Gertrude Stein's Lively Habits

By Moses, Omri | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Gertrude Stein's Lively Habits


Moses, Omri, Twentieth Century Literature


As the writer of Three Lives, Gertrude Stein tends to be excited by the material other novelists discard. Avoiding craftsmanlike values as well as stylishness, she goes about fashioning and then repeating crude, makeshift descriptions of people and their characters. When she has them talk, they produce an incessant and recurring palaver that most of us make our peace with in others but do not necessarily celebrate. Wyndham Lewis, no fan of Stein's, said of her work (he had read Three Lives),"Cut it at any point, it is the same thing; the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through. ... It is mournful and monstrous, composed of dead and inanimate material. It is all fat without nerve" (59). Stein for her part simply does not accept the charge that the habits, the temperaments, the forms of decency that incline people toward their particular brand of unthinking sociability are dead. At her most confident, she seems impervious to such invective. For her, the inner movement of repetition is the very principle of liveliness: "And if this vitality [of movement within repetition] is lively enough is there in that clarity any confusion is there in that clarity any repetition?" ("Lectures in America" 292). Habit as Stein understands it is not a fixed, rigid, and permanent part of the person, and it never repeats in the same way twice. It certainly defines us, as much as anything does. But habits aren't an indication of a set character that lies beneath our behaviors. We don't have a preordained seed of personality that makes us consistent from the start. We are regular beings simply because we accumulate manners and behaviors, and because that accumulation has a history that allows us at once to recognize ourselves and to depart from ourselves.

Habits, in Stein's conception, aren't immune to change. And yet her adherence to them--her celebration of "simple firm ordinary middle class traditions ... in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living" (Making of Americans 34)--is calculated to affront avant-garde theories of art that promote shock as a way of jolting people from staid, conventional patterns of perception and response. (1) Stein's refusal to admit repetition's deadening qualities has tended to addle critics who see habit's positive roles--its capacity to transmit and bind elements of experience and to limber up the higher faculties--invariably mixed up with inert and conservative social functions. (2) Liesl Olson and Lisi Schoenbach, for instance, follow Walter Benjamin in defining habit not as a dynamic and productive response but as a regularizing one. For Benjamin, habit offers a buffer against the "shock experience [that] has become the norm" (162) of modern life and threatens to obliterate psychic stability.

Stein, for her part, accords to habit a more active range of functions. In order to understand Steinian habit as a character-shaping force capable of emotional variety, one needs to turn to an intellectual lineage that cast a wide shadow over Stein's early life. Charles Darwin is perhaps the great arbiter standing behind her conception of habit. She picks up on an undercurrent of his argument--that repetition is a useful, indeed a necessary, part of human sociality--and explores its reach and consequence. Like him, she concentrates attention on microevents that reveal emergent changes from an earlier precedent. But as we shall see, because of her own sensitivity to questions of habit--and as a result of the vitalist optic she had developed under the influence of William James, her mentor at Harvard--she picks up on a side of Darwin that rarely receives attention: his claim that repetitions are not always arbitrary but sometimes involve choice. Stein learned from Darwin that habits arise out of and modify biological systems. Importantly, his late treatise The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is less concerned with randomly inherited physiological variations than with behaviors at the vanishing point between psychology and biology. …

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