Drawing from a wide range of theoretical fields, both Michael North in “Stein, Picasso, and African Masks,” and John Carlos Rowe in “Naming What is Inside,” analyze Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, engaging the text as a means by which to understand the birth of literary and aesthetic modernism and as a way to explore Stein’s conceptions of the dichotomies brought up by race, gender, culture and geography. The two critical essays approach Three Lives by engaging “masking” as a technique by which to demonstrate the “conventionality” of a subject, and as an integral development in Stein’s creation of American modernism.
Stein and Pablo Picasso, her friend and contemporary, both used masking as an aesthetic means by which to alter the nature of an initial subject. Inspired by African masks, Picasso painted a mask on a portrait of Stein, while Stein rewrote her own story, first captured in Q.E.D., into the black characters of the central tale in Three Lives. In doing so, North argues, Stein both invited her white readers to live in to her characters, and allowed herself to see both race and gender as a “role,” not as a biologically predetermined attribute. At the same time, the literary and linguistic mask establishes itself as representative of freedom from European “convention” and as an example of nature and freedom, but also as a construction, a cultural convention and restriction fin and of itself. The usage of the mask, for North, represents the breaking down of the dichotomy between “impersonality and individuality, [and] conventional representation and likeness.”
Rowe visits North’s assertion that the role of the mask, as applied to visual art, is “convention embodied, the sign of signs,” which exposes the structure of art by challenging assumptions about its inherent nature. Rowe notes that Stein uses the literary mask of Melanctha to reveal “linguistic conventions—and the related conventions of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of identity” through the distortion of the conventions themselves, and through the use of “strategic distortion…of the customary practices of technocratic rationality.”
On the other hand, North explicates this use of masking to its extreme, considering the possibility that not just an aspect of language, but language as a whole can be used as a mask in a creative work. Dialect, as a “use” of language, directly confronts the formality of language, and challenges assertions of correctness and formal structure, contrasting “what poses as natural to its own conventions.” In creating a work centered in the dialect of the characters, Stein brings the efficacy of language into question by subverting reality through the use of reality. North argues that by establishing repetitive dialect as a means by...