William H. Gass Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 8) - Essay

Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gass, William H(oward) 1924–

Gass is an American novelist, short story writer, philosopher, and essayist. An experimentalist, Gass works out his philosophical and literary theories in both the formal and thematic aspects of his prose. It is often said that his novels and short stories read like poetry rather than prose. He is probably best known for Omensetter's Luck. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

It was [easy] for the novelist William Gass, a brilliant but exhaustingly self-conscious theoretician of the novel, to get attention with a showy construction, Omensetter's Luck, a book that showed every sign of great personal intelligence, curiosity, mimicry, but was brilliantly unconvincing—an act. Gass was a restlessly inventive, loquacious writer whose sharp critical writing showed that he knew as much about different minds operating in fiction as a philosopher is likely to know. But as a fiction writer Gass could stimulate many other critics without conveying any honest necessity about the relationships he described. He was like the man Kafka described who walked just above the ground. Everything was there in Omensetter's Luck to persuade the knowing reader of fiction that here was a great step forward: the verve, the bursting sense of possibility, the gravely significant atmosphere of contradiction, complexity of issue at every step. But it was all in the head, another hypothesis to dazzle the laity with. Gass had a way of dazzling himself under the storm of his style. In a book of essays, "Fiction and the Figures of Life," Gass called for a fiction in which his characters, "freed from existence, can shine in essence and purely Be." Perhaps Gass was, then, a mystic or absolutist of the novel? To have one's characters "freed from existence" is not a sensible wish for a novelist. The seeming unlimitedness of the novel as a form does tempt extraordinarily bright people into identifying their many "figures" for life with life itself on the page.

Gass was an event in the boggy history of the postwar novel. The overpowering classroom demonstrativeness of his skill at "construction"—of argument, of situation with voices—showed insight into the human mind and its fictions, in the current style that so much stressed the secret compartments of the mind, the counterfeit, the duplicity. But Gass's own fiction was make-believe fiction, not the real confidence game which takes in, to his supreme delight, the confidence man himself. (pp. 293-94)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

William H. Gass is both a novelist and a professor of philosophy, and the two vocations seem to wage a kind of lover's quarrel in his fiction. They do, indeed, have much in common, [as Gass wrote in Fiction and the Figures of Life]: "Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds." The novelist creates a world of people and things, while the philosopher creates a world of abstractions. On the one hand, Gass points out that theology, for instance, "is one-half fiction, one-half literary criticism" …; on the other, a successfully created, living fictional world will imply the philosophy or theology ordering that world. Yet for Gass, "Fiction and philosophy often make most acrimonious companions," because philosophy too often demands that fiction philosophize—that is, present ideas rather than people and life…. In Omensetter's Luck, his first novel, Gass creates a world in which the lover's quarrel can perhaps be resolved. In his fictional world, however, the quarrel between philosophy and fiction also involves such other basic human conflicts as those between mind and body, reason and emotion, experience and innocence, and word and deed. All of these conflicts are, of course, as old as mankind; so Gass, like many American writers before him, refers to the myth of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man and uses it in his own way to bring these conflicts to life.

The events of Gass's novel can be quickly summarized: Brackett Omensetter, "a wide and happy man," moves his family to the late nineteenth-century village of Gilean, Ohio. His careless, happy personality and his apparent harmony with nature immediately begin to affect the townspeople of Gilean, and his "luck" incites both admiration and envy among them. Henry Pimber, Omensetter's henpecked landlord, sees in Omensetter's happiness the lost potential of his own life and hangs himself from the top of a tall tree. Jethro Furber, a clergyman, sees in Omensetter's animal naturalness a denial of the spiritual truths which he defends, and he attempts to destroy Omensetter by casting the suspicion of Pimber's death on him. Eventually, the townspeople's suspicion drives Omensetter out of town, but not before Furber feels the effect of his naturalness. At the end of the novel, Furber also leaves Gilean. (pp. 5-6)

Omensetter is like Adam before the Fall, still in harmony with nature, almost totally lacking self-consciousness and confident in the "promise" of happiness in Gilean which he feels has been given to him. He is not merely an observer or conqueror of nature but a part of it…. To his post-lapsarian neighbors, however, Omensetter's naturalness makes him seem almost subhuman, merely a higher animal or worse…. "That man … lives like a cat asleep in a chair…. Is it attractive in a man to sleep away his life? take a cow's care? refuse a sparrow of responsibility?" (pp. 6-7)

Omensetter's wife tempts him to mingle with men, first to support his family and later to save his infant son's life. As Gass's Eve, she is more earth-mother than temptress; we see her through Furber's eyes as she lies pregnant, sunbathing on a rock, and later as she nurses her newborn son. In Furber's theology such fertility led to Eve's fall; her desire for procreation—not for knowledge—led her to bite the apple. In the story of Genesis according to Furber, the Fall was already inherent in the creation of Eve, for God created by division…. (p. 7)

The effect of the Fall on Omensetter-Adam is knowledge, which divides him from his instinctive harmony with nature…. With knowledge to separate the mind from the senses come its main tools: observation to replace touch, and language to replace emotion…. Omensetter's fall from innocence starts to show when he begins to observe his life rather than live it. It begins to affect him when the townspeople label his naturalness "luck." Omensetter for the first time allows himself to question whether or not his happiness might be merely luck…. In Omensetter's Luck, then, the Fall of Man consists of the tragic separations of man from woman and knowledge from sensation, separations accompanied by a dependence on observation and language. (pp. 8-9)

Pimber [seeks] Omensetter's secret, which Gass explains elsewhere as "to feel at home in our body, to sense the true nostos of it,… to have it move to our will so smoothly we seem will-less altogether."… Yet the Fall of Man has made such a condition impossible, for "Thought seems to remove us; we cannot enjoy life."… To deny thought would be to deny our humanity, our very essence; thus, Pimber seeks a solution to the most basic human dilemma: to enjoy our bodies fully, we must eliminate or at least subordinate thought; yet to be human, we must cling to perception and thought. We seem not to be able to have it both ways…. Pimber thinks at first that Omensetter's "stony mindlessness" offers the "sweet oblivion" of escape from self. As he sees even Omensetter being made self-conscious of his luck, he realizes that the return to Eden, to the animal delight in body, is impossible. He sees Omensetter becoming like everyone else…. Omensetter could save Pimber from lockjaw but not from his own humanity.

Pimber's predicament is man's, as Gass elsewhere describes it: "We have fallen out of our bodies like a child from a tree…." Unable to climb back into the life of the body, Pimber escapes instead by a symbolic climbing back into the tree. (pp. 11-12)

With the gates of Eden locked against man's return to his body, is the quiet darkness of death [like Pimber's] the only escape? Perhaps not. In the character of Jethro Furber we see another alternative…. Indeed, in spite of his varied and disgusting faults, the diabolical Furber proves at last to be the holiest and most whole character in Gilean.

Gass's Satan wishes to return to Heaven. Furber wages within himself a kind of Manichean war between Spirit and Body, which he equates at first with Good and Evil…. (pp. 12-13)

Furber, like Pimber, has fallen not only out of Heaven but out of his own body; he has fallen, like all men, into the uniquely human predicament of perception…. The Fall leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to perception, the recognition of our own otherness, our separation from the world we inhabit…. The danger is that our perceptions may become more real to us than the things we perceive. (p. 14)

The principal tool of perception is language, and Furber, "the wondrous watchman," is a master of language. He recognizes that we can no longer simply live as Omensetter does, without observing. Having fallen into perception, man finds that "Experience must mean"…. Furber uses words to substitute principles for people and sound for sex. He is a master of what Gass calls "protective language"…. (pp. 14-15)

Furber becomes so absorbed in the world of watching and words that words not only protect him from actuality, they become his reality. We find him, like the narrator of Gass's story, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," living totally within his own mind and the words that order its world…. The Fall has indeed made man god-like, for Furber has become a god creating his own world out of words.

The world of words, though it has a reality of its own, isolates man from the actual world of deeds and makes him a lonely god. Furber recognizes and regrets man's lonely position, between two worlds and imprisoned behind his words…. He asks God, "Why have You made us the saddest animal?"… (pp. 15-16)

The confrontation between Omensetter-Adam and Furber-Satan is an ironic one. Instead of Furber tempting Omensetter into a Fall (Omensetter, as we have seen, has already fallen), Omensetter tempts Furber out of his world of words and back into life. At first, Omensetter fills Furber with envy, fear, and hatred of his physical naturalness; Furber sees Omensetter as the evil champion of the body against the spirit…. Furber perceives correctly that Omensetter's threat to his congregation lies in the temptation to abandon human perception and go back to the life of the wholly physical, a dead end. (p. 16)

He finally recognizes the beauty of Omensetter's innocence…. What Omensetter … reveals to Furber is love, an ability to accept the life and people around him with complete trust, to care for people rather than principle. Omensetter offers completely unconditional love, and Furber feels the full effect of his grace. (p. 17)

Huffley is, however, only a representative of man's present mediocre condition, not his potential. In the world of Omensetter's Luck the Fall of Man is a kind of felix culpa, a fortunate fall. Pimber, not realizing it, mistakenly tried to revert to Omensetter's pre-lapsarian innocence. Furber, recognizing the danger of such total innocence, at first denied it completely in favor of the experience of human perception. Only later, through Omensetter's grace, does he recognize that both innocence and experience are necessary. Furber learns the full potential of his humanity; he truly knows himself. The discovery is crucial, as Gass says elsewhere:

Nothing keeps us back from nothingness but knowing; knowing, now, not necessarily in the sense of squeezing what we know into a set of symbols and understanding those [Furber's first error]; but knowing in the sense of seeing—seeing clearly, deeply, fully—of being completely aware and consequently of being perfectly our selves.    (pp. 18-19)

The same unkind vision which was the curse of man's Fall becomes also the means of his salvation. Perception and language can imprison man, but they can also free him. As Gass suggests, for instance, "protective language" can isolate a person but can also create a different, perhaps better and higher, reality. (p. 19)

Furber's theology is, then, Gass's inferred literary criticism. Gass warns us that the language of fiction can imprison us…. He also suggests that the same language can free us by taking us into a world different from (though related to) our own and thereby expanding our own consciousness, our own "knowing," and our imagination. The novelist's task is not merely to talk about such worlds but to create them. The novelist or artist, Gass tells us, "is not asked to construct an adequate philosophy, but a philosophically adequate world, a different matter altogether,… from whose nature, as from our own world, a philosophical system may be inferred; but he does not, except by inadvertence or mistaken esthetic principle, deem it his task to philosophize"….

Nevertheless, Gass does philosophize in Omensetter's Luck; indeed, many readers will object that he philosophizes too much. Before hastily accusing him of literary hypocrisy, however, we must notice that the philosophizing is deliberately done through characters who fail to live—Pimber and Furber. Both discover that philosophy without both life and love can only fail. When Furber has his change of heart, he also begins to come alive fully as a character. On the other hand, Omensetter, despite his vitality, remains rather vague and elusive until he is forced by personal tragedy into the kind of knowledge with which philosophy attempts to cope. He finds that love and trust are not enough to heal his dying infant son; knowledge must be accepted also. As Gass implies, the chaos of life and the orderly systems of philosophy can, indeed must, co-exist in fiction; however, fiction is ultimately about life. Through his characters, Gass suggests that any philosophic separation of spirit from body, reason from emotion, experience from innocence, and words from deeds is destructive of life. He reminds us (and we need reminding) that fiction, like poetry, should not merely mean but, above all, be. (pp. 19-20)

Richard J. Schneider, "The Fortunate Fall in William Gass's 'Omensetter's Luck'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copy-right © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1976, pp. 5-20.

Like all metafictions, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife deals with writing and its own construction in a self-conscious manner. The work proves to be especially complex and ambitious, however, because Gass brings to it not only a literary viewpoint, but a background in the philosophy of language…. Willie Masters' deals with the building-blocks of fiction—words and concepts—in a more direct and sophisticated fashion than most other metafictions; it is more explicitly experimental than just about any other work of fiction which comes to mind and can serve as a virtual casebook of literary experimentalism, since it appropriates almost every experimental device used by writers in the past and suggests a good many possibilities for future development as well.

Interestingly enough, Willie Masters' is actually only one section of a much longer and more ambitious book which Gass worked on periodically during the 1960's. Before he abandoned the longer work as being impractical—it was originally to have dealt metafictionally with almost every Western narrative mode—two other short excerpts appeared, "The Sugar Crock" and "The Clairvoyant." Like Willie Masters', these pieces are metafictional reflections on the nature of fiction-making, with self-conscious narrators pondering their relationship to their creations. They do not provide much background for Willie Masters', although they introduce a few of the people who appear in the later work. (pp. 23-4)

Gass never allows the reader to forget that literature is made of words and nothing else; here the words themselves are constantly called to our attention, their sensuous qualities emphasized in nearly every imaginable fashion. Indeed, the narrator of the work—the "Lonesome Wife" of the title—is that lady language herself. Although the narrative has no real plot, the "events" occur while Babs makes love to a particularly unresponsive lover named Gelvin—suggesting the central metaphor of the whole work: that a parallel exists—or should exist—between a woman and her lover, between the work of art and the artist, and between a book and its reader. The unifying metaphor is evident even before we open the book: on the front cover is a frontal photograph of a naked woman; on the back cover is a corresponding photograph of the back-side of the same woman. Gass, thus, invites one to enter his work of art—a woman made of words and paper—with the same sort of excitement, participation, and creative energy as one would enter a woman's body in sexual intercourse…. Unfortunately, as we discover from Babs, all too frequently those who enter her do so without enthusiasm, often seemingly unaware that she is there at all. (pp. 24-5)

Gass uses the color and texture of the page to indicate subtle alterations in Babs' mind rather than relying on traditional chapter divisions and pagination. Even the page itself is not ordered in the usual linear fashion; instead, typographical variations establish a different visual order for each individual page. (p. 25)

By far the most intricately developed device used by Babs to call attention to her slighted charms is the wide variety of type styles and other graphic devices with which she constructs herself. (p. 26)

In addition to mimicking typefaces, Gass presents many other typographic conventions, often with parodic intent. One amusing example is found in the Olive Section (2) in which a one-act play is presented with all the rigid typographic formality usually found in a written transcription of a play. Babs provides asterisked comments and explanations about stage directions, costumes, and props. These remarks begin in very small type, but as the play progresses the typeface becomes larger and bolder. Gradually the number of asterisks before each aside becomes impossible to keep up with, and the comments themselves become so large that the text of the play is crowded off the page—to make room for a page containing only large, star-shaped asterisks. Gass thus pokes fun at a typographic convention in much the same way as John Barth did (with quotation marks) in "The Menelaid." Gass also uses the asterisks for reasons we do not usually expect—for their visual appeal. (pp. 27-8)

In addition to drawing attention to how words look, Babs makes us examine the way we read words. In particular, she reminds us that the Western conventions of reading—left-to-right, top-to-bottom, from first page to last—are all merely conventions…. In Willie Masters', especially in the Olive and Red Sections (2 and 3), Gass typographically makes ordinary reading impossible…. Like Joyce who forces us to page backwards and forwards to check and cross-check references, Gass is taking advantage of what [Hugh] Kenner has termed "the book as book"; the book's advantage lies in the fact that we can go backwards and forwards rather than being forced to move ever forward—as we are with a movie or a spoken narrative. The use of asterisks and marginal glosses indicates Gass's willingness to take advantage of the expressive possibilities of Babs' form as words on a printed page; he uses a typographical method to deflect the eye from its usual horizontal/vertical network. (pp. 28-9)

The last—and most significant—method used by Babs to call attention to herself is also probably the least radical of her strategies. It is produced by the sensual, highly poetic quality of the language which she uses to create herself. This non-typographic method of focusing our attention on the words before us is often used by poets. In ordinary discourse and in the language of realistically motivated fiction, words do not usually call attention to themselves…. In ordinary discourse and in most fiction, words are used mainly as vehicles to refer us to a world (real or imaginary), and the words themselves remain invisible: as Babs says, "The usual view is that you see through me, through what I am really—significant sound"…. Babs, however, resembles the stereotyped woman in being vain about her physical qualities and resentful when she is used but not noticed. Babs shares with Valery (to whom Gass seems to owe much of his esthetics) the view that when words are placed in an esthetic context (as in a poem) their utility is sacrificed in favor of a unity of sound and sense…. (pp. 29-30)

Like Barthelme's Snow White, who wishes "there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear," Babs is bored with her own existence as she usually finds it: "Why aren't there any decent words?" she exclaims at one point in the Blue Section (1); and in a footnote to the play in the Olive Section (2), she compares the "dreary words" of ordinary prose to ordinary action, which often loses all subtlety and beauty as it strains to make itself understood to an audience "all of whom are in the second balcony." Too often, claims Babs, writers—and readers—seem unaware that words make up the body of all literature. (p. 30)

If poetry is the language which Babs is trying to realize herself in, she admits that she rarely finds lovers appreciative enough to create her properly. When Gelvin leaves, she says: "he did not, in his address, at any time, construct me. He made nothing, I swear. Empty I began, and empty I remained"…. The main problem, as Babs observes, is simply that we have forgotten how to make love appreciatively…. Today readers and writers alike approach lady language in the wrong spirit. The pencil, the writer's phallic instrument of creation, grows great nowadays only with blood, never with love. (p. 31)

Babs confers upon language the same magical potency which Stephen Dedalus gave it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: she exalts the habit of verbal association into a principle for the arrangement of experience. Of course, she is right—words help arrange our experience and often exhibit the power to make us "feel more at home, more among friends." Naming something gives us a sort of power over it, just as we become the master of a situation by putting it into words. (p. 32)

Because of her envy of poetic language, Babs is especially interested in circumstances—as with the language of Shakespeare or any great poet—where words become something more than simply Lockean devices for calling to mind concepts. Babs thinks a good deal about the "poetic ideal": the word which lies midway between the "words of nature" (which constitute reality) and the words of ordinary language (which are nothing in themselves but arbitrary symbols which direct our minds elsewhere)…. Nearly all the strategies of Willie Masters' are closely related to the idea that in literature words should not merely point somewhere else but should be admired for themselves.

Willie Masters', then, is a remarkably pure example of metafiction. As we watch "imagination imagining itself imagine" …, we are witnessing a work self-consciously create itself out of the materials at hand—words. (pp. 32-3)

As the best metafiction does, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife forces us to examine the nature of fiction-making from new perspectives. If Babs (and Gass) have succeeded, our attention has been focused on the act of reading words in a way we probably have not experienced before. The steady concern with the stuff of fiction, words, makes Gass's work unique among metafictions which have appeared thus far. (p. 34)

Larry McCaffery, "The Art of Metafiction: William Gass's 'Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1976, pp. 21-34.

The title story, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," is composed of reflections of a poet-teacher on his situation in Middle America and on his failed love affair. It is also a fiction about the relation between poetry and false consciousness. The protagonist of "Icicles" [in the same collection] was a type in whom poetry and false consciousness met; while Fender seemed to accept Pearson's view that everything is property, which was "the power of [Pearson's] imagination," his own invention created "a princess in her tower" out of the icicles—a kind of objective correlative for his feeling of entrapment. The narrator of "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," explicitly a poet, suffers from the same kind of narcissistic withdrawal: on the one hand he says, "I would rather it were the weather that was to blame for what I am and what my friends and neighbors are—we who live here in the heart of the country"…; on the other he says, "Who cares to live in any season but his own?"…—the climate being an objective correlative for his inner state. If lovers, poets, and madmen are, in fact, near allied, we can see that Fender is more the madman, the narrator here more the poet—and both are frustrated lovers.

The story opens with an echo from "Sailing to Byzantium": "So I have sailed the seas and come … to B …"…. Yeats' assertion that "Once out of Nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing" is echoed ironically in Gass's observation: "Tell me: do they live in harmony with the alternating seasons? It's a lie of old poetry. The modern husbandman uses chemicals from cylinders and sacks, spike-ball-and-claw machines, metal sheds, and cost accounting. Nature in the old sense does not matter. It does not exist."… Here again poetry and false consciousness are near allied—the artifice of Yeats' Byzantium echoed by the anti-nature of Gass's technology. The narrator of Gass's story calls into question poetry's "lies" (or fictions), among which are man's harmony with nature and the whole and immediate experience of child-hood…. (pp. 47-8)

The relationship between sex and writing is elaborated at length in the story. Fender's narcissistic fear of castration in "Icicles" is a fear everywhere diffused in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." (p. 49)

The real caress in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" is "fearful," the caress of flies: "No caress could have been more indifferently complete…." (pp. 51-2)

[After the title character of "Mrs. Mean"] has denied the narrator's "preternatural power" as an idol … the narrator feels that he does not exist…. The aggression and exclusion suggested by Mrs. Mean's denial are characteristic of the "mirror stage" of our development, where we achieve a coherent image of ourselves—particularly of the topology of our body—through imaginary identification with another…. (p. 53)

That the mirror stage of imaginative identification is involved [in "Mrs. Mean"] is revealed by the massive patterns of identification and mutual aggression. Consider the theme of swallowing: the narrator as a spider swallows others, Mr. Wallace as a whale swallows the narrator, and Mrs. Mean's "beak" of a hand swallows the bolls of dandelions—also identifed with her children…. As a god, the narrator can observe without being observed; he can objectify the others and play with their possibilities; as an idol, however, whose eyes are treated like "marbles" by them, he seems desirous of impressing his objective being in the wax of their subjectivity…. Such intersubjective process is revealed also in the narrator's observation: "Mrs. Mean is worse for witnesses. She grows particular"—more and more the essence of meanness to be pene-trated…. That the narrator is trapped in his mirror image is revealed by his having withdrawn from purposeful activity, measuring time by playing Achilles to the Other's tortoise. Mrs. Mean's "reality" is not only mechanical; it is geological…. Meanness has density, although the paradoxical density of an abstraction. Its increasing density corresponds to the narrator's increasing compulsion to penetrate it, a compulsion that he calls "prophecy" since his future is the distance he can create in order to cross it, the shadow he can cast in order to enter it. (pp. 54-5)

From a cosmic point of view, both creation and destruction are equally necessary; from a human point of view, an orderly love—particularly between men and the gods—must be fostered. Through sacrifices one can appease the gods and even improve them. In "Mrs. Mean" the narrator creates beings of gigantic proportions: the Goliath, the Polyphemus, the whale of Mr. Wallace, and the Mrs. Mean whose "anger is too great to stand obedience"—embodied by the narrator in a malevolence that gives her density, an inside to penetrate. Since he uses divination in order to penetrate and torment them, all he discovers (like the reversal of fisherman and fish in the Puritan poem he remembers) is his own otiose tyranny…. The narrator's discovery of his same in the other—his trap in an imaginative identification—inevitably leads to paranoid aggression since he is not the other that he is. (pp. 55-6)

The dynamics of Gass's narrative are revealed by the narrator's view of the Means' Calvinism: "Their meanness must proceed from that great sense of guilt which so readily become a sense for the sin of others and poisons everything."… That the narrative is a projection of the narrator's guilt and fear of castration is clear…. (p. 56)

While the theme of Calvinism suggests the way in which the poet's pathos is translated into poiesis, the story's Orphic theme takes us back to the force of instinct. The poet's Pegasus is the most sublimated example of the force—but toads, bears, cats, insects, and bleached animals inhabit the interior of the Means' world, as does the following mythical creature: "his cow-chested, horse-necked, sow-faced mother."… Despite his ambition for transcendence, [the narrator] also has the desire to be engulfed by the Other…. The narrator, having sacrificed his concrete freedom, wants to recover a sense of existence by being the responses he stimulates in the Other, whose gigantism makes the secret meaningful. Being swallowed, however, is a return to primal unity, and being swallowed by one's own creation is the narcissistic gratification of art. (p. 57)

Bruce Bassoff, "The Sacrificial World of William Gass: 'In the Heart of the Heart of the Country'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1976, pp. 36-57.

Metafiction's stance is necessarily anti-Platonic. Both ideal forms on high and underlying schemes are harmful illusions. Here, it should be noted, Gass departs from other writers of the metafictive mold. Gass's fiction indicates the existence of an underlying order which is separate from the individual. For example, in "Order of Insects" a housewife, who apparently speaks with Gass's own voice, over-comes her squeamishness toward roaches and is able to say, "When I examine my collection now it isn't any longer roaches I observe but gracious order, wholeness, and divinity." It is because of this belief in something beyond the self that Gass criticizes Nabokov for writing novels which reflect only Nabokov. It is the reason he abhors what a Nabokov or Beckett would treasure: "Imagine that a mirror, nothing falling into it, began reflecting itself: what a terrifying endlessness and mockery of light—merely to illuminate its own beams."

Because of Gass's inclination toward wholeness and harmony, he prefers the concept of reader as brother to that of reader as opponent. This is close to Kierkegaard's hope that his works could bring about reconciliation with the world (of which the reader is part) rather than the obliteration of it. On the other side are writers who cut into the carefully woven fabric of narrative suspense to give the reader a lecture on the art of creating narrative suspense, who gain reader sympathy and credibility for a character only to later reveal that character's madness, who undermine their narrator…. (pp. 216-17)

The main difference between Gass and writers such as Barthelme, Nabokov, and Barth is that Gass takes life more seriously. (p. 217)

Margaret Heckard, in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), May, 1976.

William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is a study of the creative process from a particular philosophical point of view; it exemplifies [Wolfgang Kayser's] analysis [in The Grotesque in Art and Literature] of an important modification in aesthetic theory of fiction which began in the eighteenth century and in which fictive structures were not measured extrinsically, but intrinsically, on the basis of their own inherent aesthetic form and content. This transvaluation shifted emphasis from the reliable Lockean world of primary substances to the unreliable and confusing subjective world of secondary substances. According to Kayser, this philosophical turnabout has led to such effects as a grotesque "fear of life rather than fear of death."… It also expresses the division between the intellectual view of reality and that of the accepted public concept of the real world of primary occurrence and subject. In terms of structure, the grotesque visually models disorder, mutation, impish perversity, and eternal change in a world of constant variability governed by no single principle: the public view of structure would be that the world contains specific and identifiable, reliable and stable forms which are in themselves scientifically verifiable and never-changing. As Gass points out, the average consciousness is unable to enjoy works of art as pure sensation, because literature must mean, it must be significant of primary facts and intentions. To the average consciousness the idea of eternal change would be an offense, a radical impossibility.

The grotesque represents the image of our disorientation in a strange world; it structures our failure to understand such lately amorphous concepts as finitude and concrete substance. In this realm of strangeness one finds both the grotesque and the ironic as negative rejoinders to final truths. The ironic can be considered the verbal, discursive, and demonstrative equivalent of the grotesque, which itself is less concerned with the persuasiveness of a discursive argument than with depiction in visually demonstrable terms of cosmic ambivalence, unresolvability, and distortion. The two principles are complementary.

In Kayser's terms, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife can be considered as "a scene or an animated tableau" which is an ingenious commentary on the artistic process and the structural grotesque. It is at the same time a reflection of Gass's Platonic and Socratic view of reality. Unlike romantic irony, whose negative vision of reality leads to a kind of heightened spiritualism and subjectivism, and unlike rhetorical irony whose vision of the world is didactic change, Gass's irony and his consequent structuring principles are from a particular Socratic position. Like Socrates, Gass believes that we can really never know anything at all about our finite existence and the impenetrable cosmos…. It is quite certain, however, that Gass would not accept the Socratic notion of transcendent absolutism, that the ideal lies archetypally outside the realm of the finite. It is his denial of absolutistic ends, and his acceptance of creativity as "play in necessity," that constitute Gass's aesthetic conglomeration of Socratic, Nietzschean, Symbolist and Wittgensteinian ideas. Gass maintains an art-for-art's-sake "ethic" of infinite aesthetic value, in a structure of the sublime grotesque, as his principle of creativity. His interest lies in the pleasures of the imagination, in model making, and in aesthetic projections composed in the face of an all-pervasive determinism. (pp. 306-08)

The actual threefold process of fictional creation in conjunction with Gass's own epistemology and ontology is the subject matter of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife; it is also mimetically and philosophically reflective of Plato's idea of the work of art and the creative process itself as a shadowy metaphoric grotesque thrice removed from reality. Gass agrees with Plato and Socrates that "there are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions, and the principles which govern these constructions are persistently philosophical."

Although this "essay-novella," as Gass refers to it, is less well-known than his novel Omensetter's Luck or his now famous and frequently anthologized "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife stands, along with his fascinating, impressionistic literary criticism, as perhaps his best work to date…. Structurally, it is clear from the beginning that the subject of this book is the act of creation, and that Babs is William Gass's "experimental structure" composed of language and imagination. The book is literally Babs. It is not about her; it is her whole essence and being. The book is a woman from beginning to end. The covers are the extrinsic flesh, the pages are the intrinsic contents of Bab's consciousness—her interior world. It would be difficult to find a better example of the use of structural principles than in Gass's stylistic combination of form and content in his book. There are photographic illustrations of Babs in various positions throughout the text, but perhaps the most significant and humorous picture is on the title page, where one sees Bab's left arm extended and pointing to the title, "Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife," in a parody of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting of God creating Man.

Bobs Masters, a whore, is the interior monologue narrator who, throughout the larger portion of the narrative, is in the throes of sexual intercourse with Phil, the act in itself being an analog for artistic creation. Phil is analogous to the perceiver, or co-maker, of the artifact, or work of art. The ontological correlative to the fictive is Babs herself who is being literally made—that is who is making herself known through her interior monologue while she is being "made" in a physical sense by friendly Phil. She is exposing herself completely, giving herself entirely—though she knows that the act itself is purely sensual, creative only in the provocation and delectation of her senses. Her body is the work itself, her mind the aesthetic structure of the work; she is literally in the process of self-creation. Babs is "imagination imagining itself imagine." The work is an illuminating view of the interior world of the narrator as well as a remarkably diversified, inventive, and cosmic description of the consciousness; it is a self-contained poetic.

Gass has attempted to create a work of pure sensation whose reception will be based upon the immediacy of the response to the act and the ruminations appearing on the page before the perceiver's eyes and mind. The act of sex and Babs's often poetic reflections are a process of sensory excitation which is illustrative of the transitoriness of experience and expression, the fleeting notion, the emptiness of retrospect. All of these events and results are tacit verifications of Gass's aesthetic ideas, at the same time being a rejection of the general belief that one must convey or receive a "message" in literature, an idea that both Gass and Plato would find ludicrously innocent. Gass's play with structure and his parody of traditional social theses include his own satire of Gogol's satire, "The Nose," typographical eccentricities and jokes, etymological games, plays within plays, noncausal insertions, and brilliant descriptions of the artist as homo ludens. At the same time all of these devices illustrate the validity of Kayser's statement that the grotesque is "our failure to orient ourselves to the physical universe,"… that the grotesque is "a play with the absurd,"… and that it is "an attempt to invoke the demonic aspects of the world."… In Gass's position the "demonic" describes the boundaries of a deterministic cosmology. To Gass the artist is a liar, a player, and a gamester; he has the capacity to imagine sensibilities and to create mirror worlds—shadow worlds of possibility—through the creation of his various fictions which have fiction as their collective subject matter and ontological model. (pp. 308-10)

To paraphrase the title, perhaps Gass has, in his successful mastery of this particular model, indeed mastered the subject of the lonesome wife as a fictive probable. She, in turn, though being laid by many, is mastered by none; sexual intercourse only triggers her freedom of imagination instead of binding her to another's possession. Intercourse initiates Babs's creative sense. Artistic creation is the only equivalent man has to giving birth, as Socrates points out in The Symposium. (p. 311)

The narrative is consistently first person interior monologue, a soliloquy reminiscent of Molly Bloom's, but Babs is the more intelligent and self-perceptive of the two. As the text of her monologue becomes increasingly more complex, so does the typescript, being set in various styles meant to represent the diversity of Babs's many levels of consciousness existing simultaneously, and proportionate to her sexual excitement and her mental imaginings. The act of procreative sex has commensurately triggered her consciousness, freeing it from the burden of time and place and locating it in the creative, non-selective and random past, present, and future. (pp. 311-12)

Babs, once a common stripper, now a whore, is at the same time an abstract and complicated universal sort of woman; she is the illusion that language can create, and she is the manifestation of Plato's world of illusory flesh, shadow and substance. She is the imagination turned through language into creation…. (p. 315)

In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, William Gass takes the aesthetic position that the world is both determined and illusory. In this grotesque world which is ironically sublime as well as ugly, the conditions are consistently confused, demonstrating that, as Gass suggests, "from any given body of fictional text, nothing necessarily follows, and anything plausible may. Authors are gods—a little tinny sometimes but omnipotent no matter what, and plausible on top of that, if they can manage it." (p. 316)

Reed B. Merrill, "The Grotesque as Structure: 'Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife'," in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright 1976 by Wayne State University Press), Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (Fall, 1976), pp. 305-16.

William Gass is not only a philosopher in the business of posing paradoxes but a writer (Omensetter's Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country) to whom words matter. Blue, for instance. [In On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry] Gass notes that "a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects." Gass would like to know why, and he is writer enough to make his inquiry far more entertaining than just another academic trip through the wild blue yonder.

Not since Herman Melville pondered the whiteness of Moby Dick has a region of the spectrum been subjected to such eclectic scrutiny…. He squints at past authorities on physics (Democritus, Aristotle, Galen), the better to glimpse the essence of this protean color in the corner of an eye. The mystery remains, more mysterious because Gass so thoroughly exposes its complexities. Yet the humanist does not visit nature for facts but for creative suggestions, and these Gass offers in abundance: "Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed."

The erotic overtones of this surmise tinge Gass's entire argument. For he is not finally interested in pinning "blueness" to the wall, but in suggesting what is truly "blue" in the realm of art. Not, he insists, the vivid depiction of sexual activity…. Instead of their lovers, Gass wants writers to caress their language: "It's not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word." In Gass's view, the truly "blue" writers are not those who flaunt explicitness but those whose works demonstrate "love lavished on speech of any kind, regardless of content and intention."

This is a polemic, although the author does not alert the reader to the argument on the other side. His approach leads to a hermetic absorption with words as objects rather than signs pointing outward—precisely the premise that makes so much "experimental" writing so ghastly and unreadable. (pp. K10, K12)

Yet by his own definition Gass has produced a very blue book, both in the sinuous beauty of its language and in the passion for argument his words radiate. He gives philosophy back its old good name as a feast that can never sate the mind. He also has the common sense not to run on until he is blue in the face. (p. K12)

Paul Gray, "Hue and Cry," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), November 15, 1976, pp. K10, K12.

William Gass probably thinks more than any other living novelist about the nature of fiction, its ability or inability to "make statements" or reveal truths or evoke a sense of the physical world. Gass's concern comes partly, no doubt, from the fact that he is a philosopher first and novelist second, more disposed than most of us to inquire into the nature of what he is doing in abstract, systematic ways. It comes also from the kind of pleasure Gass obviously finds in staking out a polemical position eccentric enough to what most people believe so that it causes small shock waves every time he articulates it. It comes, also, from the nature of Gass's talent, a virtuoso talent for exploiting the richness of language not exactly in the service of fable but as its own end. The title story of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, for example, has struck most readers as being wonderfully evocative of the texture of lived experience in small-town Indiana, a response that Gass professes to disapprove of, insisting that small-town Indiana is not like that at all, his story being a made thing, an invention, answerable not to Indiana but to the implicit laws of its own art. After the fact, one can see how inevitable it is that Gass should now have produced a "fiction" that escapes fable altogether, being a meditation on words, or rather a meditation on a word, the word being "blue." (pp. 118-19)

What the premise sets in motion is an attempt to gather, "celebrate" as Gass puts it, the things of the world which are blue, the things which are called blue, some of which are really blue, some of which are not, the feelings evoked by both seeing and being blue, observations on the aesthetic value of blue, above all speculations on erotic words, books and works of art, since they all arrange themselves under the epithet blue. Gass subtitles his book "A Philosophical Inquiry," but the austerity and the pretense at method stop there. If it is to be judged as philosophical inquiry, the book is grotesque, without rigor or system, self-indulgent in its arrangement, not even very inclusive. (Gass seems almost totally innocent of the musical uses of blue.) The book does, on the contrary, implicitly ask us to respond to it as a fiction, a strange, crabbed, stylized, lyrical, involuted meditation, true not to any abstract principles of orderly inquiry but to the contours of Gass's own mind. Still, there is a kind of method to the book, a miming of philosophical rigor, that gives it much of its charm….

The encyclopedic range of the book is extraordinary. The word "blue" is as rich, diverse, and unpredictable as Gass says it is…. It is perhaps on its sexual content that Gass's book finally invites judgment since he, finally, makes that its most prominent aspect…. Gass's insights into blue words are the most stylish and ingenious I know, the most consistently interesting, but I am not sure that they can be trusted, either on such matters as the covert meaning of sexual insults or the power of a sado-erotic passage from Hawkes. Still, Gass's discussions of erotic language are not so much meant to be trusted as observed, being the fluid, impressionistic, sometimes crotchety, often arresting opinions of a character, named William Gass, in a fiction by William Gass, which masquerades as philosophical treatise and which finally amounts to an eccentric and ingratiating book, like no other before it, full of grace and wit, displaying a mind in love with language, the human body, and the look of the world. (p. 119)

Philip Stevick, in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 29, 1977.