Brain Pickings

Gertrude Stein on Understanding and Joy: Rare 1934 Radio Interview


“If you enjoy it, you understand it.”

Gertrude Stein — beloved writer, poet, and art collector, fierce public intellectual, little-known author of children’s books. From PennSound, the audio archives of my alma mater (previously), comes this rare interview with Stein, most likely conducted upon her arrival at the Algonquin Hotel in November of 1934. After the interviewer asks her to explain her “Van or Twenty Years After. A Second Portrait of Carl Van Vechten” (1923), she proceeds to chide him for trying to “understand” the verse with the same kind of brilliant indignation with which Flannery O’Connor once scolded an English teacher for letting interpretation rob reading of joy.

Look here. Being intelligible is not what it seems. You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have a habit of talking, putting it in other words. But I mean by understanding enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it. And lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it. . . . But after all you must enjoy my writing, and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you do not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it? There is the real answer.

Complement with Stein’s “word portrait” of the love of her life, her posthumously published alphabet book, her little-known early children’s book, and her object miscellany for grownups, Tender Buttons, illustrated by artist Lisa Congdon.

Open Culture; Image: Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906

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