In our eight-part series, Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence each week. Artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
How do you read a sentence by Gertrude Stein aloud? What she puts between periods is often fragmentary and repetitive, unhelpfully underpunctuated, reliant on a series of appositions and flat ands to hold it together. There is a decision to make. You could read it with a take-it-as-it-comes evenness of tone, as though the point were to reject the sentimental habits of the speaking voice. Or you could read it as though you understood it, or even as though you were trying to convince someone that what it says is true. As though you were delivering an oration:
In the practice of orations and the relief of fears, in the practice of orations and the relief of fears, in the practice of orations and in the relief of fears, he we and they, they and we and he, he and they and we and in the practice of orations and in the relief of fears may we accept that which when sent is not only acceptable but in a way need not be regarded as a surprise.
Stein wrote her essay “The Practice of Oratory” in 1923. It is characteristically many minded: over its four pages, “oratory” sometimes means oration and sometimes prayer; “practice” is sometimes getting ready and sometimes action, execution. Nonetheless there are sentences where political performance is evidently foremost. I want to start by accepting that wager, taking this sentence as an exercise of rhetoric, referring questions of its form to its effects on its listeners. That is what rhetoric supposes itself to be, the practical art of persuasion; the structure of its sentences is to be tested against the pulse of the audience.
The rhetoricians would call this sentence a period. In the words of H. J. Rose, a period—the structure, not the punctuation mark—is a “long and frequently involved type of sentence, needing skill to handle it properly, in which the construction begun with the first word is not completed until the last.” Such sentences are a speciality of the Roman orator Cicero and his two millennia of imperial imitators. Stein’s has, as they all do, a simple kernel: “May we accept that which need not be regarded as a surprise.” If hers were a true gold-ribbon specimen, the kernel would be opened up so that everything else could fit inside: “May we, in the practice of orations and the relief of fears … accept,” and so on. Instead, she holds off the main clause with a string of prepositional phrases and then a rehearsal of the pronouns that might serve as subject. It can be useful to think of such a sentence, in the elaborate symmetries of its suspension, as organized vertically. (I borrow this tactic from that great student of sentences, Richard Lanham.) In the arrangement below, displacement from the margin indicates the rough degree of dependence from the main clause, which is flush left:
A diagram like this, more rhetorical than strictly grammatical, makes clear how the sentence relies on the repetitions that pile up on the vertical axis, so many similarly shaped phrases (isocolon, as the rhetoricians would say). The first set is emphatic, as though calling the crowd to order, insisting on a distinction that is also an equivalence: the practice of oratory is the relief of fears, the relief afforded by an authoritative speaker in command of the occasion. If we trust this voice, then we will respect as well the urgent reasoning in the next set, as “he” and “we” and “they” are revolved to build some unity out of the constituencies. Tricolon is the term for a triple isocolon, and the threefold repetition of a threefold distinction is a particularly neat instance. Next, the opening phrase reappears, reminding us of the stakes—everything is for the relief of fears—and then, at last, comes the exhortation, “may we accept,” accept without surprise. It is not yet clear, of course, what we have accepted, unless it is the rhythm.
No experienced reader of Stein will simply settle into the imagined audience here, nor will Stein let anyone at all, if she can help it. And she can help it. The sentence is not just a symptom of a culture of political oratory but talks about it and back to it. The practice of orations and the relief of fears: is that little isocolon, noun of noun, noun of noun, not a lullaby for easing fears even before we can name them? Notice the addition of another “in” in the third version, an ingenious gift to the speaker, who can triple down on the parallelism by hitting it hard (“in the practice of orations and in the relief of fears”). Impressive: he (he?) must really mean it. But what does it mean? The rotation of the three pronouns is equally purposeful, precise, analytic, but it hardly resolves the differences among them. It might just as well be said to agitate competing feelings of solidarity, deference, and subtle animosity (who is that “they”?). But what comforting formal command, all the same! We are being prepared for the acceptance, or should we say the anticipatory obedience, of the final clause. Acceptance of what? Later in the essay, Stein says that “they were astonished to learn that there were frequently mounted police at a crossing.” Whoever they are, they need not have been so surprised, if they had been listening obediently. The periodic sentence is a structure of foresight, a syntax that knows from the start where it will end. It prepares us to accept what would otherwise astonish.
Such hard skepticism about rhetoric is encoded in Stein’s rhetorical sentence, which lifts, sustains, and settles us into its conclusions as though they had the natural force of gravity. It would not be like Stein, however, to turn such a sentence—and it is a beaut—merely against itself. She fights the cadences, mocks them, but loves them, too; if you hear, beneath or somehow alongside the demagogue, the student of rhetoric self-correcting through a rudimentary exercise, practicing oratory, it all sounds a little different. (Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s boy on the burning deck, who “stood stammering elocution / while the poor ship in flames went down.”) And that kernel, “may we accept that which need not be regarded as a surprise”—is it not also a prayer? A prayer that we might greet suffering, or grace, without our usual defensive posture of blindsidedness? Perhaps there is even some sympathetic interest in the orator’s willed command of a far destination. The sentence is a long way from the sound of anyone’s political oratory today, furthest of all from the curt and brutal tweets of the current president. Stein has reasons to be suspicious of the empty structures of rhetorical foresight. But the virtues of looking ahead, of weighing alternatives, of thinking things through before we speak—virtues for which such sentences have a form—this old language, of which Stein was a slant master, is still good for something, and worth practicing.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style—which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara—will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.
Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here.