The Village Explainer

Gertrude Stein said remarks are not literature. But hers are. Wittgenstein’s are.

And the cases are related. Both are perverse. Perverse as anything. She, on purpose; he, not.

They exploit the incongruity between their coolly rational tones and the content of what they’re saying. She has play in view; he, clarity.

His sense of humor was stunted. He thought the British use of the expletive “bloody” was the most amusing thing ever. He sprinkles it in postcards. The effect is chilling.

Yet all his books are laugh-out-loud funny. Not on every page, but often.

Stein had a vast and all-pervading sense of play and pleasure. It touched her every move. She’d say anything, as long as it gave pleasure.

She discovered something. There’s a small set of operating principles that, if followed, result in aphorisms, stanzas, lectures, novels. Anything you like. The author does not have to have a meaning in view; the work will mean something by itself.

It’s like what I tell my students: “Don’t you write the paper. Find the paper that will write itself.” It’s all about finding the angle.

If you find the right angle, anything in the kitchen will do. Put the oven mitts themselves into the magic pot, it’s fine. A glass doorknob, a pretzel, anything. Voilà. But part of the magic is you have to pretend you’re serious while you’re cooking.

Wittgenstein really was serious. Just the same, he tells you to imagine someone searching for something in an empty drawer. The person pulls out the drawer: empty. Closes the drawer. But perhaps the thing has materialized in the drawer now? So the person opens it. Empty. Closes again; considers. Opens again. Empty. And now once more. Forever.

Wittgenstein remarks: “We would say the person has not yet learned to search for something.”

Then he tells you to imagine someone going to the store to buy five red apples. In order to make sure the apples are red, the person takes a color chart. Holds the apples up to the square marked “red.” Counts the apples as they are placed in the bag. “One… two… three…”

That color chart is funny. “One, two, three” is funny. I’m not the first person to say these scenes are straight out of Beckett. Clov at the beginning of Fin de partie. But the remarks are funny. Look at the deadpan ending of this:

Suppose some adult had told a child that he had been on the moon. [Note. Wittgenstein wrote these sentences in 1950.] The child tells me the story, and I say it was only a joke, the man hadn’t been on the moon; no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is a long way off and it is impossible to climb up there or fly there.—Now if the child insists, saying perhaps there is a way of getting there which I don’t know, etc. what reply could I make to him? What reply could I make to the adults of a tribe who believe that people sometimes go to the moon (perhaps that is how they interpret their dreams), and who indeed grant that there are no ordinary means of climbing up to it or flying there?—But a child will not ordinarily stick to such a belief and will soon be convinced by what we tell him seriously.

—§106, Über Gewissheit

That last sentence! But I doubt Wittgenstein knew he was dramatizing (as opposed to merely reflecting upon) this scene. He neither knows nor cares that the reader is bound to delight in the image of a towering, desiccated intellectual like him arguing about reality with a child.

Part of Stein’s trick was to pretend to be that child. She keeps things lively by not caring what she’s saying. I’ll give one choice example.

Look at this passage, seldom quoted in full, from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) [all accidentals—sic].

We met Ezra Pound at Grace Lounsbery’s house, he came to dinner with us and he stayed and he talked about japanese prints among other things. Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.

Are we all clear on what a “village explainer” is? The phrase has been decommissioned; it’s a relic of nineteenth-century anthropology.

A young anthropologist, headed into his or her first round of fieldwork might be cautioned against the phenomenon of the “village explainer.” The idea was that every set of huts contained one garrulous fellow who was overjoyed at the prospect of explaining everything to anthropologists. The culture’s history, language, mythology, political principles, marriage rites—everything. However, this person might be a half-wit, available for all this edification precisely because he is an idler, good for nothing else. And indeed this person would probably rather invent explanations spontaneously than admit he doesn’t know the answers to the anthropologists’ questions. So for heaven’s sake, be careful, young anthropologist in a pith helmet.

Setting aside the question as to how dire a threat “village explainers” ever really were to anthropology, anybody can see how Pound answers the above description. And if Stein had said “He was a village explainer” and left it at that, everyone could go home happy. But it wouldn’t quite be literature yet. It’s the other part of the sentence that does the trick. But what does it mean?

I had a long discussion about this with a friend of mine, who thought the “village explainer” was more or less the village schoolmaster—i.e., the people receiving the explanations were not anthropologists, but the villagers themselves. By that way of looking at it, the meaning would be something like: “Pound was an elementary school teacher; excellent if you were seven; if not, not.”

However, I persuaded my friend that Stein’s understanding of “village explainer” was almost certainly the standard one. He countered by pointing out that Stein could’ve been playfully misconstruing it. To which I said, Always a possibility.

My interpretation is more like: Pound was an irrepressible and annoying advocate for the stuff he loved. Eliot, Joyce, Gaudier-Brzeska. This was a great thing for you, if your work was like that, and stood to benefit from such advocacy. If not, not.

The problem with my interpretation is it figures Joyce et al. as villages, which seems like a stretch somehow. Also the village explainer doesn’t really explain the village. Meanwhile, the problem with my friend’s interpretation is it depends on Stein’s using the phrase “village explainer” in a way that would have been, at the time, very obscure.

The real solution is probably that Stein was only dimly aware of what she was saying, after that first comma:

She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.

The main thing was to secure that judicious tone. And, of course, the “not, not.” She probably only really meant: “Pound was a know-it-all. Good for some things, I guess. Mainly a pain in the ass.” But if she had written that, the busy street of her sentence would have been reduced to a hospital hallway.

I’m saying: What she meant was one thing; what her sentence means is another. The exploitation of this phenomenon made her career.

Or go back to Wittgenstein, §108, Über Gewissheit:

“But is there then no objective truth? Isn’t it true, or false, that someone has been on the moon?” If we are thinking within our system, then it is certain that no one has ever been on the moon. Not merely is nothing of the sort ever seriously reported to us by reasonable people, but our whole system of physics forbids us to believe it. For this demands answers to the questions “How did he overcome the force of gravity?” “How could he live without an atmosphere?” and a thousand others which could not be answered. But suppose that instead of all these answers we met the reply: “We don’t know how one gets to the moon, but those who get there know at once that they are there; and even you can’t explain everything.” We should feel ourselves intellectually very distant from someone who said this.

He would feel distant, but he wouldn’t be distant.

And even you can’t explain everything.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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