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Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William Gass, 2011

I would imagine that a certain amount of anxiety accompanies any attempt to write about William Gass and his work, a lifework where every sentence has been carefully tooled, poetically, no, lovingly rendered; where a distinct refusal to settle for a messy glibness, to trot around ideas like some propped up and thoroughly beaten and long dead horse, tinctures everything he thinks on the page; where critical acumen and lyricism are not mutually exclusive entities; where words are arranged architectonically to form houses, homes full of rooms of one’s own; the very attempt to comment on this lifework waylaid by the lacustrine sentences under scrutiny—yes, Gass’s sentences are lakes and therefore mirrors—those sentences also saying, as Apollo’s archaic torso said, that you must change your life; the scrutinizer, now somehow transformed into a jeweler, relieved because he or she has been freed from merely determining authenticity and can now disappear within a collection of multifaceted gems. But to say that anxiety “accompanies” this attempt to write about William Gass and his work is to mislead, or, rather, misrepresent, because, for one, it suggests that this psycho-physiological state can be personified and somehow invited along like some holy ghost hovering over the hitherandthithering waters of my mind, this idea of a supposed instantiation of a word inviting all kinds of thoughts, thoughts about metaphor, and various cocktails of same, which Gass has certainly explored throughout his critical and creative work, those two c-words never mutually exclusive in Gass’s oeuvre since his essays and his fictions toy with whatever expected conventions, blur those often arbitrary and perhaps even ultimately imaginary genre borders. Yes, writing about Gass is anxiety-producing—you feel a certain, shall we say, anxiety of influence, especially when you realize that he’s often been wherever you are long before you have and has, to interpolate our beloved Stevens, seen the there that’s there, the everything that is not there and the everything that is, and while there has seen with a clarity you would just be lucky to recognize you don’t have, that recognition perhaps finally allowing you to finally begin to see, see in the way that Rilke’s Malte struggles to see, that is, to finally see the forest and the trees and the green grass growing all around and around, the green grass growing all around.

There is a moment in John Barth’s bawdy swashbuckler, The Sot-Weed Factor, where Ebenezer Cooke, in one of his more ridiculously inspired moments, soliloquizes on the qualities of the poet:

Who more so than the poet needs every godlike gift? He hath the painter’s eye, the musician’s ear, the philosopher’s mind, the barrister’s persuasion; like a god he sees the secret souls of things, the essence ’neath their forms, their priviest connections. Godlike he knows the springs of good and evil: the seed of sainthood in the mind of a murtherer, the worm of lechery in the heart of a nun! Nay, farther: as the poet among gentleman is as a pearl among polished stones, so must the Laureate be a diamond in the pearls, a prince among poets, their flower and exemplar—even a prince among princes! (214-215)

Yuck, you might say, and, in the context of the story, this, along with laughter, would be the only appropriate response. That said, I couldn’t help thinking of William Gass as I read this rather grandiloquent reverie. Its romantic notions aside, the passage reminds me that I most admire those poets who have the attentiveness of painters like Vermeer, Basquiat, Hesse, Richter, Neel, and Rothko (the list, while not endless, is, mercifully, a long one), who see what most of us miss, who compel our eyes to slow down, to examine, to reflect, to see and see again and see differently, contrarily; those poets who find joy in sonorities, rhythm, dynamics, and contrast, who delight in the use of whatever innumerable musical devices, just as any great composer or improviser or both would; those poets who are concerned with mind and matter, with being and becoming, with appearances, with identity, with knowledge, with the body, with freedom, with moral questions and ethics, with happiness, with—get ready for it—the meaning of life, whether that phrase can ever be more than a contradiction in terms; poets whose inquiries are just as compelling as anything Kant, Hume, and Wittgenstein offered. While I certainly am glad that god, and along with him the poet with a capital P, is dead, I am happy whenever I find poets who seemingly see the “seed of sainthood in the mind of a murtherer, the worm of lechery in the heart of a nun,” this insight through its example sometimes helping me, on my better days, to be more understanding, to become more forgiving, while also helping me to see through the stupidity suffusing just about everything. All this to say that Gass is one such poet. Moreover, he is my poet laureate.

Last year, I decided to read all of Gass’s books in the order in which they were published. I also read as much of whatever of his uncollected texts I could find. I won’t detail here everything I learned from my readings, but some of the things that I’d like to highlight are his thoughts about reading and writing. Reading, Gass suggests, is “the customary way writers rescue themselves from disagreeable states of the soul” (“Influence,” A Temple of Texts, 24). And in “On Reading to Oneself” Gass posits that

reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response; until its conceptual turns are like reversals of mood in a marriage: petty, sad, ecstatic, commonplace, foreseeable, amazing.

In order to have this experience, however, one must learn to perform the text, say, sing, shout the words to oneself, give them, with our minds, their body: otherwise the eye skates over every syllable like the speeder…because as we read we divide into a theater: there is the performer who shapes these silent sounds, moving the muscles of the larynx almost invisibly; and there is the listener who hears them said, and who responds to their passion or their wisdom.

Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another’s words to become hers, his (Habitations, 227).

To read Gass is to be reminded, repeatedly, about many of the writers who have inspired him, and you get the sense that he is a walking library, his mind forever on Woolf, Rilke, Stevens, James, Browne, Rabelais, Stein, Joyce, O’Brien, Aristotle, Flaubert, Gaddis, Elkin, Barth, and Hawkes, just to name a few; suggesting to me that one measure of a writer is the company they keep: that you can probably say to a writer, “Show me your library and I can say who you are,” “who you are,” of course, meaning beyond who you are as a writer. The passage above also reminds me of the importance of rereading. I’m still awaiting a book-length treatment on the art of rereading. In the meantime, Gass here seems to suggest a way of seaming together the imagined mind-body split: rereading to the point where the mind is no longer concerned with the parts of the text, but experiences it as a gestalt.

For all his discussion about the sentence and its inherent capacity for music, about writers and their texts, about the rhetorical tools any self-respecting writer should have demonstrated mastery over, Gass offers very little direct advice to writers. That said, his essays are sprinkled with discerning insights for those of us continually being humbled not only by our betters but also by the indomitable expanse of the empty page or screen. Consider this a mini-compendium of counsel from Gass about writing:

My advice for writers is first to recognize that writers differ a great deal in their own natures and in the nature of their talent, and that little advice which is general can be of much value. Learn not to take advice. Look to yourself. Make yourself worthy of trust.

No art can be taught, though some techniques sometimes can. Writing classes help some, don’t others. It depends on the kind of person you are. Do whatever works. It wouldn’t have worked for me, and I am personally suspicious of them. I’ve taught creative writing (a little), but I would never make a habit of it. All attention wasted on poor work? Better to speak of the good things and learn from that. So my approach would be flight (Conversations, 12).

In “The Writer and Politics: A Litany,” Gass writes:

“We teach; very occasionally we hit it big with a book, but otherwise we teach…oh…do we? do we teach? ah, but…my god…what? what do we teach? do we teach…technique? That’s a matter even more puzzling. There are few vocations more dubious.”

I, too, am skeptical about what can be taught about writing beyond grammar, style, and usage. I’m especially suspicious of creative writing classes, especially that word “creative” and how, in this context, it evokes that gooey and all-too-prevalent self-improvement methodology that posits that everybody has a story to tell if only they’d just write. In fact, I’d argue that more emphasis on grammar, style, and usage, and a steady diet of reading great writing, would demonstrate just how difficult it is to write something worth reading and rereading, thereby discouraging poseurs and dilettantes from the outset, saving a whole lot of people a whole lot of time and money.

In “The Soul Inside the Sentence” (Habitations, 134-135), Gass describes “five fundamental tasks” that “a fine writer must accomplish.” Let’s take a look at them. First, “he must replace his present editorial staff, as far as possible, with a single, rich yet precise, wide though discriminating sense of taste drawn from all his reading but preferably from the most inclusive tradition of excellence he can assimilate…” Gass provides further hints in a number of his essays, including, most overtly, “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics,” where he describes a “classic in its field” as a “work with which one should begin if one expects to master its subject; something that is therefore seminal, not only begetting more books that take it as their topic but also one that contains the discipline’s founding principles, or serves as the starting point for its exploration” (A Temple of Texts, 4); and then later writes that it is “usually wise to approach a contemporary work with skepticism; it is the new work’s task to establish its authority, to persuade you to believe in its essential worth whatever strange or commonplace thing it may say or do” (A Temple of Texts, 6).

In “Quotations from Chairman Flaubert,” Gass writes:

So if a society were to want writers, it would encourage reading of the right sort, the sort that would teach quality not quantity, innovation not convention, subtlety not glibness, contemplation not instruction, challenge not amusement, permanence not the nonce, reality not its representation (Tests of Time, 247).

This passage compels me to tease apart each of these dichotomies. How does our current educational system encourage quantity over quality? Why is innovation more important than convention? Why is subtlety more important than glibness? How is contemplation more important than instruction? How does one determine what is permanent? And why is the teaching of reality more important than the teaching of its representation? But this is not that essay.

Back to the five fundamental tasks that a writer must accomplish: Gass warns the writer not to succumb to the disapproval of the internal editor, the parrot that squawks, “Not good enough, not good enough, awk! not good enough…”After this, the writer must “overcome the intense destructive urges which are the basis for his desperate creative activities; for superlative writing is love lavished on the word in order to repair a world which revengeful fantasy has destroyed, as well as to persuade its agreeable aspects to remain unchanged, because if they indicate a desire to depart, they will be savagely attacked too, bombed into oblivion…” These are perennial themes in Gass’s texts and are often the concerns of his many troubled characters. But this is not that essay.

I’ll conclude with a sentence about a sentence I love by William Gass, this one taken from his phenomenal, and you might say, though it might annoy Gass, phenomenological book-length essay, On Being Blue:

So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in Stevens or the sentences of Joyce or James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens—there—there—we’re here!…in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech…ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, and mindful Sublime.

The idea of the Sublime, with its capital ess, is nothing if not lost in our humdrum time, a time where every writer, and everyone else, for that matter, marches to the same repetitive time-signature performed by the same doldrumming drummer, thump-thumping a mindless march of declarative sentences, that yadda-yadda-yadda, that whatever yapping; but sentences like Gass’s remind me that a kind of sublime, like happiness, might be reached and experienced, however briefly, however intermittently, the sentence’s very construction reminding me of On the Sublime, where Longinus declares that “the greatest Thoughts are always uttered by the greatest Souls,” the great thoughts in the sentence above being the following: While every sentence can be parsed, pinned somewhere to prod and poke, to dissect to find out what makes it tick, what made it mean what it says, what made it live; it is in lifelines by the likes of Stevens (and here you may add Shakespeare and Dickinson, those seventeenth-century translators of the King James Bible, and Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and so many others); the life sentences of Joyce or James (insert another long list here), that we are compelled to think of the materiality of words, how words exist for the eye and ear and mouth and gut and groin, how words may laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints and vice versa: that they can nurse a hangover with the Dionysiacs or refuse to bite the apple with the Apollonians; that they can have an eros, maybe even have a mind of their own; Gass’s sentence’s convolutions affirming that sentences can mindfully “risk senselessness” and perhaps in its lolling around become a lollapalooza.

This essay was written as a small tribute to William Gass on the occasion of his eighty-seventh birthday, which falls today. I also asked a few writers to also celebrate whatever they wanted to celebrate about Gass, to interact with his texts in some way. Below you will find Luca Dipierro’s whimsical rendering of a famous incipit from one of Gass’s novels. Michael Leong chips away at one of Gass’s tunnels: “an experiment: an erasure of the first page of The Tunnel.” Malcolm Sutton, in “Gass’s Avant-Garde” finds affinities between Gass and Roland Barthes. Daniel Green’s “Looked at Importantly” looks at Gass’s intimate and individuated aesthetics.

Happy birthday, William Gass, and many happy returns!



Luca Dipierro is a visual artist and writer born in Italy ad living in Portland, OR, where he makes illustrations and animated films with paper, paint, glue. He is the author of the art zine DAS DING and of the collection of short fictions Biscotti Neri, published in Italy by Madcap.


Gass’s Avant-Garde

By Malcolm Sutton

It came up that a friend of mine had read William Gass’s The Tunnel, stopping ten pages short of the end, and left it unfinished. When soon after I saw her among other literary friends, she confirmed what I’d heard – ten pages short – which made a small vacuum in the immediate area. I failed to ask why she ended before the end, and the conversation turned to something else.

The incompletion reminded me, because I’d been thinking of Gass already, of a particular kind of artwork he once described in an essay.1 He dubbed this kind the “permanent avant-garde.” Unlike other kinds of avant-garde he outlines in the essay, the permanent variety resists us regardless of the decades that might have passed between its creation and our reception, despite the world and its mores shifting, despite history having changed our political relationships and our senses of self. In this permanency Gass proposed that some artworks always dumbfound and destabilize us. He writes that they continually “shatter stereotypes, shake things up, and keep things moving; offer fresh possibilities to a jaded understanding; encourage a new consciousness; revitalize the creative spirit of the medium; and, above all, challenge the skills and ambitions of every practitioner.” A permanent avant-garde work “must say no to Cash, to Flag, to Man, to God, to Being itself.”2 Of his examples just two are pre-modernist, and one post- :

Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partita’s for Unaccompanied Violin, Beethoven’s Opus 111, Liszt’s Transcendental Études, Bartók’s 1926 Piano Sonata, Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Opus 25, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Kafka’s story “A Country Doctor,” Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Stein’s The Making of Americans as well as Tender Buttons, Beckett’s trilogy, late Turner and Rothko, some Duchamp, Hölderlin’s late piece “In lovely blue . . . ,” the poetry of Mallarmé and Paul Celan, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that most beautiful and disturbing of diaries, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

When I read this list in my early 20s – living in the east end of Toronto in a warehouse that’s since become a condo – it must have lodged deeply, or heavily, into my credulous consciousness, as though from above. I wanted to read all of the novels and track down all the music and have a glance at the paintings, but it was mostly the writing I wanted. What Gass does to you in your early 20s, through his caring, materialist prose, is open you up to all these incredible works. He makes you read them.

I was nervous returning to Gass’s writing after ten or more years reading very little of it, wondering what those essays might do beyond offering a mentorship in reading. What were they actually about, anyway? Was everything not a little depoliticized? I vaguely recalled his allergy to French thought like that of Deleuze and Barthes, both writers I’d grown to love in the period after reading most of his essays. Wasn’t there one in which he made commonsense comments against Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” arguments that I’d now find conservative and perhaps missing the point?

It is this relationship to Barthes that I wanted to look at in returning to Gass. Gass’s arguments against Barthes’s dead author were as I’d imagined, commonsense but elevated through his incomparable balancing act of vowels and consonants. Yet Gass’s permanent avant-garde does have a strong likeness to concepts Barthes develops in The Pleasure of the Text. Namely, the works that Gass includes in his permanent avant-garde are those that for Barthes would likely produce, via the English translation, “bliss.” Recall in Barthes’s lovely, aphoristic Pleasure that the text of pleasure edifies the reader, makes him feel more stable in himself, makes her enjoy ideologies that might support her self-image. There is pleasure because of a resemblance to reality that eases us even as it might take us through laughter or tears. The text of bliss, on the other hand, is “the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to a point of certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14).

To this territory of bliss or permanent avant-garde I have a great affinity. There are books I admire and consider most affecting, ones I’m drawn to again and again yet never finish all the way through. A list of them would resemble Gass’s list, but one shouldn’t really make these lists. Yet it would begin with some I recently read, like Antunes’s What Can I Do When Everything is on Fire, Broch’s The Death of Virgil, Cela’s San Camilo1936. I’d mention some I read in the past, like Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, and ones I’ll read in the future, like Place’s Dies: A Sentence. (Can you anticipate having such feelings for a book you haven’t yet read?) But as I said, these lists are trouble. Perhaps Gass’s own The Tunnel should be among these – my friend’s wilful truncation says something to me here, attests to this possibility (but, honestly, it may have been pure frustration at Gass’s novel that led to her abridging it – leaving ten pages at the end is not the same as leaving 200 pages). And I must add, my own reading of The Tunnel was cut short by something, I can’t remember what now, by moving, by a girl who rendered literature temporarily pointless, by needing some other kind of book at the time, like one of pleasure.

It is not so much the lengths of these texts but the sustain beyond what should be possible, a repetitiousness that makes it difficult to go on. They hit a plateau that makes us recognize what we are reading is no longer anything but writing. And something happens to us when writing takes on this quality.

A work that does this is Robert Coover’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling other than to say that, maybe 50 pages or so in, following this shell of a Pierre through the bleak present of unending porn performances, you become self-conscious that you are reading the book and more, that the writing seems to serve no purpose other than to be writing that fulfills your reading. There is no thrust forward except the words themselves forming lines your eyes track, and maybe the belief in something in it beyond the writing that feels like nothing but writing. More than a few critics in reading Coover have felt this an assault to the degree that they claim pain, a real physical assault on their senses. Or simply claim they couldn’t go on. I find such complaints so reassuring because they mean we might be experiencing profound literature.

I’d like to propose that there is something tautological in texts that transform into runs or swaths of signifiers seemingly detached from a cause, a plot, a point. So not only is the text of bliss repetitive, it is, as Barthes points out, “absolutely intransitive” (52). In other words, it seems to have no object.3 It doesn’t do something to something else. It simply nominates its own presence. As the narrator of Lucky Pierre says, “A fuck is a fuck is a fuck” (151) (echoing, of course, one of Gass’s favourite writers). To me this aesthetic effect of excessive presence – a kind of immanence – while it may exhaust us (or pain some) is a version of the sublime. Much more could be said of this, but I’ll leave it here as a seed or germ.

In the future I will return to Gass’s The Tunnel. In fact I did pull it from my shelf to write this piece, and my wife was surprised to see the cover, having gotten used only ever to seeing the spine. I will not likely make it all the way through, but will undoubtedly return to it more than once because of the particular and difficult, excessive presence it proclaims, which I suspect flirts with the sublime.


1 “ The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” first published in Harper’s magazine, republished in the collection Finding a Form (1996).

2  I wonder what our relationship to these uppercased metanarratives is now. Is it the same as it was for the modernists he mentions?

Zizek explains this linguistic effect (at the level of a statement) in relation to an anti-Semitic remark: “Here we encounter the first paradox of the objet a: the X beyond words is a pure effect of words. This object which is, by definition, ineffable – the je ne sais quoi which cannot be adequately translated into any explicit positive determinations, whose transcendence only shines through the flow of speech – is, with regard to its genesis, totally immanent to language, the product of a signifying reversal of self-relation. It emerges at the point where  ‘the signifier falls into the signified,’ in other words, its transcendence is the inverted mode of its immanence. This is why its presence is indicated by tautology: the two terms in a tautology are not at the same level: the first occurrence of the term is as a signifier; and the second as a signifier within the signified. In the statement “A Jew is a Jew,’ one expects, after the first occurrence (‘A Jew is . . .’), an explication of its signified, a definition of the term, an answer to the question ‘What is a Jew?’; but, when one gets the same term repeated, this signifying repetition generates the specter of an ineffable X beyond words. The paradox is thus that language reaches ‘beyond itself,’ to the reality of objects and proceeds by means of clear denotative/discursive meanings; but when it refers to an ineffable transcendent X ‘beyond words,’ it is caught in itself” (Living in the End Times, 68). This effect can be magnified from statement to full narrative.

Malcolm Sutton is the editor of BookThug Press’s The Coming Envelope, a publication of experimental prose. An essay of his on conceptual writing appeared in the most recent issue of Border Crossings magazine. He lives and works in Toronto.


Michael Leong is the author of e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009), a collection of poetry, and I, the Worst of All (blazeVOX [books], 2009), a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat.  Forthcoming titles include Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail) and The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-Composition as Explanation (Delete Press).

Looked at Importantly

By Daniel Green

William Gass has often been praised as an essayist (perhaps more often than as a fiction writer), but for the most part Gass’s essays are more appropriately regarded as literary criticism. As a critic, however, Gass is generally not concerned with making and justifying judgments about the superior and inferior in works of literature (although judgment is always implicit) but with carefully, and, in his singular, luminous style, insightfully explicating those features of the texts and authors he admires that will help other readers share his admiration. At other times his essays are essentially exercises in aesthetics, although the aesthetic explorations are always grounded in specific practices or specific writers. Few literary critics are able to combine deep erudition, critical discernment, and a keen aesthetic sensibility as does Gass, and few offer readers such an opportunity to enlarge their own understanding of and sensitivity to expressions of literary art.

To a degree, Gass’s criticism seems an extension of his work as a fiction writer, a critical elaboration of the assumptions underlying it and the methods animating it. But Gass’s critical impulses are too generous and his focus too thoroughly on the dynamics of literary creation in general for his essays to be taken as a collective apology for his own style-centered, formally audacious fiction—although certainly it does provide critical support for that sort of aesthetically challenging writing, both in fiction and in poetry. Moreover, it is also the case that in Gass’s reading, “aesthetically challenging” is more or less identical with the “aesthetic” per se, so that in describing and delighting in the writers who are the subjects of many of the essays, and in contemplating the devices and strategies available to the literary artist, Gass has been engaged in a lifelong project of alerting us to the presence of aesthetic beauty, however “difficult” or unconventional. He is one of those critics, in fact, who has endeavored to keep the very notion of aesthetic beauty alive at a time when it is often viewed with skepticism as “snobbery” or “elitism.”

Gass is not a snob, although he may be an elitist, but only in the sense, as he puts it in “The Test of Time,” that he belongs to the””unorganized few. . .who sincerely love the arts.” He—and those of us who would like to be there with him—does not declare allegiance to this group because the arts make us better people or superior people or more refined people but because what they provide is good in itself: “There are those for whom reading, for example, can be an act of love, and lead to a revelation, not of truth, moral or otherwise, but of lucidity, order, rightness of relation, the experience of a world fully felt and furnished.” If great works of art and literature “teach” us anything, they teach us “immersion.” For Gass, “they teach me that the trivial is as important as the important when looked at importantly.”

“The arts” in their individual forms thus are worthy of attention when they can be “looked at importantly” through an immersion in their well-wrought particulars. In “The Test of Time,” Gass focuses on two writers, seemingly very different kinds of writers, but who both nevertheless enlarge our perceptions through their renderings with words. In Walden, Thoreau perpetually brings the pond and his experiences there to life:

[W]e, as readers, are not brought to Walden Pond in some poetic time machine. We experience Walden as it passed through Thoreau’s head, his whole heart there for us to pass through, too, his wide bright eyes the better to see with, the patient putting together of his prose to appreciate. Of the pond, the trees, the pain, the poet may retain—the poet may retain—through the indelibilities of his medium—moments which, in reality, went as swiftly as a whistle away; but he will also give them what was never there in the first place: much afterthought, correction, suggestion, verbal movement, emotion, meaning, music. . . .

Hopkins would seem to be the more obviously suited to Gass’s aesthetic ideal rooted in detail and sensuous sound, and indeed he is valued for these qualities, even as they failed to satisfy Hopkins himself: In poetically brooding over whether there is a way “to keep back beauty. . .from vanishing away,” Hopkins, writes Gass, “said it was ‘yonder,’ in effect, up high in the air, as ‘high as that,’ when all the while he knew where it was: it was there under his forming fingers; it was in his writing, where the real god, the god he could not avow—dared not worship—worked, wrote, writing his rhetorical regrets, putting his question so perfectly the proof was in the putting.” In Hopkins’s poetry

They, those things, the terrible sonnets, every one, were composed, brought by Hopkins into being, not when he was down in the dumps, not while he was Hopkins, but when he was a Poet, truly on top of the world, the muse his mother; and the poems supplant their cause, are sturdier than trees, and will strip the teeth of any saw that tries to down them.

Both Thoreau and Hopkins in their own ways contest the passing of time by summoning, through the strength of their writing, a kind of eternal present, invoking the “rule that reads: never enter time, and you will never be required to exit.” Gass assures us that

It was lovely to be on Walden Pond at midnight, fluting the fish, but lovelier and more lasting in the verbal than in the fishing lines. It is painful to lose faith even for a moment or see a row of crudely hewn trunks where your favorite rustic scene once was, but mutilation’s sorrow is inspiring in the reading, although we realize the poem does not soften the blows felt by the trees.

“The Test of Time,” first given as a Woodrow Wilson Lecture, is perhaps a kind of summary statement of Gass’s aesthetic philosophy, but it is very much the philosophy that informs Gass’s criticism taken as a whole. He is among those few critics who have persisted in defending the aesthetic integrity of literature in an era when literary criticism has increasingly come to regard the aesthetic as an embarrassing frill or an outright impediment to the enlistment of literature in various ideological agendas or in a program of social or moral improvement. Although Gass is a very different kind of critic than Harold Bloom, who is more interested in the psychoanalytic origins of works of literature than in their immediate aesthetic effects, Gass nevertheless shares with Bloom, if not a belief in “literature as a way of life,” as Bloom puts it in his most recent book, then certainly a commitment to it as a supreme human achievement and experience. And while Gass perhaps does not quite pursue “an erotics of art,” as Susan Sontag once called for, his appreciation of both prose and poetry usually emphasizes the pleasure of attentive reading receptive to the sensual qualities of language and the dynamism of the imagination at its most engaged.

Perhaps Gass occupies as a critic a space somewhere between the aesthetic purity of Sontag’s notion and the explorations in poetic genealogy performed by Bloom. He doesn’t assume that works of literary art will be harmed by efforts to “interpret,” as long as such interpretation does justice to the aesthetic integrity of literary art, but his own efforts are focused more on the tangible properties of texts than are Bloom’s considerations of the deeper sources of literary creation.

Although Gass’s essays are ultimately too voluminous, varied, and too occupied with identifying the value of other works and writers to be regarded as a critical justification of his own fiction, they nevertheless do help us to gain perspective on Gass’s fiction, in which he too asks readers to “immerse” themselves in description and detail as revealed through the rhythms of his prose and the vigor of his language. Combining an intensity of style and a preoccupation with form, his fiction always impresses on the reader’s attention its arrangements and figurations of language, as Gass’s own effort to refuse to “enter Time.” In this way the essays perhaps form a mutually reinforcing complement to the fiction, the one adeptly practicing what the others eloquently preach.

Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose publications have appeared both online and in print. He maintains the literary blog The Reading Experience.

25 thoughts on “Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William Gass, 2011

  1. Really enjoyed these pieces! Loved the variety of perspectives. Would make a cool series, akin to what Greg did for Wallace Stevens a while back. I get the sense that a lot of writers — perhaps especially those of us who, like Gass, write both critical and creative stuff — feel a strong connection to his work. I know I do.

    I’m unfamiliar with the work of Malcolm Sutton, but his essay here is great. Going to go google him now.

  2. Many, many thanks to BIG OTHER for this luscious, scrupulous, sumptuous celebration. Gass remains a treasure & an inspiration, we are fortunate to have him in our country (I’m adapting, there, a quip from Donald Barthelme), & may his days & birthdays increase.

    All I’d add to the above — not much of an add — it that the masterly style Gass displays has always struck me as a fine balance of long-lined European classicism & shorthand American (even Midwestern) down-to-earthness. That latter quality is the one less often noticed, I’d say. But in ON BEING BLUE, for instance, he offers his marvelous replacement for the old profane dismissal, “Fuck a duck,” suggesting instead, “Fuck a lock.” Such painful specifications, worthy of a tool-&-die maker! The phrase rouses the imagination & then makes it shudder — & that’s Gass, too.

    1. Thanks, John! And I definitely agree with you about Gass’s merging of styles, his clever interpolations of the homespun and the riverrun, the former, I’d say, culled from Faulkner and Stein, the latter largely from James, Joyce, and Woolf; that eclectic fusion creating a voice, tone, and style all his own.

  3. Wow, Mr. Sutton, I have a very similar relationship to Gass. He was really formative in my thinking about literature when i was in college, then I’d read Deleuze, Adorno et al.
    Lots of grad students abuse the french philosophers, & that dissuaded me from reading Barthes at first.. and Gass’s pragmatist/common sense essays were really appealing.

    I think that Gass’s always nuanced sentences, his seducing rhetoric leads people into thinking that his arguments are always nuanced too.
    Zukofsky, for example, argues strongly for the political implications of literature, while being completely committed to the formal qualities of the poem.

    (Please, don’t misunderstand me — I think Gass is a great writer. Much better than the legion of hacks who win the major awards for being “socially relevant”.)

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Many thanks for your response and for your essay, which I enjoyed very much. I agree with your concluding remarks on the relationship between Gass’s essays and his fiction. I felt the same way when I reread a number of the essays and tried to discover an underlying framework.
      I also realized that I am happy to develop more complicated relationships with writers like Gass and Barthelme, who influenced me to no end at a certain point in my life.

      1. Oh I feel awkward, I only realized that using only my given name could be confusing after I posted the comment — I’m not Daniel Green (I like his blog, tho). Mea Culpa!

        What I meant to say anyway, is that Gass, even in beautiful essays like “Artist and Society” (that last four pages is just gorgeous) was only battling mediocrities, he’s not engaging in a serious discourse on political aesthetics. I’d love to see him in a panel debate with Susan Howe.
        I’m not sure he realises how close he is to some continental philosophers; “Even if by all the Oxen..” is really the American articulation of Adorno’s views on mass culture, and that’s not too far from Deleuze…
        But of course, he would be the first to remark, that he is not trying to write systematic philosophy.
        I love most of his essays though, but I too think, that in his Avant-Garde essay he curiously misses the point. (if I remember right, I need to reread it…)

  4. Thank you, John, for this wonderful collection of pieces! A lot to chew on, much to reread.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Lee. All of these approaches to Gass is encouraging me to reread all of Gass’s books, derailing all of my other reading plans.

      1. Indeed, although I’m currently in the middle of a Joyce binge, and your Sot-Weed read-along has got me planning an autumn of Barth. Perhaps winter is the season of Gass.

        1. Funny, about a month or so ago, I reread Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, and also read Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study and Roy K. Gottfried’s The Art of Joyce’s Syntax in Ulysses. Enjoy!

          I hear you about Barth. I’d probably do the same if I weren’t in the middle of reading all of Henry James’s novels (all of which I hope to complete before the end of the year).

          1. Since I hadn’t read Joyce before this summer, I opted to read the four fictions only (skipping Chamber Music and Exiles), no supplemental materials. Although I’ve planned a viewing of Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages From Finnegans Wake as soon as I’ve finished.

            All of Henry James’s novels! Now there’s a reading program. I’d like to see a post on that when you’re through.

            1. Oh, I didn’t know about Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake. I loved the wake so I’ll have to check that out.

              As for my James marathon, it’s definitely been a mindbender. I’m a fan of his circumlocutions, so I really can’t wait to get to all the late novels. A post about this marathon is definitely in order. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Thanks for this wonderful tribute. I read The Tunnel at age 18, after discovering Gass through Gardner’s effusive praise of him, and it was a particularly significant influence on me.

    1. Thanks for your comment, David. Happy to hear that you enjoyed our celebration. I wish I had read The Tunnel, actually, any- and everything by Gass, when I was eighteen. I just might be a different person.

  6. Thanks for putting this together, John — and for inviting me to participate…it was great fun to work on this tribute project, and I’m enjoying all of this great food for thought.

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