A few days ago, I wrote the opening passage to a story with the intention to dissect what was wrong with my writing. But I ran out of energy. As often happens, I looked at it analytically, and cannot find anything good about it anymore. I want to throw the whole thing in the trash bin. I will explain that thought process some other time.
Here, let me talk about something else. Let me talk about Gertrude Stein. Even if you have never heard of Gertrude Stein, you have been exposed to her influence. And not only in English. Some people might be surprised that she has even influenced Japanese popular song lyrics. You can hear some recordings of her reading her own poetry on YouTube. One of them is here. You can read the same poem here if you wish.
If you have ever been confused by the lyrics of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any other artist since them all the way through to the most recent rap music, you have Gertrude Stein to thank for that. She was the pioneer in using words for their sounds alone with little or no connection to the meanings they carry or the associations they convey. Just as modern furniture, aesthetic and practical, were influenced by baffling cubist sculpture and toned down to make them more accessible, modern music lyrics are the watered-down examples softened and rendered accessible from the extremely experimental abstractions of Stein’s poetry.
Stein’s poetry is like proto-rap lyrics etched on the glassy surface of Edwardian tea cups. In spite of their defiantly cutting edge composition, there is something dainty about them that you do not see in the aggressively confrontational hard rock, heavy metal, and gutter rap lyrics they eventually spawned. But the influence is unmistakable.
Gertrude Stein’s influence on the other forms of literature, particularly the novel, is more difficult to demonstrate. The most often mentioned is Hemingway, who is known to have visited Stein in her Paris studio. Scholars have pointed to various elements of his style as having been influenced by Stein, but it is difficult to find extractable passages in his or any novel that reflect the sort of focus on the sounds of words and dismissal of meanings.
You can argue that there is no influence, but I think I see an influence in William S. Burroughs:
“In the City Market is the Meet Café. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up harmine, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excusers of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang-utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war… A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum… Larval entities waiting for a Live One…”
Burroughs does have refrains elsewhere in his book, but does not have the sort of Tourette-like mechanical refrains of Stein.
“Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.”
It is a kind of phonetic magic that, although it is complete nonsense, makes you want to try reciting it. Burroughs is not like that. But he does seem to throw coherence to the wind and just pile on the words. His words have no real meaning, but he manages to convey imagery and atmosphere; and he does so with a distinct and unmistakable voice. The difference is that what Burroughs is writing, however abstract, is a story and, at least nominally, a novel. Stein is pushing the boundaries of poetry. But I still think Burroughs owes a great deal to Stein. Like Stein, he is not concerned with the meaning of words, but unlike Stein, he is also concerned with the imagery and associations that the words evoke, and less about the phonetics.
And I keep thinking, how can I incorporate this verbal weirdness into my writing? It is in fact very difficult to organically insert incoherent passages into a coherent non-abstract story line. But if you are writing about, say, the delirious mind-warp in the midst of a brutal battle field, or the sudden inexplicable rage of the murderous warlord, through a first person perspective, I think there would be a place for a cool jumble of incoherent words. There must be a writer out there who has pulled it off.
A jumble of nonsense words can be cool. But it would be hell to edit. You can write a fairly decent passage and still feel that you need to throw the whole lot into the trash. If you wrote an incoherent passage, how could you keep it in the final draft without hating yourself for the rest of your life?