December 30, 2005

Silence and Narrative: The Early Novels of Gertrude Stein by Janice L. Doane

(See ‘Introduction: Silences’ pages xi to xxvii).

Although the commentary in this book is specific to Stein, I think that it may have some relevance to my discussion of silence. I am particularly interested in obscurity as a kind of silence – this to me seems to be Doane’s argument. Doane discusses Stein’s statement that ‘My writing is a clear as mud but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear’. Doane’s argument seems to be that Stein’s famous ‘obscurity’ is in fact a language of silence and absence.
Doane also quotes Stein from Tender Buttons : ‘Why is there that sensible silence … Does silence choke speech or does it not.’ Doane provides more quotation from Stein’s essays, ‘France’ and ‘England’, and from her play What Happened .

A silence is no more than occasional. It respects understanding and salt and even a rope. (‘France’)

This comment reveals an ambiguous attitude to silence – it is ‘no more than occasional’. However, the idea of respect invigorates silence. There is space in silence for deep thought (‘understanding’), for flavour and savouring events (‘salt’) and for the contemplation of death and self-destruction (‘a rope’). All of these aspects are important in Welsh women’s poetics too.

Silence which makes silence gives that sense to all there is, silence which has light and water and vision and appetite and result and a motion and more exaggeration and no recklessness, silence which is there is not disturbed by expression. (‘France’)

Here silence is self-producing and continuous and it seems to be a more essential element of being. Silence has space for many more elements here such as sight, fulfilment, artifice and stability. It seems that silence and expression can co-exist here too.

What comes out of silence. What comes out of silence is that which having usefulness, that nature and fashion is not shown to be managed by the combination. (‘France’)

It is interesting that the initial sentence feel as if it should be a question, yet instead it is a flat statement creating the feeling that one fact is certain – something comes out of silence even if the actual product is uncertain. Usefulness is an interesting theme here. Deryn Rees-Jones writes of ‘useful’ silences in her poetics and it is clear here that silences are useful rather than repressive. There is a certain confusion in the grammatical construction and clauses of the second sentence which shows Stein constructing her silences in the sentence. What combination does she refer to? That of silence and usefulness or nature and fashion? In either case, it seems that dialogues within silence are not easy or simple.

Surely silence is sustained and the change is sudden.(‘England’)

Silence here is defined as the one eternal element of being that is broken by the rude noise of speaking. Yet, there is a certain ambiguity – what change does Stein refer to – a change from speaking to silence, from silence to speaking or changes within silence itself?

Silence is so windowful. (What Happened)

This is perhaps the most interesting of Stein’s comments and one of the most illuminating in relation to my argument for a recognition that silence can be useful and productive. The comment is remiscent of the Herbert Bayer photograph, Lonesome City Dweller , in which two silent hands are proffered to the viewer with eyes in their palms. Behind them a vista of windows fills the space. It is above all, a silent image, absent of that communicator – the face. Possibility is signified by the plenitude of windows each offering a new insight. Similarly in Stein, silence is a presence, a gesture with bountiful potential.
Doane uses these quotations to prove a change in Stein’s treatment of speaking and silence. She describes Stein’s use of silence as ‘bith a metaphoric strategy and an explicit theme’ that develops into an ‘aesthetics of silence’ (xii). I think that Doane’s definition of Stein here also applies to the Welsh women writers that I will be interrogating in my thesis.

Lonesome City Dweller by Herbert Bayer, 1932.

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