The World Within the Word

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1961

William H. Gass’s The World Within the Word is a collection of book reviews, lectures, and essays by a novelist turned literary critic. Such a collection is usually heterogeneous and miscellaneous, but Gass ties together the various strands to create a book. His interests range from the great modern writers to Freud, suicide, and above all, sentences; but Gass’s style and a conception of the nature of literature hold the book together. Gass describes his prose style in the essay as “skids of tone and decorum associated formerly with silent films, jazz bands, and the slide trombone.” He uses the stylistic devices of the novel to enliven, even transform, the language of literary criticism. Even more important is Gass’s obsession (there is no other word for it) with the “ontological transformation” that takes place in the creation of art, an alteration of substance similar to transubstantiation. As the title suggests, the world in words transcends the cluttered, unshaped world of ordinary existence. Gass sees its presence, or its significant lack of presence, in every essay of the book. This obsessive “unity” seems dearly bought, since what seems a discovery on first reading becomes a method, a point of view, on reconsideration. The ontological, or contextualist existence of literature was proclaimed many years ago by such critics as Murray Krieger and John Crowe Ransom. The concept is hardly revolutionary these days; but whether such a rarefied concept is able to bear the weight demanded of it is a question provoked by an otherwise excellent book.

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It is, perhaps, appropriate to begin discussing the parts of the book by looking at “Carrots, Snow Noses, Roses, Roses,” the fullest explication of the “ontological transformation.” Gass begins by contrasting some imitation sentences of Proust with the real thing; the imitation sentences are clearly lumps that cannot be transformed. He then makes his point by an analogy. He shows how the materials used in constructing a snowman abandon the functions they formerly had and create together a separate world. The snowman is “brought out of nature into culture.” Most readers will agree that the “language of the poet or novelist is not the language of everyday,” and many will accept the idea that some transformation takes place in the creation of art. But many will question whether such a transformation of language must lead to “pure” literature. The description of a work containing moral values as one that wears “ennobling morals on the end of its sleeves like paper cuffs” is gratuitous and limiting. Even Ransom recognized the existence of impure and didactic works as part of the full range of literature. There may be behind this theoretical discussion an implied defense of the modern novels of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon—and Gass. The novel may transform some of its elements, but it is doubtful if it can purify them without some loss.

The most important part of the book is the section of essays on four great modern writers: Gertrude Stein, Valéry, Proust, and Colette. Gass seems to find in these French, or French influenced writers a relationship between life and art that is crucial to understanding the literature of this century. He gives brief biographical sketches of each writer and contrasts or links their lives to their works. The essay on Gertrude Stein is the fullest of the four. Gass reevaluates this quintessential modernist by showing how her art overcomes the failure of her life. He does a splendid job of re-creating her life and placing it into historical context. Gass is a potentially great biographer; he has the novelist’s eye for significant detail, and a style that envelops his subjects in language that is continually on the borderline between criticism and literature. Gass encompasses Stein’s situation in her early years with the metaphor of “making room.” Gertrude Stein’s sister, brother, the century itself, must make room for her. Gass evokes the nineteenth century with its accumulation of dusty antimacassars and bulky texts; this is the main obstacle, the glut that must move over, make room. Gass wisely quotes Stein on this subject: “I was there to begin to kill what was not dead, the nineteenth century which was so sure of evolution and prayers, and esperanto and their ideas.” The turning point in her life is, appropriately, the recognition that in Cezanne, “the reality of the model had been superseded by the reality of the composition.” She would, according to Gass, eliminate “the traditional novel’s endless, morally motivated, psychological analyses” with her movement from an “investigation of the relationships between people” to the creation of “pure song.”

The next section of the essay is a marvelously clever analysis of Stein’s Tender Buttons. Gass unearths the meaning of the work through etymology, rearrangement, and some inspired guesswork. The analysis reaches its climax in the discussion of the multiple meanings in the text. Gass sees the work as a “kit” that leads the aware reader to create something out of the material. One of the readings of the text, the contrast between homosexual and heterosexual lovemaking (leading to a defense of lesbianism) is extracted from the overtly puzzling prose. Gass goes on to link this reading to Stein’s life. This revelation does help to explain why her text is so opaque; the box must not be open to the casual reader.

The final section of the essay balances off the struggle of Stein’s life with her achievements in literature. Gass sees her as an innovator, as one who “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer has.” The claim seems excessive since she did fail to reach the architectural achievement of Joyce or Faulkner, as Gass admits later in the essay.

“Proust at 100” begins with the sordid, inadequate life of the sickly artist:He became allergic to pollen, dust, damp, smoke, odors of all sorts, especially perfumes and the scents of his favorite flowers; he was easily chilled, easily fatigued, easily offended, thinking often of duels; he frequently gave way to weeping, or had tantrums in which he broke things or crushed his friends’ hats. . . .”

The life is soon entwined, however, by the great project, “the untiming of time,” Remembrance of Things Past. The change from sickly human being to omnipotent artist is mirrored by the creation of a great work of art. The events that Proust observed “can actually—even the most trivial, the most fearful of them—be transformed, not by the Marcel that experienced them, but by another, the Marcel who holds a poet’s pen and can contrive a line so beautiful its author can claim a virtue it limns.” Yeats constantly cited his cruel line: “Man must choose perfection of the life or the work.” The writers that Gass cites seem not to be troubled by what a small share of the world the artist can have. Perhaps it is because the transformation which we have seen so many times in the book takes the artist out of this world. Indeed, Gass makes the claim that “Proust planned to replace his life with language, to restore it to beauty as you might restore a church.”

In a very curious conclusion to the essay, Gass asks some questions about Proust’s great book. The first question concerns organization. “Proust was always ready to have his friends defend the organization of Remembrance of Things Past, and there can be no doubt his tapestry is intricate and cunningly worked; yet much of the so-called form in Proust is meaningless—an excuse.” This is startling; form and content are supposed to blend, the form should be organic. Gass violates all of the preconceptions about artistic form, and thereby punctures many critical balloons. He does say that the real nature of the book is its openness to a variety of material; it is a sort of expandable filing cabinet. Gass then refutes the claim that the book is about “the essential truth of life.” What then is left? Style? No, the style cannot carry this enormous book. It is only “out of the architecture of the word, the great work rises, but its reading requires a similar commitment, a similar elevation of the soul above mere living, mere mortal concerns.” The real nature of the work shines forth, and the ideal reader with an ideal insomnia is the only one who can bring it to life.

The essays on Colette and Valéry are similar. Both modern writers lead inadequate lives. Colette is plagued by a leech of a husband, and Valéry quits writing because he cannot create a masterpiece. Colette is “redeemed” by her relationship with the supreme “creative medium,” the written word. Valéry is saved by his creation of a masterpiece, Monsieur Teste. Gass is superb in illuminating particular works, but his defense of artists who need little defense, his obsession with redeeming them, can become tiring although Gass does redeem himself with his insights.

One essay that is likely to interest many readers is “The Anatomy of Mind,” a study of Freud. It is most interesting for its attempt to place the psychology of Freud into a new context. Gass begins by portraying Freud’s struggle, at the relatively advanced age of forty, to make psychoanalysis into a science. He immediately contrasts the confident author of that attempt, a “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” with the seventy-year-old, cancer ridden sage who states, “My discoveries are not primarily a heal-all. My discoveries are a basis for a grave philosophy. There are very few who understand this, there are very few who are capable of understanding this.” Gass’s relocation of Freud is significant in that he takes the curse of immediate healing away from the troubled field of psychoanalysis. Gass takes another step in the relocation of Freud by claiming that “the Freud who told us the meaning of our slips, jokes and dreams was a reader an interpreter of texts.” This is another way of saying that Freud belongs to the world of the word rather than to science. This liberating idea is extended in the claim, “Freudianism is beginning to emerge at last as one of the most complete and vigorous statements of rational materialism philosophy has yet had the pleasure to challenge and ponder.”

A few other essays deserve comment. The study of Sartre is a satiric disparagement of the French master’s moral claims for art. Gass’s repeated question, “What could be more bourgeois?” about these ideas, is crushing. The first three essays of the book concern suicide in one way or another. The first makes the necessary point that suicide is not like “the final line of an obscure poem”: it does not give meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. It is not, it is implied, an authentication of the “confessional” poet’s life and art. Only the word can do that in Gass’s universe. The third essay praises Wisconsin Death Trip as a “construction” which contains the facts of loneliness, death, suicide. The last is an excellent study of Malcolm Lowry that evokes the world of the cantina, the world of Under the Volcano.

The collection is flawed by Gass’s obsessive concern with the “ontological transformation,” but that is the only flaw. Reviews and essays are turned into novellas that reveal more than conventional literary criticism can. Gass comes close to redefining the form by his style, approach, angle of vision. The essays on Stein and Proust are likely to become permanent additions to the study of these two writers, and the essay on Freud may begin a necessary reevaluation of psychoanalysis. It is a worthwhile book for those readers who are interested in literary criticism, modern literature, words.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Book World. July 19, 1978, p. E8.

Christian Science Monitor. July 24, 1978, p. 18.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVII, October, 1978, p. 89.

New Times. XI, July 24, 1978, p. 66.

New York Times Book Review. July 9, 1978, p. 7.

Times Literary Supplement. November 3, 1978, p. 1274.

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