Gertrude Stein can see things that I can’t. Her eyes catch an expanse across time in Paris France (published the day the city was seized by the Germans in World War 2) that stretches beyond the normal throw of any human being, and which lacks the ego of the moment’s nowness and individuality in search of, not only context, but an anthropomorphized sense of just what is happening. It’s like she can hear the clock that God keeps in God’s study. It’s like she knows for sure.
Perhaps it’s because of her description of eye glasses, in 1914’s Tender Buttons:
A color in shaving, a saloon is well placed in the centre of an alley.
like she has better glasses than me, like sharper quartz. Or maybe it has to do with the insufferable youth of my mind and anatomy, an adolescence that doesn’t seem to end, even though I am tired of growing pains, even though I just want to finally grow into a person.
Paris France can see everything. Paris France can see the future, when my friends and I all left Ohio for New York Town to learn how to be writers. Or how to be alive. Stein knows that the work will still stand. That everyone is always the same:
After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is 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 themselves, it is not real but it is really there.
where the City, to us, was another country entirely, a whole other world -one we’d read about and seen in the movies:
France was not daily it just came up again and again.
It came up first in such different books, Jules Verne and Alfred de Vigny and it came up in my mother’s clothes and the gloves and the sealskin caps and muffs and the boxes they came in.
There was the smell of Paris in that.
We were all American children, raised on a broadcasted pop iconography, swept away by the romance of a place, by its history.
And we moved in the teens of this Century.
In this Century, where our sense of reality is, perhaps, the least stable quality of our figure -when everything from the movies and literature to real human beings, facilitating the dispatch of the presidency, disrupt our notion of what’s really happening. Where we are being gaslit by our lovers or their lack -ghosts, disappearing from our midst, another embedded nail in the bed of the fog of all of this, so that Stein’s eyeglasses begin to actually feel accurate, in both description and vision produced:
Now this was very important because once again this made a background of unreality which was very necessary for anybody having to create the twentieth century. The nineteenth century knew just what to do with each man but the twentieth century inevitably was not to know and so Paris was the place to be.
New York was the place to be. Everything was happening in the City. This is where the President was born and this is where he’ll be beat -a quiet prayer keeped: this is where we march in the streets, we crawl around the infrastructure in search of some higher authority, where we can be wild and free.
And that is what made Paris and France the natural background of the art and literature of the twentieth century. Their tradition kept them from changing and yet they naturally saw things as they were, and accepted life as it is, and mixed things up without any reason at the same time. Foreigners were not romantic to them, they were just facts, nothing was sentimental they were just there…
We could disappear into thin air. Spread our wings. Get lost in these crowds and be whatever we wanted to be. As loud and as strange as our faculties could possibly bloom.
We would do this from the miniature domesticity we could afford, tucked away, cozy in Queens.
So from 1900 to 1930 those of us who lived in Paris did not live in picturesque quarters even those who lived in Montmartre like Picasso and Bracque did not live in old houses, they lived in fifty year old houses at most and now we all live in the ancient quarter near the river, now that the twentieth century is decided and has its character we all tend to want to live in the seventeenth century houses, not barracks of ateliers as we did then. The seventeenth century houses are just as cheap as our barracks of ateliers were then but now we need the air and space you only get in old quarters. It was Picasso who said the other day when they were talking about tearing down the insalubrious parts of Paris but it is only in the insalubrious quarters that there is sun and air and space, and it is true, and we are all living there the beginners and the middle ones and the older ones and the old ones we all live in old houses in ramshackle quarters. Well all this is natural enough.
Familiarity does not breed contempt, anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.
So it begins to be reasonable that the twentieth century whose mechanics, whose crimes, whose standardization began in America, needed the background of Paris, the place where tradition was so firm that they could look modern without being different, and where their acceptance of reality is so great that they could let any one have the emotion of unreality.
And it was sitting in Queens that we gathered to watch the TV screen tell us that yes, a change was on its way. Just it would be a different change than the one we’d begun to anticipate.
When the emotion hit, on the silent train home from my friends’ place at 4AM. When we all collectively experienced the burst: the split at the seam: the disproportional sense of the story we were telling and the facts that actually took place.
And something in all of us changed.
It was then I first realized the difference between a painting and out of doors. I realized that a painting is always a flat surface and out of doors never is, and that out of doors is made up of air and a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface, and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art. I seem to have felt all that very intensely standing on the platform and being all surrounded by an oil painting.
We spent two years protesting and reading the news and waiting for the shoe to drop, anticipating some sense that we’d wake up from the dream. And some of us still do.
And why wouldn’t we? After all: we’re in pain, which is the womb for any hope.
We tried different things to cope. We read about a man back in Ohio who walks around with headphones, who’s removed his TV -who’s stuck his head in the sand and refuses to learn anything new about the world. Who’s created an abstract island of ignorance and peace.
England was consciously refusing the twentieth century, knowing full well that they had gloriously created the nineteenth century and perhaps the twentieth century was going to be too many for them, so they were quite self consciously denying the twentieth century.
And, you know: who could blame him, really? Sure, it brought us personal anger. Or it felt like a kind of betrayal. Or we simply thought he was a fool, but:
We already have the Tool that lets us see things we were never capable of seeing before. Things like the entire world. The Tool that psychologists say forces us to process a level of suffering we’re not genetically built for, intellectually or emotionally. Maybe he just couldn’t take it any more.
But for New York -for the native New Yorkers all around me, all the time- there was surprise but, you know, there wasn’t the same tone of panic:
…but France was not worrying about it, what is was and what was is, was their point of view of which they were not very conscious, they were too occupied with their daily life to worry about it, beside the last half of the nineteenth century interesting, if it was to be really interesting of course they would not work quite so much, being interested does sometimes stop one from working, work might then be even somewhat disturbing and distracting. So the twentieth century had come it began in 1901.
In 2001, New York understood (independently of every other state except Hawaii) what it felt to be wrecked by war. New York already knew, with a radical intimacy, what it felt like when a catastrophic fact got in the way of a story they were telling.
War is more like a novel than it is like real life and that is its eternal fascination. It is a thing based on reality but invented, it is a dream made real, all the things that make a novel but not really life.
One narrative collapses another. And reality shifts.
John Berger writes that “the traffic between storytelling and metaphysics is continuous.”
And perhaps it is.
Perhaps it is:
The twentieth century did not invent but it made a great fuss about series production, series production really began in the nineteenth century, that is natural enough, machines are bound to make series production.
So although there was more fuss made about machines and series production in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth of course it was a nineteenth century thing.
The impressionists and they were nineteenth century had as their aspiration and their ideal one painting a day, really two paintings a day, the morning painting and the afternoon painting actually it might have been the early morning and the early afternoon and the late afternoon. But after all there is a limit to the human hand after all painting is hand painting so actually even at their most excited moment they rarely did more than two more frequently one, and very often not one in a day, most generally not one a day. They had the dream of a series production but as Monsieur Darantiere said about printing after all they had not the faults or the qualities of machines.
Perhaps it is. For as we continued our work, as we shifted the speed of production to accommodate the Tool (modulating our bodies’ base needs in the process, converting spirituality to output), we began to question other things.
We did the reading. The prison system as legalized slavery. The drug addictions that paid for the galleries. The women, whose frightening stories of men have always been true.
And the glue of our reality continued to separate. Like: if this presidency could happen, if all this is true, then what else isn’t set in stone. We have been alone in our suspicions because the Evil need isolation to gaslight. But we are not alone any longer, no: we have the Tool. We can accrue our conglomerate of notes. We can capture what we’ve seen.
The fancy and imagination of every country is so different. I have just written a child’s book called The World Is Round and an English friend who lives in France here being married to a Frenchman, Betty Leyris, has a three months old baby, and I said I would give her a copy for little Johnny when he could read. And said Betty I hope by the time he is old enough to read it that the world will still be round.
Now that is purely an English imagination that and so each country is important at different times because the world in general needs a different imagination at different times and so there is Paris France from 1900 to 1939, where everybody had to be to be free.
Things are different now than they used to be.
It is difficult to go back to 1901 now that it is 1939 and war-time.
…of course it is awful to be always under the threat of war and yet does it do something about logic and fashion that is interesting.
Is it possible that America does not know that the world is round because there is no threat of war.
We have opened our eyes.
And that makes one think a great deal about music, war naturally does make music but certainly this war with everybody really everybody listening to the radio, there is nothing but music. There used to be a song that was sung called Music In The Air, but when that song was written nobody really thought that there would be all this music in the air.
When Aretha dies, 125th Street’s all the flowers at the Apollo, is the radio turned up and up and
when I think about this time, it will be all the little things that articulate God’s clock, ticking.
It will be Childish Gambino’s This Is America. It will be Redbone -Glover, shirtless on Fallon, begging all of us to “stay woke.”
In the movie that they make about this Century, Redbone will be the staple of the LP that soundtracks it. It will be All Along the Watchtower, as by Jimi. It will be the sound of this Now.
The song that played as the space around us grew in expanse and contracted:
The painting of the young Englishman Francis Rose affected a good many of us the same way, after all if you know that the world is round and that space is unlimited well why talk about it any more. Facts are facts. It is a fact and so let us know it but not remember it. All great facts should be known but not remembered like the earth to the French, and so for the first time for a long time the phenomena of nature, thunder and storms and mountains and birds were things to live among. The English who naturally do live in among these things but in the confusion of refusing the twentieth century had lost their vitality of creating them they the English were once more finding the new thing in their old thing, in the thing that was natural to them and so in this war 1939 they are coming into their own, ideas are not important but light and loveliness is important.
And so, somewhere in our adolescent excitement, we began to get very practical about magick. Conversations -or at least the conversations that populated rooms I accidentally wound up in, over and over again- turned quickly to a combination of quantum physics, the esoteric, and the straight-up tactical. It had become equally practical to concern yourself with the Zodiac as to volunteer in the courthouse, downtown, watching arraignment proceedings. Each provided a sense of trying, of care, helped us to interact with the world as it exploded and the planet warmed. And the restlessness of all of that, as well as the shifts in basic thinking, were reflected in our work:
The characteristic thing of the twentieth century was the idea of production in a series, that one thing should be like every other thing, and that it should all be made alike and quantities of them. As I said the impressionists had the idea that a painting should be painted every day indeed preferably two a day, morning and afternoon. That was the nineteenth century, and then the twentieth century believed that painting should be completely subjective and not objective, and thoughts should be painted and not things seen. And so naturally even more than even one painting a day or two or even four could be painted because complete thoughts come all the time and each time any of them thought they thought a thought and this thought being painted was complete.
And it shaped our domesticity, too. We learned to love differently. We were offered an exploded view of the toxic aspects of our masculinity and monogamy, accrued from real-life and TV. The difference between loving a person and trying to consume:
Propaganda is not French, it is not civilized to want other people to believe what you believe because the essence of being civilized is to possess yourself as you are, and if you possess yourself as you are you of course cannot possess any one else, it is not your business.
We know that it will take work and it will take time to fix this. That we were designed as perpetuations of men, with broken parts. That we can transcend that configuration. Grow into a person.
An American who had read as far as this as far as it had been written said to me, but you do not mention the relation of French men to French men, of French men to French women of French women to French women of French women to French children of French men to French children of French children to French children. No I have not and for a very simple reason, there is no relation between them, all the contact between them all is so fixed and inevitable, so definite and so real that there is no question of either nature nor choice nor mistake. There can be no mistake and they cannot be mistaken.
Once in talking to the Baronne Pierlot a very old French friend she said about something when I said but Madame Pierlot it is natural, no said Madame Pierlot it may be natural but it is not natural. She is eighty-six and her granddaughter eight and it is difficult at times to know whether they are both eighty-six or whether they are both eight.
I once wrote and said what is the use of being a boy if you are going to grow up to be a man…
This is true: on day two of the current administration’s term, when we all gathered for the Women’s March, I showed up in war paint and combat boots, prepared and, perhaps, ready to start some kind of riot.
The crew that I found, when I got the center of town, almost all women, wore thick coats and responsible shoes and held signs and all seemed quietly, respectfully confused by the outfit I’d chosen.
Already frozen, we began our walk to the entrance, to My Revolution. I was twenty-six, full of ego, and very stoned.
We watched a white police officer approach a vehicle that had lagged behind, because of the people, and was blocking the intersection, forcefully try to open the door when the driver, a young African American man, wouldn’t roll down the window of his car. A shockwave in the air between all of us.
Six people screamed as the officer pulled out his gun and started banging on the glass window. And I felt this sting inside of me. Like maybe the riot was really happening. Like violence wasn’t imaginary, but was real. Like what the fuck is wrong with me?
The light changed and the driver pulled away, the cop’s hand still clutching the handle. And we poured
into the biggest crowd of people I have ever seen.
And the first thing I heard was
WE GO HIGH
THEY GO LOW
and I knew this Century would be all about loving.
How could you be civilized if you had not passed through a period of revolt, and then you had to return to your pre-revolt stage 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.
Our Century is nineteen years-old. Still has a ways to go, before it becomes civilized.
On the day that Stein publishes Paris France, the Germans take over the City. Here are its final lines:
This book is dedicated to France and England who are to do what is the necessary thing to do, they are going to civilize the twentieth century and make it be a time when anybody can be free, free to be civilized and to be.
The century is now forty years old, too old to do what it is told.
It is old enough to like to live quietly and well, to go to heaven or to hell as they like, to know that to live as they please is pleasanter than to be told.
So this is what England and France are going to do and this book is dedicated to them because I want them to do what they are going to do. Thank you.
Maybe Stein can’t see anything, except her own Right Now. Writing tethers us to the moment, as it’s happening.
Maybe she doesn’t know, just like we don’t. Maybe everyone is always the same.
Helen Button loved to listen to her aunt Pauline, they called her The Pauline and a good many people did believe her, but really Helen never thought about whether it was so or not. She liked to just say it to Emil when she saw him and she knew saying it made her fascinating.
So Helen knew when the war was going to end and when there would be no more war-time and Helen knew that this did make her fascinating.
Her Aunt Pauline did really know everything. She knew when an enemy was going to be dead, she knew how often a clock would strike, she knew who was not going to eat eggs, she knew who was going to buy a hat, she knew everything.
Maybe it’s foolish to study the shape of the story like tea leaves. Maybe it’s foolish to try and hold onto the reins.
Or maybe it’s only a natural quality of the Time -like how Stein writes about fashion:
Well that is one way of feeling and we had made a sudden visit to Paris and were back here in the hills far away, and one of the farmers, he is a tall bearded farmer who drinks a great deal of wine, but is for all that a most excellent farmer, he asked me what the people in Paris were doing. They were all carrying gas masks, I answered, ah yes he said, pour remplacer les muguets to replace lilies of the valley as a decoration.
This is what it once was like. We looked into the teacup, because the Now was too-bright for us to handle.
Or we looked into the teacup because it’s human to be scared. To hope everything will turn out alright.
Or maybe it’s because pain is a womb. And faith is born there. And prayers are a thing, best kept as a secret between yourself and God:
A farmer naturally says such things in France but he is not intimate, he is not intimate with man, woman or child or animal, he is not intimate, he is not civilized to be intimate and the French need to be civilized and in order to do so he must have tradition and freedom and with tradition and freedom one cannot be intimate with any one.
This too was very necessary in the twentieth century, when the present was so completely dominating.
The most claustrophobic thing I’ve read all year is Crudo: A Novel by Olivia Laing, a book published in 2018 about being alive at this moment in time.
It hurts to read what it once was like when it still is, is just more of the late-night comedians, is just more of the news, only it’s old news by the time it all hits, by the time the book is published, and it’s too-soon to relive it all again, since we’re just trying to get through this first go-round.
It’s human to be afraid of the sound.
Paris France is claustrophobic like Crudo, a false prophecy which turns out to be true.
There used to be a song that was sung called Music In The Air, but when that song was written nobody really thought that there would be all this music in the air.
It’s human to be scared. And to dance, too.