A Medley of Gass Interviews and His Influence

Over at the Reading William Gass website, curated by Stephen Schenkenberg, a video has been unearthed of Gass talking in Paris about five years ago. He reads from The Tunnel for a short time–then excitedly talks about the sentence. It’s a marvel.

There is a great new Bookworm interview with Gass about Life Sentences.

At Word Patriots, Mark Seinfelt interviewed Gass twice: once about his new book and once about Stanley Elkin. There are also three shows dedicated to Paul West.

Finally, my essay at The Kenyon Review–On Influence: Starting and Stopping Cracks–takes some lines of Gass as a starting point for a meditation on writing and art. The first paragraph:

Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.

Animal Studies & Rilke’s “Black Cat”

“An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?”
–Jacques Derrida

In today’s print issue of the New York Times, there’s an article called “Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall.”  According to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the emergent field of “animal studies” encompasses “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.”  Reading the article made me think back to a debate I had last spring with a former colleague about the validity and value of animal studies.  My colleague had thought that animal studies was bogus interdisciplinarity, a distraction from the pure pursuit of literary learning while I was trying to entertain notions of how animal studies could enrich our reading and understanding of literature.  I had followed up my comments to him with an informal email that included a reading of Rilke’s famous poem “Black Cat.”  This is the poem (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation) from the marvelous book New Poems:

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

And here is what I wrote about the last stanza:

I’m just wondering out loud here now but isn’t this ending as much about interspecies awareness as it is about specularity and metaphor? Or can we say something productive of the fact that the human, the insect, and the feline are being triangulated by what Richards calls the tenor, vehicle, and ground? Here it seems like this epiphanic “shock” is more than what Barbara Herrnstein Smith is calling the “ontological thrill of the animal” (the term is from her book Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human)– it’s about the awareness of another being (a prehistoric fly) by way of a defamiliarized (or rather figured or metaphorized) reflection of the self. And it is an “awakening” of sorts of the “you” by way of an imagined awakening of the cat (“as if awakened”). It seems to me that this epiphany (if we can borrow from Joyce) or this “spot of time” (if we can borrow from Wordsworth) is all about imagining the human as a speck (like the insect) within the long continuum of geologic time; one might call this the “prehistorical sublime.” I am not quite sure what “animal studies” actually is but I would like to imagine that its horizon can be amenable to and enrich the cursory analysis that I’m trying to do here… any thoughts?

My colleague declined to answer, but I was wondering what you all think about what is not quite a field, a field that is in its “prehistoric” state.  Looking back at the Rilke passage again I’m struck how the cat becomes almost a “fossil record” of gazes–the cat as a wondrously absorptive archive of pelt, a languorous and infinite repository for one: “She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen / into her, so that, like an audience, / she can look them over, menacing and sullen, / and curl to sleep with them.”

Joy to the Reader When Reading Gass’s The Tunnel

How can I contain myself? (But perhaps the question is: how could Gass both contain and not contain himself to have done what he did?) Having had The Tunnel to go back to every morning was like having the one you love next to you, to be transfixed and freshened, to be, as that worthy words man said, surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. (First post on approaching The Tunnel)

In the end (and there can’t be an end to such a work that reverberates on itself and the whole of literature, philosophy, and history), Gass’s explication of Kohler’s consciousness is all tongue, all logos, but a logos of the highest order. Is there pity and terror? Is there sentimentality? Many monsters have their sweet side and though some have called Kohler a monster, I would just call him a guy who tells the truth of his story, no matter the lies of old age one tells to lessen the pains of the past. At the center of his thoughts is the idea of the fascism of the heart, with Kohler himself as the case study.  He gives us his life in many slices of pie (sugar and sweets, such as ice cream and cake abound in the book). He also heaps us with shit, with the staged, and with something surfacely sentimental, but wholly human:

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“Fat, too, fool, hey?” – The Mind in Morning (Snow in film)

Snow: Kubrick style

Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”

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On a sunny day I would argue that the first 46 pages of William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections of the Problems of Translation, which outlines the major themes of Rilke’s art and gives a nice summation of his life, as well as a number of poems by the master, is as essential as reading Rilke himself. It’s not exactly critical biography and not by any means hagiography–it is prose, by turns heavy and lumbering/light and lucid, but always lyrical, startling and stunning in grandiose swaths of Gass consonance (Gass consciousness).

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New Article on Rilke

Ange Mlinko’s insightful “Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke” appears in The Nation. An excerpt:

Rilke had been fascinated by the formal conundrum of enclosure and freedom at least since his tenure as Auguste Rodin’s assistant. In 1902 the poet was commissioned to write a monograph on the great sculptor. Exhilarated by his visit to Rodin’s studio, where fragments of the massive Gates of Hell met him in the courtyard, he entered into the older man’s employ and observed the rules of genius–the first of which was not to wait for inspiration. Rilke, whose fame thrives on the legend of his creative outbursts and angelic dictation, learned from Rodin that daily labor is necessary preparation for the moment of insight. He also learned that art is about the struggle with materials. Yet how does one make an analogy between sculpture and poetry? Sculpture has mass; language is mere air. As William Gass, a devotee of Rilke, remarks in his essay “Rilke’s Rodin,” “All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, and many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized.”
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Break Every Rule, Part 2

Break Every RuleWhereas the first chapter of Carole Maso’s Break Every Rule (I wrote about it HERE) is a kind of travelogue where cities or towns in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as in France, inspire reveries on home and language, the second chapter unfolds much differently. “Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: a Lifelong Conversation with Myself Entered Midway” is a series of brilliant, and sometimes enigmatic, epigrams on writing, on lyric poetry, on the novel. These are luscious morsels that can be cherry-picked at random. At one point, she writes:

Language engenders language. Language itself presents unexpected and often extraordinary solutions. It leads you to the what next? To the how and why. To the what if, and if only.

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Mailboxes, Recommended

letterstopoetsA century after Rilke wrote his famous letters to Franz Kappus, the literary-epistle game has changed. We want more than a holding-forth by the master alone; how about hearing from the tenderfoot, too?

Letters to Poets, a remarkable anthology of correspondence by 28 writers, gives us both sides of the conversation. These letters between emerging and established poets are non-hierarchical exchanges, debates, ruminations on all kinds of topics—fear, love, ambition, jazz, feminist poetics, writer’s block, academia, the Bush administration.

Editors Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax have gathered smart, revealing letters from a wide-ranging crew of poet-pairs, including Judith Goldman & Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Coultas & Victor Hernández Cruz, Anselm Berrigan & John Yau, Truong Tran & Wanda Coleman, and Karen Weiser & Anne Waldman.

The resulting volume is a richly tangled map of the interior—a rare chance to climb inside writers’ heads and listen.