- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

William Gaddis on Art, Writing, Reading, and More

 

Happy birthday, William Gaddis! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“If it is not beautiful for someone, it does not exist.”

 

“[A]ll writing worth reading comes, like suicide, from outrage or revenge.”

 

“Style and content must match, must be complementary.”

 

“How some of the writers I come across get through their books without dying of boredom is beyond me.”

 

“As for what you call speech patterns, one is always listening and has got an ear or hasn’t, and without one, unless perhaps in dealing with an unfamiliar language and culture, no amount of your special measures like riding around on school buses will get you out of the swamp.”

 

“Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.”

 

“There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world…”

 

“Stupidity’s the deliberate cultivation of ignorance, that’s what we’ve got here.”

 

“—I really prefer books. No matter how bad a book is, it’s unique, but people are all so ordinary.
—I think we really like books that make us hate ourselves.”

 

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.”

 

“Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of…recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it…”

 

“[Ev]ery work of art is a work of perfect necessity.”

 

“What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”

 

“How real is any of the past, being every moment revalued to make the present possible…”

 

“I, it’s just, listen, criticism? It’s the most important art now, it’s the one we need most now. Criticism is the art we need most today. But not, don’t you see? not the ‘if I’d done it myself.’ Yes, a, a disciplined nostalgia, disciplined recognitions.”

 

“They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them, people brought up reading for facts, who know what’s going to come next and want to know what’s coming next, and get angry at surprises.”

 

“Tragedy was foresworn, in ritual denial of the ripe knowledge that we are drawing away from one another, that we share only one thing, share the fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God; love or money, tender equated in advertising and the world, where only money is currency, and under dead trees and brittle ornaments prehensile hands exchange forgeries of what the heart dare not surrender.”

 

“How…how fragile situations are. But not tenuous. Delicate, but not flimsy, not indulgent. Delicate, that’s why they keep breaking, they must break and you must get the pieces together and show it before it breaks again, or put them aside for a moment when something else breaks and turn to that, and all this keeps going on. That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is…it never takes your breath away, telling you things you already know, laying everything out flat, as though the terms and the time, and the nature and the movement of everything were secrets of the same magnitude. They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them, people brought up reading for facts, who know what’s going to come next and want to know what’s coming next, and get angry at surprises. Clarity’s essential, and detail, no fake mysticism, the facts are bad enough. But we’re embarrassed for people who tell too much, and tell it without surprise. How does he know what happened? unless it’s one unshaven man alone in a boat, changing I to he, and how often do you get a man alone in a boat, in all this…all this…Listen, there are so many delicate fixtures, moving toward you, you’ll see. Like a man going into a dark room, holding his hands down guarding his parts for fear of a table corner, and…Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility, and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all its dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just…sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.”

 

“[H]as it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos…”

 

“Human, we treat them as we treat others, take for granted services to which they did not pretend. But we force telephones to corrupt intimacy while they pretend to preserve it by keeping alive only its dangerous immediate symptoms. Say a word, say a thousand to me on the telephone and I shall choose the wrong one to cling to as though you had said it after long deliberation when only I provoked it from you, I will cling to it from among a thousand, to be provoked and hurl it back with something I mean no more than you meant that, something for you to cling to and retreat clinging to. There, now we are apart!”

 

“Images surround us; cavorting broadcast in the minds of others, we wear the motley tailored by their bad digestions, the shame and failure, plague pandemics and private indecencies, unpaid bills, and animal ecstasies remembered in hospital beds, our worst deeds and best intentions will not stay still, scolding, mocking, or merely chattering they assail each other, shocked at recognition. Sometimes simplicity serves, though even the static image of Saint John the Baptist received prenatal attentions (six months along, leaping for joy in his mother’s womb when she met Mary who had conceived the day before): once delivered he stands steady in a camel’s hair loincloth at a ford in the river, morose, ascetic on locusts and honey, molesting passers-by, upbraiding the flesh on those who wear it with pleasure. And the Nazarene whom he baptized? Three years pass, in a humility past understanding: and then death, disappointed? unsuspecting? and the body left on earth, the one which was to rule the twelve tribes of Israel, and on earth, left crying outMy God, why dost thou shame me? Hopelessly ascendent in resurrection, the image is pegged on the wind by an epileptic tentmaker, his strong hands stretch the canvas of faith into a gaudy caravanserai, shelter for travelers wearied of the burning sand, lured by forgetfulness striped crimson and gold, triple-tiered, visible from afar, redolent of the east, and level and wide the sun crashes the fist of reality into that desert where the truth still walks barefoot.”

 

“And that is why people read novels, to identify projections of their own unconscious. The hero has to be fearfully real, to convince them of their own reality, which they rather doubt. A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme. They have to know what you think, or good heavens, how can they know that you’re going through some wild conflict, which is after all the duty of a hero.”

 

“I know you, I know you. You’re the only serious person in the room, aren’t you, the only one who understands, and you can prove it by the fact that you’ve never finished a single thing in your life. You’re the only well-educated person, because you never went to college, and you resent education, you resent social ease, you resent good manners, you resent success, you resent any kind of success, you resent God, you resent Christ, you resent thousand-dollar bills, you resent Christmas, by God, you resent happiness, you resent happiness itself, because none of that’s real. What is real, then? Nothing’s real to you that isn’t part of your own past, real life, a swamp of failures, of social, sexual, financial, personal…spiritual failure. Real life. You poor bastard. You don’t know what real life is, you’ve never been near it. All you have is a thousand intellectualized ideas about life. But life? Have you ever measured yourself against anything but your own lousy past? Have you ever faced anything outside yourself? Life! You poor bastard.”

 

“[I]f you want to make a million you don’t have to understand money, what you have to understand is people’s fears about money.”

 

“Why do you treat me as they do, as though I were exactly what I want to be. Why do we treat people that way?”

 

“It is the bliss of childhood that we are being warped most when we know it the least.”

 

“I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

 

“I see the player piano as the grandfather of the computer, the ancestor of the entire nightmare we live in, the birth of the binary world where there is no option other than yes or no and where there is no refuge.”

 

“Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people … Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing. Their only difficulty is that if they have a spark of wit or wisdom themselves, they’re given no credit. The curse of cleverness.”

 

“It was through this imposed accumulation of chaos that she struggled to move now: beyond it lay simplicity, unmeasurable, residence of perfection, where nothing was created, where originality did not exist: because it was origin; where once she was there work and thought in causal and stumbling sequence did not exist, but only transcription: where the poem she knew but could not write existed, ready-formed, awaiting recovery in that moment when the writing down of it was impossible: because she was the poem. Her hand tipped toward the paper, black stroke the pen made there, but only that stroke, line of uncertainty. She called her memory, screamed for it, trying to scream through it and beyond it, damned accumulation that bound her in time: my memory, my bed, my stomach, my terror, my hope, my poem, my God: the meanness of my. Must the flames of hell be ninety-story blazes? or simply these small sharp tongues of fire that nibble and fall to, savouring the edges and then consume, swept by the wind of terror at exposing one’s self, losing the aggregate of meannesses which compose identity, in flames never reaching full roaring crescendo but scorch through a life like fire in grass, in the world of time the clock tells. Every tick, synchronised, tears off a fragment of the lives run by them, the circling hands reflected in those eyes watching their repetition in an anxiety which draws the whole face toward pupiled voids and finally, leaves lines there, uncertain strokes woven into the flesh, the fabric of anxiety, double-webbed round dark-centered jellies which reflect nothing. Only that fabric remains, pleached in the pattern of the bondage which has a beginning and an end, with scientific meanness in attention to details, of a thousand things which should not have happened, and did; of myriad mean events which should have happened, and did not: waited for, denied, until life is lived in fragments, unrelated until death, and the wrist watch stops.”

 

“Stupidity’s the deliberate cultivation of ignorance.”

 

“Sincerity becomes the honesty of people who cannot be honest with themselves.”

 

“Nothing can be given that cannot also be withheld.”

 

“[A]nd resurrection a dispensable preoccupation for one who had not yet lived.”

 

“Bad circumstances are the only ones where we can recognize ourselves, and when good fortune comes away, away, we cannot face it, to see ourselves abroad in good fortune and there is no alternative, there is none but in the face of good fortune to flee, and in the terrifying comfort of solitude find the devices to construct the familiar landscape of bad fortune where we step forth in certainty, so it mounts, gets worse and in spite of ourselves we see ourselves more fully and there we are precious again.”

 

“But not in this world: things wore out, and you lost them in a thousand ways, preposterous and unconnected with any notion of devotion, martyrdom, sacrifice.”

 

“When we lose contact with the beloved one, we lose contact with the whole world.”

 

“[A]nd the romantics end up anchorites in the desert.”

 

“The painter knows, sadly enough, that experience does not suffice unto itself, has no proportion, dimension, perspective, mournfully he eats his life but is not allowed to digest it, this being reserved for others, not knowing, but who must somehow, at any sacrifice be made to know, then punished for the sight of this knowledge, by aiding it on its journey from brain to brain.

“It does not seem unreasonable that we invent colors, lines, shapes, capable of being, representative of existence, therefore it is not unreasonable that they, in turn, later, invent us, our ideas, directions, motivations, with great audacity, since we, ourselves having them upon our walls. What rude guests they prove to be, indeed: although paintings differ from life by energy a painter can never be a substitute for his paintings, so complete so independent as reality are they. Imagine the pleasure they enjoy at this.

“They by conversion into an idea of the person, do, instantaneously destroy him. A tragic gesture that actually leads to tragedy but diabolically exists only in an absence of tragedy, nevertheless procreating it, however, they are unreasonably enough, insufficient, because they are not made of ideas, they are made of paint, all else is really us.

“Paintings are metaphors for reality, but instead of being an aid to realisation obscure the reality which is far more profound. The only way to circumvent painting is by absolute death.”

 

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John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published 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, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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