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

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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Gary Amdahl’s “Literary Pillars”

A great many grand and beloved books are missing from this list; I thought I’d try to draw up something like a “blueprint after the building.”



Dickinson’s poetry

Emerson’s essays

Thoreau’s journals

Hawthorne’s tales

Emerson is no longer fashionable in some English departments?  Greatness in American letters begins with him.  It was wounded in the Civil War, and died when Melville was forgotten by the last reader to remember him.  Faulkner raised the dead and animated the tombs, but dead is dead.  Still, as Stevens put it, the houses will crumble and the books will burn, but they are at ease in a shelter of the mind.

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Down with Amdahl

ImageOne of my favorite story collections of the last decade, maybe ever, is Gary Amdahl’s Visigoth, which was published five years ago by Milkweed Editions. Since the time I read the book I have had the good fortune to build a friendship with Amdahl and even have him blurb my new novel. But doing this interview has been one of the most rewarding events of my writing life. His unflinching honesty and approach to writing gives me solace, while also managing to frighten me about this path we’ve chosen. As it should be, I believe.

In honor of Visigoth’s fifth anniversary I’ll be giving away four copies of the book (they are used copies but in good shape). It’s a book I believe everyone should read. So, leave a comment on why you would like a copy and I’ll pick four people a week from today.

Now, for the goods:

RWB: It’s been five years since VISIGOTH was published, but when I read the stories the book feels timeless. And I know the stories are older than five years. When you look back on the stories in the collection what do you remember most about them? Do you remember the impetus for any of them? Are there any stories you look back on from that era that didn’t make the book that you still think about now? If I didn’t know the publication date I would have guessed mid-90’s, simply for the state of story publishing at the time, but in either decade it still would have held up as one of the best modern story collections, in my opinion. What has time done for you in relation to VISIGOTH?

GA: All stories are products of the time and place into which they are born–for good reasons, bad reasons, indifferent but inescapable reasons.  They are also, more importantly in my view, the products of something like 100,000 years (probably twice that, but we have no evidence) of human consciousness.  The mind that created “Visigoth” is absolutely the same “kind” of mind that painted an aurochs and the almost photographically realistic horses on the wall at Chauvet 40,000 years ago, or mined and prepared red ochre with a mortar and pestle in a cave in south Africa 100,000 years ago.

There is only one story.  The usual dictum goes, “There are two kinds of stories,” or “There are seven basic types of story,” and so on, depending on the level of thought and the point of view and the purposes of the person expounding the dicta.  I say there is only one.  But because we are slightly different from each other, because we ourselves are constantly changing, and because the world is constantly changing, the story comes out differently each time it is born.

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I Shot the Moon, Calamari Press, 35-38 / 41, 3RD BED [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]


Click through to read the full (super-mega) review of 3RD BED [7, 8, 10, &11]

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Best of 2011, Part 2

Lots of great things happened in 2011 for Gary Amdahl, Donald Breckenridge, Tobias Carroll, Aaron Gilbreath, Johannes Göransson, Dylan Hicks, Christopher Higgs, Tim Horvath, Jamie Iredell, and David Peak.

Find Part One, here.

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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 Gary Amdahl: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

“He projected himself all day, in thought, straight over the bristling line of hard unconscious heads and into the other, the real, the waiting life; the life that, as soon as he had heard behind him the click of his great house-door, began for him, on the jolly corner, as beguilingly as the slow opening bars of some rich music follows the tap of the conductor’s wand.”
—From Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

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