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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“Fifty Books that Brainwashed Me,” by John Reed

Animal Farm, George Orwell
The Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson
Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Ulysses, James Joyce
Stephen Hero (The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), James Joyce
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, René Descartes
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
The Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Hardy Boys, Franklin W. Dixon
Little Peewee or, Now Open The Box
Babar, Jean de Brunhoff
Curious George, H. A. Rey
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Paul Revere’s Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Christiane F, Christiane F and Susanne Flatauer
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Clifford the Big Red Dog, Norman Bridwell
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
All Things Great and Small, James Harriet
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
Henry V, William Shakespeare
The Ugly Duckling
The Little Engine that Could, Watty Piper
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
Baby Farm Animals
Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
Nightmare of Reason, Ernst Pawel
The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll
Junkie, William Burroughs
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
The Story of George Washington Carver (70s scholastic biography)
Helen Keller (70s scholastic biography)
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe

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