No “There” There?

Coming up dry for ideas, I had invited three improv challenges from blog viewers and received them in short order. My first two responses were On NOT Borrowing Trouble and Taking the Plunge. (As always, readers’ comments go beyond my posts to the heart of the matter, so do take a look at them.) Here is the third, from Tobias of the amazing abstract photography blog Empire of Lights. His request: “There is no ‘there’ there (Gertrude Stein).” And he added, “Have fun!”

For me anything to do with Gertrude Stein is just that, great fun. Also a fabled art collector and unlikely muse for Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein the writer is perhaps best known for her remark, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” She was, and sometimes still is, openly ridiculed for it. But it’s always made perfect sense to me. The “rose” remark is really about the essence of things, that roses are roses all the way through to their essence. They’re nothing less, nothing more, nothing other. Stein often said things of great philosophic import in such plain English that it whizzed right over people’s heads.

In a way, “there’s no ‘there’ there” might be looked at as the opposite of a rose is a rose is a rose. That is, in fact, wherever you’re going, it’s an abstraction, not an essence. For instance, my granddaughter is graduating from college next week. We talk over and over about “graduation” as if it’s a thing, an object, a place one can reach and stand in. But it isn’t, of course. On graduation day that will be apparent: graduation is another moment in the parade of passing moments.

Let’s say you’re looking forward to a trip, maybe to Paris. (Because I’d love to be doing that.) Paris is “there.” But Paris, if you get there, is simply Paris, and you are still simply you, living moment to moment, albeit looking at other rues and listening to other paroles. When one reaches the goal one realizes it was an illusion, there is always and only you, right where you are.

Not that this is a bad thing! I don’t for a moment believe Gertrude Stein was criticizing or lamenting. She was simply stating: There is what there is, no more, no less. A rose is a rose is a rose. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what is. It’s there.

Now this kind of word play may make sense to you, or intrigue you, or amuse you, or even bore you. That too is what is. It’s your response. If it bores you, maybe skip the final paragraph and just look at the photos instead. (After all, they too are what is!) But if you’re still with me and Gertrude, I’d like to give one last example from what I think is the same ball park.  This time it’s a Zen remark.

There is a koan that asks: A flag on a staff atop a building is waving in the wind. Is it the flag that waves, or is it the wind that waves?

The answer is, Neither. It is the mind that waves.

I had fun and hope you did too. Thanks, Tobias!

P.S. It’s been pointed out to me by my in-house editor that this remark, “There’s no ‘there’ there,” is sometimes used by stand-up comics (or would-be comics of any variety) to mean a place that’s so inconsequential and boring that no one would want to go there: “You’re going to Podunk? Why? There’s no THERE there!”

I have every confidence that isn’t what Ms. Stein of the triple rose had in mind. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

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This entry was posted in Definitions, Etcetera, Flowers, Personal Essay, Quotes, Writers, Zen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to No “There” There?

    • Touch2Touch says:

      When you go, you go? Or when it’s over, it’s over? You’re just back from Italy, right! 😀
      I always loved this motto I saw there once, Si sa cual che si sa, ma si sa cual che si fa!
      Which I THINK translates to, You know what you know, but what you DO you REALLY know!

      Like

  1. tms says:

    Judith, this is a great essay and I sure enjoyed reading it. You gave it a perspective that is quite new to me – although I often experienced the feeling of getting ‘there’ just to discover that there still are other ‘theres’ … The way you describe it reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s essay on Proust: The world may feel absurd because once we’ve reached a goal, we might have changed so much that we feel estranged from the person who was wishing to reach the goal in the past. So the ‘theres’ seems to evade us – and it might be wise to realize that “a rose is a rose is a rose”.

    The story I heard about Gertrude Stein’s “there is no ‘there’ there” relates that she said that when she came to Berkeley, California, and that they set up a memorial plate simply saying “there” in the downtown area … we did not find it during our short visit to Berkeley but I must say it is quite a nice city. So maybe our guide to California was wrong.

    And thanks so much for the citation. I’m flattered!

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, it was — after all — written for you!
      I really appreciate the point you make citing Beckett, that the you who set out to reach the goal is no longer necessarily the you who reaches the goal. We were discussing this just this morning. Frank said how powerful the last chapter of the first book I wrote is — but after these many years I am so disconnected to the person who wrote it that I have no perspective whatever on it. It is the work of a stranger.

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  2. reb says:

    This makes perfect sense to me. I was happy to read this post …I’ve felt this many times but not been able to express it this eloquently … like your examples about graduation and a trip.
    I really, really liked this post.

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  3. oh this was fun. There is no “there” there. There is only here now. I’ll be in Paris later this year and will be happy to confirm this for you. 🙂

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  4. grand-player says:

    Makes sense to me. But, “why is a raven like a writing desk?”

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  5. John Weeren says:

    “there” is everywhere that’s not “here” 😉

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  6. John Weeren says:

    “Here, there and everywhere. Among other places.” 😉

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  7. I have no profound thoughts to add to this series of wonderfully and thoughtfully written posts, Judith, but just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading them. You express difficult ideas with such clarity that I find myself nodding and smiling as I read. Merci, and I hope you do get to Paris again sometime …?

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Moi aussi, Karen.
      As that is not likely to happen, however, I revel in travels to wonderful places via your splendid blog. Your photos and commentary are really transporting, in all senses. (Just added it to my blogroll.)

      Like

  8. pauline says:

    You saw me there but I was really here 😉

    I agree with your readers – you have a very clear way of stating a concept. This post reminds me of two Zen questions I often ask myself when I’m in a dither about something: What time is it? (The answer, of course, is NOW). And, where are you? (The answer of course, is HERE).

    And, if you put a space in nowhere you get now here 🙂

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I LOVE your comment, Pauline, in all its aspects.
      Of course it’s always NOW! And of course you’re always HERE. So simple you’d think we could remember, but we do have to work at it.
      And I guess that space (to get from nowhere to now here) would be the space provided by detachment.
      Nifty!
      🙂

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  9. I like this! Beautifully written as always and I agree with the rest – you’ve explained a difficult idea very simply and eloquently. I just tried explaining it to the husband who is sitting next to me. In the end, I just told him to read your post himself! 🙂

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  10. tms says:

    … yet again, if I were content with being here, that wouldn’t get me anywhere, would it?
    I am adding this because whenever I become too pleased with one of my pictures (or texts), there seems to be some sort of laziness lurking just around the corner … So I keep asking myself if instead of admiring work done I should go and get some new work done.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Hmmmm. If you were American, I’d say you might be suffering from an attack of Puritanism —
      But as you’re German, we can’t blame it on the Pilgrims.
      Tell me this — after you admire your photos, do you never take another one?
      (I already know the answer, because I follow your blog. The answer is No. 😉

      Horses may need spurs — I’m not so sure it works quite the same with people. Ultimately I suspect you do the work because something in you wants to do it, and won’t rest until it does. It has its own rhythm, though. If you’re generous (and wise) you allow it that freedom.

      Enough mysticism for one day! Here’s to being Here Now — whatever shape that takes.

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      • tms says:

        I am afraid I am protestant enough … That aside, I think that the answer ultimately lies in the right balance – as it so often does.
        And here’s to Here and Now!

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  11. Are we saying “it is what it is” or not? : )

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      When we say, A rose is a rose is a rose — I think that’s exactly what we’re saying.
      About There’s no there there — not quite. We THINK there’s a rose there, or a paradise, or a pot of gold, that the goal is what it is — but when we get there, all all we find is here and now. Always here and now.
      So what’s the wisdom? Beats me! But I really like the phrase, Be Here Now.

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  12. 2e0mca says:

    For me ‘There’ comes in varieties… ‘There’ is a place as in “Lets go to Cardiff” – “Yes, lets go there”… quite a common trainspotter discussion. Then you have the ‘There’ in the past sense – suddenly it is a place and a time because changes have happened since you went there. No matter how small the time frame is or the changes are, it still is not ‘There’ as in lets go in the first instance because until you get there you have no frame of reference to measure your decision against but once you have been… you see where I’m waffling from 😉

    Fascinating take on a difficult quote Judith – I did wonder how you’d get on with the grenades lobbed in your direction after your Improv post 🙂

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Place –
      Place + Time –
      Then of course there’s one more no one’s mentioned, not even me —
      When a child, or someone else you want to comfort, is crying, you pat them and say, There, there —
      😉

      I enjoyed doing that improv challenge so much I’m thinking of doing it again when I run short of inspiration!

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      • 2e0mca says:

        I’m sure the modern parenting guide says that ‘There, there…’ has been replaced by ‘Shut up and watch the tv’ 😉 Goodness knows where the old habit of saying that to our children came from. Perhaps it just has a sound that is naturally soothing?

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        • Touch2Touch says:

          ROFLOL!
          I’m sure you’re right about the modern update.
          The sound IS soothing, though — maybe it’s just onomatopoeic from the getgo. Logically maybe it should be “here, here”, but that doesn’t have the soothing sound.

          Like

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