Composition as Explanation

by Gertrude Stein
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

Composition as Explanation is an artful blend of literary theory, historical commentary, and personal confession. Delivered originally as a lecture to students at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in 1926, it is one of the first attempts by Stein to explain her method of composition. The essay represents one of the most candid attempts by a writer to communicate the struggle to write to an audience of strangers. As in all of Stein’s writing, her sentences refuse to be pinned down and yield new insights with each reading.

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The essay begins haltingly, in the manner of a speaker searching for the precise location of her subject. Part of what Stein seeks to communicate, however, is the struggle to give voice to ideas; thus, her sentences echo this struggle. Thoughts are ungraspable, and Stein’s halting manner of writing should not be mistaken for clumsiness. To express herself too coherently would be to make the subject of writing too simple and rational. Her words in this essay are best understood if read aloud, as they follow so closely the circular movements of her inner voice. The essential ideas of Composition as Explanation, like most of Stein’s thinking, rest firmly in common sense and literary experience. Ideas, she suggests, can never be finished, and Stein gets greater range from her thoughts by playing with them, turning them around, and then starting them again from the beginning.

The world does not change, she argues; only the conception of things changes as each generation lives and thinks differently from the previous generation. Nothing changes between generations except the way in which things are seen, and this change leads to new works of art. Artists live on the outer edge of their time, and what they create often seems strange, even ugly, to contemporaries who lag a little behind. After enough time has elapsed for contemplation and study, new works of art are accepted by society, dubbed “classical,” and declared to be beautiful. By the time a work of art has become an acknowledged classic, though, some of its thrill has disappeared, because it no longer challenges the viewer. Beauty, Stein argues, is most beautiful when it is new and disturbing. It would be better, she insists, if artists and their audiences could stand together at the same place in time.

Stein believes that artists exist in a continuous present when they write, compose, or paint, as the act of composition can take place only in the present. One result of World War I, she argues, was to push everyone forward in time by almost thirty years. Modernism had started earlier, but the whole world was brought up to the point of modernism by the war, with the result that artists and their contemporaries stood side by side, at the edge of understanding.

After establishing this foundation for her literary theories, Stein describes the course of her own career. Although she does not say as much openly, she suggests that her own works, which are considered strange and eccentric by her contemporaries, will someday qualify as classics.

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