Gertrude Stein: What is the answer?

Osho on Notable People

In this particular excerpt from a discourse, Osho speaks about Gertrude Stein’s final moments before dying, when “she flowered in this koan.”

Gertrude Stein, (February 3, 1874, Allegheny City [now in Pittsburgh], Pa., U.S. – July 27, 1946, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France), was an avant-garde American writer, eccentric, and self-styled genius whose Paris home was a salon for the leading artists and writers of the period between World Wars I and II. One of her most widely known quotations is  “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was dying. Suddenly she opened her eyes and asked her friends who were gathered together around her, “What is the answer?” Now this is tremendously beautiful, almost a koan. The question has not been asked; she asks, “What is the answer?” Of course, nobody was capable of answering it. They looked at each other. They were at a loss even to understand what she meant. A Zen master was needed, somebody who could have responded from his heart – spontaneously, immediate. Somebody who could have laughed uproariously, or shouted, or done something, because such a question – What is the answer? – cannot be answered through words.

Stein is saying that the question is such that it cannot be formulated – and yet the question is there, so what is the answer? The question is such that it is impossible to utter it. It is so deep, it cannot be brought to the surface. But still it is there, so what is the answer? The question is such that it is not separate from the questioner, as if the questioner’s whole being has become a question mark: What is the answer?

They looked at each other. They were completely at a loss as to what to do. They must have thought: The dying woman has gone mad. It is mad, absurd, to ask, “What is the answer?” when the question has not yet been formulated. No one replied. No one was aware enough to reply to it. No one responded, because in fact no one was there to respond. No one was so present as to respond.

“In that case,” she insisted, “what is the question?” Again silence followed. How can anybody else tell you what the question is? Certainly she has gone mad. Certainly she is no more in her senses. But the question is such that it is impossible to say what it is. The moment you say it, you betray it. The moment you verbalize it, it is no more the same. It is not the same question that was there in the heart. Once it becomes verbalized, it becomes a head thing. It looks almost trivial, almost superficial. You cannot ask the ultimate question. In asking it, it will not be the ultimate any more.

Only a master could have understood what she was saying. She was a beautiful woman, a beautiful person, of tremendous understanding. And at the last moment of her life, she flowered in this koan. You must have heard her famous statement which has almost become a cliché, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’. Nothing can be said about the rose, except that it is a rose. All that you can say about it will falsify it. It is simply there in its strange beauty, with its unknown fragrance, as a fact. You cannot theorize about it. And whatsoever you theorize will be about something else, will not be about this rose; will be a reflection in the mirror, will not be the true thing.

A rose is a rose is a rose – nothing more can be said. Nothing is being said when you say: A rose is a rose is a rose. If you go to a logician, he will say this is a tautology; you are repeating the same word unnecessarily. You are not saying anything! But something is being said: that nothing can be said.

“In that case,” she insisted, “what is the question?” The silence remained unbroken. Nobody was capable enough to respond. A reply was not needed; she was asking for a response.

You can go on thinking about life and death, and you can go on creating many theories and hypotheses, but the whole of philosophy is just rubbish. Life remains unanswered, death remains unanswered. At that moment, Stein was asking about life and death; about that which is life, about that which is also death – about the ultimate, the substratum, the very ground of your being. She was asking: Who am I? But philosophy has no answers. Philosophy has been trying to answer; centuries of thinking, speculation, but the whole effort is empty.

Osho, The Search, Ch 8



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