In 1933, after visiting her hometown of Oakland, CA, Gertrude Stein remarked that “there is no there there.”
Among many in the much maligned city, accustomed to defending themselves against such abrasive attacks, the remark has often been taken as a slight: as if Oakland were such a wasteland as to be little more than a desolate limbo.
Our more privileged neighbors across the bay have certainly said worse.
But this reading misrepresents the sentiment.
Stein had moved to Paris in 1903. She returned to her hometown thirty years later to find the city developed and her childhood home destroyed.
…anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there. …but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …
Stein lived in Oakland from six to seventeen. When she returned she found it was not the city she had left behind – and she was not the person who had left it.
There was no there there.
Stein writes of the loss of place as the loss of of something more – the loss of memory, the loss of identity, a meaningful loss of self.
“When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing,” Stein writes.
And then, one day, you return to find that this thing which you knew so well has become another thing.
You don’t recognize it; and, surprisingly, it doesn’t recognize you.
Or, perhaps worse yet, you do recognize it. You know every corner, every nuanced shade. You are intimately acquainted with the place, yet find yourself a stranger. You find that you know these details not at they are, but only as they were. Every sight becomes a haunting memory of the past. A faded ghost just beyond reach.
This is how I read Stein when she writes that there’s no there there.
Oakland as a place is really just an aside. Surely lacking in the luster of Paris, perhaps shabby and overgrown (I say with great love), but really just a place that was not the place she expected.
It was not natural – how could she have come from this place which was not her place? Where was that big house? Those Eucalyptus trees? The rose hedge and the big garden? Where was that life she had left behind?
And who was she, this strange person visiting this strange place?
The dissonance in place led to a dissonance in self.
Oh, how time goes by.
But there is a there there. Stein had become a new person, just as Oakland had become a new city. The confluence of the new can be unsettling; can be distressing; but ultimately – it is just the growth of life.
The there you remember is replaced by a new there – cherished by new generations and new children who will grow up, travel, and return home to find their there no longer there.
No there there, and yet – still there.