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

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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.

About two years ago, after reading Gass’s “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars,” an essay detailing those works that have most impacted him and his writing, I was inspired to read the works from that selfsame list, and have since read over thirty of those masterworks, including Plato’s Timaeus; Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth; Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space; Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos, ou l’architecte; Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia: Urne Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Some Do Not . . . (the first novel of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End (the Tietjens tetralogy); William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds; Beckett’s How It Is and “Ping”; Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch; Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths; Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (in William Weaver’s marvelous recent translation); Gustave Flaubert’s Letters and Bouvard and Pécuchet; Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; most of John Donne’s poems and sermons; William Butler Yeats’s The Tower; Wallace Steven’s Harmonium; Henry James’s The Golden Bowl; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives; William Gaddis’s The Recognitions; John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig; Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; Duino Elegies; and Sonnets to Orpheus.

Having Gass’s abovementioned essay and his upcoming 88th birthday (which falls today) in mind, I was inspired to reach out to some of my favorite writers, editors, and publishers, asking them to send me a list, annotated or otherwise, of their own “literary pillars,” viz., books that have most impacted their own writing. I invited them to define “literary pillars” in whatever way they wish, welcoming them to comment on each “pillar.”

The following people contributed lists:

Gary Amdahl, Matt Bell, Gabriel Blackwell, Paula Bomer, Alexandra Chasin, Jane Ciabattari, Vincent CzyzSamuel R. Delany, Claire Donato, Rikki Ducornet, Johannes Göransson, Tina May Hall, j/j hastain, Christopher Higgs, Tim Horvath, Greg Hunter, Jamie Iredell, Paul Kincaid, Brian Kiteley, Michael Leong, Robert Lopez, Kyle Minor, Lance Olsen, David Peak, Nick Potter, John Reed, Stephen Schenkenberg, Davis Schneiderman, Christine Schutt, Janey Smith, Amber Sparks, William Walsh, Derek White, and Dan Wickett.

Here’s mine.

(Happy birthday, Magister Gass! I’ve read all of your books, and I’m looking forward to seeing and reading Middle C in its final form.)

Update:

Big Other‘s own John Domini posted a belated tribute to Gass. Also, lists from John Matthew Fox and Dawn Raffel have come in.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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