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.

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Brian Kiteley’s “Fifty Indispensable Books”

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
Isaac Babel, Collected Stories
J.G. Ballard, Crash
Donald Barthelme, City Life
Samuel Beckett, Proust
Walter Benjamin, Reflections
Jane Bowles, My Sister’s Hand in Mine
Jane Brox, Here and Nowhere Else
Italo Calvino, Baron of the Trees
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
Willa Cather, The Professor’s House
Julia Child, My Life in France
James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture
Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food
Don DeLillo, Americana
Anita Desai, In Custody
Isak Dinesen, Winters Tales
E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel
M.F.K. Fisher, Gastronomical Me
Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire (a trilogy)
William Gass, On Being Blue
Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land
Robert Glück, Jack the Modernist
Vivian Gornick, In Search of Ali Mahmoud
John Graves, Goodbye to a River
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Susan Howe, The Birth-Mark
Washington Irving, Mohammad (a biography)
Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes
Primo Levi, Periodic Table
Alphonso Lingis, Trust
Jennifer Moxley, The Middle Room
Vladimir Nabokov, Details of a Sunset
Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
Alifa Rifaat, Distant View of a Minaret
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
Sigrid Nunez, A Feather on the Breath of God
Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
Bruno Schulz, Street of the Crocodiles
Frederic Tuten, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March
Paul Valery, Monsieur Teste
Robert Walser, Selected Stories
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations
Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth
P.G. Wodehouse, Laughing Gas

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: An Anthology, of Sorts

A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences

must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).

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Guest Post, by Brian Kiteley: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

From Donald Barthelme’s story “Terminus”:

“Naked, she twists in his arms to listen to a sound outside the door, a scratching, she freezes, listening; he’s startled by the beauty of her tense back, the raised shoulders, tilted head, there’s nothing, she turns to look at him, what does she see?”

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