Note: "The Cult of Unintelligibility" is an essay against modernism that was published with other essays in the book The Literary Mind (1935).
If you pick up a book by hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, or any of the "modernists," and read a page innocently, I think the first feeling you will have is that the author isn't telling you anything. It may seem that he isn't telling you anything because he doesn't know anything. Or it may seem that he knows someting all right, but he won't tell. In any case he is uncommunicative. He is unfriendly. He seems to be playing by himself. . . .
From free punctuation it is an easy setp to free grammar -- or rather, freedom from grammar. I use this inexact expression to characterize the kind of freedom attained, in its ultimate purity, by Gertrude Stein. Let us examine a passage of Gertrudian prose:
"I was looing at you, the sweet boy that does not want sweet soap. Neatness of feet do no win feet, but feet wint he neatness of men. Run does not run west but west runs east. I like west strawberries best."One can hardly deny a beauty of ingenuity to these lines. They have a fluency upon the tongue, a logical intricacy that is intriguing. But any deeper value they may have, value for the mind or the passions of a
|"Miss Stein is emptying words of the social element."|
"Any space is not quiet it is so likely to be shiny. Darkness very dark darkness is sectional. There is a way to see in onion and surely very surely rhubarb and a tomato, surely very surely there is that seeding."It is essentially the same thing, you see, except that Gertrude Stein perpetrates it voluntarily, and--to judge by the external appearance--not quite so well. It is private literature. It is intra-cerebral art.
Edith Sitwell says, in her Poetry and Criticism, that Gertrude Stein is "bringing back life to our language by what appears, at first, to be an anarchic process. First she breaks down the predestined groups of words, their sleepy family habits; then she rebrightens them, examines their texture, and builds them into new and vital shapes." If this engaging statement means anything except what every good and vivid writer does, it means that Miss Stein is emptying words of the social element. Words are vessels of communion; she is treating them as empty vessels, polishing them and setting them in a row.