Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
December 04, 2007
not about "Vaché and boredom" -- part II

Here is another post not about Jacques Vaché and bordeom.

It remains too boring to post about.

Instead, here is a post about Gertrude Stein and boredom.

A well-known story from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, chapter 4, goes like this:

[note: Use of the phase "well-known," as above, to describe something that the reader may never have heard of is a trick used constantly throughout that book,

so why not here?]

     like this:

It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James' course.

She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. Dear Professor James, she wrote at the top of her paper. I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day, and left.

The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself.

And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course.

Some people seem to enjoy retelling the above story. See, e.g., here, here and here.

It is easy to understand why. What student (past, present or future) would not like/have liked a professor like that?

However, why exactly did Prof. James give Stein's exam paper the highest mark?

We would like to think that it was because, in her answer to the exam question, James saw that, in a paradoxical way, she displayed that she understood or "got" the material in his course -- or got him -- in a way that surpassed her classmates.

We might hope that James saw that her understanding of the principles he taught went beyond mere regurgitation of words. We might hope that he saw the form of her answer to be a performance of the ways in which certain philosophical questions perhaps can only be answered via mental states that translate into choices of action.

Or, put another way, James would later give credit to Charles S. Pierce for introducing the notion that "our beliefs are really rules for action," and that "to develop a thought's meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance."

Maybe James perceived that Stein's conduct and (lack of) words were a perfect expression of "that metaphysical tedium vitae which is peculiar to reflecting men," as James put it in April 1895, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in his lecture entitled "Is Life Worth Living?"

The incident with Stein's final exam would have happened, we estimate, two years after that lecture, in spring 1897, during Stein's last year at Radcliffe/the Harvard Annex.

Thus, maybe James decided that Stein, with her exam answer, was making a statement of a certain kind. Maybe he took her exam booklet to be an expression of a general commentary that necessarily went beyond words, meant to apply on the widest possible level, about the project of philosophy and human existence -- commentary that James himself (he may have felt) was otherwise in the vanguard of development.

But what if James got Stein all wrong?

The readers of AABT know what James, when he graded her exam, presumably did not. The key information is right there in the set-up to Stein's story of the incident. Outside of the philosophy exam room, with reference to all kinds of things in life, including opera, the loveliness of the spring day, other engrossments, and more opera, Stein seems to have felt a great deal of enthusiasm. She tells us so.

Her general feelings about life around the time of the exam sound, by her own account, like there were quite the opposite of tedium vitae. Fanaticus furor vitae, we could call it?

Her lack of enthusiasm looks very selective, in this light, and not generally existential at all.

Worse, notice how James could have totally misinterpreted Stein's few words in her exam paper. Stein wrote a narrow, situational statment about how she did not feel at one, particular time: "I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day."

James, perhaps in his enthusiasm to find a kindred spirit among his students, flips her words completely upside-down, into a positive, temporally open-ended statement (about "how you feel" and "I often feel").

Someone may object that Stein did more than write mere words in her exam booklet. She acted. She got up and left the room.

However, Stein fails to tell us a great deal about her action. Did she sit at her exam room desk, in philosophical contemplation and internal struggle, for, say, ninety minutes, before writing her message? Or lazily dash the message off after ninety seconds? Did she take a little nap on her desk first? Did she make repeated attempts at a traditional exam answer, but discard each writing in frustration, and conclude that "she just could not" capture what she wanted to say in the traditional form? Did she write multiple drafts of her message to James? Or pass some of the allotted exam time by scribbling some literary prose on a separate sheet which she kept?

Was James in the exam room to observe her behavior, anyway? If he were, how might his observations have affected the generous light in which he interpreted her exam answer?

On the other hand and conversely, maybe James interpreted Stein's exam paper as he did, and believed that Stein deserved the highest mark, because of other information available to him but not available to us, the readers of AABT. Perhaps he observed her through class participation, other coursework, discussions outside the classroom or her reputation on campus; recognized signs of brilliance; and took this into account, in his exam mark.

Similarly, what if James recognized in Stein's boredom a rare quality of depth, sensitivity and perception that she herself, at the time, at age 23, did not see or could not yet articulate?

Perhaps his generous grading was intented as a small bit of reassurance and consolation to her.

Perhaps from his perspective, he was going out of his way to encourage her not to turn away from, or get irredeemably freaked out by, the peculiar dialectic of feeling/not feeling that she struggled with, but instead to plumb the intricacies of it, in her adult years ahead, when its contradictions promised only to intensify.

Who knows?

What are we to make of all this?

Maybe Stein caught a really lucky break, with that 1897 philosophy final.

Maybe James tender-heartedly mistook her petulance for profundity.

Maybe he mistook to be a sickness unto death what was, in fact, a fit of pique at not being back at the opera house -- and being stuck instead in (what some might consider to be) the very non-operatic setting of a philosophy exam room.

Moreover, maybe when Stein wrote AABT, decades later, she framed and spun the story of the philosophy exam incident in a way that would invite her readers to view the incident as Prof. James may have, in a tender-hearted but false light.

We have no idea.

But the question here is: Did Gertrude Stein really understand boredom?

William James certainly understood boredom. His paragraphs about it in The Principles of Psychology (1890)(see Chapter 15, here, at pg. 626 etc.) are some of the most perceptive that one could ever imagine reading.

But did Stein?

Yes, she probably did.

Tomorrow: Some other material from AABT, that seems to show that Stein really did understand boredom.

If we can muster up the enthusiasm to post about it.