Scene4 Magazine-inSight

December 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Gertrude As Buddha

The Steiny Road Poet intends to open some doors here without necessarily closing them when she is finished. In preparation for a trip to China, she read The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. This book published in 2008 is a biography of British scientist Joseph Needham, who became passionately involved with Chinese affairs during World War II. The culmination of his deep interest was a set of 24 books entitled Science and Civilization in China. The development and publication of these volumes that document the many firsts that China produced (e.g. gunpowder, printing, the compass, vaccination for small pox) was supported by Cambridge University where Needham was a tenured professor.

SIR STEIN & THE FIRST PRINTED BOOK

What caught the Poet's attention was Needham's trip against all odds to Dunhuang in the Northwest to visit the  Mogao caves where The Diamond Sutra, a copy of the first printed book—actually a sixteen-foot scroll, had been found.

diamond_sutra-cr

The Diamond Sutra, which deals with basic concepts of Buddhism, is dated in the text as May 11, 868. The Westerner who brought attention to this important artifact was another Brit named Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Sir Stein, no relation to Gertrude Stein, managed to buy the scroll in 1907 from a Chinese monk who had self-appointed himself as guardian of the Mogao caves. These caves had been rediscovered just prior to Sir Stein's collecting expedition to this highly decorated natural repository. Sir Stein who wanted to answer the question about how Buddhism came to China took the scroll and many other ancient objects to the British Museum, which sponsored his trip and where the scroll currently is available for viewing.

Needham, who considered Sir Stein as one of his guiding lights on the quest for knowledge about China, wanted to see the painted cave walls that held brightly colored images of the Buddha.

cave17-cr

Two of the images were over 100 feet high. Needham's 24-volume work Science and Civilization in China began for him with the The Diamond Sutra. The title of this first printed book can be further explained as "the diamond that cuts through illusion."

The Diamond Sutra is a short text divided into 32 chapters that can be read in less than one hour and is often memorized and chanted by Buddhist monks in 40 minutes. It follows what Westerners know as a Socratic method of questions and answers, but essentially it is a set of conversations between Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. The sutra begins, "This is what I heard." In a modern day translation by Alex Johnson, it ends,

"So I say to you - This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:"

"Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream."

"So is all conditioned existence to be seen."

Thus spoke Buddha.

GERTRUDE STEIN AS BUDDHA

The sculptor Jo Davidson depicted Gertrude Stein as a sitting Buddha. A copy of this sculpture can be seen in New York City's Bryant Park.

CIMG1167KA-G-cr

According to Davidson, Gertrude Stein's long poem "Stanzas in Meditation" is Stein's experimentation with Buddhist philosophy. From a brief dipping into this poem, the Steiny Road Poet sees Davidson's point.

Here is how "Stanzas in Meditation" opens:

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:

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.

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. Yes, the Steiny Road Poet believes "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."

BECAUSE I AM COMING

The Steiny Road Poet has a way of backing into the world of Gertrude Stein and seeing new ways of approaching formidable work like "Stanzas in Meditation."  Did Gertrude Stein ever see The Diamond Sutra scroll that Sir Stein brought to the British Museum? It's possible, but certainly she read about Sir Stein and what he brought to the great museum. Accidental associations fit into the world of understanding Gertrude Stein. Here the SR Poet leaves the door ajar for further study while she steals off to China to see Chángchéng (the Great Wall), Zĭjinchéng (the Forbidden City), bīngmă yŏng (terracotta soldiers and horses of Xi'an) and maybe a Beijing Opera.

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©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Archives
Read her Blog

 

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December 2009

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