A fluidity of roles and desires surfaces in all of Gertrude Stein’s erotic literature. In my book The Switch: Freedoms in Sexuality, Desire, Gender & Identity I establish a new and exciting reading of Stein’s work. I engage in this process by embracing the complexities of desire, switching, sexual difference, sexualities, identities, roles, and language play found in Stein’s earlier and romantic work.   Perhaps the most evocative and sexily fluid of Stein’s work is Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Meditations of Desire 

Gertrude Stein creates, displays and meditates on desire.  Both she and her subjects shift in roles and identities.  Stein subverts, births, and reinvents the language of desire and the erotic.  Stein is consumed with being in action around desire; I see her writing as locations of gender, identity, and sexual play as she “asks questions of everyone” (A Stein Reader, 3), especially her switchy self, as she kneels “to be … to be pleased and to please” (Idem as cited in A Stein Reader, 378).

Stein identifies as a needing husband, a boy, and a submissive as well as a care-giving husband, daddy, and dominant: she takes on the role or identity of a man and a he as well as that of a woman and she. Toklas, for her part, keeps up with an often (but not always) easygoing, accepting, and rarely seen switch nature of her own. Toklas is a “happy queen for her little King” (Precious Baby Always Shines, 113) and is most often referred to as “wifey,” “baby,” and “baby precious.” In revealing, teasing out, and unpacking the gender and sexually variant identities of the letters I exemplify Stein and Toklas’s deep love as well as how both women played with non-normative sexual identities, practices, roles and desires.

This kind of possessional giving and owning may be seen as dysfunctional outside an Sadist/Masochist context. General psychological well-being would have us see and want our relationships to be formed from distinct, independent individuals forming a union as two entities joined for a common purpose, with no possessiveness or jealousy present. The Dominance/Submission context of yours and mine, which is a constant in the relationship between Stein and Toklas, is a consensual choice to play with owning, possessing, taking, and offering. Perhaps because to own a person is such a taboo, and to give up one’s self also something of a risk, this type of consensual role-play is an allowing like no other and can produce results that are enticing and incredibly freeing. The entire being of the lover is in the hands and care of her lover: it is a complete and utter surrender. Stein’s submission speaks to the very foundation of S/M: to explore all the senses beyond that which we know in an effort to reach new heights of sensory pleasure and experience, new depths of connection, with one’s self and with one’s lover are enabled and activated.

We witness a Stein asking to be controlled, dominated, and restrained. She is intent on “filling” her “baby precious” who “needs filling with love / every second and she is she is / she is filled up full every / second” and “nicely every day” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 98). Producing a cow “not every second but nicely every / day” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 98). Kay Turner’s reading applies here in addition to mine: the daily cow, the filling every day: and it is Stein who fills, repeating verbal play with Toklas with “she is she is she is filled up”; the talking of the act while in the act put down in note to resonate the sexiness they have when Stein is not writing and Toklas not sleeping or typing.

We get a sense from the notes that when not living and attending to life, these lovers were in relatively constant state of passion, sex, and lovemaking. Wishing and fantasy, dreamscapes of connection, are evident. Quite honestly, there is an obsession with the amount of sex they have, and it’s rather refreshing in its openness, quantity, and quality. In one note, when Stein is busy with life she laments not being able to be with Toklas, writing, “not yet but to-morrow you / bet he will be as stimulating as a / cigarette for his pet and in that / way will after the light of day he / will give the blessed sweetness a cow” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 96).  Of course, Stein can not stop there and must give either herself or Toklas the verbal foreplay towards “tomorrow” or “later” that these notes are so ripe with.  (Baby Precious Always Shines, 96).

Obedience, Offering, Worship and Roles 

The repetition of the word “obey,” in various forms, is constant in their love notes. To command, instruct, direct, submit, follow, and behave are underlying themes of the Toklas/Stein relationship; and while they are mostly seen in the love notes, the land of obeying is in nearly all of Stein’s published work. Their relationship writes what it is to obey. Both lovers occupy a space of flux and switch in her role depending on who wants to be in control of what.

Stein is described as “he likes to be well / and be hers” which presents us readers with an unsure sense of who the he is: is the he Stein herself, Stein’s dildo or mental member? Toklas writes, “Mrs. Speaks he ups & obeys her” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 160) which again adds ambiguity: is Stein’s member “up,” to enter Toklas, does she rise or get “up” physically, or is she opening “up” to allow Toklas to enter her? What is clear is the two lovers dancing with role playing and Dominance/Submission. The words “Mrs. Speaks” and he “obeys” are just one point of role-play; the tone of the line also illustrates how Toklas tops Stein from the bottom; topping from the bottom recurs for both partners, switching between dominance and submission, quite often. She says that Stein is “no toy” and both a “baby boy” and “a strong-strong husband” to Toklas (Baby Precious Always Shines, 158). With topping and bottoming comes a coexistence of equals, the switch nature of them both, Toklas tells Stein: “I don’t obey / do this you say / well do it together and / that’s the way we obey” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 158). She chooses not to want to “obey” her Wife, yet, what is alluded to in the language of the notes indicates play with dominance and submission. “Do this you say” is consensually played with in some locations, whereas other instances have an equal doing “it together.”

She declares herself to be a “good obedient hubby” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 98), which is a term often used to describe Stein’s relationship to Toklas in the notes. Stein describes herself as being “devoted” to Toklas (Baby Precious Always Shines, 90). What does this look like? In another note, which is actually a poem Stein wrote to Toklas titled “A Command Poem,” Stein is “commanded by wifie … who is always commanded … loves to be commanded” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 109). Stein is “commanded by wifie to be wifey’s / hubby and he is, would be even if he wasn’t / commanded cause he just is but loves to be commanded” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 109, italics mine). Stein just is submissive to Toklas; she just loves “to be commanded” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 109). Don’t question it, revel, and be in it, Stein seems to tell herself.

Stein creates her self with her writing to Toklas. This is memoir at its finest: this lover is sharing herself, discovering herself, and creating herself, through a love note and poem to her partner. Stein genders herself he and hubby and dwells in being submissive and submitting as she longs to be commanded, and yet even without command she creates the space to be submissive to her wife. The intense pleasure of submitting consensually, by one’s own nature and accord, allows commands to grant a beautiful, big space of expression here. Stein carves out this sexy identity and location for herself. She gives herself this space! And she is asking Toklas to step into her role by extension: please, please command me she is asking. Stein’s love notes and poems cannot be underestimated: they are extraordinary moves of genderqueering variancy and Dominance/Submission. They are also bold and unconventional acts of self-love and actualization while being at the same time bold and unconventional acts of generosity within a partnership.

In the same poem s/he asks Toklas to listen to her, to “feel it to see … inside in me” and tells her to make sure “they are tight” the plural of which is interesting here (Baby Precious Always Shines, 109). Stein speaks of countless kisses, of not missing anything in their kisses, of hitting the mark, and how blessed they are. With Stein asking to be commanded, we witness a Stein topping from the bottom here. And at the end of this confessional, asking-to-be-commanded poem where she has been filled, tightly Stein is a “blessed baby … tired … sleepy” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 110). Her last words are her biggest offering, which occurs in other poems and notes as well: “I am all yoursy” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 110). The offering of the self, I am yours, repeat and repeat with this couple and, truly, is the biggest offering one can make. The “I am yours,” relates back and into Stein’s ending each love note with “your darling.” We can look at related words to “darling” to expand Stein’s offering to Toklas: “precious, adored, loved, beloved, cherished, treasured, esteemed, worshiped” are all adjectives that relate, which allows Stein’s closing term to really speak to not only her, but the couple’s, unwavering commitment (New Oxford American Dictionary).

One expression to darling that stands out is worshipped, which allows us to see yet another angle in the switch of their relationship. An implicit reverence, devotion, and adoration exists in Stein’s offering herself up to and for Toklas to adore and a similar worship/idolizing reverence, devotion, adoration through her consistent, full, and giving submission of herself to the belonging and care of Toklas. And this exaltation switches as when Stein writes: “I adored my wifey, I just completely / and entirely idolized my wifey” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 149, italics mine). In another letter Stein writes to Toklas that she is “my adored one,” continuing to express that she loves Toklas “here / here in my heart in me all through / and I am in she” (Baby Precious Always Shines 148). The you are in me and I am in you, you are mine and I am yours is a felt connection echoed throughout the love letters. That particular letter ends with lines of repetition declaring their both offering themselves up to the other: “I am all her treat and she / is all mine and together we shine brightly” (Baby Precious Always Shines, 148).

There is a Dominant/Submissive context to the word choices that speak to the rationality of belonging to each other; Stein’s ending of your darling allows a context that holds the specific taste and flavor of Dominant/Submissive/switching sexiness that only happens when one offers oneself to someone. To be treasured to the point of being owned and possessed, to give oneself over to be someone’s, to give oneself to be in their care, to be their darling is a submission that is untouchable and unmatched. No offering can match the humility and trust that comes with the giving of one’s self over to the care of another as it implies the surrendering of one’s will, one’s being. And so for Stein, this offering is a total surrender of herself to her lover, to the love-ship, to the “whole” of what they are together as partners.

This submission and giving over exist for both lovers. Toklas writes to Stein, most probably from another room in the house, that she is “quietly waiting” for Stein to “call your dove,” adding that she, Toklas is Stein’s “own” (Baby Precious Always Shines 157). Toklas speaks in the third person as she offers herself to be Stein’s. This particular letter has a reassuring tone to it as Toklas tells Stein to “know always” that “she’s mating / with her dored own boy” (Baby Precious Always Shines 157). Despite being Stein’s typist, Toklas also plays with words or typing mistakes: “dored” can read adored or, more playfully, as affixing her boy Stein with the aspects of a door; considering the content of mating and waiting in the note, I would assert she is referring to Stein’s door handle here: the metaphoric and tangible handle to grab onto being an adornment to a boy and thus to Stein. So this note constructs Toklas as waiting to mate, being in constant, “always” state of wanting to mate with her partner. It also constructs Toklas as Stein’s in “she’s your own” and Stein as Toklas’s with “her dored own boy.” So the act of possession, dominance/submission, and ownership, giving of oneself is very much a reciprocal part of the couple’s intimacy and role-playing.  How refreshing!

© 2013