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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Vincent Czyz’s “Literary Pillars”

  1. Dhalgren, S.R. Delany
  2. Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar
  3. The Recognitions, William Gaddis
  4. On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
  5. Moby-Dick, Melville
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  7. Our Mutual Friend, Dickens
  8. Da Vinci’s Bicycle, Guy Davenport
  9. Tatlin! Guy Davenport
  10. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller, Jr.
  11. 1984, George Orwell
  12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  13. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  14. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  15. Rabbit Redux, John Updike
  16. Ulysses, Joyce
  17. Black Tickets, Jayne Anne Phillips
  18. Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich
  19. House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
  20. Grey Lamb, Black Falcon, Rebecca West
  21. 100 Years of Solitude, G. G. Marquez
  22. Love in the Time of Cholera, G. G. Marquez
  23. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye
  24. On Heroes and Tombs, Ernesto Sabato
  25. Friday Night Lights
  26. The Place in Flowers where Pollen Rests, Paul West
  27. Tar Baby, Toni Morrison
  28. The Tunnel, William Gass
  29. Habitations of the Word, William Gass
  30. Sexus, Henry Miller
  31. Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac
  32. The Book of Sand, J. L. Borges
  33. Labyrinths, J. L. Borges
  34. Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk
  35. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  36. The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin
  37. The City in History, Louis Mumford
  38. The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley
  39. Pensées, Blaise Pascal
  40. The Divided Self, R.D. Laing
  41. Omensetter’s Luck, William Gass
  42. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Robert Price
  43. The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
  44. The Golden Bough, James Frazer
  45. The White Goddess, Robert Graves
  46. The Ethics, Spinoza
  47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  48. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
  49. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway
  50. Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts
  51. Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

Guest Post: Vincent Czyz interviews Terry Kelhawk, author of The Topkapi Secret

Interview with Terry Kelhawk, author of The Topkapi Secret (Prometheus Books)

By Vincent Czyz

In what RT Book Reviews calls “meticulously researched,” this novel takes you from San Francisco across America and Europe into the Middle East and North Africa. The plot comes wrapped in details ranging from the harems of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Baths, to the English countryside and literature, art and architecture, women explorers, the 2006 war in Lebanon, insights on Arab life in Dearborn, Michigan, Middle Eastern cooking, and Islamic extremism.  The Topkapi Secret also shines a light on long-standing myths about Islam and the Koran. All except a few percent of Muslims around the world sincerely believe the Koran has never been changed – that it is the same now as it was at the time of Mohammed, and as it is in heaven. Islamic and Western academic sources show otherwise. What The Topkapi Secret says about the Koran is backed by authoritative references. (See “References” page on website or in the book’s appendix.)

Terry Kelhawk is an award-winning speaker, writer, and teacher with significant personal and professional experience with Islam and the Middle East. She holds a doctorate degree, and her areas of interest include culture, religion, and women’s rights–especially in the Middle East. She blogs on,, and

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