Till the Knowing Ends: On William Gass
Deep inside his new collection of essays Life Sentences, in a discussion of mimesis, in the middle of a paragraph about the Pythagorean world of numbers and the differences between perfect Forms and imperfect appearances, William Gass throws down a challenge: “Put yourself in their place.” He’s referring to the place of the Forms—those poor, elusive abstractions that, according to Gass’s concise rendering of Plato’s theory, are damned to have reality but no animation, Being but no life. To understand them, we can’t do less than consider their predicament from their perspective. And once we’ve come this far, we have to pity them. Think about it: how utterly wretched it must be to exist as a Form, stuck for all eternity as a law of motion that does not move, or as an object of knowledge that “will never know what knowing is.” It might be tempting to strive for the symmetry of something as impeccable as an equilateral triangle, but it would be grim never to experience, or even to conceive as a delicious fantasy, “what it is like to be seen, longed for, touched, loved.”
Existence as a law of motion? As a triangle that’s impossible to draw? Only William Gass would propose that the best way to appreciate the misery of an abstraction is to put yourself in its place. And only Gass could craft a paragraph that begins with a discussion of the conceptual relationship between Forms and appearances and ends with the terrifying prospect of living a life devoid of love.
After such disorienting upheaval, you may well find that your stomach is in your throat as you climb the next hill in Gass’s essay. But it’s impossible not to be exhilarated by the twists and turns of his mind, his irresistible logic, the startling anecdotes and even more startling comparisons. Whether you’re reading his fiction or his nonfiction, expect to be continually surprised by Gass’s rendering of the motion of thought. And it all hinges on that basic command: put yourself in their place, and hold on tight.
At first glance it might seem an easy thing to do. The act of imagining ourselves living other lives and escaping our own inadequacies generally isn’t too demanding, especially in a culture like ours, which tempts us ceaselessly with myriad opportunities for imaginative projection. You, too, could drive away in that luxury car, throw your arms around that hunk of a vampire, swallow that small, wriggling, desperate amphibian—go ahead, sprinkle it with salt if that improves the taste. It’s comforting to think that after one basic knot of contingencies has been untangled, we can easily untangle the next. With prurient absorption and only minimal risk, we can pretend to be the subject of the lead article on the front page of the Style section of our local newspaper for as long as it takes to finish our morning coffee. And then, phew, it’s over, and anyway, we’ve got better things to do and don’t have the time to worry about the repercussions of what we’ve just read. But Gass demands more of us: to put ourselves in their place and then to stay there until we truly understand what is at stake.
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William Gass, born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota, has lived in the Midwest most of his life. Over the course of nearly fifty years he has published five works of fiction, including his massive novel The Tunnel (1995). Gass has also distinguished himself as an essayist and literary critic—three of his previous collections of essays have won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But he refuses to be identified with one literary genre at the exclusion of the other. By his own account, he is “not a writer of short stories or novels or essays or whatever. I am a writer, in general. I am interested in how one writes anything.”
Gass is also a philosopher. He did his graduate work at Cornell after serving in the Navy for three years during World War II, and it was there, during a meeting of the Philosophy Club, that a shabby visitor who gave the impression of being an “atheistical, vegetarian nut” began speaking, and proceeded to offer the young William Gass what he would later cite as the most important intellectual experience of his life. With his conversation, this visitor, who happened to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, demonstrated for at least one receptive graduate student “the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem,” moving forward through his subject “without cant, without jargon, and in terms of examples.”
Gass has paid homage to Wittgenstein in interviews and essays, though the effects of his admiration are most evident in the nuts and bolts of his own prose style. He has made sure to weed out the cant and jargon from his sentences. But even more revealing is his handling of the evidence. It’s not just that every abstraction is matched to a concrete example; whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction, Gass will connect an initial example to a second one, and from the second will derive a third, as he does in this passage from his essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These”:
It is a tough life, living free, but it is a life that lets life be. It is choice and the cost of choosing: to live where I am able, to dress as I please, to pick my spouse and collect my own companions, to take pride and pleasure in my opinions and pursuits, to wear my rue with a difference, to enjoy my own bad taste and the smoke of my cooking fires, to tell you where to go while inspecting the ticket you have, in turn, sent me.
For Gass, freedom of expression is made meaningful by its collection of examples. If we’re truly free as writers—and readers—then we have to expect that some examples might be perplexing and others illuminating, that some will make us laugh and others will surely offend. Add the examples together, bundle them in a collection of essays that aims to give its readers the imaginative experience of being someone (or some thing, or idea) they’re not, and the effect is more than a little unsettling. What Gass offers throughout Life Sentences is a continuation, even a culmination, of the challenge he has presented in all his work. If we agree on the main principle—that expression must remain free—and if we follow his direction and imagine ourselves in other places, living other lives, we have to be prepared for an experience that, for all the beauty Gass creates out of his idiosyncratic assemblage of specificities, will have its fair share of danger.
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Life Sentences is Gass’s fourteenth book and his ninth work of nonfiction. It is arranged in four parts and includes essays that run the gamut of his passions. You can learn about a wide range of subjects from reading this book: literature and war, ratiocination and memory, the joys of lust and the joys of lying. You can learn about the quirks and habits of William Gass. And through it all, you can learn about the lasting value of an artful sentence.
In the first part, “The Personals Column,” Gass writes about his literary education and the nearly 20,000 books in his library (“few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected”). He looks back at his childhood and remembers dreaming of sailing to New Zealand, hating the Yankees and watching his father march down the street with the American Legion band on the Fourth of July. He remarks on what the duration of the past means to a man who has reached the age of 87. And he pays tribute to the magical resilience of a work of literature, which, like the spring, is reborn with every reading. Great writing gives us purpose as well as pleasure, and Gass insists that we recognize the importance of it, even going so far as to quote from himself to emphasize his point, excerpting a passage from one of his earlier books: though “one’s own life, the life of the celebrant, may be over, the celebration is not over. The celebration goes on.” He wrote this in Reading Rilke, published in 1999, and he repeats it here, as if to make sure we’ve been paying attention.
In the ongoing celebration that is literature, we are asked to imagine ourselves as other selves, for better or worse. Like one of Samuel Beckett’s characters, “Imagine yourself to be without a body and thus incapable of any effect. Imagine yourself aware of the world without any part of yourself active in it.” Gass writes lovingly about Beckett’s work, which he treats as a healthy antidote to the tyrannies of life. In the second section of the collection, “Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies,” he goes on to write about the antidotes offered by many of his old favorites, including Kafka, Nietzsche, Proust, Henry James, Malcolm Lowry and John Gardner. He writes about the things they ask us to notice, their skepticisms and beliefs. He identifies the important questions they ask: “What are the data that determine any person’s life? Of the things we desire, do, see, think or feel, what ones should be discarded like spoiled paper, and what should be retained? How shall the residue be weighed?” He invites us to appreciate the “exactness of choice” that characterizes the style of Katherine Anne Porter, along with the moments that contain lifetimes, as scripted by that warrior, “the Mother Goose of Montparnasse,” Gertrude Stein.
But Gass writes with just as much enthusiasm—a furious enthusiasm—about the tyrannies that dull imagination, and about the tyrants who would have us succumb to slavish obedience. His essay on the novelist Knut Hamsun is a bitter condemnation of the Nobel Prize–winning “Nordic Nazi, a self-made man who came out of the back-mountain farms of northern Norway seeking to be recognized and praised.” And in “Kinds of Killing,” an essay strategically placed at the midpoint of the collection, Gass takes on his most despised enemy: the Third Reich. This is the same enemy he battled at length in The Tunnel, whose narrator is a professor of German history. Throughout “Kinds of Killing,” written in response to Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich at War, Gass revisits World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. He writes about the pillaging and rape and unpacks the “shocking, revolting, numbing, relentless” statistics into the reality of “broken families, beaten bodies, and murdered men and women.”
It’s clear that Gass’s sympathies lie with the victims. But because he is aiming to increase our understanding of the interior life, he turns the magnifying lens of his imaginative art on the perpetrators. He asks us not only to judge them but, with the most demanding kind of irony, to become them as they attempt to legitimize murder:
I shall say I did so because I’ve had a rather hard life myself. I shall say I did so because I am really scared of these flat-black-hatted machinates whose evil ways I’ve heard about on the radio. They are moneylenders, evil connivers, members of the Red Menace. Just look at them: dirty and diseased, bearing beards just begging to be tugged, eating grass like meadow cows. Down what dark twisted avenue of delight does this delight await me?
We’re not being asked to imagine ourselves as triangles here. This time the rope is as uncomfortable as a noose. What’s to be learned from such an absurd masquerade? “History is full of absurdities masquerading as absolutes,” Gass writes in the same essay. To understand the masquerade for what it is, we must know what it’s like to play along.
“History startled me,” says William Frederick Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, and over the course of the novel, as he tries to further his understanding of the Holocaust, he becomes lost in the dark absurdities of the past, reliving the insanities, twisting logic in an effort to accommodate the world’s madness. Having tumbled down the rabbit hole, he takes his place at the Mad Tea Party. He agrees to drink what he is served. But what if the tea is poisoned?
* * *
By his own admission, William Gass is full of rage. He is also full of an insatiable desire to live fully—a difficult task in this difficult world. “Lust and rage, Yeats rightly said, attend one’s old age,” Gass remarks in his essay “Retrospection.” There’s plenty of rage evident in Gass’s treatment of the atrocities of the past and the hypocrisies of the present. But overall, there is more lust on display in this collection as Gass looks back at his “old favorites” and forward toward their possible impact.
In the three essays on “the Classics” that constitute the third part of Life Sentences, Gass makes the case that the aesthetics of Plato and Aristotle, identified through their representation of Form, mimesis and metaphor, don’t just matter because of their influence on past thinkers; they matter because of their influence today. As Gass represents it, Aristotle’s concept of mimesis matters not because the word is commonly associated with plain imitation but because it signifies a process of imaginative invention that demands “an investigation, an argument, a realization” and is relevant to all artistic creation. And thanks again to Aristotle, metaphors matter not because they are strange or foreign but because “they will exhibit those qualities of perception, emotion, thought, energy, and imagination that every consciousness enjoys when it is fully functioning.” And yes, Plato’s perfect Forms matter because they challenge us to think about something that’s not immediately apparent. Try putting yourself in their place: it’s not easy.
But it might be easier to imagine oneself as an equilateral triangle than as the octogenerian writer named William Gass. “Old age ought to know,” he laments in the fourth part of this collection, in an essay bluntly titled “Lust.” “Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth—through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief—all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here.” By this point in the essay, we have learned from Gass what it’s like to have reached this understanding. Life is full of ignorance, middle age is a long snooze; the fruit is shriveled, and with all his immense powers of mind, his attention to the glories of language and the music of sentences, this great writer, one of our country’s boldest writers, hasn’t been able to make it right. Imagine being this writer; imagine teetering on the brink of this conclusion; feel yourself wobbling and then willfully lifting your feet, not falling but leaping right past despair. “Nothing has been righted here” is not the last claim of this essay. It’s followed by a welcome alternative:
Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance.
We are renewed through art. In Life Sentences, we are renewed, in particular, through the art of writing as Gass enacts it. He does more than remind us to pay attention to the details; he sharpens our awareness by placing those details in the most unexpected contexts, giving them such freshness and vivacity that they become almost magically resonant: What’s that I just felt fluttering against my cheek?
Consciousness needs to be stressed to be strengthened, and Gass provides plenty of stresses. His mind is a battlefield of ideas. But the war he’s engaged in, according to his own testimony, is the only kind that can be considered supportable. Its arsenal is stored in libraries, and its battles fought with words gathered in deliberate arrangements: “human triumph and its suffering are portrayed by writers who cared at least enough about their lives and this world to take a pen to paper.” Gass demonstrates that he cares more than enough, and in his hands language has a transformative force. With his ingeniously designed sentences, he turns the he into I, the I into you, the you into we. “We shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.” This is what it’s like to be William Gass. When we put ourselves in his place, we notice that his rage is for the world, not against it.