Cubism, as defined by E. H. Gombrich in ART AND ILLUSION, is...
"the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture – that of a man-made construction, a coloured canvas." (pg 281)
In the case of painting, the ambiguity of a single perspective is opposed by presenting the subject from all possible perspectives.
In the case of writing, it would be superficial to suggest that a story told from multiple perspectives (as in the case of RASHOMON) it the literay equivalent to cubism. On the contrary, a story told from multiple perspective only accounts for the narrative; it neglects the craft of writing, which is as integral to literary cubism as it is to cubist painting. While a story told from multiple perspective may account for "all possible perspectives" in the narrative, it has as much potential to perpetuate ambiguity as it has to stamp out ambiguity. (For example, the unreliable narrator.)
True literary cubism would therefore focus on the craft of writing. Rather than retell a narrative from different perspectives, a sentence or paragraph may be reworded without altering the meaning. (For example, if I were to follow the previous statement with the following: "Focusing on the craft of writing entails the rewording of a sentence of paragraph without altering the meaning." The same statement could be reworded as many times as the writer sees fit, just as the subject of the painting may be portrayed from as many angles as the painter sees fit.)
If this is to be definition of literary cubism, then Gertrude Stein may be the only practitioner. How appropriate that Gertrude Stein, who counted Pablo Picasso among her closest friends, should be the only practitioner of literary cubism.
Aside from "literary cubism", IDA is best characterized by Stein's sentences and her punctuation (or lack thereof). Like most of Stein's experimental writing, I found myself reading and re-reading certain sentences, unsure whether or not I had understood the meaning. More often than not, I did understand the meaning, but Stein's structure can be so jarring as to cause the reader to falter.
Once the reader gets past the "literary cubism", the sentences, and the punctuation (or lack thereof), they encounter a story about a woman named Ida. She is the Ida of the title, but at times she is not the Ida of the title. That is it is called into question whether or not she is the Ida of the title, which she is.
The description states:
"Gertrude Stein wanted Ida to be known in two ways: as a novel about a woman in the age of celebrity culture and as a text with its own story to tell."
Gertrude Stein has accomplished this and more, she has written a novel that is a constant battle between form and content. Indeed, the two seem to be at odds with one another. At times, one overtakes the other. But for the most part they coexist with the independence of two living things - not unlike the dogs Lillieman and Dick...
"As much as possible they never knew the other one was there. Sometimes when they bumped each other no one heard the other one bark it was hard to not notice the other one. But they did. Days at a time sometimes they did." (pg 80)
IDA is distinguished from other works by Gertrude Stein with the use of rhyming. Perhaps I overlooked the rhyming in her other works. I don't think so, but perhaps I did. I haven't read any of her poetry, but whether or not her poetry incorporates rhyming it is distinguished from IDA by the form, poetry being poetry and IDA being a novel...
"For a four.
Shut the door.
They dropped in.
And drank gin." (pg. 94)
On the subject of rhyming, there are long passages in the second half of the novel, each of the long passages narrated by an animal, and all of them heavy on rhyming and light on meaning (or apparent meaning)...
"Listen to me I, I am a spider, you must not mistake me for the sky, the sky red at night is a sailor's delight, the sky red in the morning is a sailor's warning, you must not mistake me for the sky, I am I, I am a spider and in the morning any morning I bring sadness and mourning and at night if they see me at night I bring them delight, do not mistake me for the sky, not I, do not mistake me for a dog who howls at night and causes no delight, a dog says the bright moonlight makes him go mad with desire to bring sorrow to any one sorrow and sadness, the dog says the night the bright moonlight brings madness and grief, but says the spider I, I am a spider, a big spider or a little spider, it is all alike, a spider green or gray, there is nothing else to say, I am a spider and I know and I always tell everybody so, to see me at night brings them delight, to see me in the morning, brings mourning, and if you see me at night, and I am a sight, because I am dead having dried up by night, even so dead at night I still cause delight, I dead bring delight to any one who sees me at night, and so every one can sleep tight who has seen me at night." (pg. 99-100)
This passage is also characteristic of the second half of the book, which departs from the first half. The first half may lack the coherence of a conventional novel, but it is certainly more coherent than the second half. More coherent and more focused. The focus being Ida.
Addressing Gertrude Stein's concern, that the novel be remember "as a novel about a woman in the age of celebrity culture", it is pertinent to suggest that the fragmentary structure of the novel may be a reflection of this "celebrity culture". The suggestion being that the novel may be the accumulation of many voice, all talking about the same person: Ida...
"Who is careful.
Well in a way Ida is.
She lives where she is not.
Oh yes that is what they say.
Of course not.
Who is careful.
That is what they said.
And the answer was.
Oh yes, careful.
Oh yes, I can almost cry.
Ida never did.
They all said oh yes.
And for three days I have not seen her.
That is what somebody did say somebody really somebody has said. For three days I have not seen her.
Nobody said Ida went away.
She was there Ida was.
So was her husband. So was everybody." (pg. 50-51)
This recalls my first description of literary cubism, the multiple perspective description, that I denounced. But what sets IDA apart from other multiple perspective narratives, aside from the focus on the craft of writing, is the fragmentation and disassociation. We do not know the narrator, nor do we know how many narrators there are (if if can be said there are more than one). If there are multiple narrators, their narration is not distinguished one from another, but rather fragmented into an indecipherable collage, or at times superimposed one atop the other (which may help to explain the frequency of contradictory statements).
There are, throughout the novel, many contradictory statements - in some cases, contradictions that exist within the same sentence...
"When she went out she came in." (pg. 120)
These contradictions create ambiguity, ambiguity that discredits the "literary cubism" label that I have attributed to Gertrude Stein and her novel, IDA.
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