foreigner and being an inhabitant is not very serious. There
are so many foreigners and all who are real to them are those
that inhabit Paris and France. In that they are different from
other people. Other people find foreigners more real to them
when they are in their own country but to the French foreigners
are only real to them when they are in France. Naturally
they come to France. What is more natural for them to do
….France was so important in the period between 1900 and 1939,
it was a period when there really was a serious effort made by hu-
manity to be civilized, the world was round and there really were
not left any unknown on it and so everybody decided to be civilized.
England had the disadvantage of believing in progress, and progress
has really nothing to do with civilization, but France could be
civilized without having progress on her mind, she could believe
in civilization in and for itself, and so she was the natural back-
ground for this period.
revolt, and then you had to return to your pre-revolt stage and there
and there you were you were civilized. All Frenchmen know that
you have to become civilized between eighteen and twenty-three
and that civilization comes upon you by contact with an older
woman, by revolution, by army discipline, by any escape or by any
subjection, and then you are civilized and life goes on normally in
a latin way, life is then peaceful and exciting, life is then civilized,
logical and fashionable in short life is life.
In some senses you might almost think that Stein is arguing here for the life-changing possibilities of war as argued by the Futurists. But she follows up that paragraph by insisting that “War can not civilize, it takes life to civilize….” Taking this viewpoint even further, she contends, in an interesting aside, that such was the problem with the Surrealists:
their moment in becoming civlised, they used their revolt, not as
a private but as a public thing, they wanted publicity not civilization,
and so really they never succeeded in being peaceful and exciting,
they did not succeed in the real sense in being fashionable and
certainly not in being logical.
are always wanting to form a government which inevitably
treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody
else is purged. It has always happened from the French
revolution to to-day.
and beechnuts, you talk to yourself about how many you find and
whether they have worms in them. You talk to yourself about
apples and pears and grapes and which kind you like best. You
just go on talking to yourself in war-time. You talk to yourself
about spiders or lizards, you talk to yourself about dogs and cats
and rabbits but not about bats or mice or moths.
After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested
in living inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two
countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they
live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from them-
selves, it is not real but it is really there.
This is perhaps one of the most important statements in understanding Stein’s
aesthetics and, particularly, her need to remain in France, despite whatever it
may have cost her and Alice, throughout the war. Even from afar, one
might empathetically comprehend why two lesbian women, having lived most
of their lives abroad, would find it nearly impossible to suddenly reassimilate
themselves to the far more parochial and unaccepting world that repatriation to
the US might have represented. Stein would simply no longer be the figure
she was if she had returned, let us imagine, to Baltimore! The six last years
of her life would have been lived in even greater isolation than that she
describes in the pages of Paris France. We have only to look at an example
such as the former expatriate Djuna Barnes—who in Paris was perceived as
one of the great wits of the age, a woman without whom no party could
be complete—who, upon returning to the US because of World War II,
quickly developed a life that has correctly been described as being life of a
hermit who scared away almost anyone who might have wanted to visit.
Yes, Barnes continued to live for several more decades and even wrote.
But she was no longer a joyful human being in touch with other human
lives. Perhaps Barnes was never a truly a joyful human being, but Stein was!
Stein desperately depended upon the social interrelationships with artists and
writers that she had had in Paris, even with the natives of village where she
hunkered down during the War, and, after, the hundreds of soldiers who
accepted her open visits to her dinner table.
Stein’s France, moreover, as she makes clear in Paris France, was not
anybody else’s France. If at times it may seem to related to others’
perceptions of that country or, even, if, as Gopnik imagines, “we are
convinced by the truth of her observations”—something that, for all my
love of Stein, I seldom was—we recognize that Stein’s version is a
Romantic one, “not real,” but for her, alone,“really there.”
Los Angeles, August 31, 2014