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Alaskan Range: A Rose Is...

Greg Hill offers an explanation for the origin of Gertrude Stein's famous line "A rose is a rose is a rose.''

Some critics admire Gertrude Stein, but others found her self-importance laughable, like when she wrote “Think of the Bible and Homer, think of Shakespeare, and think of me.” But most everyone knows Stein’s famous, “Rose is a rose is a rose.”

PoemHunter.com says this line may refer to a painting by Sir Francis Rose that hung in her house. Stein herself offered varying versions and origins for the line, sometimes adding a fourth rose to the line. Author Paul Bowles, who knew Stein, recalled shortly before his death in 1995 that Stein “knew some farmers … they had a daughter; her name was Rose.” Rose occasionally called on Stein and her companion, Alice Toklas. After one such visit, either Stein or Toklas said, “Rose is a rose,” meaning a lovely girl, and Stein “considered the sentence also to be a rose. Therefore, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose.’ ” Bowles added that Stein’s personal stationary had a silver embossed circle containing the three-rose version of the line.

That was back when roses smelled good. Modern roses have little aroma after being hybridized to create big, colorful blooms with sturdy stems at the expense of scent production. In a University of Florida press release, UF botanist Harry Klee said “It takes energy to make a bigger rose, and that has to come from somewhere.” Klee identified a gene in tomatoes called 2-phenylethanol that triggers scent production in roses and “could lead to better-smelling roses” in a few years. Bulgaria currently produces the bulk of the world’s rose oil. My mom was a Peace Corp volunteer there in the mid-1990s and visited the Valley of the Roses in the Balkan Mountains. There the Ottoman Turks introduced incredibly fragrant Middle Eastern roses 300 years ago. Still 100 kilograms of prime Bulgarian rose petals are needed to produce one gram of rose oil.

Sweet aromas aren’t always desirable. Eleven years ago some yahoos had a perfume fight in one of the study rooms at Noel Wien Library. It took a week and $1,000 to clean it up, and although the miscreants paid, thousands of local groups use the library’s free meeting rooms, and losing one hurt. So this episode stank on multiple levels.

I’ve occasionally written about the strong smells of Fort Worth, Texas, like those emanating from the rat factory there. The Fort Worth Star Telegram says another smell-related crisis hit Fort Worth recently. Two employees at a large Bank of America building “reported some dizziness in close association with someone spraying on some perfume.” They reported the incident to a supervisor who misunderstood and thought a gas leak had sickened them and consequently made an announcement over the PA system “saying anyone feeling these symptoms should exit the building.”

Hundreds of others suddenly felt dizzy, too, and “12 people went to hospitals by ambulance … 22 with less serious symptoms went to hospitals on a city bus … and 110 people were evaluated and released at the scene.” Fort Worth psychologist Hap Klinefelter said “Emotions are real contagious. A lot of times people will reason from their feelings. It introduces the power of suggestion and makes them real susceptible to misinterpreting physical cues.”

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary says “mass sociogenic illness” is the scientific name for mass hysteria. Examples outside of Texas include the “dancing madness,” or “choreomania,” that broke out across Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. Groups of people, sometimes numbering in the thousands, began dancing uncontrollably, mouths foaming, until collapsing from exhaustion. The Victorian doctor Justus Heckler wrote in “Epidemics of the Middle Ages” that “entire communities of people would join hands, dance, leap, scream, and shake for hours … Music appeared to be the only means of combating the strange epidemic … soft, calm harmonies, graduated from fast to slow, high to low, prove efficacious for the cure.”

Then there was the Tanganyikan laughter epidemic of 1962. A 1996 American Scientist article describes how it started with some school girls in Kashasha, spread to other villagers, and eventually caused thousands in the surrounding countryside to laugh uncontrollably. It lasted six months and caused enormous disruptions. As the Greek Meander wrote, “Ill-timed laughter is a dangerous evil.”


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