Posts tagged Gertrude Stein
Pine Torch, Revisited

About a month ago, I tried to write here about "pine torch." Today, in my attempt to try again, it was only by searching for and failing to find a pretty photograph of a pine torch that I landed on a solution: instead of pine torches, the tea house woman can light the bal masqué another way. Maybe with little candles hanging from tree branches with satin ribbons. Or maybe like this or this or this or this or this or even this with candles or fairy lights. I don't think it matters, exactly, but what I figured out is that part of her problem can be that the tea house's traditions should of course be updated — not just to make business more efficient but to make her own life somewhat easier. So instead of lighting the annual ball with torches, like her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did, which she would have to chop and set aflame herself, worrying about party guests knocking into them and catching fire, she can opt instead for, say, hanging lanterns with battery powered flameless flickering candles. 

OK, so, the backstory about "pine torch"? It has to do with my process. I'm a writer who fears the blank page/blinking cursor. I'm far better at editing and shaping existing words than I am coming up with new ones. So nearly a decade ago, under a rapidly approaching deadline to complete We Take Me Apart, I acted out of desperation and cut up Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. I made hundreds of lists of ten random words from her text, and then I wrote a page of my own — I had to use one list per page. Often, this meant using one word per line. And this resulted in my having lines like: "gratitude is cousin to the squeezing of a heart." Anyway, the method worked and I had enough pages to prove to my publisher that I was making steady progress and I was able to ask for an extended deadline, which I met. This method worked so well for me that I tried it again for Desire: A Haunting. And, again, it worked. The words I used as prompts for this book come from John Ratti's A Remembered DarknessAnd then, for Fit Into Me, I started again with another new list, this time from Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments (If Not, Winter). Somewhere in this book is "pine torch," which I then came upon in one of my ten-word lists, and I got stuck. I researched the pine torch and learned it's the kind of torch Bilbo Baggins used in LOTR, and then I learned how to make one and why one might want to make one: they're impervious to wind and rain. But for my purposes, why would the tea house woman need wind- and rain-proof torches? So I landed on the bal masqué. Garden party. Nighttime. Torches. Of course. But I just couldn't ever write that scene. Now, three years after that failure, a month after the failure of my attempted blog post about that failure, I think I've got it. Or, at least, for the first time I have an avenue to explore. 

I am a slow writer. People are surprised to hear this, most recently one of my favorite former professors, Richard Preiss (why favorite? bc this, for example, or, you know, his book on early modern clowns, or his book-in-progress on sewage, need I go on?). I wasn't always a slow writer. A decade ago, you could say, "Go!" and I'd be off to the races. Now? You say "Go!" and I raise an eyebrow at you and LOL and look for my reading glasses and put a Pop Tart in the toaster that I'll forget about and see tomorrow sticking up looking sad, still chuckling about how badly you misjudged my ability to go when you said, "Go!" LOLOL. But really, I'm just slower, more patient and careful now. I wait. I'll wait and wait until the answer appears. In this case, three years and a month. 

P.S. If you're curious, the other words in this particular list are: night, greatly, desires, darling, reproach, harmless, face, son, and throat. And if you don't know the tea house woman, who appears first as a minor character in We Take Me Apart, then as a main character in Desire: A Haunting, you can meet her now in her own right in Fit Into Me. A few of the fragments from Fit were published here, four years ago when they first came into being.  

Project Proposal — The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography

My novel, The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, is a retelling of Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of Beauty and the Beast (published in 1740). Villeneuve and her “original”—about whether Beauty will consent to have sex with the Beast—have been forgotten by history. My novel aims to recover the life story of author-salonnière Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and to restore to her tale her 18th-Century proto-feminist philosophy. My PhD dissertation situates itself between serious literature and mass-market fairy-tale romance, between the folkloric historiography of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 425C and the bestselling genre of historical fiction, between novel and biography and the intersection of these in the mimetic-parodic literary tradition of fictional biographies, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (1947).

In the Author’s Preface to The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, “I” am my novel’s first 1st-person narrator, and I ask if we really need another retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I quote fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar, who claims: “That every culture seems to tell ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in one fashion or another suggests it is part of our DNA. We make the story new so we can think more and think harder about the stakes in partnerships and marriages.”[1] I also refer to critic Jerry Griswold, who believes its “popularity over time suggests its importance. The oldest version [… is Apuleius’s] ‘Cupid and Psyche,’” which appeared around 150 A.D. but drew on Greek versions derived from India’s “The Woman Who Married a Snake,” which “existed in oral form before its appearance in print in 500 A.D.” The story’s “endurance” for “more than two millennia,” Griswold contends, is one reason for its “significance and power” — as well as its “geographical distribution” the world over and its appeal to mainstream and marginalized child and adult audiences.[2]

In the next section, the Introduction, I go on to explain that the goal of my retelling is to re-narrativize our commonly held belief about the historical rise of the novel. I aim to reach Creative Writing, English, Folklore, and Literary History professors who might teach my book. Chapter by chapter, I will chronologically mimic and integrate the traditions of the 18th-Century novel; the 19th-Century’s Gothic, social realist, and Decadent novels; 20th-Century Modernist novels; 21st-Century Postmodernist novels. My retelling of Beauty and the Beast will provide professors, students, book clubs, and casual readers with a step-by-step model that traces the development of the Western novel from the 18th Century to today. From this new context I provide, I hope English majors in particular can further appreciate the objectives of their required “Survey of English Literature” courses. I hope they will enjoy reading my novel, but also that they will discuss and debate the literary, historical, creative, and artistic issues it raises.

In my Prologue, I reveal a new 1st-person narrator (Villeneuve’s biographer) and an editor who points out that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (also about a young beauty imprisoned in a country estate by a beastly “Mr. B”) was also published in 1740. This footnote propels my novel’s first sub-narrative, about Pamela’s spinoff products, “critiques, parodies, translations, plays […], and several sequels.”[3] Our editor will further compare the production of Pamela-inspired ephemera to Beauty and the Beast’s transmedial phenomena. Villeneuve, however, in her Eighteenth-Century Paris salon — our biographer interjects — could not have known the extent to which her story would endure. My Prologue becomes the opening frame of my novel proper, with Villeneuve in her salon the night she begins telling “La Belle et la Bête.”

In chapter one, Villeneuve becomes our third 1st-person narrator (fourth, if we count our editor). She opens with the misfortunes of Beauty’s father, a merchant whose ships have been pillaged by pirates, and tells how he and his children are forced to relocate from a city “not far from here” to their country house that “might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.” Our editor tells us this is significant because Villeneuve’s tale is set neither “far away” nor “long ago,” making it the first of its kind to place its characters in the author’s own space and time. This may reflect Villeneuve’s awareness of her audience’s receptivity, as she satirizes the merchant’s friends who were “so cruel as to attribute [his] misfortunes to his own bad conduct.”[4] Her jab at victim-blamers mirrors Henry Fielding’s contemporaneous notes/manifesto toward the new novel, in which he states the satirist might punch up but never down.

In The Inward Turn of Narrative, Erich Kahler states that in the 18th century, “the ego engaged in monologue and dialogue became the vehicle of the new narrative.”[5] Villeneuve, then, a historical figure recast as character-who-narrates in my own novel, employs the same playful monologuing as Fielding, and, in dialoguing with her salon-audience, she digresses like Laurence Sterne — which our editor identifies as the main reason Villeneuve’s version never stuck (and why Disney adapted instead Madame de Beaumont’s much-abridged 1756 version). Reveling in Cervantes’ and Fielding’s subplots, and Sterne’s anti-plot shenanigans, Villeneuve in my retelling joins the ranks of these men who famously inaugurated the rise of the novel.[6]

In chapter two, when Beauty’s father receives his death sentence, my novel turns Gothic. I will draw from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman so that my editor-character can investigate Diane Long Hoeveler’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s “devices—hyperbole, dramatic self-stagings, repeated presentation of heroines as victims, [… are] very similar to [those] employed by later female Gothic novelists.” I wish to examine the father’s emasculation as well as this chapter’s potential to highlight “the Gothic’s role in reforming class attitudes, in defining appropriate behavior for both sexes, and in codifying literature’s role as an ideological system that operates to shape and enforce what we now call values in society.” [7]

In chapter three, the Gothic turns Romantic when Beast sends his white horse to bring Beauty to the castle, where she is greeted with fireworks, gardens filled with unseasonably fruiting trees, costumed monkeys pantomiming Renaissance dramas (hidden parrots beneath wigs performing the voices), and his library that houses every book ever written and every book yet to be written. In this epistolary chapter, Beauty’s letters are laments about how she has only her imagination for company. Terrorized by Beast’s request to let him sleep with her, she nightly answers, “No,” which prompts our editor to remind us of Beaumont’s revision, “Will you marry me?” I cannot overstate the importance of restoring Villeneuve’s original. Her boar-headed, lion-tailed, lizard-scaled Beast understands the meaning of consent—unlike Richardson’s refined Mr. B., whose repeated attempts to rape Pamela will go neither unmentioned nor unpunished in my dissertation.

Chapter four, in which Beast insists that Beauty go home, is written as 19th-Century social realism with a dash of decadence. The chapter begins with a nod to Madame Bovary, briefly utilizing the 1st-person plural of Beauty’s five sisters who sabotage her return to the castle. Their point of view — their disinterested Des Essientes-style cataloging of the fine clothes and jewels they wear (thanks to Beast’s generosity, owed to Beauty’s self-sacrifice), their lavish living arrangements, their petty amusements and desires for suitors with titles — transforms into a Bleak House-inspired 3rd-person narrator whose judgments are harsh and unfailingly unforgiving, drawing attention to social norms, mores, hierarchies not usually observed.

Chapter five — my modernist episode — is told from Beast’s close 3rd-“person” point of view. Like Gregor Samsa, he wakes in his monstrous form. His stream-of-consciousness is as fragmented as his body: transported into a memory of overtaking and ripping open the throat of a doe, he smells the sweat and fear of prey the way Marcel tastes tea; he speaks, when he speaks, like Gertrude Stein, stuttering interrogatives to determine whether Beauty is satisfied with his castle’s objects, rooms, and food; he thinks like Beckett’s Unnameable, in the ever-present, consumed by his inability to communicate, to comprehend his body; he desires obsessively like Humbert Humbert; yet he observes, always, like the narrator of Jealousy, from the outside looking in; and, finally, like Gregor, he “[hangs] on until […] his last feeble breath,” and dies.[8]

In chapter six, my postmodernist episode, Beauty is in the library — reading every version of her own story she can find. She has perhaps just arrived at the castle, and, having discovered Beast’s library, begun poking around only to encounter a novel, and then another and another, that uncannily features a young heroine resembling herself. Perhaps we too have been reading an assemblage of different texts written in different times. The many Beauties born over the past two millennia are all gathered in my final chapter; and certainly they must differ from one another in ways I imagine will be fun to reshape and recontextualize as I cut and paste from as many variants of the animal bridegroom tale as I can find. For in my own retelling, I wish to defer to these and to the other texts mentioned here. In so doing, I will produce a novel that is itself in a constant state of transformation, a demonstration of my desire to obliterate boundaries between literary time periods, forms, and genres; and a challenge to myself at this point in my career to strive toward a stylistic range I have never dreamed of undertaking—a manuscript indebted to my PhD education at the University of Utah and to those most enduring novels that have so magically and beautifully inspired me while here.

NOTES

[1] Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World, Penguin Books, 2017, p. ix.

[2] Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook, Broadview Press, 2004, p. 15.

[3] James Grantham Turner, “Richardson and His Circle,” The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John J. Richetti, Columbia UP, 1994, p. 76.

[4] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, The Story of Beauty and the Beast, translated by Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Lane Company, 1740, pp. 1, 2-3, 5.

[5] Erich Kahler, The Inward Turn of Narrative, Northwestern UP, 1973, p. 148.

[6] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[7] Diane Long Hoeveler, “Teaching the Early Female Canon,” Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, MLA, 2003, p. 105.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, B&N, 2003, p. 48.

Goodnight Moon; Tender Buttons; and, now, Nox

I have only ever introduced Tender Buttons to students after we've read and discussed Goodnight Moon, the book's project of nomenclature, the relationship between text and image and signifieds not signifying, as in the anthropomorphized, de-racialized rabbit meant to represent the story's "old lady," and, not least of all, that terrifying blank page of nothingness: "Goodnight nobody"! Now, after studying Nox with Joe and Ed (also preparing for exams), I've inserted Carson into my Brown & Stein lesson plan. The clear connection between Goodnight Moon and Nox has everything to do with the talking points outlined above, but also, of course, their shared struggle to reckon with the unknowability of night, and to reconcile its elusiveness with its allusiveness(es). 

Regarding Tender Buttons, let us suppose, as Joshua Schuster does, that it may be a pedagogical misstep to teach "Objects" before "Food" or "Rooms":

It is common pedagogy to state that the first object, the carafe, in which the sentence 'The difference is spreading' appears, is meant as the flagship statement for the book when it was never meant to be so. . . . 

Indeed, until now, I have participated in this pedagogical approach. On a more personal note, I even used the first subheading in "Objects" — "A carafe, that is a blind glass." — as the epigraph to my first book. So I am jarringly thrilled and inspired by the re-ording and expansion of my lesson plan: 

  1. Goodnight Moon
  2. "Food"
  3. Nox
  4. "Rooms"
  5. a brief return to Goodnight Moon
  6. and, finally, "Objects" 

The move from Goodnight Moon into that first sentence of "Food" — "In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling." — is almost unbelievably perfect, no? And the justification/excuse for mixing up the order of Tender Buttons becomes its own talking point, as Schuster suggests:

If 'Food' is first, the first sentence reads: 'In the inside there is sleeping [...].' If 'Rooms' is first, the opening sentence is: 'Act so that there is no use in a center.' Both sentences are about space, movement, and surrounding environs, rather than fixing central focus points. Furthermore, each of these three sentences implicitly argues that no sentence is primary or more titular than any other.

Leaving "Food" and its final subheading — "A centre in a table" — we would then enter Nox, where, fairly early on, Carson delivers this heartbreaking line: "We want people to have a center, an account that makes sense" (3.3).

This single utterance breaks open the book and provides several avenues into Nox's other concerns, its questions about the irretrievability of what is lost, lost in translation, lost in reading and interpretation, lost in life itself, and how elegy is history is night. And a mini-lecture, perhaps, on Derrida de-centering the center.

With this center-centered approach, we would then leave Nox and return to Tender Buttons, to "Rooms," which opens with: "Act so that there is no use in a center." 

!

I know, right?

!!!

I think, too, it's a more seamless transition into "Objects," as we leave that final paragraph of "Rooms," which recalls Goodnight Moon as well: 

A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was a sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus and also a fountain.

Asparagus!

Magnificent asparagus!

My God, I can't even begin to express how much I love that surprise ending, that "magnificent asparagus," oh, and "also a fountain," which feels like such an add-on, a lesser-than but equal-to strange afterthought, a possible amendment, perhaps due to the rhythmic insistence of the repetitions preceding it, the seeming force of sentences working together to build an argument. Rhetoric. Syntax. Meter. Play. Genre. Politics. Semantics. Hermeneutics. Historicism. And a whole shitload of assonance and consonance, and other Sonic Pleasures. We can talk about everything. Anything. Even nothing. 

Especially nothing, as we return, briefly, to Goodnight Moon, to "Goodnight nobody"!, and to all those strange, defamiliarized and unconcealed objects we thought we knew so well. Recalling what it was like, long ago, to be actively learning language.  

To be willing to unlearn, to be willing to try to learn again, anew, upon being presented with Stein's very different "Objects."

To turn objects into subjects. 

To make it personal.

Are not all our buttons tender when pushed?

Tender, the care with which there is incredible justice and likeness

. . . the choice and a torch . . . 

Or a fountain of acceptance as we learn to appreciate difference.

. . . more cultivation and some seasoning . . . 

Tender, then, our resignations to one another. 

. . . terrific sacrifice . . . 

. . . plenty of breathing. . . 

Re-signifying why, and how, "The difference is spreading" is not simply a descriptive, declarative entrance into a confounding text, but a moral imperative for a new time, fraught with implications, bursting with possibilities, this source of optimism, this single sentence, a rallying force — a battle cry.