25 now, 25 to follow, with many thanks
1) In The Odyssey, there’s Penelope’s more intimate test of this stranger who claims to be her husband — after he’s gotten through the messy, public business of slaughtering all her suitors down in the castle hall.
2) Of course Penelope has enacted some significant gestures of love herself, during the course of her man’s wanderings, most especially the way she’s undone, every night, the shroud she’s been weaving every day, the funeral shroud for the former king, while meantime promising the suitors: just as soon as the shroud’s done…
3) But now this fellow claims to be the once and future king, and he’s proven pretty impressive, plus their son Telemachus accepts the story, the boy’s helped to cut all the pretenders to ribbons, and now the stranger stands in the bedroom, and so it’s time she too sprang a test on him.
4) “If you really are my husband,” says Penelope, “Odysseus, king of Ithaca, then move this bed of ours so it’s back the way we had it on our wedding night.”
5) At which he smiles, and I imagine as reader that the smile alone replenishes her reality, she’s got her lover and partner back, “her heart leaps” or something, but the man goes on to clarify: the bed can’t be moved, as only he and she know, because when he built it he used a rooted treetrunk for one of the legs.
6) At which the celebration really begins, and the lovers have help from the Goddess Athena — perhaps a stand-in for the poem’s author, perhaps herself a woman — who kindly “holds back the dawn.”
7) And what’s a gesture of love if it can’t jump ahead a couple-three millennia?
8) Consider moment in JR, published 1975, written by William Gaddis (who Gass admired enormously, and with whom he shared a dais or two), when JR himself, the secret middle-school business prodigy, asks his teacher Miss Joubert if she’s ever thought about how there’s “a millionaire for everything.”
9) JR points to a lamppost, a telephone wire, a nearby parked car, asking, “you ever think… there’s a millionaire for that?,” at which Miss Joubert, something like the conscious of the book, grabs the boy, a gesture of love, no less, and points out what she believes is the rising moon, asking, “Is there a millionaire for that?”
10) But young JR sees a different sky, he sees the McDonald’s arches, and boy, if Miss Joubert doesn’t think there’s a millionaire for that…
11) Still Joubert remains undaunted, she keeps turning the boy, with love, pointing out the actual rising moon, the evening stars, the sky itself: is there, she asks of each, a millionaire for that?
12) And what about a leap back again, a mere eight centuries this time?
13) In Dante’s Comedy, at the peak of Purgatory, the Pilgrim bathes in the river Eunoë, a final cleansing before the ascent to Paradise, and the waters, santissima, most blessed, leave him rinovellate, refreshed, “like a newly-leafed plant” in Mark Musa’s translation, and turn him, like young JR, towards the stelle, the stars.
14) Which brings us to the music of the written word, to Gass its very soul: “written by the mouth for the ear,” as he put it in his talk with the Paris Review.
15) “By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write.”
16) A gesture of love, that mouth at our ear, if there ever was one.
17) And the passage I’ve just cited from Dante croons with rare fugal beauty, assonance up and consonance back, in the Pilgrim’s cleansing re-entry to love:
18) Io ritornai da la santissima onda
rifatto sì come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda
Puro e disposto a salire le stelle.
19) Musa’s translation works for me, but as I’ve posted here on Big Other before, no English captures the nuance, anticipating the game that Nabokov played with the name of his imaginary child-lover
20) My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
21) In Dante’s case, at the peak of Purgatorio, his love-song opens the mouth wider at each softening syllable of the repeated no-vell-lahh, while at the same time playing conceptually off the repeating flow of a river’s current (onda means “wave”).
22) And concept, too, the spiritual and intellectual content of our signifying object, the word — concept too must inhabit the gesture, or love would be reduced to singsong, Roses are red, violets are blue, nothing so rich and risky as, for instance, the gesture Pierre makes for Natasha, at a turning point in War and Peace.
23) War and Peace after all is cited in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, the opening of Gass’ lissome novella patches in the opening of Tolstoy’s brickhouse history, a gesture of love towards a landmark of literature that goes above and beyond.
24) In War and Peace itself, the gesture (outstanding, but only one of many, naturally) comes after our heroine Natasha has fallen into disgrace.
25) Young Natasha has betrayed the older but admirable Prince Andrei for a dashing cad, she would’ve eloped with the bastard if it weren’t for a well-meaning family busybody, and Andrei has broken off the engagement.
25 more to come, soon.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
John Domini is the author of Bedlam, Highway Trade, Talking Heads: 77, Earthquake I.D., A Tomb on the Periphery, The Sea-God's Herb, Movieola!, and The Color Inside a Melon. Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere; and journalism and criticism in The New York Times, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere (including Italian journals). He live in Des Moines, Iowa.