Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Christopher Higgs’s “Fifty Literary Pillars”

To build this list, I asked myself: “If somehow my brain was erased, what fifty books would be needed in order to restore it to my previous operating parameters?”  Organized according to publication date, from oldest to newest.

Dante Alighieri – Inferno (1314)

The first work of capital-L Literature I ever read of my own volition, outside my required school reading, at the age of sixteen, because in the biography No One Here Gets Out Alive Jim Morrison is said to have been greatly influenced by it.

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605-1615)

In his book The Order of Things, Foucault identifies Don Quixote as the pivot point in the historical transformation of mimesis from imitation to representation.  An important idea to me.  While Edith Grossman’s translation is more “readable,” I favor Tobias Smollett’s translation because of the strangeness of his language.

Immanuel Kant – Critique of Judgment (1790)

My perspective on aesthetics arises from my continued engagement with Kant’s Third Critique.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein (1818)

The birth of the monster.  A true heartbreaker of a novel.  I read it for the first time when I was thirty-one years old.

Comte de Lautréamont –  Les Chants de Maldoror (1869)

For me, the most potent combination of beauty and evil where the line between human, animal, plant and spirit collapses.  Beware of Paul Knight’s translation: it’s awful.  Look for Alexis Lykiard’s translation, which captures the poetry of the prose.

J.K. Huysmans – À rebours (1884)

Misanthropy, decadence, isolation, and elitism mingle in a way that makes me some days think I happened to be born at the turn of the wrong century.

Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)

Nietzsche is my skeleton key.  I could’ve listed a dozen of his books.  This one is important to me because of the way it elaborates on the power of the affirmative (active) and the weakness of the negative (reactive).

Alfred Jarry – Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911)

’Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, the science of the particular rather than the general, the gateway to my deep appreciation for and interest in all types of anomalies.

Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons (1914)

I decide to include only one book per author.  Otherwise, I would’ve loaded this list with Stein.  She is probably my all-time favorite writer and Tender Buttons is probably my all-time favorite book (along with Deleuze & Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus).

James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)

As much as I love Finnegans Wake, and I really do, Ulysses holds a special place in my heart, because my wife and I got engaged while we were in Ireland on a research grant studying Bloomsday.  Having actually walked the paths of Bloom and Daedalus, from the Martello Tower down in Sandycove where Stephen is summoned to the roof by Buck Mulligan, all the way up to the cemetery in Howth where Leopold proposed to Molly, this book has become a part of me.

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Best of 2011, Part 2

Lots of great things happened in 2011 for Gary Amdahl, Donald Breckenridge, Tobias Carroll, Aaron Gilbreath, Johannes Göransson, Dylan Hicks, Christopher Higgs, Tim Horvath, Jamie Iredell, and David Peak.

Find Part One, here.

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A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: An Anthology, of Sorts

A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences

must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).

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Happy Birthday, Big Other!

With sites (especially blogs, I’d imagine) coming and going, resembling fairweathered friends with their weighty promises and concomitant lack of follow-through, and with evanescence and disposability, perhaps, being two of the internet’s primary characteristics, an internet year must be to an in-real-life year as what a dog year is to a human year. But it’s not for these reasons I’m happy to say that Big Other is celebrating its first year today.

A year ago, thinking about how frustrating it was to find a place that invited dialogue (and by “dialogue” I mean the concept formalized best, for me, by Paulo Friere, that is, a nexus that allows, encourages, fosters communication characterized by respect and equality, where diversity of thought is encouraged, where understanding and learning are privileged over mere judgment, although conclusions and sound and informed discernment, that is, sound judgment, and maybe even wisdom, may, in fact, result); thinking about how many blogs encourage stereotypes, discord, stupidity, inanity, macho posturing, and self-reflexiveness, blogs that are havens of groupthink, blogs that are really just another kind of mirror, mirror, on the wall, blogs that are really just digitized lint in an electronic navel; thinking about how I wanted something different from all that noise, I launched Big Other with the idea of it being what I, in some kind act of faith, called “an online forum of iconoclasts and upstarts focusing its lens on books, music, comics, film, video and animation, paintings, sculpture, performance art, and miscellaneous nodes and sonic booms,” a place to “explore how we are made and unmade by images, language, and sound; examine computer-mediated worlds; and dance along with various tumults, genre- and other border-crossings, trespassings, transgressions, and whatever, nevermind.” And I have to say that I haven’t been disappointed. Big Other has become all those things for me, and so much more, and by “so much more,” I mean, it has truly become a conduit for meeting many incredible people in person, and so, I really can’t wait to see what comes next for us.

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Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle

Christopher Higgs at HTMLGIANT recently posted this question: “If you were teaching a class on American experimental fiction, what texts would you choose, and why?” He went on to list a set of possible books for an “Introduction to American Experimental Fiction” course:

Ishmael Reed – Mumbo Jumbo
William S. Burroughs – The Soft Machine
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
Carole Maso – Aureole
Jean Toomer – Cane
David Markson – This Is Not A Novel
Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons
Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire and String

This post won’t be about adding or subtracting books from his list (although I’d suggest Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress over This Is Not a Novel, and Carole Maso’s The Art Lover or AVA over Aureole.) Rather, I want to talk about experimental fiction as a genre.

Because Chris’s question reminds me of a debate that comes up frequently in US experimental film circles…

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