The Stein Differential: Gertrude Stein's Mathematical Aesthetic

By Hoff, Ann K. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Stein Differential: Gertrude Stein's Mathematical Aesthetic


Hoff, Ann K., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty."

--Bertrand Russell

Among Gertrude Stein's many pronouncements about her own methods, one stands out: that she considered herself logical, her writing exact and mathematical. In Wars I Have Seen, Stein remarks that she "naturally had [her] part in killing the nineteenth century and killing it dead, quite like a gangster with a mitraillette," because the era was "completely lacking in logic [...] it had cosmic terms and hopes and aspirations and discoveries and ideals but it had no logic, and I like logic, I really do" (91). In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein (narrating through the eidolon of Alice) claims that "Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude," and that because of her passion for exactitude "her work has often been compared to that of mathematicians" (Selected 198-99). Does Stein's work compare to "that of mathematicians" or is it too circuitous to be logical, too imprecise to be mathematical?

This essay argues that Stein did adopt a mathematical aesthetic shaped by the theories of her fellow genius Alfred North Whitehead. In asserting that Stein adopts a mathematical aesthetic, I do not claim that her work abides by prescribed mathematical formulae. I posit that the elements that mathematicians find valuable in their work parallel the essentials of Stein's writing style. Four interconnected elements exemplify their shared mathematical aesthetic: articulation through incremental repetition and sequence; intense focus on type and pattern; the abandonment of particulars in favour of abstractions; and a time sense that conjoins the past with the present moment. Stein's mathematical impulse, and her turn from the influence of William James to that of Whitehead, signifies a feminist defiance of patriarchy. Stein's poem "Patriarchal Poetry" embodies her use of the mathematical aesthetic; its passages exemplify all four of its elements. The poem is an anti-narrative, feminist experiment replacing patriarchal grammar with a mathematical, genderless, abstract mode of writing. Before we can fully appreciate "Patriarchal Poetry" as the quintessence of Stein's mathematical aesthetic, however, we must first understand how Stein's larger oeuvre exemplifies the four components of a mathematical aesthetic, and the full extent of Whitehead's influence.

Stein's work contains myriad indications of her interest in mathematics. Even her titles attest to this predilection--for example, Q.E.D, Two, "Are There Arithmetics," "An Exercise in Analysis," "A Circular Play," Three Saints in Four Acts, The World is Round, and Four in America. However, since Stein first asserted her "exactitude," critics have doubted it. Her brother Leo was among the first to scoff, declaring, "Her pretentious simplicity is not profundity," but he has not been the last (Leo Stein, Journey 55). Robert Chodat, in "Sense, Science, and the Interpretations of Gertrude Stein," argues against considering Stein's work scientific or logical, and calls instead for reading Stein without "dubious appeals to 'exactitude' or mathematics" (582). He contends, "There is little that is law-like in the kinds of sense-making activities that Stein's texts demand" (603). I maintain that Stein's sense-making activities echo Whitehead's mathematical innovations and share with Whitehead an aesthetic of what "vivifies experience" (Science and Philosophy 120).

In evidence of Stein's pervasively mathematical aesthetic stands a fecund body of Stein scholarship grappling with varying aspects of the Stein differential. When viewed separately, this divergent body of scholarship seems to support contentions that Stein's methods were haphazard and contradictory. Collectively, scholarship indicates that Stein consistently employs the four elements of a mathematical aesthetic, as outlined above, in varying ways throughout her career.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Stein Differential: Gertrude Stein's Mathematical Aesthetic
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.