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For Your Consideration

Reading William H. Gass has set my mind to fire.

In the essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”  from A Temple of Texts, Gass speaks of breath as giving life to language:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life, and was once identified with the soul. Don’t fall for phrases like “gut feeling” or “coming from the heart.” Language is born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth, and tongue out of spent breath–that is, from carbon dioxide. That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written.

So the next time someone asks you…”Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him.

Breath that has sustained a life has been shaped into words useful to communicate a life…These words hope to find companions called a sentence, and the sentence, too, is seeking a paragraph it may enhance. The writer must be a musician–accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later…at your leisure. First–listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville. And to the poets, above all. (273)

30 thoughts on “For Your Consideration

  1. It’s beautifully said, but I don’t believe that statement has a universal character. Some writers, in fact most writers that came after those named by Gass in this extract, are trying to build sense and beauty in different ways by juxtaposing sentences, paragraphs and pages, rather than with the word itself.

    Some writing has an organic life, some other has the strength of human soul.

    1. Thanks Benoit. I go in for a inclusive way of looking at things, as you seem to, yet I think Gass does too.

      Gass specifically mentions paragraphs…I know he is a defender of the word. I’m trying to get a sense of what you are saying.

  2. Yr post sent me off to check this out on Amazon, where I could get a look-see inside. Interesting about what he says in his Fifty Literary Pillars about first reading John Hawkes’ ‘The Lime Twig.’ Also, I want to read page 54 on Gaddis’ ‘The Recognitions–which I was recently reading about in an offhanded way in Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’–but that page is missing at Amazon. And also mentions in the piece how ‘Under the Volcano’ should have been one of the pillars. Good stuff there and what you bring above. I think I need to go read some Gass essays again.

    Barely breathing,


    1. Thanks Brennen. I very much recommend Gass’s essay – Mr. Gaddis and his Goddamn Books – it’s in Temple too and was the introduction to a version of the Recognitions. Is there a lot of discussion of The Recognitions in Markson’s book?

      1. Hey, Greg, I just got Gass’ book yesterday, along with Gaddis’ ‘Recognitions.’ A lot of reading there–and little time with a 16-month-old and a mere subway ride to the lower end of the island and back to get some pages in. I’ll have to get back to you on the Gaddis and Gass’ take on Gaddis in a year or so. Markson is all gloss on Gaddis, and gloss on just about everything, in ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress.’ But very glossy gloss, so well worth the read.

        Keep it coming,


  3. Greg – what else have you read and liked of his?

    Temple of Texts is a monument, but it’s not my favorite. i’m still in love with almost all of Fiction and the Figures of Life, where he his aesthetic philosophy blooms on the page and seems to doom any writer who hasn’t fully formed theirs. also, there are some essays on morality at the end of that one which almost seem out of character for Gass and reveal his carefully considered and well-hidden generosity and kindness.

    my favorite essay is probably “Representation and the War for Reality,” which i believe comes from his book Habitations of the Word – i don’t agree with everything in the essay, but for anyone interested in realism, it’s a challenging and insightful read.

    and then, i think in Finding a Form, he’s got an essay in which he destroys the use of the present tense in fiction. that one’s called “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” and it just makes you (me) cringe, considering how much fiction i’ve written in the present tense and how much sense Gass’s essay makes. now, he says, you want me to believe this is happening now. and now. and now. i die. now.

    oh, and On Being Blue, man, that final chapter. have you read that one? we should do a favorite Gass essay thing or somesuch, like rank his essays mayhaps. i’m all excited, sorry.

    1. Thanks Alan.

      Madera is the real Gassian. I hope he checks in. I’m a beginner, but I’ve written about Reading Rilke – http://bigother.com/2010/08/24/gass-x/

      In the Heart (the novella) – http://bigother.com/2010/06/22/heart-of-gass/

      The Pederson Kid – http://bigother.com/2010/11/23/fat-too-fool-hey-the-mind-in-morning-snow-in-film/

      I need to read Fiction and the Figures of Life – thanks for the push. I just did read A Failing Grade… – pretty amazing. A little swipe at Carver and Wolff never hurt.

      I have read On Being Blue and was blown away. It seems he was on a different cloud when he wrote that one. It seems a treatise but is almost a cultural celebration. I know that chapter – astounding. I know I’ll glean much more in a second reading.

      I plan to tackle The Tunnel this year. Have you seen his lannan video interview with Silverblatt? Google it if not.

      1. oh, cool, an interview with Silverblatt. on it. thanks. i love all his fictions, too and will check out your other posts.

      2. Tests of Time has a remarkable essay on Calvino’s Invisible Cities. On the same order as Gass’s explications of Gertrude Stein.

        Though my favorite Gass ‘essay’ is the revised/updated preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

        1. Oh yes, that one. I was also paging through The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and found Gass’s introduction to that book, originally in River Styx.

          I ask the Gass experts out there (and the creator of BO hopefully is listening) if these two essays were ever collected in books?

          It seems Gass modeled himself after Henry James in some ways. James has two volumes of criticism of mainly writers, divided into American writers, French writers and other European writers. Each of these volumes are 1400 pages!

          1. I’d hardly call myself a Gass expert, but I can say that the preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Country hasn’t been included in any of his collections. It would be an odd one to collect anyway, unless Gass decides to write introductions to all of his books of fiction à la Henry James (well, James wrote prefaces for all of the revised “New York Editions” of his novels). I would love it if he did that. Then maybe I could read his essay on The Tunnel: “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” which I’ve yet to read because it’s only available with the audiobook.

            It’s an understatement to say that Gass modeled himself after James. He’d probably self-deprecatingly say that all he could hope for was to have modeled himself after the master’s shadow. Gass brings up James all over the place in his essays; and James’s circumlocutory style is evident in Gass’s so-called longueurs, in almost every breath Gass takes. Gass, reflecting on James’s The Ambassadors in this article, writes: “Here, as always in his work, not only is every word naturally a sign…but everything referred to by these signs is a part of the language of the world…and the consequential understanding of the self… In this exquisite form, this perfect pace, in this small music, this crowd of meaning—here is our Henry, this is our man.”

            Then again, it wasn’t only James whom Gass modeled himself after. There’s a whole pantheon of models that would have to be named, like Rilke, Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, Mann, Stein, Joyce, Gaddis, Faulkner, Flaubert, Valéry, Beckett, and, and, and…

            As you know Greg, Gass has written extensively about Rilke in his magisterial book-length examination of his work: Reading Rilke; in it, he reflects on The Notebooks, as he does in “Rilke and the Requiem,” to be found in A Temple of Texts. There you’ll also find his marvelous introduction to Rilke’s Auguste Rodin. In that same volume, he writes a concise paragraph about The Notebooks, saying that “there has been [no book] that [he] would have wished more fervently to have written than this personal poem in prose, this profound meditation on seeing and reading—on reading what one has seen, on seeing what one has read.”

    2. My personal favorite is “Simplicities,” published originally in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, in which Gass explores two species of aesthetic spareness, one of which he ascribes to an Eastern, zen-like sensibility, and the other of which derives from a westernized pioneer outlook of austere pragmatism. I can’t really do it justice here, but he manages to write in the Gassian vein about simplicity in a way that honors simplicity and repleteness at once.

        1. It’s in Finding a Form. And the eponymous essay is a marvel as well. The second paragraph has a biographical account of his parents. Chilling.

          I plan to read “Simplicities” very soon Tim.

          1. oh awesome. it is in Finding a Form. and i just realized i have not read the entire Part V of that book. which of course just changed my plans for the night.

            1. nevermind. already read that one (and i guess i didn’t really love it or it let me down or somesuch). does anyone know if Gass has ever really done a thorough examination of Eastern Philosophies? mr. madera? i sort of doubt it and even here in “Simplicities” it’s more Western sensibilities that Gass has really got his hand around, seems.

              1. Alan,

                I guess that’s what makes the races, as they say–I think this is not only my favorite Gass essay that I’ve read but one of my top essays of all time. And maybe it is partly because it speaks to one of my personal obsessions, this issue of more versus less, which I tend to think is at the core of a lot of human behavior/struggle/obsession–not that it provides answers but is a luminous framework to bring to bear and goes well beyond writing. I think Gass covers so much territory in these few pages in terms of complicating the notion of what the simple is, revealing how some varieties of simplicity must be achieved (how deceptively simple they are), touching on everything from Japanese rock gardens to Hemingway’s myth/life and his writing and his referents, on atoms and gods and ghosts and Darwinism and more (and less). And Gass’s own sentences mirror and ironize and reinvent what he’s writing about.

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