William H. Gass wrote books that were saturated with signs. Even the one-word sentences, and he wrote a lot of them, seem charged with stylistic and rhetorical shaping. It was arguably overloaded and overlabored. But man, what a powerful voice. Talk about the anxiety of influence: Gass was to me as Faulkner was to Gass. Only now that he is gone, to become a ghost who can truly fly high enough to miss nobody when he takes a shit, is his bogey starting to dissipate.
Take one sentence from On Being Blue: “Nowhere do we need order more than at any orgy.” As wise as any aphorism we’ll see on our social media today, and a sentence we can re-write to have it go down a bit easier. But Gass builds a tight assonance chain, from no, to order, to more, to orgy. Granted, the rhythm may be easy to trip on if we’re reading fast, but he wanted us to feel every or-sound in the mouth, like a ball gag. The trade-off for such a musical effect is a compression of stressed syllables so that they sometimes “jingle,” as he called it, admitting to a weakness.
His stodgy contempt for mainstream writing championed by the free market and his cold, hard-line formalism struck many as the traits of an idealist who couldn’t go along with the business, or who secretly wanted a Pulitzer. On the contrary. Gass was a disciple of Gertrude Stein, and he tasked himself with re-emphasizing the materiality of language, while the rest of literary culture seemed content with instrumentality.
Sentences that respect one’s mental lung capacity, sentences as sturdy and coarse as exposed concrete, sentences you can gobble up like McDonald’s fries, sentences that get the job done. This is supposedly the style imparted from on high in the MFA programs. Speaking from experience, the characterization is a little unfair. There are successful writing students who love Gass, or if they haven’t read him yet, they love Nabokov and Debord; they love the idea of language as a playground. They are capable of taking what they need off the dead white guys while fighting the good fight in the canon wars all at once. It’s not merely that one has to write plain prose to break in on the Internet. For some reason, when I consciously tried to write like the great postwar American stylists, my work ended up dead on arrival.
Gass always referred to himself as a decayed or degenerate modernist (and at least once as a marmalade modernist). We should take the label seriously. Following Gabriel Josipovici, I believe writing comes in large part from the body, and what our bodies allow us to produce. And the whole body at that, not just the fingers and genitals. Nobody worked with the body like Gass did, and his own body stuck to a form of literary production that was past its day, that lies beyond our historical horizon. He was resigned to this fact. The writing was on the wall as early as the mid-70s, when he compares the prose of Pynchon to that of Gaddis in his Paris Review interview. The former is “vertical,” easy to skim, for all its density, while the latter still wanted to put the words in the reader’s mouth—or the reader’s ear’s mouth.
And yet Gass was no dyed-in-the-wool reactionary. There are important differences between his and other voices defending the Western canon, standing their ground on the wrong side of history. Gass purged his criticism of the easy spiritualism and homages to the autonomy of art we find in the liberal imagination. He talked about inspiration in Reading Rilke as having an appealing mysticism, because “we like to think ourselves chosen,” before going into the science of tilling the ground of natural talent, of learning technique and problem-solving. Gass was a dialectical and a materialist thinker, if only by turns. (And for all his detestation of political commitment in favor of aesthetic totalities, The Tunnel re-emerges as a litmus test for the specter of fascism in this country that, of course, was right all along.)
Gass just as thoroughly purged his language of philosophical jargon, despite being a professor of the subject. Writing fiction was his number one desire. The classic metaphysical systems of the continental thinkers turned out to be not so correct for reality, but they were a big help for understanding literary structures. He read the philosophical tomes as conceptual novels, and transformed their concepts into elegant phrases. Fact and value become the world and our wishes (Finding a Form). Class struggle becomes the gots against the gimmes (Middle C). His fiction remains difficult, and the novellas are especially bewildering to me (I have a pet theory that “Mrs. Mean” is modeled after the four movements of the 18th-century symphony). But I open his novels and collections at any page and always find at least one sentence that leaves me standing in awe, usually a half-dozen.
I’m content to say what I’d like to say, and once the speech is in place, to let the language come through here and there on the rewriting—it tends to find a way, as Jeff Goldblum once said about a different force. Gass whipped up his language above and beyond his speech till it fluffed into souffle batter, or scrambled eggs French style. He was the type to compose an amazing essay on the world blue. In Gass’s classroom, blue is another one of those absent centers, like Georges Perec’s room full of nothing, or Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee. “So a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that.” The mind, not the system. Gass once said he wrote not to uplift humankind but to kick it in its collective ass. But as with Swift, we can’t leave it at the misanthropic persona and apocalyptic gloom that meet us in his essays and odious male narrators. Working through the projection and coming out the other side leads to a celebration of the human intellect.
And that intellect goes all the way back, to the beginning of writing and philosophy in Western culture. I never thought calling Gass a postmodernist was accurate. But maybe being a decayed modernist is the most postmodern posture of all, as it suggests a relationship to literary history where all the styles that have ever been are available on clearance. Maybe Gass’s experimental body of work is based on the oldest of the oldest programs for storytelling. Which is why, although there are too many excellent passages to choose from, I end with a paragraph from his essay on “Mimesis.”
If Greek theater had deep religious implications, as some think, and often functioned as a ritual would, then the actor on the stage, his features obscured by a mask and robe, might be thought to be a mouthpiece for the gods. If the play were significant enough, the words powerful and rich and wise, a moment could occur in his impersonation during which the divine spirit entered him; the soul of the actor who, a moment before, had been reciting the playwright’s words might, so to speak, stand aside, and his speech take on an imprimature its actual author could not lay claim to—their metamorphosis would be obvious to every ear—for (in a switch no different from Zeus’s frequent changes of form to further an amorous prank or political ploy) these words would be severed from their source of utterance in the actor and from the hand of their author as well; they would participate in the divine; while the audience heard the speech of nature as they had in former times, when leaves whispered and torrents roared and the world, more than words, was alive.
Rest in peace, you absolute beast.