I don’t know what it is about Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, but, since making his acquaintance during my first year in Chapman’s English and Creative Writing graduate program, I can’t seem to shake him. I’ve looked at Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and the works of Virginia Woolf through the Bakhtinian lens and, now, with my Gothic romp in and around the motifs of mirrors and portraiture and the literary doppelgänger in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, and Dracula wistfully behind me, I’m back into Bakhtin’s theories in the context of Gertrude Stein for my final thesis of the semester. As if she weren’t abstruse enough.
On the surface, Stein’s novel Ida is about a very tired woman who loves dogs and likes to marry. Throughout much of the tale, Ida is sitting or resting or talking with one of her dogs or herself or marrying or leaving. She leaves and rests a great deal. Neither the protagonist nor the plot is all that interesting, which leads one to believe that its simplistic, albeit quirky banality belies a deeper message that Stein is perhaps so intent on conveying she forgets to use punctuation.
The existence of a twin is presented at the onset of the novel, when Ida is born to two kind parents: “And as Ida came, with her came her twin, so there she was, Ida-Ida.” From this description of her birth, the notion of Ida’s divergent consciousnesses is foreshadowed; however, it may take you a while to realize there is no actual twin. Ida-Ida, or, rather, Ida-Winnie is, in fact, the manifestation of a troubled child grappling with abandonment issues. A few paragraphs into the tale, we learn that Ida’s parents “went off on a trip and never came back,” the first of a great many “funny things” that happen to dear Ida in Stein’s Bildungsroman. In the early part of the novel, Ida’s clone is omnipresent, emerging as Ida’s foremost self: “The place was full, nobody looked at Ida. Some of them were talking about Winnie. They said. But really, is Winnie so interesting. They just talked and talked about that. / So that is the way life went on. / There was Winnie.”
A close look at these other “funny” events of Ida’s youth and Stein’s incoherent telling of them reveals the perspective of a confused child coping with parental desertion and the indifferent negligence of other family members as she grows up. Throughout the novel, Ida flits from relative to relative, state to state (geographic and mental), and marriage to marriage in her quest for authentication. Much like her numerous canine connections, Ida’s human associations are superficial and fleeting, always ending abruptly and thereby compounding Ida’s sense of isolation and separateness and providing the early impetus for a double or decoy that can interact with others on her behalf.
Ida is an odd little story that, with its illogical “plot” shifts, contradictions, and chattering, Ionescoan streams of consciousness such as “The next dog and this is important because it is the next dog. His name is Never Sleeps although he sleeps enough,” would be well played in the Theatre of the Absurd. But there is a serious undertone to Stein’s absurdity, and a thoughtful examination of the text exposes Ida’s conscious foray into the rich and multifaceted themes of identity, authenticity, and the paradox of anonymity in celebrity. As Marianne Hauser avows in her review of Stein’s work, it is “too deliberate to be called crazy, and too well done to be laughed off.”
We’ll see what Mikhail has to say about it. And if you don’t hear from me in a week, someone, please, come looking for me.
Carl Van Vechten, 1934
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