You circle around like that restless sound

The erotics of transcription

Carmen McRae

Gertrude Stein wrote at night; Alice Toklas transcribed during the day. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein has Toklas observe: “As a matter of fact her handwriting has always been illegible and I am very often able to read it when she is not.”

Some Stein scholars  might tell you that several of her manuscripts appear to be written in both Stein’s and Toklas’ handwriting, which has led to even greater contention and consternation about authorship. But I think I might tell you that just writing something down doesn’t make you the text’s author. I also might tell you that I’ve never understood the bother around whether or not Alice meddled with Gertrude’s work. Stein’s is a writing that delights in its reading, and Toklas was her most engaged, and most welcomed, reader. If neither of them minded that “Gertrude Stein,” or occasionally “Alice B. Toklas,” was their joint byline, why should I?

I began this post by thinking about Toklas transcribing Stein and wanting to theorize an “erotics of transcription.” I wanted to say something about how transcription forces you to see words not as words, but as compositions: as rhythms made up of repeating and retreating letters, as a play between interconnected plastic elements. Transcription physically draws you into the process of reading: each letter, each punctuation mark, even each space, catalyzes a movement, demands an active kind of discipline, and ultimately reveals the means by which, and the levels at which, you can control your reading – for example, how you might do a version of “close reading” without taking in the meaning of a single word.

Gertrude Stein tried to copy Three Lives on the typewriter but it was no use, it made her nervous, so Etta Cone came to the rescue. The Miss Etta Cones as Pablo Picasso used to call her and her sister. Etta Cone was a Baltimore connection of Gertrude Stein’s and she was spending a winter in Paris. She was rather lonesome  and she was rather interested . . . Etta Cone offered to typewrite Three Lives and she began. Baltimore is famous for the delicate sensibilities and the conscientiousness of its inhabitants. It suddenly occurred to Gertrude Stein that she had not told Etta Cone to read the manuscript before beginning to typewrite it. She went to see her and there indeed was Etta Cone faithfully copying the manuscript letter by letter so that she might not by any indiscretion become conscious of the meaning.    

Close reading, formalism – I’ve never seen this as a restraint or scholastic imposition. In the face of a predominantly Dead White Male canon (or any canon), this has been my mode of infiltration and posession, as much as it can be my declaration of passion. Every time I’ve been intimidated by philosophy, I’ve started reading its punctuation marks. The dashes and ellipses in On the Geneaology of Morality; the brackets in The Truth in Painting. If you draw them next to you, patiently and intimately, they tell their own story. This is a level of philosophical discourse I can follow. I don’t have, nor want, the intellectual rigor to be a philosopher, so I seek out these moments of pathos, of what is embedded and revealed in the gestures. And do I think I understand Nietzsche and Derrida now? Can I appreciate, admire and even be ardent about their thinking? Oh yes.

But back to transcription: have you seen Diane Samuels’ hand-transcription of the Autobiography, counterpointed by the text from Testimony against Gertrude Stein from Eugene and Maria Jolas’ transition? It’s here. Do you also see the eros (is eros is eros is eros) in it?

I began this post by wanting to theorize an “erotics of transcription.”  As I think about it and try to practice it, however, I begin to realize that the eros lies not in what’s transcribed but in what eludes the transcribed. Through her drive for mimicry, repetition, reproduction, the transcriber becomes even more sensitive to what she herself experiences but knows will get lost through her endeavor. In Toklas’ case, what falls away from the typewritten page is the illegible handwriting of Stein (“I am very often able to read it when she is not”), or the famously enthralling voice (“It was unlike anyone else’s voice – deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices,” from What Is Remembered). The transcriber must engage her work with this expectation – perhaps with such loss as her pragmatic objective – and she will struggle for a way to address this loss, to make amends, to repair, to mourn, because, above all, she will feel desire. She will sense acutely and intensely that which she knows her own work won’t give. 

Or, at least, this is true for the transcribers I’m interested in. This isn’t all.

Last week my friend Floris Tilanus – a Dutch artist and designer who also happens to be a jazz composer – directed my attention to the song “Melanctha,” sung by Carmen McRae accompanied by Dave Brubeck. The subject line of his email: “Is it her?” Carmen McRae, Dave Brubreck and Gertrude Stein? Is it possible? I uncovered an article from Entertainment Weekly, dating October 19, 1990, that describes McRae and Brubreck’s restored album Take Five: “CBS Records has rescued from undeserved obscurity two oddball albums that are singers’ delights. McRae was never in better voice than during a 1964 engagement at Basin Street East opposite the Dave Brubeck Quartet . . . highlights also include the virtually forgotten ‘Melanctha,’ inspired by the Gertrude Stein story. The composer’s wife, Iola Brubeck, cleverly met the challenge of fitting lyrics to this music.”

Finding little else about the Stein-Brubeck-McRae connection – and the lyrics only on a Japanese website, filled with typos and unable to be Selected for Copying and Pasting – I decided to transcribe the song’s words, to study them more closely against the text of Three Lives. But the first three words destroyed me. Or rather, I mean the first word, repeated three times: “Melanctha, Melanctha, Melanctha.” Listen to how McRae calls out that name, each instance so differently inflected, each syllable drawn out and tenderly spun around, and that voice and its character and its ease in draping itself against, sliding in between, gently pushing aside and then gathering in the notes played by the quartet. How will any transcription record this, how will any score suggest this? 




Come a bit nearer. How will you see that loss? How will you feel that desire?



Gary Giddins, “Recent Jazz Releases.” Entertainment Weekly. October 19, 1900.
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (on Project Gutenberg).
Alice Toklas, What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.