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Posted on: Sunday, February 10, 2019

When asked for more commas in The Making of Americans Gertrude Stein said that “commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.”

So she wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.(1)

The argument is unsatisfactory if it’s meant as an argument. It might be a sidestep from imposed responsibility. There are many commas in The Making of Americans. There is a comma above. Maybe the request for commas translated as a request for reader-ease and the answer was No. Is she willing to be read in different ways.

"Intrinsic sense" makes words castles or vitrines: transparently full or opaquely breathing with underground labyrinths. Doesn’t it matter where a breath is taken. The writer’s job is surely to guide the reader somehow. Help them breathe and sometimes wrench gasps.

. . . all the parts that constitute the apparatus of theatre . . . lead to one thing . . . their common quality of attraction.” Attraction is defined as: “any aggressive moment in theatre, i.e. any element of it that subjects the audience to emotional or psychological influence, verified by experience and mathematically calculated . . .

– Sergei Eisenstein(2)

Eisenstein made propaganda films which are a different matter but I wonder how a reader-ship might be influenced by the placing of punctuation or its omission. Ironically while searching online for articles on experimental literature I came across one that mentions Gertrude Stein and is studded with commas to the point of rigidity.

Gertrude Stein had more to say about commas in “On Punctuation.” Her mise en scène of writing placed periods (I elaborate) as adjoining doors and commas as doormen. Commas were “servile” but she reluctantly came to accept them as useful.

. . . when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and on and if writing should go on what had colons and commas to do with it, what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with it to do with writing going on which was at that time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.(3)

She decided that periods allowed you to stop sometime and anyway she liked the look of them. Periods had a life of their own and that made them worthy. Commas did not have a life of their own and might prevent you living as actively as you might because they kept “holding your hat for you” and “putting on your shoes.” The disciplinarian attitude reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s resolution at one time to “whip” herself into being a great poet. There's also a sense of social hierarchy.

One value is established: unencumbered movement.

It occurred to me one day as I was doing it that a comma is very like stopping your car between two parked others on a narrow street so that an opposing car can pass. A comma contains one thing so another can move on and the whole system is made mobile. A plausible pause to let meaning occur. Too many commas is a halted street. But where are you going.

Does one have an overall plan-sense of how a piece of writing should play. I think so. Punctuation is an important part of that. Form Ever Follows Function is the title of an exhibition currently showing at Maynooth University.(4) Artists and writers who engage with the digital media were asked to contribute and the result is very interesting. Whether form serves function is a question not an agreement. I wonder what can be termed function and what can be said to “work.”

Louise O’Sullivan coined the phrase in her 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” She describes the new demand for this kind of building and how architects might respond. Apart from functionality—the question of accommodation dictated by the economy—there’s the application of a “quality and quantity of sentiment.” Having played with various exalted notions of that sentiment and then observing the movements of animals and other natural phenomena she writes:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.(5)

If Gertrude Stein wants writing to “go on” can this be considered a function? It seems to be the prevailing view that art’s “function” must be incidental and not in the mind of the artist.

Fine art . . . is a way of presenting that is purposive on its own and that furthers, even though without a purpose, the culture of our mental powers to [facilitate] social communication
. . .
even though the purposiveness in a product of fine art is intentional, it must still not seem intentional; i.e., fine art must have the look of nature even though we are conscious of it as art . . . In other words, the academic form must not show; there must be no hint that the rule was hovering before the artist's eyes and putting fetters on his mental powers.

– Immanuel Kant (6)

Louise Sullivan concluded that architecture should befriend nature with a view to being “a fine art in the true, the best sense of the word, an art that will live because it will be of the people, for the people, and by the people.”(7)

Kant and Sullivan agree on this value: “social communication.”

Is the difference between function and vision a qualitative or quantitative one. Are the aims of “social communication” and “going on” fundamentally equal. Art can only be produced “for its own sake” because the “rules” are already established either by habitude or canon. The rules have “worked” either because the art has impressed a considerable number of people or influential people or because some value can be ascribed to them.

When she assessed a piece of writing Gertrude Stein focused on “the way of seeing what the writer chooses to see, and the relation between that vision and the way it gets down. When the vision is not complete the words are flat, it is very simple, there can be no mistake about it . . ."(8)

Sergei Eisenstein wrote:

…the idea-satiation of the author, his subjection to prejudice by the idea, must determine actually the whole course of the art-work, and if the art-work does not represent an embodiment of the original idea, we shall never have as result an art-work realized to its utmost fullness.(9)

Sergei Eisenstein stresses the art work as the embodiment of a concept whereas Gertrude Stein focuses on the material dimensions of its component words. Gertrude Stein uses the word “like” a lot in The Autobiography. It’s clear that she wanted to enjoy. Like it. Live in it. Walk around in it. Play in and with it. We might call this functioning. This reminds me of Philippe Starck who said in an interview that happiness had no particular meaning for him. He only wanted to have “a function.”

Happiness is one of those world-words that move on like tornadoes
and leave you absent. Suppose you could have a function, a thing to pay

attention to, that held you close, attentionwise, so that you forgot
the hope of being something other than a moving relative within

a constantly active, minutely unhistoried, familial what.

– Máighréad Medbh(10)

(1) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. 1933. Gertrude Stein, Ultimate Collection. Kindle ed.
(2) Selected Works. Volume 1: Writings 1922-1934. Edited & translated by Richard Taylor. London: British Film Institute, 1988.
(3) “On Punctuation.” Lectures In America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985, 214-222. (Originally published 1935)
Online at:
(4) Illuminations Gallery, Iontas Building, Maynooth University. Curated by Christodoulos Makris, Dimitra Xidous and Patrick Chapman, on behalf of literary journals Gorse and The Pickled Body.
(5) Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1886.
(6) The Critique of Judgement. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987 (Originally published 1790).
(7) Op. Cit.
(8) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Op. Cit.
(9) Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949, 127.
(10) From a work in process. 

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