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Modernism and the Ordinary$
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Liesl Olson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195368123

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195368123.001.0001

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Gertrude Stein, William James, and Habit in the Shadow of War

Gertrude Stein, William James, and Habit in the Shadow of War

(p.89) Chapter Three Gertrude Stein, William James, and Habit in the Shadow of War
Modernism and the Ordinary

Liesl Olson (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

This chapter explores how Gertrude Stein draws upon her mentor William James’s ideas about habit, and how habit becomes central to Stein’s late World War II writings. James—like his counterpart Henri Bergson—celebrates habit as a mode of choice, and the strongest indication of a fully formed character. Similarly Stein locates habit—rather than innovation—as the most animating force in the English literary tradition. Stein inherits James’s positivism and understands habit as the pleasure of repetition. The value she finds in habit stands out against a dominating ethos against it, best articulated by Walter Pater, one of literary modernism’s key precursors. Stein’s emphasis on habit throughout her ouevre—both stylistic and ideological—becomes central to Mrs. Reynolds and Wars I Have Seen, texts largely based on Stein’s own experience during the German occupation of France. Habits both mask the disruption that war creates, dissolving the consequences of the world into the space of the home, and paradoxically work as a way in which war itself can be best represented. Stein’s World War II writings foreground habit’s crucial utility, but ultimately (and in contrast to Beckett) they also call attention to habit’s political inadequacy.

Keywords:   Gertrude Stein, William James, Henri Bergson, habit, Walter Pater, World War II, Samuel Beckett, France, Wars I Have Seen, Mrs. Reynolds

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