ack to our “cliff-hanger” (an arch comment to post # 12). Back to Gertrude and Alice’s controversial relationship. Was Gertrude Stein frigid?
Janet Malcolm (“Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice”) speculates that if there were orgasms it was only Alice who had them. Only Wifey, not Hubby. Husband Gertrude provided them to her grateful wife, and poor Gert had to make do with making literature.
How does Malcolm get there? Through prominent scholar Ulla Dydo, who has inspected the private notebooks. In “Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises” Dydo declares about Gertrude: “Her own sexual feelings always have a babyish and cuddly tone. Baby does not experience orgasms but wants cuddling.” (I beg to disagree.) Malcolm buys this sight more or less unseen and calls it “a remarkable reversal of roles: outside the bedroom Toklas does all the work — she is cook, housekeeper, typist, secretary — but in bed it is Stein who labors: she calls herself ‘the best cow giver in all the world’.” (In Stein’s coded language “cow” stands (mainly) for orgasms.)
A remarkable reversal indeed, right back to the rigid role divisions Shari Benstock was fixated upon in the seventies. Dydo claims, “Toklas’ sexual fulfillment inspires Stein to write, which in turn represents sexual fulfillment for herself.”
Could this kind of blindness among Stein scholars and commentators have to do with the fact that we have entered the 21st century and are still as baffled and challenged by Stein as ever? Could it have to do with the fundamentalist air of our time? With the fact that some people have a hard time imagining lesbian sex other than “laboring” or one-sided or just “cuddly”?
Do me a favor and go back to the photo opening my last blog post. Look again at Gertrude on that Tuscan table top, at the turn of the century, the way she has literally burst out of the corset of convention. You don’t even have to quote her. Look at the exuberant sensuality she displays. This was the woman who would soon write long ecstatic prose poems on love and sex, texts that rise and fall in orgiastic waves. Remember that this young American of a very independent mind had studied medicine and helped birth babies. She knew where to find the clitoris when most women (and probably a lot of scholars who came later) did not. This was what interested me when I composed a photobiography of Stein. The mass of photos is revealing. When I look at her I can tell why both men (like Hemingway) and women (like Mabel Dodge Luhan) fell for Stein’s sexual magnetism, her powerful personality, the shameless way she carried her grand ampleur.
Yes, we don’t even have to quote her, but — to paraphrase her for a moment–, “Don’t worry we will.”