THE BLOG
02/07/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Of Genius, Cable Cars and Duck Shoes

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Birthdays do what birthdays must, giving rise to repetitive thoughts. Gertrude Stein's birthday has just come around again on February 3rd. Born in 1874, she was one year younger than the first San Francisco cable car, "a form of transportation that would become as inseparably associated with its city as gondolas are with Venice." (Gary Kamiya) Who would have thought that cable cars are also inseparable from Gertrude Stein?

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Her father's business with the San Francisco Railroad Omnibus Cable Cars allowed Stein to pursue her calling as a genius: "It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing." (Everybody's Autobiography). She also said, "Why do something if it can be done."

Gertrude Stein and cable cars remind me that another genius invented the Parisian omnibus: philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal would have agreed with Stein: "Most troubles of the world would be solved if we were able to sit quietly in a room for an hour a day." (A new book by local author Thomas Fuller, Monsieur Ambivalence: A Post-Modern Fable," reveals how reading Pascal can change your life.)

Which brings me to the question, why choose to be a genius in Paris? "...Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create the twentieth century art and literature, naturally enough," says Stein in Paris France. "Logic and fashion are the reason why French people are exciting and peaceful. Logic and fashion." Would Pascal have anything to say about fashion? Of course he would, being French: "If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter," Pascal said, "the whole face of the world would have been changed." Gertrude Stein would be smiling, thinking how many books could be (and would be) written with the title, Cleopatra's Nose.

"There is no pulse so sure of the state of a nation," Stein said, "as its characteristic art product which has nothing to do with its material life. And so when hats in Paris are lovely and French and everywhere then France is alright."

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What would Gertrude Stein say about the state of the nation today, right here, in her fatherland, I wonder, if she could catch sight of women's shoes. Seeing this characteristic art product everywhere, would she say this is logical and America is alright? There was a time when Stein could be a genius in duck shoes.

Today?

Today she might point out that another philosopher, George Santayana, her contemporary, had already put his finger on that one: ""Fashion is something barbarous, for it produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit."

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