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  • James Pollock

What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them

"Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself."

A Profound Lecture on the Ontology and Psychology of Writing

Gertrude Stein's lecture "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them," which she delivered at Oxford and Cambridge ca. 1935, is one of the most profound things I have ever read about writing. In it, Stein puts her finger, persuasively, on a fundamental difference between great writing--masterpieces, to use her word--and all other writing, however skilled.

It must be said, for the benefit of those who don't know Stein already, that her eccentric style--she is apparently allergic to commas--makes her lecture slightly irritating to read silently, at least at first. I mean it's sometimes not easy to make sense of her grammar unless and until you read it aloud, supplying the commas yourself. As she says of masterpieces, her lecture seems confused at first, but eventually becomes clear. And it is absolutely worth the effort.

Her ideas are challenging, too, but it helps to make sense of them when you realize that her idea of the creator of masterpieces is a lot like Keats's ideal, expressed in his letters, of the "chameleon poet." You may recall that Keats describes such a poet as a Shakespearean "poetical character" who has no identity of his or her own, but is continually entering in imagination into other characters and things, and taking part in their being. It's an ideal that Keats opposes to the Wordsworthian "egotistical sublime."

Stein's way of putting it is to suggest the writer has two selves: an eternal "you," the "entity" that creates, and a "you" that is merely one's identity, "you as your little dog knows you" as she rather charmingly puts it: that is, your identity as created by an audience, and even by your own memories. For Stein, it is this second you, this identity--this audience- and memory-induced self-consciousness--that stops the creation of masterpieces: "The second you are you as your little dog knows you you cannot make a masterpiece."

It is not that you can't write a masterpiece about your identity. In fact, she acknowledges that masterpieces are often concerned with identity and the memories that make up one's identity. It is just that "you do not remember yourself as you do create." In other words, "time and identity [are] what you tell about as you create[,] only while you create they do not exist."

As for why there are so few masterpieces: as Stein puts it, "Everything is against them." "There are so few of them because mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think." The list of things that interfere with the creation of masterpieces is long: pleasure, pride, vanity, time, timeliness, history, memory, action, governing, necessity, audiences, human nature, indeed "everything that makes life go on."

But the most difficult thing about creating a masterpiece, Stein argues, is not so much escaping one's identity--as in T.S. Eliot, who wrote "Poetry . . . is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality"--but something more, what one might call, by way of analogy with Hindu or even esoteric terminology, a replacement of self-consciousness with Self-awareness. As Stein puts it,

It is not extremely difficult not to have identity but it is extremely difficult the knowing not

having identity. One might say it is impossible but that it is not impossible is proved by the

existence of master-pieces which are just that. They are knowing that there is no identity and

producing while identity is not.

That is what a master-piece is.

I explain this idea to my students, some of whom are athletes or musicians, in terms of achieving a flow state or "being in the zone." They understand that the hardest part is not so much getting into this state--though that can be challenging enough, especially for the inexperienced writer, or musician, or athlete--but recognizing that you're in this state and staying there. In this sense, it's not unlike a kind of advanced meditation. But, just as with meditation, or athletics, or musical performance, it gets easier and more effective with practice.

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1 Comment

Robert Lunday
Robert Lunday
Sep 25, 2022

The upshot of this, I think, is that at the outer level of creation the whole process is another form of recursion -- nestedness of things, which deep down are all the same matter. I and my dog are the same continuum of atoms -- but the world of illusion, within which poems and art exist, tells us otherwise (although I don't really know what my little dog is thinking!). Maybe masterpieces somehow transcend (or short circuit) that gap.

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