Friday, June 18, 2021

Q. E. D. by Gertrude Stein

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


While I have read a number of books both by and about LGBTQ people over the years (you can see a list here), I haven’t actually read one specifically for Pride Month before this. I cannot remember precisely where I saw this book recommended, but I am pretty sure it is from a list or article I read somewhere in the past year. 

Q. E. D. was the first book written by Gertrude Stein, in 1903, but it was not published until after her death. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, because it is a semi-autobiographical account of Stein’s first sexual relationship, and didn’t disguise the other parties particularly well, Stein was afraid of embarrassing people she remained friends with. (The other women in the story went on to marry men, as did many lesbian or bisexual women of the era. Years after Stein’s death, her life partner Alice Toklas had the book published. There is also evidence that Toklas was a bit jealous of Stein’s earlier partners, and didn’t want the stories of those early romances circulated while there was any chance of losing Stein to another woman.


I am not particularly well versed in Latin, at least the phrases that don’t show up in law very often, so I had to look up the meaning of the title. It is short for “quod erat demonstrandum,” or, roughly, "Which was to be demonstrated." Back when lawyers tended to throw legal Latin around all the time, this was used at the end of an argument, essentially the 19th Century version of the “mic drop.” One can speculate about what exactly Stein thought she had proven with the story, I suppose, but it seems to me to be more of an example of res ipsa loquitur - the story speaks for itself. 


The book is quite short - a novella in three parts - and tells of a seriously dysfunctional and openly lesbian love triangle. “Adele” is Stein, a somewhat chunky and naive American, born middle-class, with all the values and assumptions of her class (as the book makes clear.) On a trip to Europe, she encounters two other Americans, Mabel (based on Mabel Haynes), and Helen (based on May Bookstaver.) Mabel is wealthy and ruthless; Helen is worldly and jaded. As becomes clear as the book unfolds, Mabel and Helen are lovers, but Helen is in the relationship more because she needs the financial support than because she is attracted to Mabel. 


After they all meet, things change. Helen falls madly in love with Adele, who does not appear to return the affection. In fact, Adele thinks herself generally disgusted with romance, passion, and sex. And, of course, this is all tied up with middle-class morality, naivety about lesbianism, and other hangups. 


Helen eventually manages to seduce Adele (very non-graphically, of course, but a lot is implied.) However, Adele still continues to hold back, and experiences a great deal of ambivalence. By the time Adele comes around, Helen is back in the clutches of Mabel, mostly, and the romance eventually falls apart. 


The book feels a bit like a first effort in places. Some passages are a bit awkward. However, others are outstanding, giving a glimpse of Stein’s writing talent. What comes through the most, however, is the depth of the dysfunction of this first, failed relationship. Between Adele’s struggle to come to terms with her own sexuality, and Helen’s frustration that Adele can’t fully give herself; between Helen’s use of her own desire and pain in a way that seems akin to the way certain men use their sex drive as a weapon, and Adele’s enjoyment of the power of sexual denial - well, this relationship is so clearly doomed from the start. 


But it also was clearly a formative event in Stein’s life. She alone of the trio would go on to live an openly lesbian life. (One of the amusing anecdotes I ran across was of the relationship between Hemingway and Stein - and their respective spouses. Stein was clearly the “man” in the relationship, expecting Toklas to do the “wife” thing and talk with Pauline while the “guys” hung out and smoked.) It was through this relationship, as tumultuous as it was, that Stein came to peace with her own sexuality. 


The book opens with a quote from As You Like It, which is both on point, and delightfully queer. 


PHEBE: Good shepherd, tell this youth what 'tis to love.

SILVIUS: It is to be all made of sighs and tears;

And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE: And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO: And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND: And I for no woman.

SILVIUS: It is to be all made of faith and service;

And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE: And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO: And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND: And I for no woman.

SILVIUS: It is to be all made of fantasy,

All made of passion and all made of wishes,

All adoration, duty, and observance,

All humbleness, all patience and impatience,

All purity, all trial, all observance;

And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE: And so am I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO: And so am I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND: And so am I for no woman.

PHEBE: If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

SILVIUS: If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

ORLANDO: If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

ROSALIND: Who do you speak to, 'Why blame you me to love you?'

ORLANDO: To her that is not here, nor doth not hear.

ROSALIND: Pray you, no more of this; 'tis like the howling

of Irish wolves against the moon.


Stein, like so many over the centuries, recognized that Shakespeare is rich with gayness and gender bending. 


At the start of the book, it appears that Adele is thoroughly weary of life. 


The last month of Adele’s life in Baltimore had been such a succession of wearing experiences that she rather regretted that she was not to have the steamer all to herself.


And by the end of the trip, she is no better. 


“Heigho it’s an awful grind; new countries, new people and new experiences all to see, to know and to understand; old countries, old friends and old experiences to keep on knowing and understanding.” 


And yet, Adele is in a way the least jaded of the trio. As Helen points out to her. 


“I am afraid that after all you haven’t a nature much above passionettes. You are so afraid of losing your moral sense that you are not willing to take it through anything more dangerous than a mud puddle.”


Eventually, of course, Adele does risk her moral sense, and ends up wrestling with the fact that all she really has as an objection to sex is fear of society. The intellectual and ethical issues break down upon a close examination. 


Another astute observation by Stein is this one, about “modern” society. (Relatively modern, of course - the end of the 19th Century. But also appropriate about our own time.) 


Modern situations never endure for a long enough time to allow subtle and elaborate methods to succeed. By the time they are beginning to bring about results the incident is forgotten. Subtlety moreover in order to command efficient power must be realized as dangerous and the modern world is a difficult place in which to be subtly dangerous, the risks are too great. 


I also want to mention a couple of lines during the devastating big fight that Adele and Helen have. It turns the course of the relationship, although they continue to be together for some time afterward. The first one is from Helen. 


“I wonder why I am doomed always to care for people who are so hopelessly inadequate.”


This line haunts the relationship until the end. Helen claims she didn’t really mean it, but Adele knows she does. The exchange before they have makeup sex (but never really address the issue) is telling. 


"You haven't forgiven me yet" Helen asked the next morning as Adele was about to leave her. "It isn't a question of forgiveness, it's a question of your feeling," Adele replied steadily. "You have given no indication as yet that you did not believe what you said last night." "I don't know what I said," Helen evaded "I am worried and pestered and bothered and you just make everything harder for me and then accuse me of saying things that I shouldn't. Well perhaps I shouldn't have said it." "But nevertheless you believe it," Adele returned stubbornly. "Oh I don't know what I believe. I am so torn and bothered, can't you leave me alone." "You have no right to constantly use your pain as a weapon," Adele flashed out angrily. "What do you mean by that?" Helen demanded. "I mean that you force me on by your pain and then hold me responsible for the whole business. I am willing to stand for my own trouble but I will not endure the whole responsibility of yours." "Well aren't you responsible," asked Helen, "have I done anything but be passive while you did as you pleased. I have been willing to endure it all, but I have not taken one step to hold you."


That’s devastating. What is fascinating about it is that, despite the bridges they burned romantically, Stein and Bookstaver actually remained friends. Later, Bookstaver would use her influence to get Stein’s first writings published, marching into Alfred Steiglitz’ office and demanding that he include them. Tolkas was perpetually jealous of Bookstaver, before relenting about the publication of Q. E. D. eventually. 


One final passage is worth quoting, in part for its biting humor. Stein eventually moved to France, where she lived for most of the rest of her life, but even early on, she noticed the way Americans tended to act abroad. 


There was nothing to distinguish Mabel Neathe and Helen Thomas as they walked down the Via Nazionale from the average American woman tourist. Their shirt-waists trimly pinned down, the little bags with the steel chain firmly grasped in the left hand, the straightness of their backs and the determination of their observation all marked them an integral part of that national sisterhood which shows a more uncompromising family likeness than a continental group of sisters with all their dresses made exactly alike. 


This was an interesting book to read. It shares some similarities to Henry James - and name-checks his characters. There is no doubt that Stein had a talent for capturing complex emotional states and situations, and made this one come alive. 


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