In his 1973 essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” William H. Gass quotes from Stein’s “Portraits and Repetition”: “I became more and more excited about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description. This excited me very much at the time.” Stein’s prose is famously difficult – its opaqueness was the cause of much derision in her own day – but Gass goes to great lengths in his painstaking and detailed essay to illustrate the various ways in which her innovations with language contained multiple variants of meaning and implication.
Gass locates two levels to Stein’s writing: a “manifest” – or surface – level, and a “covert” level, containing all that is submerged and left unsaid. “Words, of course, were tender buttons, to be sorted and played with, admired and arranged, and she felt that language in English literature had become increasingly stiff and resistant, and that words had to be pried out of their formulas, freed, and allowed to regain their former Elizabethan fluidity,” Gass writes. “[B]ut it is now evident, I think, that she had other motives – indeed, the same ones which had driven her into writing in the first place – the search for and discovery of Gertrude Stein, and the recording of her daily life, her thoughts, her passions.”
Christina Baillie dedicates Sister Language to Stein’s writings, “whose ability to endure have given me courage.” It is telling that this dedication is not to Stein herself, but to her words and sentences – those notoriously obscure, dense, allusive syntactical puzzles that require dedication and persistence to parse and comprehend. Christina, a schizophrenic writer, uses language similarly, and invokes Stein as a touchstone for the way words can help convey a particular kind of meaning: “The red, the bed. The reds, the roses. The post-Steinian language. Shitting roses. The roses, the blood-red, the writing. The hoses, the colons. The sound, the soundings. Sounding-out sound.” Christina’s prose has the rhythms of Stein – the repetitions, the internal rhymes, the assonance and alliteration – as well as a surface tension that conceals deeper meaning (as in the movement from “red,” a synaesthetic signifier, through roses and blood by way of the excremental and surprising verb “shitting”).
For Christina, this mode of discourse was made necessary by her neurological condition. “The less medication she takes,” writes Christina’s sister, Martha, “the more insistently words decompose.” Though this decomposition is not, it should be noted, without sense or internal cohesion: “When-I / neologize off-the-cuff I wORk the way gram / mar(& sound)re wORk language from within, to eff / lect change angle. WOR (d / )king from deep inside the nature of language / gnat-churn I hitch my itching / britches, / I stir my stateless / stumps.”
On the page, the visual composition of this passage provides a deeper entrée into the linguistic play and provides clues to motivation that Martha tries to tease out in response. Martha wonders whether the superscript letters are intended to free Christina “from the fixity of thingness, from the weight of the bodily, of the material world.” “Yes, yes,” Christina replies. “Also, th as in math, to the nth degree; so, everything in language is exponential(ly expandable).”
Sister Language is a catalogue of the correspondence between these two siblings: Martha, a multimedia artist and author of the stylistically unconventional novels The Search for Heinrich Schlögel and The Incident Report, and Christina, who states her purpose on the first page: “I want to write about how schizophrenic ‘cognitive disorganization’ & ‘formal thought disorder’ are a piranha that turns the schizophrenic into a pariah.” At Chrisina’s request, the sisters’ contributions are presented on facing pages in different typefaces, so as not to “contaminate” (Christina’s word) one another. “This idea appeals to me for aesthetic reasons,” Martha writes. “Vistas open.”
Those vistas allow for the reproduction of photographs and found objects, along with poetry and short fiction composed by one or the other writer. It also provides a vehicle for an ongoing dialogue about the nature of seeing and how the “cognitive disorganization” of schizophrenia manifests in language. Using language as a mechanism for this process allows the reader to closely engage with each sister and to comprehend Christina’s condition in a way that straightforward memoir would prohibit. When Christina addresses Martha directly in her letters, the prose becomes much more conventional and expository; in her visual poetry or self-reflexive stream-of-consciousness, her thought patterns are made manifest and provide glimpses into her means of navigating the world.
One significant aspect of Stein’s writing, as Gass attests, was an attempt to define an identity – it was a “search for and discovery of Gertrude Stein.” In the same way, Sister Language can be seen as a dual striving for identity, both individually and in relation to one another. Christina’s attempts to put her condition into language come into conversation with her sister’s own efforts to encapsulate and conceptualize lived experience. Martha’s leading questions help clarify and concretize Christina’s meanings and thought processes (as in the reference to “stateless stumps” above, which Christina points out is an allusion to Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable).
“Gertrude Stein did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has,” Gass writes. In this unique double correspondence, we are given a rare opportunity to understand through language the struggles and triumphs that attend a serious neurological disorder. Mere days before Sister Language was published, Christina chose to take her own life. What she has left behind is an invaluable document testifying to the creativity and profound poetic sensitivity of her life and work. The last line of the book, repeated from an earlier letter and addressed to her younger sister, takes the form of a question. “Martha, Martha, do you? See?” As a result of the courage and clarity of this startling work, we are privileged to be granted insight, understanding, and appreciation.