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Stein on Zionism and Jewish Singularity

Notes on Barbara Will, “Gertrude Stein and Zionism.”

Will offers an insightful discussion of the 1920 Gertrude Stein text:

The Reverie of the Zionist
I know all about the war I have been in France ever since the peace. Remember what was said yesterday.
We can think and we know that we love our country so.
Can we believe that all Jews are these.
Let us remember that the little bird of all is not the one that has the singing dell. It sings and it sings and a great many people say it is not pleasant. Is it likely that there is real grief. Anywhere there are beards and everywhere there are girls and all about there is a wealth of imagery.
I saw all this to prove that Judaism should be a question of religion.
Don’t talk about race. Race is disgusting if you don’t love your country.
I don’t want to go to Zion.
This is an expression of Shem.

Will writes:

Extracted from their context, these words become part of an obscure and fragmentary modernist dialogue…not an unusual event in Stein’s oeuvre, but one that raises interesting questions about Stein’s response to both the young man and the Zionist cause he represents. In the present essay, I propose to read this text for its interrogation of authority and representation: as a response both to the voice of one who knows and to the voice of one who speaks in the name of others…

This “I” interacts with the other voices of the text through argument, analysis, statement, refutation, and mockery, but all of this disputation does not culminate in any kind of resolution. Rather, the text uses voices as a way of emphasizing heterogeneity rather than agreement, pluralism rather than univocality. As with other similar texts by Stein of this same period, the process by which this text proceeds is like a child’s game of “topping hands,” with one voice “topping” another in an ongoing process of dialogue and refractory debate. The net effect of this very Steinian technique, as Ellen Berry writes, is “a pileup of words that does not necessarily add up in discourse,” but that produces “pleasure… from the multiplicity of languages colliding with one another.”

Berry calls this multivocal collision “collaboration” (20), but Stein herself would describe it as “talking and listening,” a way of existing and relating in language that emphasizes dialogue, process, open-endedness and a general resistance to any final symbolic or authorial containments. Stein would eventually describe “talking and listening” as the mark of genius, for “[o]ne may really indeed say that that is the essence of genius, of being most intensely alive, that is being one who is at the same time talking and listening” (Lectures 170).2 By linking her dialogic technique of “talking and listening” to “genius,” Stein both legitimates this technique and deconstructs the conventional idea of genius as exceptionality, uniqueness, and transcendence. If genius is inherently dialogic, and if dialogue is the mark of genius, then the very idea of the exceptional, the unique, or the transcendent no longer makes sense. Claims to primacy and singularity are equally challenged by Stein’s notion of “talking and listening.” In the dialogic text, no singular authority, or authoritarian idea, can hold sway: this, paradoxically, is the sign of genius.

[Weininger’s claim was that genius was quintessentially a moral trait, not a supercritical pile of talent. Wittgenstein later equated genius with talent plus courage, taking off from Weininger. The affinity between these conceptions and Stein’s is clear—as much, of course, as the refraction through her feminine sensibility. They would all agree that genius (as opposed to talent) is not a gift but a moral engagement. The character of that engagement, however, is determined by sex. Because the specifically masculine character was typically absent in women, Weininger could say correctly that a woman was incapable of genius. To say that is not to say that she lacks talent in any degree nor to say that somehow in not manifesting the masculine character of genius, construed as genius simpliciter here, her value in the cosmos was inferior to that of a man—quite the opposite, in fact. His value plummets to less than nothing in the blink of an eye through criminality—the proprietary liability of his character. Her value—transcendentally zero—can never fall below zero. The masculine character is essentially heterocosmic—transcendent—but not in the sense that invites utilitarian comparison with cosmic orientations such as hers. Hers and his conceptions are incommensurable. But this point is usually lost in superlative interpretations of the transcendent and nearly invisible to most feminist cosmologies.

I think Stein had glimpses of this and it is why she was able to find breathing room in Weininger. The dialogic of Stein illustrates what Weininger meant by saying the law of identity (a = a) was of little significance to the feminine. The law as such is unfruitful for her, nothing comes of it. She, unlike him, does not require it and its associated laws to anchor her hold on reality. A laying side by side of contradictory propositions was not the end of an argument but the beginning of discussion and revelation. It is what, Stein thought, the world needed more of… We might tinker with the old logician’s joke: one man’s reductio is a woman’s modus ponens. “I am I because my little dog knows me,” was a refrain throughout The Geographical History of America. This was not Descartes’ world any more: one where existence and not identity was problematic. Existence, for her, is not a native object of curiosity. While identity is the last thing to confuse him. A concentration of identity has a name: it is called ego, a favorite and suitable target of feminist rant.]

As a political movement organized around the specific goal of creating a Jewish state and resolving the problem of Jewish homelessness, Zionism would seem to stand against any form of wandering, whether the diasporic wandering of the Jewish people or the “wandering” of a dialogic text through its shifts, changes, claims and counterclaims.

[Stein sought to put the “wandering” back into the concept of the “wandering Jew.”]

The energy of Melanctha lies in the long and ultimately inconclusive passages of “talking and listening” that occur in the middle of the text, where Jeff and Melanctha struggle fruitlessly to make their differences understandable to one another. As Jeff “holds forth” with what he knows and thinks, Melanctha counters with what she believes, creating a crisis that is as much semantic (the two share the same words, but not the same meanings) as it is dramatic.

My sense is that Melanctha represents, among other things, Stein’s early complex projection and displacement of the Jewish question onto blacks.

Just as there is no one way of wearing a beard or being a girl, so is there no one way of being “Shem.” Shem, like beards and girls, is “[a]nywhere… and everywhere.” In its last line, “Reverie”…again echoing Melanctha…seems to suggest that the name of Shem may be “too many” for the Zionist cause.

Zionism, Zangwill felt, had been a “reductionist” folly, for “you cannot reduce a people whose faith and literature have nourished continents to the category of a mere political nationality.” Moreover, it was precisely because of the variety and richness of their diasporic experience, Zangwill concluded, that Jews had particular insight into “the unity of civilization” (qtd. in Udelson 218).

But the most obvious antiracialist statement in “Reverie” is the one that refuses the Zionist claim altogether: “Race is disgusting if you don’t love your country.” “Disgusting” is a strong word and betrays more than a trace of anxiety in the speaker; what this line suggests, possibly, is a repressed identification with racialist discourse. Nor does this line completely disavow racial identification (and we shall return to this point). But this identification is nevertheless trumped by the more compelling idea of “lov[ing] your country.” This phrase…the only one to be repeated in “Reverie” …proposes “love” as the substitute for the abstraction of Zionist nationalism. But what exactly does Stein mean by this phrase? To my mind, there is something utopian in this expression that registers Stein’s best efforts, in the wake of World War I, to explore forms of collective belonging that do not subscribe to the essentializing claims of racialism and nationalism.

As with “The Reverie of the Zionist,” most of Stein’s texts from the 1920s that approach this issue of belonging do so by 449 deconstructing claims to national difference.

[For example, the discussion of nationalist “camouflage” in The Autobiography.]

Without this love, without this profound sense of belonging, without this collective “talking and listening,” allegiances in the name of abstract ideas become “disgusting.”

[Weininger’s alleged “essentializing” could avoid Stein’s disgust because she—though, apparently, few others—was able to grasp that it was not of this world and, as such, it did not conflict with Stein’s deconstructive efforts.]

To this extent, it is interesting that Stein in “Reverie” and other works of the time privileges the word “country” over “nation”: while “country” encompasses the feel of a place (its “land and air”), “nation” remains tied to the abstract realm of politics, treaties, and pontificating delegates.…

Precisely in its singularity, its variety, and its possibility, Jewish identity cannot become the ground for a coherent national identity; nor should claims to Jewish racial unity ever attempt to substitute for the crucial idea of “lov[ing] your country.”…

What Stein seems to want to get away from in “Reverie,” “Land of Nations,” and other texts of the time is the absolute injunction to belong that a racialist nationalism demanded. One can be Jewish “anywhere and everywhere,” like the wandering Melanctha, or like Shem, and this possibility can be a source of great creative power. But one “belongs” only to the place where one feels a deep-seated collective “love.”

And yet, within the charged and unsettled environment of interwar Europe, Stein’s utopian effort to privilege national “belonging” over an abstract “race-feeling” would have troubling implications. While Stein in a text like “Reverie” points toward a happy compromise between national solidarity and Jewish singularity, other 451 writers and politicians at the time were using similar terms to stress the dissociation between Jewish and national identity. Ten years after “Reverie,” once the nationalist “nonsense” (to borrow Zangwell’s term) of fascism began to spread its dark influence throughout Europe, Stein’s terms would indeed begin to resonate in unfortunate ways with emerging discourses of fascism. Her insistence upon “lov[ing] your country” would seem not dissimilar from fascist arguments about the difference between natives and “foreigners.” Her point that “[r]ace is disgusting if you don’t love your country” would open the door for the argument that racialist or racist thinking is acceptable if you do love your country. Her claims that “anybody is as their land and air is” would start to sound increasingly like Philippe Pétain’s statements about the land in his right-wing National Revolution…statements that would feed the Vichy political ideology of “France for the French.“

Will concludes:

While this text remains a powerful, indeed remarkable, critique of Zionism’s totalizing claims and assumptions, its ideas of national belonging exclusive of Jewishness seem to anticipate the dark terms of an emerging fascism. And the fact remains that while Zionism would never draw Stein into its camp, other ideologies would…including ones that would refuse all forms of “talking and listening” with Jews.

[Like Weininger, Stein was in a privileged position to see the shortcomings of her own tribe. It remains for others to see that of theirs. This view of the matter is almost never politically expedient, but it is always the moral one.]

Posted by luno in Stein, anti-Semitism, Weininger (Monday May 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm)

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