The Stein Differential: Gertrude Stein's Mathematical Aesthetic

Article excerpt

"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. …