Monday, October 08, 2007

Marching to a Different Drummer

I have just read a brilliant column in the Columbia University Daily Spectator, the student paper. The piece is by Atossa Abrahamian, an undergraduate student of philosophy. Born in Iran, Abrahamian came to America as a child.

In the column she relates an experience that happened to her in the seventh grade. He classmates were enthusiastically discussing the film "Titanic." Abrahamian says that she disliked the movie but bit her tongue: she didn't want to be ostracized. Specifically, she was afraid that she would have to eat her lunch alone. Sure enough, one girl voiced her opinion that Leonardo di Caprio was ugly. Gossip condemned her as a lesbian.

When I was in high school we read the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, advocating forthrightness and individuality. If I am not mistaken, it was Emerson who coined the expression "marching to a different drummer." And so I sought to march according to that rhythm. In addition, my ingrained tendency to contentiousness was reinforced by my parents' adhesion to a far-left political sect. While I came to reject their views, I learned early one to be distrustful of conventional political analyses, even when supported by a seeming consensus.

Moreover, my growing awareness of my "deviate" sexual orientation caused me to be skeptical of experts in this field--and by extension all experts. Thinking for oneself should mean just that.

Abrahamian reminds her readers that America has always hosted a very different tradition from the Emersonian one. She aptly quotes an 1835 observation by Alexis de Toqueville: "As long as the majority is undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety."

Having recently revisited Iran, Abrahamian is apprehensive--in my view rightly so--about the growing consensus that "something must be done" about this ostensible rogue state.

For my part, after more than a half century of sometimes rough-and-tumble adult life, I would say the following. Don't always believe what you read, in this case Emerson. People do not admire dissidents. As Abrahamian found in the seventh grade this stance means that you lunch alone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Alice and Gertrude, Gertrude and Alice

Poor Alice B. Toklas! It seems that she is destined to be remembered mainly for two things she did not do. She did not write her "Autobiography." That task was performed for her by her spouse, Gertrude Stein. And she did not provide a recipe for marijuana brownies (the basis for the goof film "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.") Instead, her cookbook contains instructions about making hashihh fudge, quite a different matter.

What Toklas did do, and did superbly, was to facilitate in every possible way the works of Gertrude Stein. For almost twenty-five years after Stein's death in 1946 she continued to encourage their publication and study. To be sure, she tried to edit the past a bit--but what widow has not?

Unfortunately, Alice-bashing has become an almost ineluctable meme among Stein scholars. It seems that hardly anybody loves Alice B. Toklas. In her way, Alice ("Pussy") had the last laugh, because her Baby definitely loved her. That was what mattered.

Now comes Janet Malcolm, a formidable biographical investigator. Like the two "New Yorker" pieces on which it is based, Malcolm's new book, "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice" (Yale University Press), is riveting. She tones down the Alice-bashing a bit, but it is there, true to form. What need is there to tell us that when Toklas was in her eighties she drooled her food while eating? That is really petty.

Throughout Malcolm is exercised by the fact that the two women paid little attention to their Jewish heritage. She even specuates that Gertrude might have left somewhere, a cache of letters of correspondence with a rabbi. Not likely. What really sticks in Malcolm's craw is that Toklas converted to Catholicism after Stein's death. So what? Many of us convert to or from various things. Why not Alice B. Toklas.

Malcolm's is a post-Holocaust sensibility, formed in part by her Czech-Jewish immigrant father, a psychoanalyst. She has little understanding of how Jewish persons, raised in America more than a hundred years ago, might feel.

I can throw some light on this matter via my close friend Arthur Cyrus Warner, whose life and accomplishments, I noted (all too briefly) in these pages in July. Arthur was born in 1918, so that his parents were roughly of the same generation as Stein and Toklas. Ceasing to be observant, they changed their name from Warshofsky to Warner. If you asked them if they were Jewish, they would not deny it, but assimilation was what they were seeking. (As Arthur explained to me, the term in those days was "Hebrew.") The Warners felt no more need to get in touch with their religious roots than did my parents, who shunned contact with their ostensible Christian roots. They were atheists, and felt no attraction to such delvings. I think that Stein and Toklas were much the same as the Warners, except that they didn't change their surnames. These were things that one needn't worry about. The thing to do was to make a major contribution to literary modernism. That Gertrude Stein did, with Alice B. Toklas helping all along the way.

There is another factor that I can attest from personal experience. After one has lived, as an American, abroad for a while one feels a need to affirm one's Americanness. For one thing, one is repelled by the ridiculous misinformation spread by America-haters abroad. (Not that there is not much to criticize on these shores. I do so myself. But the criticisms should be based on facts, not thoughtless stereotypes.)

Stein and Toklas solicited seeds from the US to grow corn (maize) on their French property. When the American soldiers came to liberate Stein's little town, they offered her a ride on a jeep. "You bet!" she exclaimed. Only an American would say that.

Central to Gertrude Stein's best work is her reinvention of language. She applied the "making strange" principle to ordinary English phrases. Except that they were American phrases. Significantly, most of the real Stein scholars are Americans, and not Brits or Europeans.

There is one significant exception: Bernard Fay a French Americanist, who helped protect Stein and Toklas during World War II. An extreme rightwinger, Fay was an anti-Semite, a factor he suspended in his fondness for Stein and Toklas. But then the two women suspended one of their own prejudices. Like some lesbians I have known, Stein approved of female same-sex love, but thought that male homosexuality was wrong. Fay was gay. Fay "overlooked" something, and Stein reciprocated.

Thank goodness we don't always act according to our unfortunate general theories.

A year ago I assigned Stein's "Tender Buttons" to my Symbolism class. I'm not sure that the students knew what to make of it. The answer is that the more you read Stein the better sense you make of her. May Malcolm's book, flawed as it is, contribute to this supremely good cause.