Stein and the Past
Gertrude Stein’ deals with the past and its relationship to progress in “Orta or One Dancing.” Stein explores this relationship not through the meaning of what she is saying, but instead through the manner in which this piece is written. Gleaning any sort of distinct meaning from this piece is almost impossible, but that fact forces the reader to focus on the style of Stein’s writing.
Many of the sentences in “Orta or One Dancing” sound very similar to the prior sentence. “She was one and was then like some one. She was one and she had then come to be like some other one.” Instead of seeming like separate sentences, the repetition of many of the same words, like “one” and “she”, and the slight variations in the pattern of the words make it seem as though each sentence is simply a revision. Stein takes each iteration of the sentence, and instead of discarding the sentence if it is imperfect, she builds off of it. The unusual writing style shows that her past attempts are not useless; they are necessary for the growth of her writing.
Although it is seemingly impossible to extract distinct meaning from each individual sentence, the piece in general is concerned with “One Dancing.” The same way that Stein does not discard her previous attempts at a sentence, the subject of the piece is different in each moment, but the past moment has not been forgotten. The similarities from one sentence, and thus one moment, to the next show that the past is important in progress for a person, as well as progress for the piece.
It is not only within Stein’s own work that building off of the past is important. Harryette Mullen took this idea even further by taking inspiration from Stein’s works and building off of them and revising them to make them her own. “A light white, a disgrace, an ink sport, a rosy charm” gets reworked into “A light white disgraceful sugar looks pink…” This pattern among the modernists shows that they were not interested in totally abandoning the past, but instead using the past as a tool to make more progress.
Gertrude Stein’s essay entitled “Objects” is a piece that makes use of the past in the form of 19th century etiquette manuals, but only as a device to emphasize how wildly the contemporary cultural expectations vary with the Victorian. Stein takes pleasure in mentioning objects that were commonplace in the 1800s and completely repurposing them to echo her own feminist agenda. For instance, she mentions petticoats, which are commonly associated with proper, old-fashioned women. However, Stein describes this item of clothing as “a light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm,” a series of descriptors that quickly stray from the common reader’s perception of a petticoat. A “light white” is not sinister or vulgar on its own, but it does contain the potential to be tainted with the “disgrace” that comes next. With this second modifier, Stein completes the transformation of “petticoat” into a call for feminist action. She resists the antiquated idea that a woman who possesses a “rosy” sexual charm and harsh words written against her (as shown in the “ink spot,” likely in response to the backlash against Stein’s own writing) is one deserving of public disgrace. With eleven words, Stein launches a campaign for sex positivity and grace in the face of professional failure, all referring to an outdated undergarment worn a century ago. This short section demonstrates Stein’s determination to efface the past in such a way that completely obliterates the character traits once associated with “ladies” of Victorian Europe.