Sound Bites: Gertrude Stein

“If you enjoy it, you understand it.”–Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

This quote is taken from an interview between Stein and a radio interviewer called William Lundell. This interview took place during Stein’s late-life tour of the United States; having built herself a following and an artistic maternal position in Europe, she traveled to the land of her birth to give lectures at American universities. America received her with our traditional blend of celebrity worship and suspicion of intellectualism. In this interview, Lundell lobs a question that seems designed to insult rather than to investigate: he says that in order to lecture successfully, then people will need to understand her ideas, and “many American people doubt your ability to speak intelligibly.” He then asks her whether Four Saints in Three Acts will be part of her lectures, because it is not what “most of us” would consider understandable.

In reply, Gertrude Stein says: “You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have the habit of talking, putting it into other words. But I mean by understanding enjoyment. If you go to a football game you don’t have to understand it any way except the football way and all you have to do with Four Saints is to enjoy it in the Four Saints way. Don’t you see what I mean? If you enjoy it, you understand it, and lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it. You see that is what my lectures are to be. They are simply a way of telling everybody this thing, that if you enjoy it you understand it.” (Brain Pickings has a recording of this smackdown if you want to hear it.)

I love this way of envisioning literary engagement: that you can enjoy a thing without putting it into words, just by experiencing it in an embodied and self-possessed way without necessarily intellectualizing it. I’m reminded of a particular day of group work in the last Intro to Literature class I taught: one group was struggling with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and had come up with an elaborate story to explain the stanza I had assigned them to analyze. Their version of the stanza had something to do with a funeral and a father, I don’t know; it was a very specific who-what-when-where they were giving to a rather vague and evocative stanza, as though the poem were a cryptogram that would reveal a perfectly coherent narrative if decoded. I walked them backwards through the steps that got them them to that point–which phrases connoted the loss and grief that led them to think of fathers and funerals–until we came up with something more allusive and more accurate to the poem. In a classroom, of course, you do want to teach students how to “put it into other words”–that’s how you measure their progress. But what I wanted them to articulate is that almost bodily, instinctive knowledge transmitted by good poetry, which encourages understanding just by letting it speak to you in its own way.

To me, this collusion of enjoyment and understanding is central to food studies. As I discussed in my Ars Gastronomica: for me, pleasure is interesting and enjoyment is worth studying. Besides, that mode of understanding something by enjoying it resonates with the arguments I’m working through in my second chapter right now: we so often mistake pleasure for mere sensory stimulus, something almost involuntary, but in fact pleasure can be a powerful form of knowledge.

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2 responses to “Sound Bites: Gertrude Stein

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Achievements Unlocked | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: The ball of wax and the bitten apple | Scenes of Eating·

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