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.