The Argument as Overheard by Gertrude Stein


Mark Crimmins

She was sitting in a nice chair. Sitting in a nice chair was nice. There was niceness in general and then there was a nice chair. Compared to niceness in general a nice chair was very nice and the niceness of the chair was in its being nice. So she sat in the chair. Nicely she sat in the nice chair. The niceness of the chair was in sitting in the chair. That was its niceness. There was no niceness in a chair if sitting in it, the chair, was not nice. But this chair was nice and she was sitting in it and it was nice. Sitting in the nice chair was nice. Very nice. There was no niceness quite like the niceness of sitting in a nice chair. One could sit in a chair that was without niceness and it could still be nice. The act of sitting in the chair in spite of the chair’s not being nice. But that was not the case with this chair. No. In this chair the niceness was in the sitting. So she sat in this chair. Gertrude Stein sat in this chair and it was nice for Gertrude Stein to sit in this chair because the chair was nice but that was not entirely the niceness of it. If you knew Gertrude Stein well, with a knowing and a knowledge, you would already know that she would not have sat in this chair if it were not for the niceness of it. There was life and then there was a nice chair. And sometimes the two were almost coextensive if not coexistent. It was William James who had taught Gertrude Stein this back at Harvard when he had given Gertrude Stein an excellent mark for an exam she Gertrude Stein had never written. Had never written with a pen anyway. Part of James’s point, Gertrude Stein saw, was that she had written the examination in her head. Who but William James could ascertain such a writing on the part of the brain if not William James? So it could be said and perhaps it was said and indeed it might have been said and should have been said if it wasn’t actually said, that is out loud in words that were spoken, that Gertrude Stein had indeed written the examination for William James but that she had done so in such a brilliant way that William James recognized that nobody but Gertrude Stein could had written the exam in that way. That is without words. She had written William James an examination without words. But no that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it precisely. More precisely it was true to say that Gertrude Stein had written the exam not without words but without words that had been spoken out loud. But no that was not it either. That was not it at all as Eliot would have said if you could find Eliot, that was, on a day when he wasn’t so taciturn that you couldn’t get a word out of him because he was so worried that what Joyce had done in Ulysses was put an end to literature itself by writing in such a way that literature was over by the time he, Joyce, had finished writing that novel. And surely there were people who thought, and Gertrude Stein was sometimes one of these people but sometimes Gertrude Stein was also not one of these people, but there were people who thought anyway, whether or not Gertrude Stein was one of them, that Proust himself had used up the French language by the time he had finished writing the Recherche. That he had simply exhausted the French language and it would never recover but rather would become enshrined or perhaps even fossilized in Proust’s novel so that people would go and see it in a museum. Would go and see the French language all written to the point of exhaustion in a little or rather a quite large glass case in a museum. And everyone in France would just start speaking Esperanto or some other made up language that the professors had invented so people in Paris, for example, would be able to go out and buy a baguette in an era when the French language had become exhausted and tired out and museumized. Or perhaps the French—because you could never, and Gertrude Stein certainly never did this, underestimate the resilience and resourcefulness of the French—would simply start speaking another language, Spanish perhaps, or one of the old European medieval dialects like the ones the romances were written in, or like Catalan perhaps, and the thing about the French, Gertrude Stein said, was that they were so brilliant in their verve that they wouldn’t learn this new language, they would all just, with a wave of the hand and an eh bon, spontaneously start speaking this new language all at once, out of respect for Proust’s achievement but also out of necessity since Proust had finished off French, but it was only Eliot, Gertrude Stein said, or thought, sitting in her nice chair in its niceness, who was really worried that Joyce had, in 1922, assassinated all the future possibilities for English literature, and to understand this, Gertrude Stein sometimes explained, you had to understand that Eliot had worked in a bank, and if Hemingway had worked in a bank he would have felt the same way, but Gertrude Stein explained, sitting in her nice chair in all its niceness, that it was impossible to imagine Hemingway working in a bank. It was just one of those things Hemingway could not do. Even Joyce, Gertrude Stein said respectfully, could not, however hard he tried, have imagined Hemingway working in a bank. But as Gertrude Stein often said about Eliot, you could take Eliot out of the bank, and this is exactly what Ezra Pound had done, but you could never take the bank out of Eliot, and this is what Hemingway could never quite understand about Eliot because Hemingway and the idea of working in a bank were incompatible. For Hemingway to work in a bank would have been like Picasso becoming a hairdresser, and Gertrude Stein had always insisted that if Picasso had become a hairdresser it would have changed the history of the human race, not because Picasso would not then paint his pictures, which of course he would, but then you see you would have had a human race that looked different than at any other period in human history because of course Picasso’s way of doing people’s hair would have been so radical and imaginative that people would be walking around with cubist hair. Now the obvious part of this was that Picasso would have had to employ synthetic cubism as a method of doing people’s hair, and the trick would have been how to do hair in an analytical cubist way and if Picasso had been able to do that he almost wouldn’t have had to paint any pictures because of course his pictures, his art, would have been walking around on people’s heads in such a way that rendered the production of work on canvases superfluous. But as I said, Gertrude Stein was sitting in this chair the niceness of which was very hard to overstate, and—to return for just a moment to William James—what Gertrude Stein had done, effectively, was to write the exam, not without words but without words that were written so that the exam she had written for James, though the notebook she would have written it in if she had written it in words was blank, was actually written directly from Gertrude Stein’s brain to William James’s brain, not by means of anything so crude or mystical as telepathy but by a much more rigorous and refined nootropic process of thought transference that William James alone probably could have even discerned it, and this was why Gertrude Stein was William James’s most brilliant student at the very same time that she had not strictly speaking written anything in the exam booklet for William James, and this in turn gives one an indication of just how attuned and attentive Gertrude Stein would have been when she was sitting in the nice chair and heard, above her, someone speaking, or, strictly speaking (because if William James had taught Gertrude Stein anything it was to be strict in what she said, to speak with exactitude in other words, and in this respect Alfred North Whitehead hadn’t exactly been a noninfluence either but that was another story entirely) she heard someone speaking or more strictly speaking she heard words that were being spoken but the words were not apparently attendant upon a speaking subject because there were, in the room with Gertrude Stein, a total of no other people, no interlocutors, no tradesmen fixing the grate or men or women of any kind, and it was just Gertrude Stein sitting in the niceness that only a nice chair can afford and hearing these words fly into her head, through the portals of her ears as it were, and there being no mouth, and if a stone in the Bible could be made without hands, thought Gertrude Stein as she sat in the niceness of the nice chair, then why hold such a doctrinaire view of the supposed fact that there could be no such thing as words spoken without a mouth, but then Gertrude Stein looked up at the ceiling in the empty room that was empty except for just about everything except Gertrude Stein and her nice chair, though it wasn’t strictly speaking her nice chair but a nice chair, and there in the ceiling when she looked up was an air vent that Gertrude Stein got the very distinct impression was a vent either through which the words had traveled or which (a more exotic possibility but one that Gertrude Stein felt could not be ruled out) was speaking itself, though Gertrude Stein was quick to question the possibility of a speaking vent and thus not particularly slow to ascertain that the vent might have been (and this didn’t obviate the possibility that it was, if at least in a sort of Peircean sense) a mouth that articulated sounds or that facilitated or imitated speech in the very way the vocal apparatus of the human anatomy produced it, a vent above Gertrude Stein’s head that spoke and which, Gertrude Stein noticed immediately, spoke not with one voice but with two, a sort of stereophonic vent capable of singing a duet, though, as she listened to the words that proceeded forth from the mouth of the vent above her head in the chair whose niceness was nice, a duet, she determined, that was characterized by a certain tension and strife between the voices it, the vent, articulated, and it was not long after this that Gertrude Stein, carefully discounting the idea of a self-contradicting vent capable of speech and productive of its own cognitive dissonance, decided that the vent was probably merely the vehicle or means of conveyance of an argument between a man and a woman somewhere else in the building where she Gertrude Stein sat in the nice room with the nice chair that thereby amounted to a sort of bar of aural judgment upon which she Gertrude Stein sat as she listened, not without wonder, to the voices that poured from the vent into her brain. 


About the Author

Mark Crimmins‘s first book, travel memoir Sydneyside Reflections, was published in Australia by Everytime Press in 2020. His short stories—three of which were nominated for Pushcart Prizes—have been published in over sixty literary journals, including Confrontation, Columbia Journal, Queen’s Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Cirque, Eclectica, Tampa Review, Fiction Southeast, and Chicago Quarterly Review. Currently an Associate Professor of English Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Mark lives and writes in Hong Kong.