Saturday, September 22, 2012


Gertrude Stein was referring to Oakland, California, where she lived for some years as a child, when she observed, “There’s no there there.”

An astute, thoughtful writer and thinker, she was not given to the superfluous word or clotted, orotund paragraph.  Reading her requires an effort, one you find yourself on occasion struggling to provide.  This reticence to engage her on your part has been with you much of what you will call your adult reading life. 

While you were a younger reader, you were not aware of Stein.  You read for a particular kind of adventure that was a cocktail of escape and roleplaying. You did not become aware of more nuanced possibilities until you were in your mid-teens, at which point you had your first serious go with her early novel, Three Lives.  Looking back on that experience reminds you of how your default emotion became impatience.

So far as you were concerned, Stein required more patience than you were willing and, important to say, able to give.  Some of her writing about Cezanne impressed you because the reproductions of his paintings you’d see impressed you.  Three Lives did not engage you as you’d thought or hoped.

Your impatience was spurred by your discovery of her observation about a rose.  On the other hand, you gave ongoing thought to the missing “there” in Oakland, most dramatically so when you had reasons from time to time to be in Oakland.  You attempted to find a “there” in Oakland, wondering if in fact some thereness was to be had in Oakland’s next-door neighbor, Berkeley.

You were literal in those days, trying to discover meaning in things, eager for possible connections or, alas, clever classifications.   The lack of a there in Oakland or anywhere else kept you thinking to the point where you thought you’d got it and could begin applying “it” to things that mattered to you.

Now, years later, looking for a there or essence has become muscle memory; you look for it across the board, scanning persons, places, things, and your own self and work with the same purposeful industry the beachcombers show as they sweep the sands with their electronic sounding devices.  Beep, beep, beep, huh?  Something there, huh?  Okay, let’s have a look.

The “there” you seek goes beyond buried coins at a beach or even the occasional knock-off wristwatch or house keys the beachcomber is more apt to find, extends to what you bring to the search, what signals you send out in the first place for there to be an echo, picked up by your sensor.

You need the discipline of bringing you to your searches so that the “there” you detect will not be empty or a knock-off, but some small grain of substance from which you can adduce, deduce, and recognize substance.

The “there” you wish to be there is, accordingly, some measure of substance, some measure that you’ve brought some to ante into the pot, some willingness to observe, take it, synthesize, evaluate, then file away to be a useful ingredient in some future association.

You cannot do it while coasting or merely showing up, having hurriedly tossed on a layer or two of awareness.  You must bring an eagerness to participate, to respond, to examine, and to listen.  You must pack plenty of risk for the ride.

Passivity is for others.

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