In 1922, Einstein and Bergson publicly discussed the nature of time. I argue that this debate, which pivoted on the question of whether there is one time or a plurality of times, and especially the phenomenological stance promoted in it by Bergson, makes for an illuminating context against which to read Stein's 1920s literary thinking on temporality.
In Time and Western Man, Wyndham Lewis targets Gertrude Stein. Tirading, he describes her as "a confused, stammering, rather 'soft' (bloated, acromegalic, squinting and spectacled, ...) child" and puts her writing on par with the philosophy of time that enchanted the first decades of the twentieth century: "In the beginning was the Word should rather be, in the beginning was Time, according to Miss Stein (as also according to Bergson, Prof. Alexander, Einstein, Whitehead, Minkowski, etc. etc.). And she is one of the most eminent writers of what I have described as our musical society; that is our time-society, the highly-intellectualized High-Bohemia" (47). Lewis echoes Julien Benda's Belphegor when he belittles contemporary intellectual and artistic discourse in Europe by comparing it to a mere musical society. Like Benda, he is intent on denouncing the "populist" thinking of Henri Bergson. In Time and Western Man, Bergson stands for the downfall of contemporary philosophy. Stein, by analogy, symbolizes the demise of good literature. For all its author's furious, reactionary haranguing, to which Stein wisely chose not to respond, Time and Western Man points to a vital connection that has been overlooked in contemporary Stein criticism: the relation between Stein's poetic and the continental debate on the nature of time, in which Bergson's was the prime voice. Curiously, there is even a musical aspect to the Stein-Bergson link. Both turned to melody as a metaphor for temporality.
Where, for Lewis, it stands out that Stein counts as a "follower of Bergson" (xiv), the philosopher only rarely crops up in Stein criticism. (1) This indubitably ties in with the fact that there are no references to Bergson in Stein's writings. Furthermore, critical explorations into how Stein's thinking on temporality owes to William James's notion of the stream of consciousness may have seemed to make superfluous a detailed engagement with Bergson, a thinker whom James considered very much in line with his own project. Nevertheless, the critical sidestepping of Bergson in Stein criticism leaves out a very important episode in the early twentieth-century intellectual climate, which created the conditions for Stein's literary experiment and to which she contributed. Bergson's early twentieth-century popularity is legendary and the entanglements between Bergsonism and various modernist artists and writers have been amply documented. Stein, who had lived in Paris since 1903, would not have been able to escape the Bergsonist craze that swept through the city in the early 1900s. Although Stein's work has often been commended for its philosophical depth, critics who explore the philosophical entanglements of her writing tend to limit their scope to an (Anglo-)American philosophical tradition. They focus on William James, under whom Stein studied at Radcliffe in the 1890s and to whom she referred in the 1940s as "one of the strongest scientific influences that I had" (Wars 63); open up to A.N. Whitehead, whose guest she was in London at the outbreak of World War I and whom narrator Alice, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, labels a "genius" (660); or look back to Emerson, whom Stein commended as a writer with "passion" (Preston 161). (2) In adding Bergsonism to the matrix of Stein's modernism, we get to appreciate Stein as a writer who not only engaged with an American, pragmatist line of thinking, but whose work can also be read as responding to a continental debate on time and temporality.
Among Stein's contemporaries, Wyndham Lewis was hardly the only one to read Stein's work in line with Bergsonism. …