Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

Two generations prior to Angelou, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874– July 27, 1946), living out her excellent romance as an American migrant in Paris, addressed this paradox with unusual insight and her own characteristic koan-like design in a passage from her 1940 unique Paris France (town library).

“You just are complimentary when you realize you belong no location– you belong every location– no place at all,” Maya Angelou told Expense Moyers in their great forgotten conversation about liberty. Beneath the surface of this paradoxical belief is a type of koan, simple yet profound, packed with layered truth for those people living expatriated lives– expatriated from a culture or a place, in space or in time.

Gertrude Stein by artist Maira Kalman from her excellent illustrated edition of Steins The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.Stein– Jewish and gay, writing while the world was coming reversed by warring nationalisms and gas chambers disbelonging human beings from life itself– observes:

Everyone, that is, everybody who composes has an interest in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves. That is why authors have to have 2 countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The 2nd one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not genuine however it is actually there.

Stein keeps in mind that the Victorians found their romantic home in Italy, Americans discovered theirs in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century and in England in the second, and her own generation discovered it in Paris. Prefiguring Angelous belief, she adds:

Naturally sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other … but in general that other nation that you require to be complimentary remains in the other nation not the nation where you really belong.

I read this and consider Leonard Cohens beautiful notion of poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country.” For me, living an unbelonging life in a country other than the one in which I was born and raised, poetry has actually been a significantly important portal to that inner landscape of freedom that Stein shapes– a way of tending to and befriending the interior wilderness from which all innovative work springs and which remains a sovereign area of psychogeography, wherever ones body might lie and whatever artificial borders may be drawn around it by outside observers.

Art by Maira Kalman from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.Complement with poet and theorist David Whyte on how to be in your home in yourself and Toni Morrison on borders and belonging, then review Maria Kalmans spectacular detailed love letter to Gertrude and Alices love.