(For breakfast, Rossini would have two hardboiled eggs and a glass of good Bordeaux. Chekhov would make pancakes to eat with gooseberry jam and a glass of tea. Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it by stirring in powdered mustard. All worth a try.)
“The subject reads in a low voice, and preferably something comparatively uninteresting, while the operator reads to him an interesting story.”
Gertrude Stein sat in Hugo Münsterberg’s lab at Harvard, conducting the experiment. “If [the subject] does not go insane during the first few trials he will quickly learn to concentrate his attention fully on what is being read to him, yet go on reading just the same.” She – but which she was it? – was deep in concentration. “The reading becomes completely unconscious for periods of as much as a page.” Working with Münsterberg and Leon Solomons, Stein trained herself to achieve “real automatism,” carrying out actions, like reading aloud, without consciously acting; as she would later say of growing up in Oakland, California, “there was no there there.” “Dropping out of consciousness … comes whenever the attention is sufficiently distracted,” Solomons wrote.
Then they learned to write that way, too. ” … The person writing read aloud while the person dictating listened to the reading. In this way it not infrequently happened that, at interesting parts of the story, we would have the curious phenomenon of one person unconsciously dictating sentences which the other unconsciously wrote down; both persons meanwhile being absorbed in some thrilling story.” And Stein, in her later career, could write while holding entire conversations: over lunch with friends, her notebook open and just out of sight below the table, following both distinct threads simultaneously.
Franz Liszt advised his students to read a book while practicing piano, but only the right kind of book: “Poetry interferes subtly with the rhythm of the music, and so does really admirable prose. … any reading matter that distracts the mind without engaging the sense or the emotions too powerfully will work.” He recommended detective stories. (Liszt turned the piano sideways to make the recital into a spectacle, and played in green silk gloves he would leave for his swooning, jewelry-tossing audience to fight over.) Adolf von Henselt read the Bible while practicing keyboard exercises, which he did for up to sixteen hours a day – when he got to the end, he would simply go back to the beginning and start all over again, Genesis through Apocalypse. Saint-Saëns did his piano practice while reading the daily newspapers.
Decades later, at 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein wrote about distinguishing “human nature” from “human mind.” Human nature, she said, was what we clung to as ourselves, with identity, personality, memory, and our sense of being seen by others, by an audience: “I am I because they know me.” Human mind, she said, was what was at work when “you are not for purposes of creation you.” When it feels like something else is working through you: “It knows what it knows when it knows it.” Human nature must be distracted, occupied, for the unselfconscious automatism of the human mind, with “neither identity nor time,” to open up and do its thinking and its work. In The Geographical History of America, she wrote that human nature is being down on the ground, unable to get outside your single viewpoint; human mind is a landscape from an airplane, “flat land seen from above.”
“Human nature,” she wrote, “is not interesting. The human mind is interesting and the universe.”
Tractor’s Shubunkin off their self-titled 1972 debut on Dandelion Records: wide-horizon psychedelic guitar bliss that shines through the opening nocturnal hum like a sunrise seen from the window of a 747.
8 oz each of plain and buckwheat flour
3 egg yolks
4 tbs brandy
2 tbs castor sugar
4 oz butter
Pinch of salt
Beat the brandy and the egg yolks, gradually sifting in the flour and salt. Mix to a soft dough. Divide into four pieces, roll out very thinly, make three incisions in each and fry in sizzling butter until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sugar. Serve with gooseberry jam and a glass of tea.