Composing Mystics: Gertrude Stein between Zen and Zeit

by Camelia Elias

June 15, 2012


Critics claim that there's no connection between Gertrude Stein and mysticism, but the passages they quote to support this claim show exactly the opposite. While it may be that Stein was no Zen master, her writing discloses something about the psychology of creativity. For Stein, the creation of an 'other' world through writing has not only a symbolic significance but also a metaphysical one – an idea also explored by her professor at Radcliffe, William James, in his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Stein's compositions can be said to resemble old shamanic and mystical practices of creating out of ritualistic words and visions an 'other' physical reality. My claim is that by enlarging the horizon of the word, one turns writing not only into a tool for higher expression, but also into a gate that opens towards a higher form of consciousness.





Camelia Elias

Roskilde University



Critics claim that there's no connection between Gertrude Stein and mysticism, but the passages they quote to support this claim show exactly the opposite. While it may be that Stein was no Zen master, her writing discloses something about the psychology of creativity. For Stein, the creation of an 'other' world through writing has not only a symbolic significance but also a metaphysical one – an idea also explored by her professor at Radcliffe, William James, in his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Stein's compositions can be said to resemble old shamanic and mystical practices of creating out of ritualistic words and visions an 'other' physical reality. My claim is that by enlarging the horizon of the word, one turns writing not only into a tool for higher expression, but also into a gate that opens towards a higher form of consciousness.

The notion that words have a horizon has been explored by European authors whose sensibility tapped right into that of the exiled Americans. Edmond Jabès, himself an Algerian immigrant in France, seems to pay direct tribute to not only Gertrude Stein, but also to the two brothers who influenced her, William and Henry James, and who, with their insistence on the unlimited potential of experience, have opened the way towards formulations which aim at saying something about the mystery in the obvious. Thus, when Jabès proclaims that “only what touches us closely, preoccupies us. We prepare in solitude to face it,” (Jabès, 1996: 65) he shows, as William James did, the same concern with how the immense sensibility of experience can reduce to incompletion. In Gertrude Stein, the idea that the obvious can be captured in a discourse about nothing is most fascinating especially as it can be taken on two levels: one which rejects mysticism, especially at the contextual level, and one which adopts it, especially at the conceptual level.

In her early essay from 1957, “The Quality of Gertrude Stein's Creativity” Allegra Stewart argues that Stein's 'mysticism' must be taken not at face-value, but as a form of joyous rapture. In a significant passage she says:

No matter what her subject matter was – and paradoxically, as she became more playful, she wrote more and more frequently about "saints and singing"– she was never solemn or conventionally religious. She had wit and a love of the comic, and since her object was only to be present both to her writing and to her reader, she gives the impression of childlike intentness, as though she were concentrating upon each movement in an absorbing game. (Stewart, 1957: 502)

While Stewart rightly asserts that 'play' is at the heart of Stein's writing, she is not so willing to associate play with any form of transcendental experience. She sees Stein's repeated phrase about the importance of “doing nothing” – both in writing and otherwise – as a case of taking part in the creation of a momentary pleasure without an aim. “She sings a song that we all can sing” writes Stewart, and then continues, “in those moments when we really live consciously in the actual present and affirm life as an end in itself. In singing this song, one is "doing nothing" in exactly the way the saints are "doing nothing" when they pray or sing or perform their ritual tasks.” (502)

Here I want to reject the notion that what Stein is doing is merely stripping her discourse off rhetoric for the sake of creating objectivity, and argue instead that in spite even of her own claims, Stein was neither a mere realist, nor a positivist, or an economist of the word. It is my contention that there's more to Stein's writing than what is implicitly assumed in arguments that tend to dissociate her psychology of mystery from her psychology of materiality. Here, says Stewart, following Stein from her Everybody's Autobiography, avoiding addressing the possibility that what Stein defines as mysticism may be more than the metamorphosis of religious experience, a transformation into some kind of non-mystical morality:  

To Gertrude Stein, the human mind was mysterious, but she was not mystical about it. She had 'an intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality,' and neither had nor sought mystical experience. She defined mysticism as a kind of metamorphosis: 'if you believe in anything deeply enough it turns into something else and so money turns into not money. That is what mysticism is' [...] Thus she seems to deny nearly everything that we ordinarily call religion-mystical and nonmystical alike (497).

In a more contemporary setting, one can point to a more solid conviction about Stein's mysticism in the wonderful and equally solid statue of Gertrude as a Buddha made by sculptor Jo Davidson. Explaining what inspired his art, Davidson makes the comment that it was Stein's poem "Stanzas in Meditation" that did it. For Davidson, this long poem is the epitome of Stein's experimenting with Buddhist philosophy.

“Stanzas in Meditation” opens with these lines:

I caught a bird which made a ball

And they thought better of it.

But it is all of which they taught

That they were in a hurry yet

In a kind of a way they meant it best

That they should change in and on account

But they must not stare when they manage

Whatever they are occasionally liable to do

It is often easy to pursue them once in a while

And in a way there is no repose

They like it as well as they ever did

But it is very often just by the time

That they are able to separate

In which case in effect they could

Not only be very often present perfectly

In each way whichever they chose.


It ends with these lines:

Why am I if I am uncertain reasons may inclose.

Remain remain propose repose chose.

I call carelessly that the door is open

Which if they may refuse to open

No one can rush to close.

Let them be mine therefor.

Everybody knows that I chose.

Therefor if therefore before I close.

I will therefore offer therefore I offer this.

Which if I refuse to miss may be miss is mine.

I will be well welcome when I come.

Because I am coming.

Certainly I come having come.

                           These stanzas are done.  


Even without any knowledge of Oriental religion, one might consider as key  phrases the lines emphasizing doors opening towards something higher than words can express. According to poet Karren LaLonde Alenier, author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, there is a connection between Gertrude Stein's imagery and the world of magic and imagination described in the Diamond Sutra, and which highlights the power nature has to disclose the magic in matter. LaLonde Alenier speculates on the possibility that Gertrude Stein might have seen the scroll of this ancient text when it was brought to the public attention by Sir Marc Aurel Stein. The gentleman bought the Diamond Sutra from a Chinese monk in 1907, and then had it placed at the British Museum where it has been on display ever since. Thus she comments on this possible connection:

While Stein does not believe or say that the world is an illusion, she does acknowledge in this work and much of her other work that living in the time that is known as now, is difficult to do. Her Harvard professor William James said the present is a tiny window that exists between the past and the future. Gertrude's goal was to widen ‘now’ through her ‘ing’ verbs to keep things moving. What Gertrude Stein's "Stanzas in Meditation" has in common with The Diamond Sutra are the following: lots of images from the natural world, constant duality that plays back and forth (think yin yang), and what Judy Grahn in Really Reading Gertrude Stein calls the principal of rhythm ("everything flows, out and in, in measured motion" p. 263). While Buddha was trying to detach his disciples from dependence on the exterior world which may or may not exist, Gertrude Stein was trying to bring new life into the English language, which had been worn out from ordinary use [...] "Stanzas in Meditation" could be chanted just like The Diamond Sutra with a similar musical and harmonious effect. In fact, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider has set passages of ‘Stanzas’.” (Alenier, 2009)

This idea of chanting words with the double view of emptying the mind and making the word a specific medium or channel for revelations comes close to the method of writing that preoccupies Stein. My favorite quote here is her line that: “Generally speaking, anybody is more interesting doing nothing than doing something,” (Stein, 2004: 112) which discloses that if Stein was not into Zen Buddhism then she was definitely still a Zen Buddhist, as the idea of doing nothing and being anybody by declaring herself to be nobody lies at the very paradox of Zen. Furthermore, what is always striking in all of Stein's works is her acute consciousness about the problem with presenting a discourse discursively, yet without betraying either the presentation or the explanation. This fundamental distinction also lies at the heart of Zen. On this, following philosopher Suzanne Langer, who was interested in formal composition and the creative potential, says Zen teacher Robert Aitken in his book The Gateless Barrier:

The presentational mode of communication is very important in Zen Buddhist teaching. This mode can be clarified by Susanne Langer's landmark book on symbolic logic called Philosophy in a New Key. She distinguishes between two kinds of language: 'Presentational' and 'Discursive.' The presentational might be in words, but it might also be a laugh, a cry, a blow, or any other kind of communicative action. It is poetical and nonexplanatory - the expression of Zen. The discursive, by contrast, is prosaic and explanatory. … The discursive has a place in a Zen discourse like this one, but it tends to dilute direct teaching. (Aitken, 1991: 48-49)

Here, it is my contention that when critics miss the mystical connection in Stein's work, they end up assessing as a work of a failed psychologist what could otherwise easily be identified as a Zen practice. For instance in a review from 1936 Michael Gold writes that Stein is "a literary idiot," whose work represents "an example of the most extreme subjectivism of the contemporary artist." Then he goes on to suggest that "the monotonous gibberings of paranoiacs” belong “in the private wards of asylums." While he grants that something is going on in Stein's head, claiming that “the woman's not insane, but possessed of a strong, clear, shrewd mind. She was an excellent medical student, a brilliant psychologist, and in her more "popular" writings one sees evidence of wit and some wisdom” he still wants to conclude adamantly that Stein's off-beat works “read like the literature of the students of padded cells in Matteawan.” (Gold, 1936)

Unlike Gold, who uses the example of what he calls Steinian nonsense in these lines:"I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me and this you see remember me. In this way one fifth of the bananas were bought," I see such an utterance as example of what may well serve us as a koan, waiting there to be interpreted, yet not in any discursive way that follows logical argumentation, but rather in a way that awaits experiencing a revelation. Whereas Gold obviously chooses to focus on bananas, the Zen master would probably stick to the moon. One is after all not insane oneself. Better to acknowledge the power of lunacy than go bananas. Here, the most striking, yet heuristic, quality of Stein’s works is to be found in her position. While structurally she might stand between dualities, on the intuitional level – the one beyond rationality – she goes with the same type of enlightement found in this zen illumination: “What does one do before enlightenment? Chop wood and carry water. What does one do after enlightenment? Chop wood and carry water.” Repetition is the word, and it has little to do with what we ‘make’ of it.

Seen within the historical context and the zeitgeist at the time, statements such as Gould's are not as aberrant and merely vitriolic as they seem. For, the prevalent notions around the turn of the century regarding mysticism were indeed tensioned. The more established psychologists at the time, who viewed the creative potential as the result of a blend consisting of mixing anxiety with a phenomenological reaction to a physically felt problem arising from over-intellectualizing everything, identified mysticism unambiguously with the manifestation of hysteria. Freud, for instance, associated visions with repressed sexuality, throughout all of his works. His colleague, Joseph Breuer, even described St. Theresa as “the patron saint of hysteria,” and that in spite of his seeing her basically as “a woman of genius” (Breuer (1895), in Mazzoni, 1996: 42). William James, while more benevolent in his considerations of saintliness and meditation, saw them in the context of a purely subjective experience. As mediumistic visions, they heralded that these experiences were not to be trusted.

In their work, Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises (2008), Ulla Dydo and William Rice make clear the connection between the discrepancy in juxtaposing subjective vision with its objective realization and Stein's knowledge of these notions at least as far as her discussion of saints and hysterics in the context of real artists is concerned (Dydo and Rice, 2008: 181-182). Here, although the argument is also that Stein directly engaged with close readings of some of the texts of women mystics, particularly St. Teresa, what is unacknowledged is the possibility that Stein was uneasy about the readiness of psychologists to deem   'men who know things' as visionary and geniuses, and dismiss 'women who know things' as unlucky. Even now, alas, the tendency to see visionary women as any good tilts towards pitying them for missing out on things, such as having children and being good mothers. Dydo and Rice demonstrate, however, that Stein pondered carefully on St. Teresa's call for the need for enclosure – no domestic life – something which a religious devotee must experience by way of detachment, and its relation to the disciplined artist who gets ideas precisely at the point when she instructs herself not to get any. They thus intuit that Stein was anxious about the relation of sex to creativity and that she might have groped with the basic assumption that perhaps, indeed, as a saint, you can't both fuck and have your soul in heaven.

On this, one would like to hear more about the implication of what St. Teresa knew for Stein's writings, also as it relates to religions other than the Christian. For, it seems to be the case that while Stein may not have bothered too much about Oriental philosophy, her general idea of just sitting and doing nothing discloses an interesting correspondence between her take on the visual elements in writing (as in her use of Cubism, for instance) and the visionary aspect of writing, which holds the prophetic voice in high regard. There is thus a close alignment of nothingness with the everything-ness of the expression. In other words, for Stein, what is important is to register the nuances in the experience of a vision as opposed to its visual representation through symbols. How to go about it without saying anything, and yet disclosing a whole lot of facets in the flaws of both, the creative yet controlled aspect of writing, and man as subjective medium, was something that Stein saw as the most powerful and efficient method of describing objectively. And yet again, for her, describing objectively clearly had a mystical element in it, as she insisted on letting subjectivity rule the sentence. The challenge was how to go whole-heartedly all-in and headlong, so that ultimately what would be achieved is an opening of the heart through which writing could flow with such energy that it would make consciousness redundant.

Throughout her works the repetition of words such as 'there there' and 'here here' are thus clearly meant as mantra words intended to burst out even of the medium of language itself into pure emotion, bypassing the hierarchy of the commanding head always being on top and at the top of everything. Stein could intuit that if the highest creative aim is to reach a state beyond consciousness, then, the last thing that one needed as an artist was precisely a head. For what is there to do with a head when you are beyond creating forms? Create law and order for formlessness? Hardly. Stein saw such cultural constraints as utterly boring and devoid of free flow. Seen in this context her often quoted line, that “It is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business” (Stein, 1935: 13), acquires a specifically mystical ring to it, as it implicitly alludes to the existence of an other world, namely a world whose very condition for existence lies precisely not in the business of questioning its physical reality, but in the business of not being in any business. Again, doing nothing, seems indeed to be the secret. Thus what Stein is suggesting is that there IS a mystical world.

We find more concrete evidence of this in her lecture “Composition as Explanation,” which gathers her most insightful ideas about creative academic writing, or the writing which dares to dream itself as a system of thought. This piece also discloses her anxiety about being presentational in a discursive way without betraying the task of the first person singular. As she puts it: “I am not I any longer when I write” (111). Critics often interpret such statements to be the manifestation of a desire to get rid of explanation in writing (Dydo, 1993: 493), but, by a stretch of the imagination, we could also take this to mean that what Stein desires is not a substitution of the I with the potential many who can identify with the I, but an evolved consciousness. “Composition as Explanation” is intended to say something about the writer's predicament of being stuck in time, caught in the prison of words. This lecture, then, charts Stein's difficulty with what she calls a 'groping' with what she was trying to do in her early works, groping with the imprecision of the expression. After the repeated phrase that “Everything is the same except composition and time” (Stein in Dydo, 1993: 497) which identifies time as the main factor coming in the way of how an evolved consciousness might be experienced, Stein goes on to suggest that the way towards achieving a state beyond ambivalence is through getting a sense of what goes into the mix between word and wonder. Here she demonstrates that through creating a pattern for the writing of nothing, she breaks the pattern of writing everything, or anything at all. As there is even now a consensus in the art-world that the best art is the result of struggle, the result of “groping” with the tension between dualistic states, one must give Stein credit for her suspicion that this is so indeed. We can thus appreciate her prophetic vision which suggests that mystery lies not in formalizing  formlessness but in leaving it alone, and experiencing it as a preparation for a differentiation that never comes. This can be considered close to the Zen idea that raw energy need not always be divided. Says Stein:

Now the few who make writing the way that it is made and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them are those that are prepared by preparing, are prepared just as the world around them is prepared and is preparing to do it this way and so if you do not mid I will again tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening (498).

If we look at Stein's insistence on preparation, we could make the inference that she is in fact worried that neither the world nor the writer are prepared enough. And for what exactly, one might as well ask, if that were to be the case? Stein seems to be in no doubt. One must be prepared for that which, through good equilibrium, might take us over to the other level, to the experience of a mystical revelation. By imagining ourselves in such a space, the idea is that we might, then, also be able to conclude on what we're preparing to experience without knowing, and without explanation. We can see this the the lines on a few pages later:

And so one now finds oneself interesting oneself in an equilibration, that of course means words as well as things and distribution as well as between themselves between the words and themselves and the things and themselves, a distribution as distribution. This makes what follows what follows and now there is every reason why there should be an arrangement made. Distribution is interesting and equilibration is interesting when a continuous present and a beginning again and again and using everything and everything alike and everything naturally simply different has been done. (501-502)

Here, Stein does not explain what arrangement there needs to be done after what follows, but it is clear that it is left up to the sensitive reader to make the inference that what she is talking about is her desire to name the absolute. And one can even speculate to what extent the words of William James in his chapter on “Mysticism” from his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, do not reverberate right through Stein on Stein, through impenetrable stones which desire themselves dissolved. Says James:

Whoso calls the Absolute anything in particular, or says that it is this, seems implicitly to shut it off from being that - it is as if he lessened it. So we deny the “this,” negating the negation which it seems to us to imply, in the interests of the higher affirmative attitude by which we are possessed. (352)

If Gertrude Stein was not a mystic, then she was certainly at the horizon.



Aitken, Robert (1991) The Gateless Barrier. North Point Press.

Alenier, Karren LaLonde (2009) “Gertrude as Buddha.” Scene 4 Magazine. December 2009.

Dydo, Ulla & Gertrude Stein (1993) A Stein Reader. Northwestern University Press.

Dydo, Ulla & Rice, William (2008) Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises. Northwestern University Press.

Gold, Michael (1936) "Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot". The New Masses.

Jabès, Edmond (1996) The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics.

Mazzoni, Cristina (1996) Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism, and Gender in European Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stein, Gertrude (1935) Lectures in America. (“What Is English Literature?”) Beacon Press

Stein, Gertrude (2004) Everybody's Autobiography. Exact Change.

Stewart, Allegra (1957) “The Quality of Gertrude Stein's Creativity.” American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Jan., 1957), pp. 488-506. Duke University Press.


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Camelia Elias "Composing Mystics: Gertrude Stein between Zen and Zeit". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 15, 2012, Published: June 15, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Camelia Elias