Features - May 2012
I was first introduced to Bengali poetry when I received a small book coauthored by Aryanil Mukherjee and Pat Clifford. Titled chaturangik/SQUARES, and published in Goa by CinnamonTeal, this book uses the game of chess to bring together two languages, English and Bangla. Each page renders nine squares of the chessboard with one outlined in black — if you flip through the pages this outlined square progresses across the board in accordance with the rules of the game. In this way, the book suggests its inspiration by the renowned director Satyajit Ray’s 1977 classic The Chess Players. One of the film’s plotlines features two chess-loving noblemen, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Meer Roshan Ali, who retreat to a small town where they can continue to play their beloved game of shatranj (chess) unaffected by the turmoil of the British overthrow of Lucknow, India.
Although this plotline is often humorous, Ray’s larger message is that the detachment of the ruling classes, illustrated by the chess players’ voluntary exile, allowed the British to overtake the region without opposition. A similar theme of social engagement can be detected in chaturangik/SQUARES. The form of the book, with its circumscribed movements and tight little blocks of text, suggests the extent to which our own movements are restricted to specific, approved patterns; the face-off between the players is reminiscent of contemporary global struggles. Each section begins with an image by Mithu Sen that reinforces the work’s contemporaneity — knight, bishop, rook and king are depicted as humanimal blends, and Sen’s use of skeletons reinforces the disastrous consequences of unchecked power. At the same time, chaturangik/SQUARES explores the creative possibilities that emerge from disaster: much as the rules of the ancient Aryanic Indian game of chess changed and developed with the Mughals and again with the British, so too the rules and procedures of this book developed through the writing process. Mukherjee explains that it was composed through a process of continuous exchange, translation, and modification: Pat Clifford would write something in English, to which Mukherjee would respond in Bengali; Mukherjee would then translate each text into the other language, and Clifford would alter the text in English, necessitating further revision to the Bengali texts. The two-player structure empowers both to adapt continuously to the conditions imposed by the other.
As this feature explains, Bengali poetry has a long and rich history of incorporation and adaptation both in its language and in its sources. In spite of the private, concealed mood of the earliest Bengali poetic texts, contemporary Bengali poetry differs significantly from Anglophone poetries insofar as it enjoys a high public profile. Well-informed readers, often with extensive backgrounds in information technology, enjoy poetry as an entertainment art. And Circumcontentive Poetry in particular engages its readers’ as well as its authors’ scientific backgrounds: drawing upon the languages of thermodynamics and systems theory, explaining their poetics through complex equations, combining referents according to the logic of tensors and vectors, imagining the construction of a poem through the complex mechanics of genetics, Circumcontentive Poetry is a wholly different discourse than any Anglophone poetics of which I am aware. Mukherjee’s comments on Louis Zukofsky’s Anew exemplify this unique approach to literature. Focusing on Zukofsky’s use of words like “condense” and his attention to light and waves, Mukherjee outlines contemporaneous trends in scientific writing upon which Zukofsky might have drawn: “I thought Zukofsky’s description of the sea came very close to [nuclear physicist George] Gamow’s model,” Mukherjee explains. “Especially where he talks about ‘many condensers large and small’ … That a great deal of electric stress (and light) can be stored in between the surface waves and the seabed in layers and all of that can be actually ‘transmitted’ without a real ‘felt’ medium in between is perhaps not just scientific truth but also poetic electricity.”
The poets included in this feature, Mesbah Alam Arghya, Subhro Bandopadhyay, Sukanta Ghosh, Raad Ahmad, Sabyasachi Sanyal, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, and Aryanil Mukherjee, are a young group born in the 1960s and ’70s. Primarily educated in the sciences, they live in many countries and read and work across a broad variety of linguistic and national traditions — from Canada to Chile to Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, India, and the USA. Many of them have never met in person; the group has never gathered. But they read each other’s work and converse online, creating a densely interwoven conversation that draws upon Bengali-language news sources, scientific journals, lyric meditations on exile, and cybernetics. Using equations and charts to map the flows of these discourses, the pulses of their texts, the members depart from each other as much as they do from other poetries with which I am familiar. But the quality of surprise in their shared experiment astounds me. Sitting across the chessboard from Circumcontentive Poetry is a profound intellectual challenge, a demand to adapt, and above all a delight.
This feature, created collaboratively by all of the poets, but spearheaded by Mukherjee, provides a deep and wide introduction to this exciting movement in Bengali literature. I am thrilled that they have undertaken the laborious process of translating all of this work in order to share it with Jacket2.
Over the past several years, Gertrude Stein’s wartime record has been subjected to a stream of misinterpretations, distortions, and disinformation in the mainstream press. Most of these articles are written by authors who are hostile to Stein's literary works and who admit to their inability (and unwillingness) to read her work, including the works by Stein that directly address the issue at hand. In this Stein dossier, key documents are provided that refute the sensational tabloid accounts of Stein's activities, views, and affiliations during the war years, when she and Alice B. Toklas lived in Bilignin, France (near Lyon and Geneva). Stein’s connection to the Vichy government is complex and these complexities are fully explored in the essays and articles linked here.
Edward Burns, in his essay published for the first time as part of this dossier, writes that “the translation of Pétain’s speeches has preoccupied Stein’s detractors in recent years; they have used it as the wedge (along with a clearly ironic remark about Hitler’s deserving the Nobel Peace Prize) to denounce her — the denunciation by extension extends to her literary works.
How can one read this writer, they seem to be saying, when she has such odious pro-Vichy, pro-fascist views. Each retelling of the story enlarges what Stein actually did, and rarely cites specific information, sources, or puts the translation project in an historical context. By focusing exclusively on this aspect of Stein’s life, her detractors avoid confronting Stein’s published writings during the war. If they did, they would find that her publishers were exceptional individuals who struggled to maintain the intellectual tradition of freedom of thought and expression.” Burns’s essay responds comprehensively to the mischaracterizations of Stein’s activities during the war years. It is a crucial work of scholarship, must reading for anyone interested in this topic.
As Joan Retallack writes for this dossier, Stein “was no fascist. That her clearly ironic statement about Hitler and the Nobel Peace Prize has been excised from its considerable context — which can leave no doubt of its irony, judicious or not — is a testament to the motives and intentions of certain readers, not to her own.” Indeed, as I note in my commentary, this willful, multiply repeated, misrepresentation of Stein’s remark in a 1934 New York Times interview is a little like saying that Mel Brooks includes a tribute to Hitler in The Producers.
When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was sixty-six in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.
Stein’s war years: A dossier
Edward Burns, “Gertrude Stein: A Complex Itinerary.”
Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, Appendix IX (War Years: September 1942–September 1944) in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).
Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, A letter to the editor, The Nation, December 5, 1987.
Joan Retallack on Stein’s war years from the introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein Taunts Hiter in 1934 and 1945.”
Marjorie Perloff, “A short response to Alan Dershowitz.”
Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, “‘Courage to Be Courageous’: The Last Works and Days of Gertrude Stein,” from The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1944–1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1992; San Francisco: City Lights, 2001). [Added to the dossier 5/31/12]
Why the witch-hunt against Gertrude Stein? Renate Stendhal (June 4, 2013)
Václav Paris, "Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain" [Added to dossier 5/6/13]
Leon Katz, "A response to “Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain” [Added to dossier 5/10/13)
Douglas Messerli, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Stone: on Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives,” Exploring Fictions (2011).
Renate Stendhal, “Was Gertrude Stein a Collaborator?” in The Los Angeles Review of Books, December 17, 2011; see also Stendhal’s blog and her article “Gertrude Stein, Hitler and Vichy-France: Process Notes” in Trivia: Voices of Feminism (2012).
Stein's war-time comments on collaborators, the terror of the German presence, and the the Maquis [French Resistance] in Wars I Have Seen (1945) and the "Fathers are depressing" passage on Hitler, Mussolini, Franko, Stalin, and Roosevelt in Everybody's Autobiography (1937).
Thanks to Edward Burns, Joan Retallack, Susan Bee, Wanda Corn, and Marjorie Perloff.
All materials © and used with the permission of the authors.
Here are links to a number of the recent articles (and one notorious older one) that denounce Stein for her wartime record:
1. Bill Berkowitz, “Did You Know Gertrude Stein Allegedly Advocated Adolf Hitler for a Nobel Peace Prize? It Gets Worse,” The Buzzflash Blog, September 12, 2011.
2. Richard Chesnoff, “A Nazi Collaborator at the Met,” New York Daily News, April 29, 2012.
3. Alan Dershowitz, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art,” Huffington Post, May 1, 2012.
4. Allen Ellenzweig, “Auntie Semitism: Gertrude Stein’s Ties to Nazis, Revisited at the Museum, Shouldn’t Eclipse Her Nurturing of Young Artists,” Tablet, May 8, 2012.
5. Emily Greenhouse, “Gertrude Stein and Vichy: The Overlooked History” The New Yorker, May 4, 2012.
6. Philip Kennicott, “Gertrude Stein in Full Form at the Portrait Gallery,” Washington Post, October 21, 2011.
7. Michael Kimmelman, “Missionaries,” New York Review of Books, April 26, 2012. [See also his July 12 letter in response to criticism.]
8. Janet Malcolm, “Gertrude Stein’s War,” The New Yorker, June 2, 2003 (see also Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Yale University Press, 2007).
9. Sonia Melnikova-Raich, “Exhibit Leaves Out How Gertrude Stein Survived Holocaust,” JWeekly.Com, June 9, 2011.
10. Alexander Nazaryan, “Gertrude Stein Exhibit at the Met Will Now Allude to Her Hitler-loving Past and Collaboration with Vichy Regime,” New York Daily News, May 7, 2012.
11. Natasha Mozgovaya, “Obama Corrects Controversial Jewish Heritage Month Proclamation,” Haaretz, May 3, 2012.
12. Hunter Walker, “Local Politicians Get Met to ‘Disclose Gertrude Stein’s Nazi Past,’” Politicker.com, May 1, 2012.
13. Barbara Will, “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein,” Humanities, NEH, March/April, 2012.