Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1923
Although William H. Gass is well known as a fiction writer, beginning with his novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and his short-story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories (1968) and culminating with his 1995 masterpiece The Tunnel, it may very well be that in the future his literary reputation will rest equally on his critical essays. A profound and thoughtful philosopher and critic, Gass, along with John Barth and Robert Coover, was largely responsible for narrative experimentation and the theory of self-reflexive fiction in the 1960’s; moreover, he is the most important spokesperson for the importance of aesthetic form during an era that would like to ignore form and aesthetic value in favor of cultural subject matter and political messages. More cantankerous than ever before, in this fifth collection of miscellaneous nonfiction pieces, Gass continues to defend literary art against know-nothing foes and pedantic friends alike.
The six essays in the first section, titled “Literary Matters,” are the most thoughtful and the least grumpy. Here Gass explores the nature of narrative, scolds experimentation for the sake of experimentation, praises Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974) as one of the purer works of the imagination, looks at the function of lists as an ontological and literary device, and defends the “test of time” as a criteria for what constitutes a literary masterpiece.
In “The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications,” Gass applies his usual formalist approach and examination of the basic differences between phenomenal reality and consciously constructed narratives, as well as the difference between telling stories and fashioning fictions. Gass calls to attention the way that stories break up the natural continuum of life into events and then rearrange those events to suggest causality and significance and thus reassure readers that their lives are not random, but rather have a purpose and a direction.
Although Gass does not say anything startling and new about the nature of narrative in this essay, he does remind his readers in his usual, articulate, and interesting way about the important difference between story and fiction. For example, whereas fictions have an identifiable perspective, that is, they are told from the position of a personal pronoun, stories do not usually have a point a view, but seem anonymous, as if from a god. Moreover, because stories break up the natural continuum or flow of experience, they see the world as made up of blocks, which they organize by means of repetition, patterning, and structure. Stories, Gass says, love it when they move in the direction of a chant or suggest a secret. While fictions are fraught with explanation and mere mimesis, stories are mythic and mysterious.
In his discussion of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Gass argues that Marco Polo’s Divisament dou monde (fourteenth century; The Travels of Marco Polo, 1579), filled with marvels and mysteries, is as much about the nature and importance of storytelling as is Alf layla wa- laylah (c. ninth-tenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1708). What Polo and Calvino understood and what, Gass says, others frequently misunderstand is that a city is not a group of buildings through which run highways and streets, but rather a “subtle pattern of powers.” This is the nature of all arts, for even though one may begin by examining the particular, such as buildings, bridges, parts—collecting facts and describing things as one believes they really are—eventually this gives way to a city in which terms are replaced by relations and in which roles define their representatives rather than vice versa. Reality does not consist of things, Gass says, echoing the credo of the 1920’s Russian formalists and the 1960’s French structuralists, but rather of multiple systems of relationships.
One of the most entertaining essays in this first section is “I’ve Got a Little List,” in which Gass examines the philosophic and literary uses of lists, from the factual to the imaginary. Gass is interested both with how lists confer equality on their members and how they create hierarchies. Finding philosophic significance in a simple list, as he once did in an entire book on the color blue, Gass is interested in the fact that lists detach objects from their place in the physical world and enumerate them elsewhere in the realm of the mind. He creates his own list of the ways lists are organized—as items encountered, by an external system, by the order of things, and in terms of a principle of value. Given Gass’s fascination with the cognitive structure of reality as opposed to its mere thingness, it is no surprise that he would focus on the list-making of philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) as the ideal of the form. Nor should it be surprising that he would cite those writers who use the list as the fundamental rhetorical device for suggesting abundance of life, from François Rabelais (c. 1483-1553) and Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) to John Barth and Robert Coover.
The title essay of the book is a discussion of the thorny contemporary problem of what constitutes the canon of literary masterpieces. Gass rejects the easy criteria of political correctness or multicultural overcompensation and instead reaffirms, as he always has, the importance of artistic form. As he insisted in his last collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996), the artist’s basic loyalty must be to form, for the artist is a maker whose aim is to make something inherently valuable in itself. Gass affirms John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) principle of utility, but only when modified to read as: the greatest happiness “of the highest kind” for the greatest number of those capable of experiencing “the highest kind.” Everyone else, he says—in what some critics call his usual elitist way—can watch football, drink beer, eat ice cream, and be happy. For those academics who propose political reasons for including works in the canon of masterpieces, Gass says they squabble about literature because they have other than literary uses for literature. Going against current political correctness, Gass affirms the universal over the particular, human unity over cultural and racial difference, and intelligence over approved conclusions. The masterpieces of literature, says Gass, teach that the “trivial is as important as the important when looked at importantly,” and that the goal of penetrating the finite in all its aspects is to step into the infinite.
The five essays in the second section of Tests of Time, titled “Social and Political Contretemps,” were written in response to what Gass perceives as the social and political plight of the writer in the modern world; consequently, they are the most irascible essays in the book. The long essay “The Writer and Politics: A Litany” is Gass at his list-making best. For forty pages he cites and comments on the numerous writers who have suffered at the hands of the ignorant and the fundamentalist—from Socrates (c. 470 b.c.e.-399 b.c.e.) being forced to drink hemlock to Salman Rushdie being hounded by fatwa. The real enemy of the writer is orthodoxy, urges Gass, for survival is orthodoxy’s sole aim; its aim is to “rigidify thought” and “mobilize the many to brutalize the few.” After listing numerous writers and thinkers who have been put in prison for their ideas, Gass notes that prison is a splendid place in which to put writers, for it gives them a sense of grievance, one of their most powerful motives. After all, says Gass, putting writers in prison is preferable to putting them on a pedestal, for censorship makes writers devious and gives them a sense of importance.
Gass continues his tirade in “Tribalism, Identity, and Ideology” and “The Shears of the Censor,” fulminating even more pointedly against fundamentalism, which he says may be called tribalism, as one of the deepest sources of racism. However, he also scolds academics who curry favor with cliques, clubs, and tribes and thus attack reason by establishing their own narrow political agendas. Finally, in “How German Are We?” Gass defends his monumental book The Tunnel against charges of its being sympathetic to the ideals of Nazism by insisting, as he has many times before, that The Tunnel is about “the fascism of the heart.” He quotes Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), who once said that there is no country in the world that can get more hysterical than the United States. Gass concludes by reminding readers that what The Tunnel asks is precisely “how German are we?” He insists that the answer it provides, an answer that has displeased many, is “very.”
The three pieces that conclude Tests of Time are from Gass’s Stuttgart Seminar Lectures presented over three different years during which he was a participant in the Seminar in Cultural Studies. The longest of the three, and the most whimsical and creative, is “Quotations from Chairman Flaubert.” In this piece, Gass creates a fictional character named Fred Miller, alias Heinrich Zeitunk Muller- Muller—a liar, a cheat, a con artist, and a fraud—whose dubious adventures are interspersed with quotations about the nature of art from the letters of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). Reading through the quotations alone is a reminder of Gass’s own views. For example, Flaubert says the artist works for himself alone, that he should have neither religion, country, nor social convention. Furthermore, he says that one cannot separate form and substance, that there is no such thing as an idea without form or a form that does not express an idea. Gass is one of the few critics writing today who still understands and identifies with Flaubert’s famous desire to write a book dependent on nothing external, held together by the strength of its style alone. Gass would agree with Flaubert’s famous view that there is no such thing as a subject; style itself is an “absolute manner of seeing things.”
The last two essays in the collection move from the satirically ridiculous to the aesthetically sublime. “There Was an Old Woman Who” is a playful meditation on the nature of history using the famous nursery rhyme as a jumping-off point, but ending up with a consideration of the O. J. Simpson murder trial in the early 1990’s as an example of how historical accounts can often supersede and replace the events they claim to describe. “Transformations” is a brief, lyrical meditation, derived from Gass’s study of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), on art as the transformation of matter into mind. Once again, there is nothing new here, nothing that the formalists, who are currently in such critical disfavor, did not say many years ago. Glass’s fascination is with how words can be taken from their common use in everyday life, put into the different world of poetry, and thus transformed from being servants of what they relate to becoming signs of the quality of consciousness.
It is unlikely that Gass’s thoughtful and well-written defense of the importance of aesthetic form will either change the minds of fundamentalists who cling proudly to their ignorance or alter the politically correct convictions of academics who insist on using literature for nonliterary purposes. However, it is comforting to know that the fine mind of William H. Gass continues to be such an eloquent defender of the integrity of art.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (February 1, 2002): 917.
The Boston Globe, April 7, 2002, p. C3.
Kirkus Reviews 69 (December 15, 2001): 1735.
Library Journal 127 (February 1, 2002): 98.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 24, 2002): 19.
The New Yorker 78 (April 15, 2002): 85.
Publishers Weekly 248 (December 10, 2001): 58.
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