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

https://bigotherbigother.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/tunneling-gass-dipiazz1.jpg?w=300

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

“The Gass Sentences: A Top 50,” by Stephen Schenkenberg

As one would imagine, the assignment for this birthday tribute sent me to my shelves. But once there, after quickly dipping into the writer at hand, I had a hard time leaving. So what if I focused not on all books, but just Gass’? And what if I focused not on titles but on sentences, a subject with which this writer has long been deeply in love? Herein, my top 50, split evenly between his real and made-up worlds. — Stephen Schenkenberg

NON-FICTION

“Rilke’s strategy for the defeat of time was to turn it into space.” — Reading Rilke


“The sentence, seeking its form, must pass through the belly and bowel without irritation, as though it belonged in that dim hallway, as though it was — as though it were — on skis, on rails, on call, on a mission.” — “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”

“Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks them.” — “The Literary Miracle”

“And so at the end I was sick, and though hanging over the mouth of the john, I knew I had found the woman my work would marry.” — About Gertrude Stein, in “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars”

“The country of the blue is clear.” — On Being Blue

“My work may be ugly but it’s not cheap.” — 11/16/58 letter to Charles Shattuck, coeditor of the journal Accent.

“The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay’s sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that’s been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city’s soul or country-cousin’s character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.” — Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time

“He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it.” — “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books”

“A tone of jubilant acrimony is perhaps its most consistent quality.” — “A Forest of Bamboo: The Trouble with Nietzsche”

Continue reading

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.

Beginning to Dig into Gass’s The Tunnel (1 of 2)

Gass on history: “What counts for me…is what happens to human consciousness…what was lost when you piled up bodies, what is gained when you decide not to.” – Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt

 I felt ready for The Tunnel. I could have warmed up more with his first novel Omensetter’s Luck and read Gass’s fiction in order of composition but an inside voice said, No, and as I kept paging through The Tunnel, I knew I was holding the object I’d have to read next. But surely, just looking at The Tunnel and not reading a word is an experience of the book, of the art. One marvels at how many typefaces there are, how many bolded sections, the pictures, the comics, the limericks, the stanzas of poetry—a book beginning with two opposing pennants on the page after the title pages (The Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions). Niggardliness is opposed by Churlishness. Spite by Sloth. What is going on here? We aren’t even on page one and passiveness has been pasted and highlighted, poured over the reader’s mind.

Continue reading