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.”