Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 62

“Don’t Think You Can’t Be Senile At 22″ 

This week’s New Yorker reports on “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” at the Whitney, the retrospective of an important African-American artist who made use of the “negro sunshine” Stein coined in her early novella “Melanctha” (see my previous post). The author of the review, Peter Schlejdahl, has this to say about it: “Stein was being fondly indulgent of black folks, in an old vein of white cluelessness.” It’s a striking formulation. Is it true? Was she clueless? Was she clueless as a fairly young person and less clueless later? Is there an irony at play,  highlighted in Ligon’s post-modern, post-irony neon “advertisement”? Could “negro sunshine” be the same Steinian irony that is often subtle and hard to detect, as I pointed out in her statement that “Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize”?

To add a shadow of a doubt to the “old vein of white cluelessness”, here are some things Stein had to say (two decades later) about immigration:

“Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood. To the young people who, wanting to become writers, ask me for advice, I always say, ‘Don’t think it isn’t possible to be senile at 22.’ It is even very difficult to keep from becoming senile in youth. It is hard to keep one’s self open and receptive to stimulation. Doing what other people tell you and being protected form this and from that is not so good, is not stimulating. You must face life ands truggle. Satisfaction comes from overcoming opposition and sometimes from enduring things that are not supposed to be good for one.

“That is the reason why I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition. (…) The French may not like the competition of foreigners, but they let them in. They accept the challenge and derive the stimulus. I am surprised that there is not more discussion of immigration in the United States than there is.We have got rid of prohibition restrictions, and it seems to me the next thing we should do is to relax the severity of immigration restrictions.” (Excerpt from a New York Times interview by Lansing Warren, 1934)



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