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Scaling the walls of chastity

Notes on Gertrude Stein, Fernhurst, Q.E.D. and Other Early Writings

[Written before (but not long before) she read Weininger, Stein here begins to reveal her doubts about the plausibility of certain forms of feminism common at the turn of century. There is much here to help explain why she was primed for Weininger when she finally did read him, at the behest of her brother Leo, during the early stages of her masterwork, The Making of Americans.* Her reading of Weininger may have had something to do with her break from the influence of her brother (who was later to repudiate Weininger), but there is no doubt that it dovetailed with the developing premises of her work and philosophy. Weininger may have “given her permission” to express her genius in the face of an uncomprehending world. We may forget that as a writer—as opposed to the socialite of the Parisian literary and art scene—Stein labored in obscurity for decades. As a serious writer and thinker her work is still contends with much incredulity.]

*Editor’s note: See the notes on Leon Katz.

The Siegfried and Alberich character types elaborated in Stein are Anglo-Saxon and Jew, respectively, though not specifically referred to as such.


America was still too young to produce a class of moral elite…

[Recalls a reference by contemporary American analytical philosopher and feminist, Judith Jarvis Thompson to Kant-inspired theorists as “moral sophisticates.”* America is probably still too unripe.]

*Editor’s note: In “The Decline of Cause.” (Hart Lecture) Georgetown Law Journal 76 (1987-1988): 137-150. Reprinted in Readings in Philosophy of Law, William Shaw, ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Stein scoffed at the bourgeois and the aristocrats who could not bring themselves to be themselves wholly…

May Bookstaver, Stein’s real lover and inspiration for Helen in “Q.E.D.” illustrated for Stein a Weiningerian female type.

The Making of Americans as the grand finale of that kind of moral vision culminating in the 19th Century. [From that point on, Stein happily retreated to poking about the detritus for curios.]


…the reality of relations—at first, relations of people, then of objects in space, and then of events in time—with as much force and clarity as though they were tangible.

They were there, they were true.


The place of woman and her education

“armed neutrality” between equals [Curious, Kierkegaardian parallel. The Dane also cultivated it.]

Parody of “naive realism” [She met and argued with Bertrand Russell several times.]



I always did thank God I wasn’t born a woman.

[Cf. Wittgenstein’s remark to Elizabeth Anscombe. Wittgenstein, after a lecture to a mixed audience, said to Anscombe that now that the women had left the room, they—Wittgenstein and she—could discuss real philosophy. Anscombe, a literary executor, was one of the few philosophical colleagues Wittgenstein had genuine respect for. Both Wittgenstein and Stein, admirers of Weininger, could express wry criticism of the feminine without, we would argue, becoming misogynists. (The centrality of language, the importance of Weininger, many mutual acquaintances (Moore, Russell, et al.), ambivalence toward Jewishness, etc., they shared: we wonder how Wittgenstein and Stein might have gotten on had they met.*)]

*Editor’s note: See Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, p. 257, note 7.

Stein’s early obsession with naive morality.

A womanly view of a heroic moral sense.

Thinking and feeling a pretty continuous process [Weininger’s henids]


The modern world is a difficult place to be subtly dangerous; the risks are too great.

[Weininger tried and failed at being “subtly dangerous.” Instead, he ended up being dangerous in a big and brassy way that brought on exactly the attention he didn’t want. No amount of disclaimer or advance warning saved him. The good news is that the subtle will endure.]


endless and picturesque analysis of all things human

Not being myself of a heroic breed. [Nevertheless, Stein could appreciate it from afar.]

“A blooming Anglo-Saxon” could kill cleanly in contrast to herself, a Jew, who would first torture the victim. [More Weiningerian echoes.]

All I want to do is meditate endlessly and think and talk.

Preparing the self for disaster.

A beautiful example of a destructive dilemma.

Henidical instance.

Fickleness of morality.

I hope someday to find a morality that can stand the wear and tear of real desire to take the place of the nice one that I’ve lost…

[Naïve morality lamented.]

New York’s (America’s) “obvious, superficial, clean complexity,” “clear eyed Americanism,” “the passionless intelligence of the faces,” “the weight of stains necessary to the deepest understanding”…


a kiss that seemed to scale the very walls of chastity


If you don’t begin with some theory of obligation, anything is possible and no rule of right or wrong holds. One must either accept some theory or else believe one’s instincts or follow the world’s opinion.

[Stein as moral philosopher gets it right. It is a mandate of “or”s—but it is a mandate.]


great goose

Adele’s (Stein’s) sanctity of money transactions.


… hide … behind silences. I know you hate conclusions but that isn’t a just attitude. Nothing is too good or holy for clear thinking and definite expression. You hate conclusions because you may be compelled to change them.

[In remarkable anticipation of Wittgenstein. They were to work out related solutions to the same problem, a fateful example of Weininger lighting the path.]

[The moral of the story: If you are not strong enough to make things as you would have them be, then you should at least learn to see them as they are, quod erat demonstratum.*]

*Editor’s note: Luno sees a parallel with Wittgenstein’s trouble with Jewishness as described in David G. Stern, ‘The Significance of Jewishness for Wittgenstein’s Philosophy,’ Inquiry, 43:4, 383 - 401.

The Making of Americans

[The kernel story out of which the much larger work accreted.]

Mothers not taught by children. [In the sense that they repeat the essential tropes of mothering generation after generation as though the culture could not bear advancing except, perhaps, in style. Anthropologists and social psychologist have long recognized that infants condition their mothers at least as much as the other way around. This does not bode well for overcoming a certain naive notion of “stereotype.” Cultural transcendence requires a tad more tough love.]

one whom you might like better the more you saw her less

In the 19th Century, through science

it was discovered that generalizations must be as complicated as the facts…

[Again, compare Wittgenstein’s remark in Zettel: While philosophical conclusions may be simple, the act of philosophizing must be a match for the tangles it takes on.* (The conclusions may only survive with an air of platitude, belying the effort to reach them.)]

*Editor’s note: Luno must be referring, not to Zettel, but to a passage in Culture and Value, revised second edition, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) p. 95. Also quoted in David Stern, op. cit., p. 398.


It is never facts that tell, they are the same when they mean very different things.

[A built-in limitation of science.]


Face to face with nakedness in the soul of a man poorly made by God she shuddered and grew sick.

[One legitimate response to what Weininger revealed about men. (Though at this stage Stein probably meant ’man’ in the more inclusive sense.) ]

She, in marrying him, “would think it so and did.”


Passionate women, those in whom emotion has the intensity of a sensation, afflict their world with agitation, excitement and unrest.

The little knowledge of the bourgeois binds them; it does not set them free.

Posted by luno in Stein, Weininger (Thursday July 24, 2008 at 12:02 pm)

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