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Joy to the Reader When Reading Gass’s The Tunnel

How can I contain myself? (But perhaps the question is: how could Gass both contain and not contain himself to have done what he did?) Having had The Tunnel to go back to every morning was like having the one you love next to you, to be transfixed and freshened, to be, as that worthy words man said, surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. (First post on approaching The Tunnel)

In the end (and there can’t be an end to such a work that reverberates on itself and the whole of literature, philosophy, and history), Gass’s explication of Kohler’s consciousness is all tongue, all logos, but a logos of the highest order. Is there pity and terror? Is there sentimentality? Many monsters have their sweet side and though some have called Kohler a monster, I would just call him a guy who tells the truth of his story, no matter the lies of old age one tells to lessen the pains of the past. At the center of his thoughts is the idea of the fascism of the heart, with Kohler himself as the case study.  He gives us his life in many slices of pie (sugar and sweets, such as ice cream and cake abound in the book). He also heaps us with shit, with the staged, and with something surfacely sentimental, but wholly human:

The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structure melts, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in no wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from–the unfired vessel–but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God. (560)

As the heart grows, it learns life–and life is not so joyous, but, as Gass says many times in his essays, the pinnacle for humans is to create a magisterial beauty out of the materials at hand. Kohler rails, Kohler complains, but Kohler also celebrates–art, sex, food, anger, destruction, lust, and lust for objects as well. In the “Around the House” philippic, Kohler sends bloody kisses to Gass’s well-remembered fruit from Rilke’s “Dance the orange” sonnet in the Sonnets to Orpheus (I.15):

Do we have an orange? Good. I like cutting grapefruit, lemons, oranges in half. Neither onions nor potatoes offer themselves to halving, open like shells to such a virginal show of their bodies. Best shape in nature is possessed by a halved pear. O-range. Nice word. Crushing the pulp is satisfying as well, the rind cupped in your harsh unrelenting hand, rubbing, rounding its tart insides into a puddle of juice as though you were liquefying the color. Grind. Crush. Cut. Squeeze. The verbs of the kitchen. Boil. Stew. Slice. Cube. Bake. Roast. Fry. Gut’s cabulary. Simmer. Steam. Grill. Stew. Cooking uses cruelty to reach its grace. (446)

And about his wife:

I had hoped her flesh might warm my life; but my body isn’t blubber for your burning, she had crudely said. Alas, one’s dreams are always a cliché, yet I had hoped she would fill what I felt was an emptiness; but I’m not going to let you wear me like a padded bra so you can seem complete, she said. (349)

One can also celebrate despair. That and unrequited love are the master poets’ great subjects (Gass belongs in their pantheon). Pleasure and pain are often twins, because every pleasure can be endangered by ill-use.  The orange can delight, but it can also take an anger  in crushing so the anger is stultified by the color created by the fruit. Similarly, the attack of the  B’s in “my body isn’t blubber for your burning” rolls out a sweet way of saying “you can’t fuck me.” In a 2004 interview at the Lannan Foundation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom, he was asked about how his work can be so vulgar and violent, yet so beautiful. Gass replied thus:

If I’m reading…Beckett, I don’t come away having read Beckett ready to get into the garbage can…I’m uplifted, as I see a writer pushing away suicide, in fact, by his own work…struggling always, over and over, to get something said…with nothing to say. The torment of that is done so beautifully and so right, it gives to that, great eloquence and that’s what rituals often do. When one is bereft for instance, one may just scream, howl, and roll on the floor enraged or despair…but in the right ritual that despair can be given structure and beauty and meaning…[it] hasn’t much [of] when it’s just a howl…there’s a scene in The Lime Twig* where a woman gets beaten with a wet newspaper–it is…stunning, and it is so beautiful, but does that make it in a sense, less horrible? No, it makes it a monument to horror and you know what is going on in a way you never would otherwise.

If the reader gets slammed by the beauty of the sentences: “it will not suffice to be in love if you can’t hold that love with floured hands and roll it into a breakfast bun or a crust for pie now and then” (577), what Gass says for Hawkes holds true to him and other masters of despair, like Emily Dickinson and Henry James. The monument is in using the language to give the reader not just information but feeling from many senses and angles–not a simple, insensate, He didn’t want to be in love if she wouldn’t let herself laugh with him.

The novel is very divisive one. It was roundly attacked upon it’s release in early 1995. It’s a book that details unbridled hatred and questions of the Holocaust and makes no excuses, being as politically correct as a weed in the White House garden. In the wonderful book, Into The Tunnel, the editors have seen fit to include a few essays critical of Gass’s book. One by Marcus Klein, “Guilt and Innocence in The Tunnel,” correctly points out how the book’s second half changes significantly, as much of the textual stylizations disappear that once dominated. This could have been a consequence of the 27 years it took to write it, as well as Kohler getting to the heart of his country and concentrating more and more on his own sorrow–shedding to unfurl the pain and disappointment at his base. More questionable though, Klein takes Gass to account morally, saying:

To be invited by this novel to contemplate the Holocaust and then to be introduced to the sins of William Kohler is to discover some considerable pretension at work–not to go so far as to say moral blindness…Kohler’s evil amounts to an irrelevant tawdriness…there is some discrepancy of magnitude here. While to say that deep in his heart this tawdry Kohler is a Fascist, maybe even just potentially–like all of us–and is a vessel for the kind of guilt that made the Holocaust, is to put another construction on “banality of evil”…It is to reduce the horror to a banality, and thereby to dismiss it. (127)

I don’t see Gass dismissing the Holocaust. His character can’t fully apprehend it, even though he has studied it for years. For what can one say about such an event? One of the sub-themes of the book is the question of the historian, for this one cannot bear to read his own work. Kohler writes “to indict mankind,” but he ends up indicting himself. To this end, I once met a historian in France who told me history books are chronicles of the time they were written in, not that of which they were written about. Kohler sticks the pages of  The Tunnel (it’s one monologue) in the pages of his just finished book on Hitler’s Germany, hiding his confessions, the only true history anyone could be qualified to write. Maybe history makes one look more seriously at the ills one has done in one’s own life. If the Holocaust could be useful for anything, why not that?** I suppose Gass’s art has succeeded if a critic takes umbrage at a character’s outlook. If Gass’s Kohler wasn’t so illustrative of his soul and like life, would someone bother to cry foul?

Now that I have read The Tunnel for the first time in order to ready myself to read it, as Gass says in “Tropes of the Text” from Habitations of the Word (156), I feel a little less lonely and a little more engaged, as I do after going through the great works of literature. In no way can I understand all the meanings in The Tunnel, but I don’t think that’s what Gass is after, though I’m sure many would welcome an annotative study and the work no doubt bears such inquisition. The word and the sentence are primary for Gass, and his combinations leave this reader with a slight dance step and a recognition that objects, experience, and feelings can be breathtakingly captured by the maker that dares to take their time and find fault with every nuance until what survives is the most blessed image-making in the world.

* 1961 novel by John Hawkes

**“What counts for me…is what happens to human consciousness…what was lost when you piled up bodies, what is gained when you decide not to.” – Gass, from Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt

More Gass tributes: William Gass’s The Pederson Kid and Snow in Film, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass, Reading Rilke by William Gass, Ode to William H. Gass,

This Lannan Video from 1998 is, as Gass says in the interview about one of Gertrude Stein’s sentences, “a treasure!”

9 thoughts on “Joy to the Reader When Reading Gass’s The Tunnel

  1. Great post. Although I remember feeling less joy and more a queasiness at having been exposed to the worst person in the world (albeit rendered in beautiful words) and the striking similarity of his grievances both petty and large with my own.

    1. Thanks DC. I felt more joy about having gone through it, but in terms of the worst person in the world – Kohler didn’t DO much of any, except meow, meow. Maybe he through a brick. Growing out of love is messy and marrying to escape something else is it’s own hell. Kohler doesn’t court favor like a TV character and thank goodness. I still felt for him, maybe it’s his utter encapsulation of the Midwest.

      1. Perhaps what I was saying was that the book illustrates quite well the theme of when you look into an abyss, etc, for both the character and the reader.

  2. Greg, a resonant celebration of the rich recent walloper, all the richer for its disturbing central material. In retrospect, THE TUNNEL’s evolving conception of the Holocaust seems to me like what it has instead of a plot. The protagonist doesn’t develop, as you note above. Kohler’s descent into his personal Inferno eschews even a development deliberately arrested, such as Joyce perfected in DUBLINERS — the epiphany of the better self, glimpsed vividly, then refused tragically. Kohler may have enjoyed such a hint of possibility, in love, but that was years before the narrative present. In his reflections on the Holocaust, though, on what it was & means, historically & right now, we work through rising fascination, deepening horror.

    Your excellent work includes righteous quotation, too, righteous & pertinent. Let me add that when Gass honors that Hawkes passage, from THE LIME TWIG (my New Directions original says 1961, by the way), he’s echoing his own exquisite brief monograph, ON BEING BLUE. That 1976 meditation on the erotic in literature — blue, get it? — included three or four pages on the beating in THE LIME TWIG.

    ON BEING BLUE also singles out for praise, high praise, a passage from John Barth’s THE SOT-WEED FACTOR. Gass has claimed, in his Paris Review interview, that Barth’s work “stands to my generation as ULYSSES did to its.” So, when are we at Big Other going to get on to SOT-WEED?

    1. Thanks John. Great thoughts about Kohler. He fascinates me because he will have great insights into the human condition and then trash everything into everything else, as his consciousness is almost like a trash compactor (the literal midden-piles of Beckett’s Gass often refers to), and get himself so angry–we see many implosions in the tunnel of himself. It’s almost a ritualized self-abuse. Not to get too pop-pyschology on the issue, but if one grows up watching people abuse themselves, it doesn’t bode well for the future of that person. Nuturing–maybe that is a good course to learn in school, college too.

      Thanks on The Lime Twig. Yes, that section in ON BEING BLUE is wonderful.

  3. I’m not sure that writing about–expressing–grief is the same as celebrating it. If we wanted to celebrate grief, it wouldn’t be hard to create more–grief.

    That said, THE TUNNEL is probably the most beautifully written book I have ever read (THE PLACE IN FLOWERS WHERE POLLEN RESTS & HOPSCOTCH are close seconds, tied maybe) … but I did feel at times the beauty of the writing was at odds with what Gass was writing about. Writing this beautifully about something/someone morally repugnant seems to make it/her/him less so.

    And no, I don’t think Kohler’s all that bad either. He really doesn’t do much. And his father’s not exactly a winner as I recall.

    Certainly, it’s a book that would reward a second or even third reading and will hopefully inspire more critical essays.

  4. Thousands of artists I’m sure dealt with despair, but again, I wouldn’t want to romanticize that into a monument TO despair … it might be a monument in RESPONSE to despair. But this is just my personal bugaboo. I love Gass & I enjoyed your essay about THE TUNNEL, a great work of literary art … yes, a monument.

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