When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.
— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight
Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.” Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”
As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.
Text 2: “By hook or by crook.” Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.
Kielce, Poland, July 1946
Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”
Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.
But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”