IN 1935, AS GERTRUDE STEIN recalls it,1 Picasso was suffering from what we might call painter’s block. Finding himself at an impasse in his personal life, for two years he stopped painting altogether, taking up writing instead. “He commenced to write poems,” Stein remarks, “but this writing was never his writing. After all the egoism of a painter is not at all the egoism of a writer, there is nothing to say about it, it is not. No” (Picasso 67). And in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Stein recalls telling the great painter, who was perhaps her closest friend:
Your poetry . . . is more offensive than just bad poetry I do not know why it is but it just is, somebody who can really do something very well when he does something else which he cannot do and in which he cannot live it is particularly repellent, now you I said to him, you never read a book in your life that was not written by a friend and then not then and you never had any feelings about any words, words annoy you more than they do anything else so how can you write you know better. . . . all right go on doing it but don’t go on trying to make me tell you it is poetry.2
Stein’s almost visceral reaction here was prompted, not just, as is often assumed, by Picasso’s invasion of her territory or by her surprisingly traditional insistence on the separation of the arts. The deeper reason—and we tend to forget this when we discuss the relationship of the two—is that Picasso had never so much as pretended to read Stein’s writing. For him, Gertrude was a wonderful patron and copain—he loved coming to her salon and gossiping with her on a daily basis—but her writing, especially given that it was in English—a language he couldn’t, after all, read—was hardly within the radius of his discourse. Not surprisingly, when he did take on “poetry” in the mid-1930s, his models were the then prominent French surrealists, beginning with his good friend André Breton. Here, for example, is the opening of a typical Picasso prose poem from 1935, as translated from the Spanish by Jerome Rothenberg:
I mean a dish a cup a nest a knife a tree a frying pan a nasty spill while strolling on the sharp edge of a cornice breaking up into a thousand pieces screaming like a madwoman and lying down to sleep stark naked legs spread wide over the odor from a knife that just beheaded the wine froth and nothing bleeds from it except for lips like butterflies and asks you for no handouts for a visit to the bulls with a cicada like a feather in the wind 3
This passage is characteristically Surrealist in its mysterious juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images—“a tree a frying pan,” a “cornice . . . screaming like a madwoman”—its emphasis on violence—“stark naked legs spread wide over the odor from a knife”—and its collocation of elaborate metaphor and simple syntax. A passionate advocate of Picasso’s early Cubism, which, as has been frequently observed,4 is a technique Stein herself adapted in such compositions as Tender Buttons (1914), Picasso’s Surrealist poetic mode is antithetical to Stein’s own, with its avoidance of concrete nouns, its syntactic ambiguity, and its reliance on indeterminate pronouns, articles, and prepositions to produce a poetic construct she took to be appropriate to the twentieth century. “The surrealists,” Stein remarks dismissively in her discussion of Picasso’s painting of the early 1930s, “still see things as everyone sees them, they complicate them in a different way but the vision is that of everyone else, in short the complication is the complication of the twentieth century but the vision is that of the nineteenth century” (Picasso 65).
This critique of surrealism, whether just or unjust, is echoed by another of Stein’s contemporaries. In describing his “Box of 1913-14” (the “Green Box”) to Pierre Cabanne, Marcel Duchamp explains that his assemblage of miscellaneous notes placed inside the box was designed as an art object “not to be ‘looked at’ in the aesthetic sense of the word”—indeed, to “remove the retinal aspect” which had dominated painting from Courbet to the present:
Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral. If I had the chance to take an antiretinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn’t changed much; our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go so far! In spite of the fact that [André] Breton says he believes in judging from a Surrealist point of view, deep down he’s still really interested in painting in the retinal sense. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It must change.5
Duchamp’s critique of the retinal has its counterpart in Stein’s writing, but the two artists have rarely been linked. For all the critical studies devoted to the relationship of Stein and Picasso (or, as in the current exhibition The Steins Collect,6 on Stein’s debt to Cézanne or Matisse or to the cubism of Juan Gris), what has been curiously ignored is the reverse situation: the influence, if any, of Stein’s verbal composition on the visual artwork of her contemporaries. And here Duchamp, whose move to New York in 1915 necessitated the acquisition of English, even as Stein’s expatriation to Paris meant that her “art discourse” (especially with the Spaniard Picasso) was to be conducted in French, is the pivotal figure.
The two first met, according to the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Paris in 1913:
It was not long after this [the winter of 1913] that Mabel Dodge went to America and it was the winter of the armoury show which was the first time the general public had a chance to see any of these pictures. It was there that Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase was shown.
It was about this time that Picabia and Gertrude Stein met. I remember going to dinner at the Picabias’ and a pleasant dinner it was, Gabrielle Picabia full of life and gaiety, Picabia dark and lively, and Marcel Duchamp looking like a young Norman crusader.
I was always perfectly able to understand the enthusiasm that Marcel Duchamp aroused in New York when he went there in the early years of the war. His brother had just died from the effect of his wounds, his other brother was still at the front and he himself was inapt for military service. He was very depressed and he went to America. Everyone loved him. So much so that it was a joke in Paris when any American arrived in Paris the first thing he said was, and how is Marcel.7
“The young Duchamp,” she wrote a few days later to Mabel Dodge, “looks like a young Englishman and talks very urgently about the fourth dimension.”8 We know that Stein at this time was keenly interested in questions relating to mathematics and so this was a compliment.9
Indeed, Stein’s account in Alice B. Toklas is unusually flattering and without her usual malice—quite unlike, say, her references to Matisse or Pound or Hemingway. The “young Norman crusader”: Duchamp was the son of a notary in the little Normandy town of Blainville, a fact Stein refers to with amusement in Everybody’s Autobiography, where she remarks how many artists—Cocteau, Bernard Faÿ, Dali—were the sons of notaries (EA 26). Duchamp was handsome and charming. And in 1917, Stein was made aware of the brouhaha over Fountain by a letter from her friend Carl Van Vechten:
This porcelain tribute was bought cold in some plumber shop (where it awaited the call to join some bath room trinity) and sent in. . . . When it was rejected [by the Salon of Independents], Marcel Duchamp at once resigned from the board. Stieglitz is exhibiting the object at “291.” And has made some wonderful photographs of it. The photographs make it look like anything from a Madonna to a Buddha. [figures 1 and 2] 1
Did the Readymades influence Stein’s writing? Yes and no. Like Duchamp—and I have discussed this issue elsewhere11—her compositions resemble Duchamp’s “objects” in their wholesale rejection of the mimetic contract—a rejection which, to my mind, goes well beyond Cubist distortion and dislocation of what are, after all, still recognizable objects and bodies. In this sense, Duchamp’s dismissal of the “retinal” is also hers. Such prose poems as “A Substance in a Cushion” and “A Box” in Tender Buttons, for example, can be related to Duchamp’s Green Box and the later boîtes en valise in their emphasis on what cannot be seen or inferred from the outside. More important, as different as their artistic productions were—Stein, after all, did not use “readymade” or found text—they drew on each other’s work in striking ways—ways that have largely been ignored. The key text here is Geography and Plays, published in 1922. After the War, when Duchamp, having returned to Paris, called on Stein with their mutual friend Henri-Pierre Roché (the writer who had introduced Gertrude and Leo to Picasso and was the subject of a 1909 Portrait)12, the discussion was evidently about Stein’s desire to publish a collection of the shorter experimental texts—poems, prose pieces, portraits and plays—she had been writing since 1908—for example, her masterpiece “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene.”13 Walter Arensberg and Henry McBride were enlisted, and Sherwood Anderson, newly arrived in Paris in 1921, offered to write a preface. After a number of rejections, Edmund F. Brown’s Four Seas Company of Boston agreed to publish Geography and Plays [figure 3], surely one of Stein’s most seminal collections and available today both at Project Gutenberg and Google books; there is also a fine reprint edition with a useful introduction by Cyrena N. Pondrom.14 Geography and Plays contains the well-known early portraits of Harry Phelan Webb, Constance Fletcher, Georges Braque, Carl Van Vechten (“One”), and Mrs. Whitehead; the rhyming musical pieces like “Susie Asado” “Pink Melon Joy,” and “Accents in Alsace,” and the plays “Ladies Voices” and “What Happened.” Roughly at the center of the volume, Stein placed “Sacred Emily” (1913), a ten-page poem Duchamp is quite likely to have known, which contains the first instance of what is probably Stein’s most famous line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (187). In later appearances of her tribute to the rose as merely itself (e.g., “Do we suppose that all she knows is that a rose is a rose is a rose,” in Opera and Plays), the noun “rose” is preceded by the indefinite article: in “Poetry and Grammar,” for example, where Stein defines poetry as “concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun,” she illustrates “noun—the name of anything”—with the comment:
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry
“In that line,” Stein was to declare later, “the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” 15
But in “Sacred Emily,” Rose is a proper name: it has already appeared in the opening section:
Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen (178)
This passage recalls “Susie Asado” in its punning and rhyming short and seemingly quite unrelated phrases. “Compose” rhymes with “rose,” philip philip” sounds like a bird call, “Egg be takers” puns on “egg beaters,” “place nuts” seems to be a misheard reference to “placements” or “place names,” just as “twenty for cent” should be “twenty percent”, but, then again, since “per” means “for,” “twenty for cent” is oddly accurate. By the time we come to line 7, what might have conventionally been a “rose in bloom” becomes a “rose in hen” (the eggs have already been laid), with its sound allusion to Don Quixote’s beloved horse Rosinante, as well as its erotic reference of the verb form “rose” which functions here.
Then too Rose as a high frequency (and hence boring) proper name is contrasted to the “Sacred Emily” of the title. The reference is probably to Emile Zola, a sacred cow indeed in turn-of-the century France. The second line, “Wives of great men rest tranquil,” surely refers to the great author’s death, while asleep in his bed, from carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney, even as his wife, “composed” in the bed beside him, miraculously survived. Again, the sculptor of Zola’s tomb [see figure 4] was Philippe Solari—the “philip philip” invoked in line 3.16
I do not mean to suggest that “Sacred Emily” is “about” Zola. Stein does not operate in this way; rather, “So great so great Emily. / Sew grate sew grate Emily” becomes the occasion for the celebration of Stein’s own domestic happiness with Alice. The sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is followed by these lines:
Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Page ages page ages page ages.
Wiped Wiped wire wire.
Sweeter than peaches and pears and cream.
Wiped wire wiped wire. (187)
“Loveliness extreme,” with its allusion to Edmund Waller’s famous “Go Lovely Rose,” jostles in Dadaesque fashion with those “Extra gaiters” evidently needed for protection, or again “extricators” from difficult situations, and with the “Sweetest ice-cream” that echoes that other 1913 poem “Preciosilla” (“Toasted Susie is my icecream”). The lines that follow introduce the phonemic play that, in these years, became one of Stein’s signatures: “Page ages page ages page ages,” where the words (nouns or verbs?) merge with one another and also call up “passages”; and the echolalia in “Wiped Wiped wire wire,” where a single phoneme makes all the difference. The ugly monosyllables of “Wiped wire wiped wire” are in turn undercut by the cloying sing-songy simile “Sweeter than peaches and pears and cream.”
Cyrena Pondrom remarks that “Sacred Emily” “proceeds as an interplay of three extensive sets of reference—the sexual, the domestic, and the aesthetic (G & P xlv). I think this is accurate: the poem begins, after all, with “compose”—composition—of “beds,” followed by the observation that “Wives of great men rest tranquil”—a reference to Stein’s own “wife” as well as Zola’s. Indeed, like “Ada” or “Susie Asado,” “Sacred Emily” is an erotic love poem for Alice. A rose is a rose is a rose: a rose is eros. By line 18 of its opening page, the erotic theme is distinctly audible in:
Murmur pet murmur pet murmur.
Push sea push sea push sea push sea push sea push sea push sea push sea
Sweet and good and kind to all. (178)
And eros is the dominant motif of the entire book, coming to a kind of crescendo in “Accents in Alsace,” which culminates in the passage:
Sweeter than water or cream or ice. Sweeter than bells of roses. Sweeter
than winter or summer or spring. Sweeter than pretty posies. Sweeter than
anything is my queen and loving is her nature.
Loving and good and delighted and best is her little King and Sire whose
devotion is entire who has but one desire to express the love which is hers to inspire.
In the photograph the Rhine hardly showed
In what way do chimes remind you of singing. In what way do birds sing. In
what way are forests black or white.
We saw them blue.
With for get me nots.
In the midst of our happiness we were very pleased. (G & P 415)
“Accents in Alsace” (1919) is followed by a portrait that was the last piece written for inclusion in Geography and Plays: namely, “Next. Life and Letters of Marcel Duchamp” (G & P 405-406). Its “nextness” can, I think, be related to the fact that the year of its composition (1920), Duchamp, back in New York, had given birth to his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, who, from then on, signed many of his personal letters and paintings and played a major role in his art-making. Asked by Calvin Tomkins why he felt the need to invent a new identity, Duchamp responded, “It was not to change my identity, but to have two identities” (Tomkins 231). His first thought, he said, had been to choose a Jewish name to offset his own Catholic background. “But then the idea jumped at me, why not a female name? Much better than to change religion would be to change sex . . . Rose was the corniest name for a girl at that time, in French, anyway. And Sélavy was a pun on c’est la vie” (231). Talking to Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp explains that he added the extra “R” to “Rose” because this gave him a further pun on “arrose,” “arroser” meaning to water, to sprinkle, and hence also to make fertile, enrich. “Sélavy,” one should also note, contains the name “Levy”—as common a Jewish name as Stein.
The iconic image of Duchamp’s Rose is Man Ray’s famous photograph of 1920-21, signed “lovingly Rrose Sélavy alias Marcel Duchamp” [figure 5]. In this soft-focus photograph, Rose wears a cloche hat with a brim that comes down to her eyebrows; it is the lack of facial hair,” Dalia Judovitz notes, “that engenders sexual ambiguity. Duchamp’s shaved face and discreet smile, generously framed by a fur collar (a punning displacement of facial hair), invokes the illusion of a feminine presence.”17 Then again, this Rose hardly looks like a woman: Duchamp’s own masculine features are unmistakable. But the ambiguity is intentional: the image is riddling, at once Marcel and Rose, masculine and feminine. Two further Man Ray photographs of Rrose Sélavy, this time in an even more elaborate headdress, sweeping velvet cape, and bead necklace, recalling Renaissance portraits of painters [figures 6, 7], are even more ambiguous.
Rose’s first appearance in a Duchamp art work was in the assisted readymade Fresh Widow [figure 8], in which a miniature French window, painted an ugly blue-green like that of beach furniture, contains eight glass panes covered with sheets of black leather. The French window stands on a wooden base bearing large capital letters FRESH WIDOW COPYRIGHT ROSE SELAVY 1920. It is a brilliant pun, made simply by erasing the letter “n” in both words. A fresh widow is a recent one (here perhaps a war widow) but also “fresh” in the sense of bold, not easy to repress or squelch. What is this widow thinking? We don’t know because the leather panes are impenetrable: we don’t know what’s behind them. The window is also closed but the little knobs suggest it could be opened.
Rrose next appears in Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette [figure 9, 1921], whose punning title overtly plays on “Belle Helène” and violet water—extract of violet. But the perfume bottle itself is empty, and eau de voilette (veiled water) invokes the eau de toilette of Duchamp’s Fountain. The bottle is labeled with one of Man Ray’s photographs of Rose and signed “Man Ray and Rrose Sélavy.” The same year, Duchamp put together a small wire bird cage, painted it white, and put inside some 152 sugar cubes (actually marble and very heavy), an ordinary fever thermometer, a cuttlebone, and a little porcelain dish. The construction was named Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? [figure 10]. The thermometer used to measure a girl’s “heat,” the phallic shaped cuttlebone and female dish, the sugar that is really cold marble: these objects placed in the empty cage create a complex and witty spectacle of unfulfilled desire. For unlike all those erotic eighteenth-century paintings of young girls who let the bird out of the cage and watch it fly about, this cage contains no bird and a good “sneeze” is needed to change things, to arroser la vie. Eros c’est la vie.
What I find especially interesting is that when Marcel came back to France for a stay in July 1921, he started signing his letters to friends Rrose Sélavy, sometimes with variants like “Rose Mar-Cel” or “Rrose Marcel,” “Marcel Rrose,” “Marcelavy” (in a letter to Man Ray), “Selatz” or “Mar-Sélavy,” (in notes to Picabia).18 After 1925 or so, the Rrose Sélavy signature disappears, replaced by Duchamp’s nicknames “Duche” and “Totor,” but most frequently simply “Marcel.” The bisexual punning and wordplay, elaborate as it was in the early 1920s, gradually decreased in volume although Duchamp’s short book of puns, Rrose Sélavy, was not published until 1939. Stein’s own most playfully erotic verse (“Happy happy happy all the. / Happy happy happy all the.”) comes in the same period.
In Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein recalls her first visit, soon after the War, to Man Ray’s tiny studio on the Rue Delambre, where “he showed us pictures of Marcel Duchamp” (ABT 197). Man Ray was photographing Duchamp as early as 1916-17 [see figure 11], and Rrose Sélavy had not yet been born, but it is hard to believe that Stein would not have been aware of Rrose’s presence when she was composing her portrait in Geography and Plays. Conversely, although there is no proof that Duchamp based his pseudonym Sélavy on Stein or his sexy and “feminine” “Rrose” on her more equivocal Roses, it is, to say the least, an astonishing coincidence that Duchamp, who never seems to have expressed a particular interest in Jewish culture, would want to adopt a Jewish name and one that was the name of a lesbian writer whose name begins with an S, even as he chose as his first name the banal “Rose” that Stein had made so prominent.
The two artists, in any case, seem to have understood one another’s work perfectly. Consider Stein’s portrait “Next. Life and Letters of Marcel Duchamp”:
A family likeness pleases when there is a cessation of resemblances. This
Is to say that points of remarkable resemblance are those which make Henry
leading. Henry leading actually smothers Emil. Emil is pointed. He does not overdo
examples. He even hesitates.
But am I sensible. Am I not rather efficient in sympathy or common feeling.
I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t.
Not a doctor to me not a debtor to me not a d to me but a c to me a credit to
me. To interlace a story with glass and with rope with color and roam.
How many people roam.
Dark people roam.
Can dark people come from the north. Are they dark then. Do they begin to
be dark when they have come from there.
Any question leads away from me. Grave a boy grave.
What I do recollect is this. I collect black and white. From the standpoint of
white all color is color. From the standpoint of black. Black is white. White is black.
Black is black. White is black. White and black is black and white. What I recollect
when I am there is that words are not birds. How easily I feel thin. Birds do not.
So I replace birds with tin-foil. Silver is thin.
Life and letters of Marcel Duchamp.
Quickly return the unabridged restraint and mention letters.
My dear Fourth.
Confess to me in a quick saying. The vote is taken.
The lucky strike works well and difficultly. It rounds, it sounds round. I
cannot conceal attrition. Let me think. I repeat the fullness of bread. In a way not
bread. Delight me. I delight a lamb in birth. (G & P 405-06)
This is one of Stein’s particularly opaque portraits, and readers seem to have avoided it as wholly “nonsensical.” Stein herself, after all, says in the third paragraph, “I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t,” thus presumably admitting her failure to portray her subject. Then again she published the piece and gave it a very specific name so that the reader is challenged to understand the portrait’s meaning.
The title “Next,” for starters, can be understood either spatially or temporally. A can be next to B in a picture or A can be next in line at the grocery store; in either case, next is always a relational term. One cannot be next alone. Does this mean Stein is relating “Next” to the previous piece in Geography and Plays, “Tourty or Tourtebattre”? Or that this composition is “next” on Stein’s list? The question is left open: certainly the subtitle is parodic, for the “Life and Letters” format, so common in the middlebrow portraits of the Eminent Victorians, hardly seems appropriate for the iconoclastic Duchamp who was anything but a Man of Letters. Still, the mock-title does set the stage for Stein’s opening sentence: “A family likeness pleases when there is a cessation of resemblances.” If, it is implied, we can get rid of representational art or poetry, of the need to make a portrait or still-life look like its subject—then its particular family likeness can become “pleasing.” Take Duchamp’s “In Advance of the Broken Arm”—that ordinary snow shovel hanging on a wire from the ceiling [figure 12]. This readymade doesn’t resemble something else: like Stein’s rose it is what it is. As for its family likeness, the shovel has a very particular family: the readymades that live with it in the Arensberg Collection in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
The Henry and Emil to whom Marcel is now compared are almost surely Henry James, whom Stein regarded as her model, and again Emil(e) Zola, France’s great naturalistic writer. Descriptive as Henry James is, he is never “pointed” like Zola. Having made these analogies, the author hesitates. Can Marcel really be placed in such a literary context? “But am I sensible. Am I not rather efficient in sympathy or common feeling.” When one reads this sentence aloud, one almost inevitably reads “efficient” as “deficient”—for it is standard phrasing to refer to someone as “deficient in sympathy or common feeling.” Is “efficient” then perhaps a misprint? Or does Stein purposely take the cliché and invert it, calling herself not exactly overflowing with sympathy but at least “efficient”—capable of the “common feeling” that has made Zola such an icon. It is the character of Marcel that seems to escape her.
Still, Duchamp’s place in the poet’s life remains to be assessed. “Not a doctor to me not a debtor to me not a d to me but a c to me a credit to me.” Duchamp is not her mentor nor her disciple—indeed not a “d” at all—but a “c” for “credit”—the “C” phoneme perhaps of “Sélavy,” for whose existence Stein can take credit. And in the next sentence, she pays homage to the Large Glass [figure 13]: “To interlace a story with glass and with rope with color and roam.” The portraitist wants to have control over her subject, but the fact is that Duchamp, the “dark” Norman crusader is a “roamer”: he has, at the time of the portrait, gone back and forth between the US and France again and again and also spent time in Argentina the last year of the war. One could never be sure where he might be.
“Any question leads away from me.” Stein cannot “collect” Marcel’s art, which seems, at this moment in time, quite uncollectable, but she can “recollect” his chess-playing: the black and white board to be mastered. “Black is white. White is black. Black is black. White is black. White and black is black and white” (405). But chess is also the paradigm for Marcel’s art in which, like her own, “words are not birds”; they don’t fly away. And a few lines further down, “The lucky strike works well and difficultly. It rounds it sounds round.” The sentence evokes not only the cigarette brand (already in use in 1917, and Duchamp was a big smoker) but also the “difficulty” of rounding out sound. Duchamp, whose punning titles and anagrams came to be one of his chief signatures, is seen as a man of letters in both senses of the word.”
Duchamp had by this time invented not only the word play of Rrose Sélavy, but also the elaborate verbal play of his Readymade titles that begins as early as 1915 with L’Egouttoir [figure 14], the Bottle Dryer or literally, a device that takes the taste out of something. The phallic bottle rack that holds no bottles, that has removed their “taste”: it is this kind of word play that must have appealed to Stein, culminating as it does in the goateed and whiskered Mona Lisa called L.H.O.O.Q (Elle a chaud au cul, figure 15), and those self-designations Rrose Sélavy and Le Marchand du sel. It is Duchamp’s facility with letters, not his life (“return the unabridged restraint”) that matters.
How closely allied is the composition of a portrait like “Next” to Duchamp’s own work? Negatively, the relationship is remarkably close: in both cases, we could say, the attack is on retinal art, in Stein’s case on retinal poetry. In both cases, language is to be seen as well as heard, and one letter, or rather, phoneme, can make all the difference as when “deficient” becomes “efficient” (Stein) or French Window becomes Fresh Widow. Again, both Stein and Duchamp eroticize the actual language as in the “egg be takers” and “parts of place nuts” of “Sacred Emily” and in the family of Duchamp readymades from the L’Egouttoir to the Eau de Voilette, to the androgynous Fountain by R. Mutt and then Rrose Sélavy.
Indeed, Stein’s poetics is surely much closer to Duchamp’s than to Picasso’s vigorous, masculinist and still essentially painterly aesthetic. Consider Duchamp’s playful treatment of book art and page layout. In 1922, Henry McBride, who had been close to both Stein and Duchamp for years, commissioned Marcel, who was once again living in New York, to design a book for his art essays. The resulting pamphlet [figure 16] 19 was composed of eighteen cardboard sheets, held together by three rings. Its title, Some French Moderns says McBride, is spelled out in twenty-seven separate file tabs attached to the right edge of each page; when viewed from the verso, these same tabs spell out the name of the book’s publisher: “SOCIÉTÉ ANONYME INCORPORATED,” and the copyright [see figure 17] is designated as that of Rrose Sélavy. Rrose also provides her autograph, and underneath her name, we read “for Joseph Solomon forty years later by Marcel Duchamp.” Rrose-Marcel’s design also affected the typography: the first essay is set in standard type, but the print selected for each succeeding page gradually increases in size, until only a few words fit on the page and then drop back suddenly on the last page to standard type. McBride’s essays could hardly be “read”: rather, the “unreadable” text forms a backdrop for the seven photographs by Charles Sheeler that grace its orange pages.
“It’s a wonderful book,” Alfred Stieglitz wrote to McBride, who passed the sentiment on to Duchamp (see Naumann 98). In Paris, the young Dada poet Pierre de Massot heard about the McBride project and in turn produced a book written in English called The Wonderful Book: Réflections on Rrose Sélavy [1924, figure 18]. This intriguing little pamphlet has been reproduced page by page as part of the “Dossier Pierre de Massot,” assembled by Paul B. Franklin for the second issue (1999) of the seminal journal Étant Donné, edited by Franklin for the Association pour l’Etude de Marcel Duchamp.20 In the frontispiece [figure 19], the first part of the title is dropped and Réflections on Rrose Sélavy is followed by an epigraph, which is none other than the revealing sentence in Stein’s portrait “Next. Life and Letters of Marcel Duchamp,” “I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t” (Étant Donné 101).
Why would Massot choose these words as his epigraph, thus making an explicit link between Gertrude Stein and Rrose Sélavy? The book itself turns out to be a “livre blanc”: it consists of twelve blank pages, each headed by a single word designating one month of the year in sequence [figure 20]. But the “Introduction” by “A Woman of No Importance”—the reference is to the title of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play about a humble woman who learns that her son’s aristocratic employer is her former lover and hence her son’s father—provides a clue:
P[ierre] de M[assot] determined . . . to write a wonderful book on MARCEL DUCHAMP. But at each attempt he was overwhelmed by the difficulty of such a task. For, I ought to explain that M has always declared he considers Duchamp the greatest genius he knows.
To speak about the youth, the evolution, and especially the life of Marcel Duchamp without blundering! Might not one well hesitate? Anybody would hesitate. The thing is impossible.
We know that the author of “Nu descendant l’escalier” lives on chess and love. The author of this book loves to recall a Sunday afternoon when he slept in Duchamp’s room under the gaze of the King, the queen and the pawns. Black and white move on the chequerboard of life.
After years of hesitation, P. de M. brought me this book. I preface it without the slightest hesitation. It is perfectly idiotic – or idiotically perfect! But since it is my duty to be sincere, I must admit, for the benefit of the reader, that this lazy, naughty little boy said to me the other evening: “Un livre agréable doit toujours être illisible.”
In her portrait, Stein presents Marcel as indefinable: she cannot produce a coherent identity from what she knows about the artist’s work (“glass and with rope with color and roam,” his chess-playing, his “dark” Northern heritage. Then, too—although Stein doesn’t say it—what to make of Rrose Sélavy, that “woman of no importance” who is Marcel? Pierre de Massot, who again refers to Duchamp’s preoccupation with chess—the “black and move on the chequerboard of life”—here reinforces Stein’s response to Duchamp, her perplexity mingled with “delight” born of the conviction that “The lucky strike works well and difficultly. It rounds, it sounds round” (G & P 406)—and takes it one step further as the pleasure of unreadability—the illisible. Wilde’s dramatic treatment of the mystery of identity becomes, for Stein, the recognition that human identity cannot be satisfactorily captured in words. “I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t,” looks ahead, not only to the blank calendar pages of Masson’s The Wonderful Book but to such later responses to Duchamp as John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel [figure 20]. And the illisible, is, of course, central to our own aesthetic today.21
On the back cover of The Wonderful Book [figure 21], Massot placed a series of Rrose Sélavy’s choice puns, from “Etrangler l’étranger” and “Ruiner, Uriner,” to “Orchidée fixe” and “Poulet exaucé”—his pun on “satisfied’ chicken as one that has been “de-sauced.” These puns, Massot evidently thought, could be related to Steinian word play, and indeed, in his incisive preface for Dix Portraits, Stein’s important 1930 volume, which contained her second Picasso portrait (1923), “Guillaume Apollinaire” (1913), and “Erik Satie” (1922),22 Massot gives this perceptive summary of her language art:
Tout y est pesé, dosé, calculé, mesuré, déduit, ainsi que dans une mosaïque; chaque terme enclave le prochain, strictement, le compénètre, comme les plans et les volumes d’une nature morte; chaque élément est perçu avec une telle acuité que sa représentation équivaut à un element neuf; nous assistons à une re-creation abstraite, par le dedans, du monde extérieur que je nomme: miracle. [Reproduced in Paul Franklin, “Portrait d’un poète,”13]
(Everything here is weighed, released in doses, calculated, measured, deduced, just as in a mosaic; each term encloses the next, strictly, co-penetrating it, like the planes and volumes of a still life; each element is broken down with such acuity that its representation is equivalent to a new element; we are present at an abstract recreation, from the inside out, of the exterior world so that I can only call it a miracle.)
[Translation my own]
One of the portraits Massot probably had in mind was “Guillaume Apollinaire” which begins with the line, “Give known or pin ware,” (LOA 1, 385), a homophonic translation of the poet’s name of which the author of “Orchidée fixe” and “Des bas en soie . . . la chose aussi,” would surely have approved.23
Throughout the 1920s, when Duchamp shuttled back and forth between Paris and New York, he and Stein kept in touch, especially through their mutual friend Picabia. In December 1932, when the latter was having an exhibition of his drawings at the Galerie Léonce Rosenberg in Paris, Stein was asked to contribute a preface to the catalogue. Her “Preface” turned out to be Stanza LXXI of Part V of her long and difficult poetic sequence Stanzas in Meditation, and it was translated by none other than Duchamp.24 It was, we should note, the very first selection from Stanzas to be published anywhere. Indeed, except for a few extracts, Stanzas was not published during Stein’s lifetime.
“These austere stanzas,” wrote John Ashbery, in his review of the posthumous Yale edition (1956), “are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about, and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” And he calls Stanzas “a hymn to possibility.”25 No doubt, Stanzas is Stein’s most abstract, her least “retinal” work.
Stein’s meditation begins with a fractured narrative, like a passage from a children’s book:
There was once upon a time a place where they went from time to time.
I think better of this than of that.
They met just as they should.
This is my could I be excited.
And well he wished that she wished.
All of which I know is this.
Once often as I say yes all of it a day.
This is not a day to be away.
Oh dear no.26
Duchamp translates this as follows:
Il y avait une fois un endroit où ils allaient de temps en temp
Je pense mieux de ceci que de cela
Ils se sont recontrés exactement comme ils devaient.
Lui et moi puis-je être excité
Et alors il a désiré qu’elle désire
Tout ce que j’en sais c’est ceci
Une fois souvent tout cela un jour quand je dis oui
Ce n’est pas une journée à être loin
Oh! mais non (Mohler 42)
The translation is, if anything, even more prominently rhyming than the original, with “fois” rhyming with “endroit” and “cela,” “ceci” rhyming with “oui,” and so on. Duchamp follows the original fairly closely but does make some subtle changes. For one thing, he eliminates the periods which, in Stein’s poem, terminate each line, emphasizing the separateness of each phrase. Then, too, in line 4, “This is my could I be excited” gets an extra set of male/female pronouns so as to emphasize the union: “Lui et moi puis-je être excité.” And in line 5, the choice of “désiré” (rather than, say, “voulu” or “souhaité”) for “wished,” and then the shift from the second “wished” to the present tense—“qu’elle désire”—enhances the erotic element in the stanza: it’s as if Rrose Sélavy could almost make an appearance.
With the introduction to Picabia in line 17, however, comes the admonition to “forget men and women” (“oubliez hommes et femmes”), and the meditation culminates in the following passage:
The thing I wish to say is this.
It might have been.
There are two things that are different.
One and one.
And two and two.
Three and three are not in winning.
Three and three if not in winning.
I see this.
I would have liked to be the only one.
One is one.
If I am would I have liked to be the only one.
Yes just this.
If I am one I would have liked to be the only one
Which I am.
But we know that I know.
That if this has come
To be one
Of this too
Not only now but how
This I know now. (Stanzas 242)
In Duchamp’s version:
La chose que je désire dire est ceci
Qu’aurait pu être
Il y a deux choses qui sont différentes
Un et un
Et deux et deux
Trois et trois ne sont pas en gagnant
Trois et trois si pas en gagnant
Je vois ceci
J’aurais voulu être la seule
Un et un
Si je suis aurais-je aimé être la seule
Oui rien que ceci ou exactement
Si je suis un j’aurais aimé être la seule
Que je suis
Mais nous savons que je sais
Que si ceci est venu ou celui-ci
Pour entre un
De ceci aussi
Pas seulement maintenant mais comment
Ceci je sais maintenant
The French cannot quite reproduce Stein’s clipped monosyllabic lines with their rhyme and paragram: “not only now but how / This I know now.” But Duchamp captures the tone with “maintenant,” “comment,” and “Ceci je sais.” The one subtle change he makes comes in the ninth line above: the revealing remark, “I would have liked to be the only one,” which in English has no gender designation, becomes “”J’aurais voulu être la seule.” And further, in translating line 13, “If I am one I would have liked to be the only one,” Duchamp creates an odd split, making “one” masculine (“un”) but the “only one” (“la seule”) feminine: “Si je suis un j’aurais aimé être la seule.”
In her own writing, Stein never gave herself away so fully; her pronouns usually have a studied indeterminacy.27 But Duchamp playfully implies that Stein is all too aware that to be “the only one” is to be a male one—indeed, a man like Picabia—or, for that matter, Picasso. And she adds proudly, “Which I am” (“que je suis”). Indeed, she is the one. It is what Stein has always wanted. “Yes just this.” Here Duchamp embellishes the line slightly, making it “Oui rien que ceci ou exactement.” Why, the extra emphasis? Perhaps because Duchamp sympathizes with Stein’s need to be exactly that only one. It was a need not felt by Rrose Sélavy, for Rrose could always shift back to become Marcel: from his perspective, “une” could become “un” any time. Stein, on the other hand, was who she was: she could not adopt another identity as readily as did Marcel; indeed, the ironic distance so central to Duchamp’s oeuvre was not her métier. Serious (if also very funny) and single-minded, she understood that “Three and three are not in winning.” Three—whether in the love triangle at the back of “Stanzas in Meditations,”28 or in her relationship to Picabia and Picasso, was a crowd. Unlike Duchamp—and here she may have been more like Picasso, Stein had no desire to be a translator of someone else’s work. No, she was “the only one,” “This one.” “Not only now but how,” she concludes, “This I know now.”
Marcel, Marcelavy, le Marchand du Sel, Rrose Sélavy the Fresh Widow, the Rose of Eros, had no such ego. Certainly, he too wanted to be “one,” to have autonomy as creator, but for the sake of his close friend Picabia, who was getting bad press in these years, he was quite willing to do a quick translation of a verbal composition, whose indeterminacy and word play he could obviously relish. Especially a composition by an author as sympathique as Gertrude Stein. “This I know now”; “Ceci je sais maintenant”: in their dismantling of the painterly form and the dissolution of retinal identity, the Stein of “a rose is a rose is a rose” and Marcel-Rrose were nothing if not natural allies. Indeed, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is Duchamp rather than Picasso or the Cubists, Duchamp rather, for that matter, than Apollinaire or Max Jacob, who stands “Next” to Stein.
When it appeared in the Picabia catalogue and in the periodical Orbes (#4, 1932-33), Stein’s Stanza 71 was introduced by an epigraph from Picabia. “La vie n’aime pas les verres grossissants c’est pour cela qu’elle m’a tendu la main” (“Life doesn’t like magnifying glasses that’s why she gave me her hand”). This may well be a sly allusion to the poet Georges Hugnet’s encomium to Stein in the Spring 1929 issue of Orbes called “Rose is a Rose on Stein”:29
En Espagne, un jour, vêtue de violet et la main baguée, Gertrude Stein fut tout
etonnée que dans la rue on lui baise la main. (61)
(In Spain, one day, dressed in purple and rings on her fingers, Gertrude Stein was
astonished that on the street, someone kissed her hand.)
[Translation my own]
Then, too, “verres” puns on “vers” (verses): Stein’s, it is implied, are not the bloated “magnifying” verses of traditional poetry. The homage is Picabia’s. But it is cited by Duchamp. “One and one. And two and two. Next.”
1 Gertrude Stein, Picasso (Paris: Libraire Floury, 1938; English edition, trans. Stein with Alice B. Toklas, London: B. T. Batsford, 1939; revised edition, Gertrude Stein on Picasso, ed. Edward Burns, Afterword by Leon Katz and Edward Burns (New York: Liveright, 1970), 3-76. This volume also contains Stein’s two Picasso portraits, “Picasso” (1909), 79-81; and “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” (1923), 83-91, as well as Stein’s Notebook entries on Picasso and extensive illustration.
2 Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937; New York: Vintage, 1973), 37.
3 Pablo Picasso, “21 december xxxv,” in Jerome Rothenberg, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 204), 66. For a selection of Picasso’s poems in French, see Picasso, Poèmes, ed. d’Androula Michaël (Paris: le cherche midi, 2005). In her Introduction, Michaël expresses great enthusiasm for Picasso’s poetry:
“Écrire n’est pas pour Picasso une occupation de circonstance, ni un violon d’Ingres mais une activité à laquelle il s’est adonné avec passion” (14).
4 See, for example, my essay “Poetry as Word-System: The Art of Gertrude Stein,” The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981; Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1999): 67-108.
5 Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 42-43.
6 The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde (touring exhibition, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 21 through September 6, 2011; Grand Palais, Paris, October 5, 2011 through January 13, 2012; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 1 through June 3, 2012), ed. Janet Bishop et. al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
7 Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933; New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 133-34.
8 As told by Calvin Tomkins in Duchamp (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), 130.
9 On Stein’s mathematical interests, see Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), esp. Chapter 4, “At the Whiteheads’: Science and the Modern World,” 165-206.
10 The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 1913-1914, ed. Edward Burns (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 58-59.
11See Marjorie Perloff, “Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 32, 2 (1996): 137-54; cf. Perloff, 21st Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 77-120.
12 “Roché” is written in the style of the first Picasso portrait: it begins, “Was one who certainly was one really being living, was this one a complete one, did that one complete have it to do very well something that that one certainly would be doing if that one could be doing something,” Geography and Plays (1922; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 141. This text is subsequently cited in the text as G & P.
13 See James Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (New York: Avon, 1974), p. 311.
14 See http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33403; Cyrena Pondrom, Introduction, Geography and Plays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), i-lv.
15 Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” Lectures in America, in Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932-1946 (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 313-336.
16 The Zola reference was pointed out to me by Susan Barbour, an Oxford PhD candidate living in Paris, who also alerted me to the image of Zola’s tomb at the Cimetière Montmartre.
17 Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 144-45. In her more recent book, Drawing on Art: Duchamp & Company (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), Judovitz writes, “Not only did Duchamp borrow a stylish hat from Germaine Everling (Picabia’s mistress), but, more importantly, he also borrowed her arms and delicate hands in order to enhance the illusion of femininty conveyed by the photograph . . . she stood right behind him in a sort of embrace,” 32-33.
18 See Affect-Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, French-English edition, ed. Francis M. Naumann & Hector Obalk (London: Thames & Hudson), 87-160.
19 The pamphlet is reproduced in Francis M. Naumann’s Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Harry Abrams, 1999), 89-91.
20 The Dossier includes Pierre de Massot poems, an important selection of letters to Massot from Duchamp, and Paul B. Franklin’s important essay, “Portrait d’un poète en jeune homme bi: Pierre de Massot, Marcel Duchamp, et l’héritage Dada,” 56-85. The Wonderful Book is further annotated by extracts from reviews and commentaries by Gerald Pfister, Michel Vanpeene and others.
21 See, for example, Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006).
22 Gertrude Stein, Dix Portraits, bilingual edition with French translations by Georges Hugnet and Virgil Thomson (Paris: Editions de la Montagne, 1930). The other seven portraits are of Christian Bérard, Eugene Berman, Bernard Faÿ, Georges Hugnet, Pavel Tchelitchew, Virgil Thomson, Kristians Tonny.
23 For background, see Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 294-301. Dydo notes that de Massot spoke excellent English and wanted to translate Tender Buttons and Geography and Plays, but this didn’t come to pass. For discussion of variant translations of the Dix Portraits, as rendered by Hugnet and Thompson, see Ulla Dydo, 296-300. Dydo notes that word-for-word translation, as used in Dix Portraits, failed to reproduce any sense of the original world play. But, one might add, Duchamp, able to read Stein in English and now often producing English puns of his own, could appreciate the originals.
24 “Préface,” Expositions de dessins par Francis Picabia, Galerie Léonce Rosenberg, Paris, 1-24 December, 1932. English Preface by Gertrude Stein, pp. 1-2; French Preface by Marcel Duchamp, pp. 3-4. Reprinted in Orbes #4 (Winter 1932-33), 64-67 (where it is found in side by side with poems by Hans Arp and Picabia), and again in Olga Mohler, Francis Picabia (Torino: Ed. Notizie, 1975), 43. In the French translation, the stanza in question is numbered “Stance 69 des Stances de meditation”). I produce here both English and French versions from Mohler.
25 John Ashbery, “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein” (1957; Selected Prose, ed. Eugene Richie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 11-15; reprinted in Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, ed. Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 50-55. The editors explain Stein’s misnumbering in successive manuscripts on 264-67.
26 Stanzas in Meditation, Part V, Stanza 71, 241. For the variants, see Stanzas 372-73. In the Orbes version, for example, line 7, “Once often as I say yes all of it a day,” is misprinted, “Once of ten as I say yes all of it a day.”
27 On the use of pronouns in Stanzas, see Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” Introduction, Stanzas in Meditation, 22-25.
28 On Alice’s substitution of the word “can” for every “may” (a reference to May Bookstaver with whom Stein was once in love) in her transcript of the text, see Dydo, 488-502; Joan Retallack, 8-14. Appendix D to the Corrected Edition tracks all the changes in the manuscript: see 268-379.
29 Georges Hugnet’s “Rose is a Rose on Stein,” Orbes #2 (Spring 1929), 59-61.
MARJORIE PERLOFF is the author of many books and essays on twentieth and twenty-first century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and European and Brazilian, including Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary and, most recently, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. She is Sadie D. Patek Professor of Humanities Emerita at Stanford University.