, Matisses, Marie Laurencins, and cubistic paintings, to the silly hopping of a robin. It is more appropriate to make the robin take the onus, the flying start and ingratiating introduction of the simile. Now, Miss Stein, in the story, ‘Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,’ says: —

They did then learn many ways to be gay and they were then being gay being quite regular in being gay, being gay and they were learning little things, little things in ways of being gay, they were very regular then, they were learning very many little things in ways of being gay, they were being gay and using these little things they were learning to have to be gay with regularly gay with then and they were gay the same amount they had been gay. They were quite gay, they were quite regular, they were learning little things, gay little things, they were gay inside them the same amount they had been gay, they were gay the same length of time they had been gay every day.

They were regular in being gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they learned many little things that are things in being gay, they were gay every day, they were regular, they were gay, they were gay the same length of time every day, they were gay, they were quite regularly gay—

and seems to imply shades of statement which to the sacrilegious uninitiate are hardly deserving of such labor.

And the bird, in its simple way, seemed to be saying something, which I translated as follows:

The day is beginning in a sort of beginning that is a day beginning daily; but today the day wants to begin in a morning daze that has been beginning every morning: chirpy, chirp chirp, chirpy-chirp, chirpy chirpy-chirp. When to-day was a day beginning its beginning day, the beginning day was a morning day beginning its beginning day.

Of course, I may possibly be wrong. It may have been talking — certainly it was n’t singing — of food, or of its mate. But whatever it was discoursing upon so patiently and abstractedly, it had adopted the technique — to my ignorant way of thinking, the style — of Gertrude Stein.

At this point, the logical question to put to my cocksureness is, ‘How do you know?’ My answer is, ‘It must be so.’ With the axiom to begin with, that nature is gracefully laggard and shabbily unoriginal, always wearing last year’s coat or waiting for the relics of somebody’s contemporaneous habit, it is inevitable to presume that the bird in question was echoing something a year old. For if it (pardon me, O bird, for relegating you to fugaceous neutrality!) was not imitating Miss Stein, then whom — and I ask the question challengingly — could it have been imitating? Not Tennyson, surely, for he is passé; and not George Moore, for only the suavely mannered G. M. himself can do that.

Of course, there is the alternative supposition. But as this is an argumentative exposition, and I scorn all pretense to the open mind, I willfully disregard it, knowing only too well that it has already cropped up in the reader’s mind.

The point of the whole matter is that, having immersed myself for several hours (oh, never to be forgiven purgatory, leading to no heaven of reward!) in some of the writings of Gertrude Stein, I cannot for the moment refrain from considering even the chirp of an innocent redbreast but as another version of Miss Stein’s peculiarly repetitious prose.