On Some Sentences of William Gass

I.
This is a post about Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass. It will take the form of a bunch of scattered observations and hypotheses. But first some introduction of the perspective from which I’ve written what follows in section II, et al, and which I’ve gleaned from nearly constant perusal of Gass’s many books of essays since I discovered them a year or so ago.

After reading the essays, one has to notice at least two things: first, that Gass is radically constructivist about fictional worlds and characters; further, that he is a writer of sentences first – of scenes and stories a distant second.

As a constructivist he compares the author to God, and he relates the history of the development of the novel to the increasingly problematic question of the author’s moral relationship to the world he creates within his words. “Before us is the empty page, the deep o’er which, like God, though modestly, we brood.” The historical move from omniscient narrators, for example, into a preference for radically limited perspectives is a move as if God created a world to run according to lawful processes and then used those laws to excuse himself from responsibility for the tragedies that consequently befell his creatures. “Novels in which the novelist has effaced himself create worlds without gods.”

Gass’s meta-fictional stories, which so perplexed and fascinated the simple mind of a John Gardner (for instance in his The Art of Fiction, where he continually referred to Gass as one of the most important contemporary writers, while remaining clueless as to the measure of his greatness), work out, in his own inevitably godlike practice of authorship, the moral quandaries involved in being God. Gass is an atheist, of course, but also a constant theologian (a practical theologian, if you will, where I mean not “moralist” but “one who practices being god and seeks to know him in that way”).

Gass’s constructivism is also a part of his awareness of the history of modernity. He knows that secularization, rationalization, bureaucratization, and commodification have put the kibosh on any mimetic ideal for fiction. People simply don’t share enough of the same world for one mirror to reflect it. Hence, “there are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions.” He devotes a whole essay to demolishing the idea of characters that are more real than life – as some people say of, for example, Anna Karenina. Characters are nothing but the persistent glyphs of their written name, along with whatever predicates and sentences are associated with them.

The upshot of all this constructivism is, among other things, a sharp critique of the kind of literary criticism that spends its time looking for insights into characters, formalizations of plot, and deep moral lessons. What is all that stuff, really, but the effort to interpret the revelation of an authorial God who is not transcendent and therefore not worth the effort? (To steal my own thunder: those who read with such goals in mind are rather like Reverend Furber, forever trying to wrest revelatory insight from nature, except that in this case they are more foolish, even, than him because the nature they are consulting like the Delphic oracle is just some other human’s construction. “These days, often, the novelist resumes the guise of God; but he is merely one of us now, full of confusion and error, sin and cleverness.”)

But if this is true, and most critics are like bad preachers of flawed scriptures, how exactly should one write about fiction?

The answer may be found in the other thing the essays reveal: for Gass, writing is about sentences first. He wrote:

You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished. What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too.

As this quote demonstrates, it’s not just sentences, but sentences in their aspect as aesthetic constructions and concept-carriers which fascinate Gass as a writer. There are echoes here of Gass’s most important critical and philosophical influences: New Criticism and logical positivism. (I know, I know: these influences surprised me, too, when I learned of them.) The New Critical influence is felt in Gass’s emphasis upon the autonomy of sentences: they are interesting in their elemental nature, as conceptual music, prior to anything they might tell us about their times or even about the characters and events they project. The logical positivist influence is felt in his profoundly antimetaphysical polemics against character and plot and theme. Sentences, these essentially delicious and atomically elemental constituents of a novel, are where the philosophy and the life of fiction is to be found.

I imagine that Gass would prefer his own fiction to be dealt with as he deals with the fiction of others. So I’m going to try to do that in what follows. Let’s talk about some sentences. I haven’t tried to string my observations into some thesis driven argument, nor to offer an over-all interpretation. Instead I simply offer them for what they are and have tried to tie them as much as possible specifically to sentences as conceptual music.

II.
What is Omensetter’s Luck about? Often a title will hint at what a novel is about. Not so much in this case. Certainly Tott, Pimber, and Furber speak about the luck of Brackett Omensetter. But they didn’t write the novel, though(almost) every word in it is one of theirs. Gass wrote them. This is metafiction as Gass practices it: a story about characters telling a story. Consequently the best fun and the most interesting comparisons involve the three stories, not their common object. Omensetter’s luck is like the table on which these three story-tellers sit. Don’t be distracted by Omensetter’s luck; you’ll have no problem keeping him in view. The trick is like a phenomenological reduction: be conscious of consciousness, notice the story of the story.

My synopsis, having performed this “reduction,” is this: Omensetter’s Luck is Gass’s sentences about the sentences of three men about a sentenceless man. It is a book about the misery of being articulate in the face of the pre-articulate – and yet, a book that gives us pleasure in its articulateness.

What sentences! Before comparing the three varieties of them (the sentences of Tott, of Pimber, of Furber), let’s just hang a few of them from across the whole text as if in a museum. No Duchamp, this exhibition. Context or contextlessness is irrelevant to their beauty which is musical and conceptual. Like footnotes in a good work of scholarship, they tell a second story beneath the apparent story of Omensetter and his luck. They carry us forward like Socrates’ irony. They constantly belie – in the delight they give us – the agony they appear to be giving their constructed narrators. I share them without comment, each in their own little frame:

They handled vases, fingered silver spoons, smoothed hand-quilted quilts.

His nose twitched with harmless honesty.

He stored his pay in a sock which hung from his bench, went about oblivious of either time or weather, habitually permitted things which he’d collected like a schoolboy to slip through holes in his trousers.

Firm flesh refines itself to fearful fumes by water.

Men, in my experience, are the worst disease, he said.

III.
Israbestis Tott remembers… something. He is a babbling and not very interesting ghost at the auction of Mrs. Pimber’s belongings. One after another he tries to make people listen, to re-enact his ancient role as town gossip. But it’s hard when no one remembers the ones you want to gossip about, when there’s no traction for prurience. Only the sensational will make people listen. And then, as an old man, he really wants not so much to gossip as to reminisce, but the only mode of communication he knows is gossip. A problem. Consequently many of Israbestis’s sentences trail off. His interlocutors depart, ignore him, cut him off, redirect him.

Gass called this first section an overture. (Remember that sentences are conceptual music. Gass takes that designation quite seriously.) It sounds the themes and characters that will be developed later. It is medley and fantasia, haunted by experiences yet to come (as far as the reader is concerned). Like any good overture, it was composed last.

Each of the three narrators will fantasize. They will seize upon the tableaus of everyday life and enter into them in strange ways. Pimber does it with trees and with a fox. Furber will elevate it to the level of exegesis, dialoguing with gravestones, listening to sounds and divining in them judgments. Tott does it with old, cracked wallpaper, in one of the most beautiful passages about a day dream I’ve ever encountered. It could almost come straight out of Browne:

You could imagine maps in the wallpaper. The roses had faded into vague shells of pink. Only a few silver lines along the vanished stems and in the veins of leaves, indistinct patches of the palest green, remained—the faint suggestions of mysterious geography. A grease spot was a marsh, a mountain or a treasure. Israbestis went boating down a crack on cool days, under tree boughs, bending his head. He fished in a chip of plaster. The perch rose to the bait and were golden in the sunwater. Speaks stood for cities; pencil marks for bridges; stains and shutter patterns laid out fields of wheat and oats and corn. In the shadow of a corner the crack issued into a great sea. There was a tear in the paper that looked exactly like a railway and another that signified a range of hills. Some tiny drops of ink formed a chain of lakes…

I don’t have much to say about Tott, just one recommendation: go reread his section after you’ve finished the book. It’s considerably more interesting then.

IV.
Henry Pimber is pitiable. Probably the most sympathetic character. He is a namer, as are all three narrators. Tott is a failure at naming. A boy has to explain to him the importance of names: he can’t just call Kick’s cat, “Kick’s cat,” because “I know a kid got his name erased and he went away forever. […] he went away invisible so no one could see him.” “No one at all?” “Only trees. Things like that.” Pimber, on the other hand, knows about names. Brad has already observed how Adamic this makes him. But Pimber’s names have their greatest effect on himself. He identifies himself with what he names, with a fox, with trees. Eventually he extends the limb of a tree with his own body. (Furber is the best at naming. Omensetter himself is affected by Furber’s naming.)

As a namer, Pimber tries to find a name for Omensetter. He loves Omensetter. But he just can’t identify himself with the lucky man. His sentences are largely loving anthropomorphisms. Strangely, he can’t anthropomorphize Omensetter:

Not Adam but inhuman. Was that why he loved him, Henry wondered. It wasn’t for his life—a curse, god knew; it wasn’t for the beet-root poultice. It lay somewhere in the chance of being new… of living lucky, and of losing Henry Pimber. He had always crammed humanity in everything. Even the air felt guilty. Once he would have seen each tree along this slope boned humanly and branching like the black bile tree, the locust, despondent even at the summit of the highest summer. How convenient it had been to find his friends and enemies embarked in tame slow trunks, in this or that bent tree, their aspirations safely in high branches and their fires podded into quiet seed. He could pat their bodies with his hands and carve his name and make up animal emotions for them no fruit could contradict. It was always easier to love great trees than people. Such trees were honest. Their deaths showed.

V.
Jethro Furber’s sentences take the form of long, eloquent, bitter, allusion-riddled, world-creating monologues. That is Gass’s best genre. The Tunnel is one long instance of it. In several essays and interviews, Gass has revealed that his father was a violently bitter man with terrible things to say about the many kinds of people he disliked. One can’t help but see in Gass’s embittered monologuers an enhanced, sophisticated, erudite version of his own father.

Furber despises the pre-articulateness of Omensetter. Sunday while he preaches – holds the rest of the whole town hostage to his own articulateness – the Omensetter family lounges outside in the gravel and trails their feet in the stream, noisy with enjoyment. Furber’s account attempts to diminish the Omensetter pre-articulateness by rendering it as meaningless noises. Consequently his monologue is at first punctuated by mocking onomatopoeias. Yet we can’t mistake Furber’s jealousy that Omensetter and his dog are more successful at arousing his congregation – albeit to pre-articulate playfulness – than his own failed pulpit dramatism. (Before his first sermon he attempted a dramatic pause and was thoroughly embarrassed when the pianist started playing a hymn to cover the silence.)

Furber and Omensetter upend religion’s desired contrast. The natural man, pre-religion (and therefore, presumably, pre-grace) is supposed to be vile and doomed. The religious man, on the other hand, is supposed to be salt and light, the agent of grace. But Omensetter is the zestful beacon, the purveyor of beet-poultice miracles, the lucky man (and Gass has said that luck functions as grace with an assumed name in this story). Furber is a preacher whose longstanding relationship with the Bible began as a form of permissible masochism. He preaches law and looks for punishment. When he first read it, the New Testament was rather a disappointment.
Consequently, Furber’s sentences are larded with allusions and direct quotations of the Old Testament. That and dirty poems. He provides the basis for a comparison which reveals that the two genres are not so far apart as they may seem.

As I’m sure everyone noticed, Furber mispronounces Brackett Omensetter’s name until the time when Omensetter tells him about Pimber’s death. From that point on, “Backett” is “Brackett.” This is the chief indicator of Furber’s change of heart.

Could there be a more amusing and revealing contrast than that between Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and the Gilean of Gass’s demonic pastor?

I could go on and on and on about Furber, but, as Brad pointed out in his post, the last section of the book is the richest vein. So I’ll leave it mostly alone for others to talk about

VI.
If none of the many scattered observations above offer any meat to chew on in the comments, perhaps at least everyone who has read the book could do the following: type out your favorite sentence from the book, from the perspective of “conceptual music.”

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15 Responses to “On Some Sentences of William Gass”

  1. Bifurcated Life – It’s Up Says:

    [...] guest post at AUFS on the subject of Omensetter’s Luck, that is. Go read it. And if you’ve read the novel, by all means comment: the book deserve discussion, it really [...]

  2. Diana Hereld Says:

    Hi Robert,

    Wonderful post! Before I comment, I wanted to ask-I’m assuming you’ve read the ‘Music as Prose’ essay from Finding a form? My apologies if that should be obvious, but Omensetter’s Luck was actually my first exposure to Gass, and I only discovered his ideas on musical syntax today.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    Thanks.

    I actually have read that essay, though I confess that when it comes to Gass’s music-metaphors for prose I personally much prefer it when he’s talking about form in a larger sense (see, for example, his novella The Cartesian Sonata) than when, as in that essay, he’s talking about the sound of prose. I think he fails when he tries to describe which vowels and consonants make a piece of prose musical. He’s onto something with respect to phrasing — as a flautist and pianist, I thrill to explanations like, “In music, sounds form phrases; in prose, phrases form sounds” — but when he waxes eloquent about how repeated vowels fit a mood, or how consonants ape the action they describe, I’m a bit put off by the imprecision and subjectivism of it all. Or the bit about his prose diagram looking like a ladle? Please… I get what he’s trying to do, though; perhaps I just don’t grasp the reasonable scaffolding behind his remarks on that subject.

    I personally find his music-metaphors most useful because of the light they shed on things like his critique of character and plot in the book of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life. He demonstrates how, as in the analysis of a symphony, we can find statement and restatement and development of a theme, counterpoint, movements and tempos, cadences of varying resolution, etc. This because in literature characters, for example, are not actual flesh-and-blood objects glimpsed dimly through the window of prose, but projections like the figures seen in a tapestry, indistinguishable from their medium. That means that most basically they are sounds or letters, repeated and associated with other sounds or letters, occurring and recurring like a motif. Obviously this is a metaphor, as he points out in the beginning of the essay you cite, but — as with the phenomenological reduction I mentioned in the post — this abstraction from the fullness of what literature is can lend itself to a new kind of literary analysis.

    Sorry I got way far away from your simple question — yes, I’ve read the essay. I’ll stop soap-boxing. I look forward to your comments.

  4. Diana Hereld Says:

    Oh, goodness. How funny. Looks like I’ll be rewriting the entirety of the post I was to submit Monday, as “In music, sounds form phrases; in prose, phrases form sounds” is how I began my response! I actually believe you just touched on nearly everything I’ve prepared. Very cool!

    Brad should have told me you were a musician! I’m a pianist/vocalist myself, so I suppose it’s not strange that we gravitated to the same thought process. But yes, I completely agree. The ridiculous breakdown later in the essay of all the IPA-type nonsense was a bit much for me, though again, I do tend to enjoy his ideas on the sound as prose as a whole. I suppose I also get what he’s trying to do, but it’s almost as if he’s simply ruined it by yawn-inducing scrutiny and taking it too far.On the other hand (and I really have not read much Gass) this may be the first tiny segment of his that has not left me near reeling in psycholinguistic arousal.

    Funny you mentioned the ‘phenomenological reduction’ comment here, that was actually the statement that resonated the strongest with me in your post: especially the “be conscious of consciousness.” Very Malabou. Brilliant. Please do soap-box away, it’s very enlightening. Right, off to the drawing board!

  5. The Sound of Prose: Omensetter’s Luck « As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears Says:

    [...] and how it may work closely with its more literary neighbors, there’s a great post just up at An und für sich already yielding some interesting discussion. This post (On Some Sentences of William Gass) [...]

  6. Guido Nius Says:

    Thank you, Robert, for this. There’s a lot to disagree with but that the word (i.e. the sentence) is the main character is, I think, spot on. It’s a discussion between the pre-articulate and the articulate cast in words by what may be called the post-articulate.

    I do not think however that god has a lot to do with it, unless you have loose interpretations of ‘god’ and ‘word’ allowing them to fold into each other. It is the word that delivers the events from their insignificant nature. In doing so the events are lost and are a mere substratum for what is really significant, for what is created by the word.

    I am not a musician (nor am I somebody with depth of knowledge on Gass) so I don’t know whether it’s actually true that when making music there is a sense that the music is making itself and the musician just needs to follow it. Whether true or not, I’d think that Gass is not so much constructing this world of words but following it, tracing it out. The author as an antenna that is picking up the words instead of shaping them into a form consistent with convictions or symbols.

    I would have wished to be able to make more sense in this comment. If anything to do justice to your post. But this is what I got.

  7. Robert Minto Says:

    I would assert, contrariwise, that god most certainly does have a lot to do with it — I encourage you to read Gass’s title essay in Fiction and the Figures of Life, which is where I found the remarks about authorship and god which I paraphrase. — Re: music, construction, etc. I think Gass would laugh at the idea that the music (of prose) makes itself and he’s just tracing it, that he’s an antenna. That’s precisely the opposite of the point he makes again and again in his essays — and also in the afterword to our novel, by the way, if your edition has that — which is that his authorship proceeds tortuously by very long processes of revision and re-arrangement. It took him decades to finish The Tunnel! No elegant gliding and pirouetting along a line already traced in ice for Gass: he wrested, wrought, scrapped, retrieved, re-wrought, and then transmuted into gold every one of those delicate sentences, if his own accounts are to be believed. I can’t think of an author for whom writing is more purportedly laborious, for whom it is less like radio reception by antenna… —> Let this cast no aspersion on your comment, which was very thoughtful. I realize my post didn’t make clear how closely I was adhering to specific passage in various Gass essays. It would be impolite of me to start arguing with you and then spring the fact that it was all based on this or that essay on you. So just in advance, if you want to make an argument against the association of godhood with authorship, and against the constructedness (the “creatureliness”) of sentences, then you’re going to have to do so against Gass’s own words as well as mine. I was mostly relying on “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “In Terms of the Toenail,” as well as on various scattered remarks from various pieces in The World Within the Word and A Temple of Texts.

    Is the word the main character, as you say? I’m not sure… That’s your way of rephrasing the stuff about metafiction, right? Since I’ve been so ornery and disagreeing above, I’ll go with it. (Though the nit-picky part of me that just finished up the semester studying philosophy wants to quibble that whatever definition of character your using, it surely can’t be Gass’s.) If you mean, however, that the real story is the story of Tott, Pimber, and Furber constructing Omensetter in their stories, then I think you’re right. Metafiction is a curious thing. If you want to see it occurring with even more extraordinary levels of self-reflexity, check out Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife!

  8. Guido Nius Says:

    I only read Omensetter from Gass and am reading (slowly but surely) “On Being Blue”, so I can’t argue with what you say on Gass. Furthermore, my antenna metaphor was ill chosen as it implied that somehow writing or composing is easy or, worse, passive. I don’t think for a moment that the process is not a laborious one or, better, one that requires very significant creative energy being put into it.

    That said I believe that when a writer publishes he relinquishes power over his writing & that reading is a creative performance just like composing (even though obviously not ‘just like’ in a simple sense). I would not therefore see a conceptual problem in arguing against Gass about Gass. However that may not even be necessary as the afterword you refer to also indicates how co-incidental his writing process was to some extent. In the end a good sentence sounds like a sentence that had to be the way it turned out to be. It takes a lot to produce it, no doubt, but it is not an act of god in the sense that it was willed this way by an individual author in full control of the process. I find the idea of sentences as creatures a fine one but creatures are not independent of their context, creatures are what they are at least in part because they live in a context which is not one they have full influence over.

    I may well going into a dead end, that wouldn’t be bad as long as I am genuinely trying to find some way forward that isn’t just reconstructing what has been already constructed so finely. But when I read Furber trying to articulate and control to wind up realizing that some shit just happens, I feel like there is something to be said for not overrating self-reflexive identities.

    I probably was inaccurate and misleading in my ‘the word is the main character’-thing but, no, I didn’t mean meta-fiction in the sense you describe (even if for sure every character has put its own Omensetter in their own words). I meant that the book is about the (productive power of the) word and that is a thought you produced in me (although the fact that it was produced will maybe have to do more with the design errors inherent in me than with what you wrote).

    Back to the beginning of the comment: I am an amateur, don’t take any of this as anything else as trying without knowing.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Very nicely done, Robert. Love the post. Much to chew on, so my response may come in the form of multiple comments as insights strike. First, though, I want to comment on what you say in response to Diana:

    I think he fails when he tries to describe which vowels and consonants make a piece of prose musical. He’s onto something with respect to phrasing — as a flautist and pianist, I thrill to explanations like, “In music, sounds form phrases; in prose, phrases form sounds” — but when he waxes eloquent about how repeated vowels fit a mood, or how consonants ape the action they describe, I’m a bit put off by the imprecision and subjectivism of it all. Or the bit about his prose diagram looking like a ladle? Please…

    I’m not so sure there is a failure here. I see Gass’ attempts here as more structural attempts that inform him more than they do are ever intended to delight the reader. I recall him noting that most would never so much as get a whiff of the structural devices & games he employs to give his writing form. This reminds me quite a bit of the various structuring devices employed by Joyce in Ulysses, all of which he was very reluctant see the light of day (though he, of course, acquiesced). To the extent that Gass’ prose works musically (in the larger, perhaps more objective, sense that you prefer), I think the subjective level of vowel s & consonants as notes along the way must on a significant, if ofttimes imperceptible level, succeed.

    An example of a sentence that I see as operating successfully on both levels: “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever either, though they seemed to take heart, or did they renew their fear? from their encounter with the water; but despite this urging each span was less, like that shortness of breath which grows the greater, the greater effort is required–and plip . . . . . . . .plip . . . plipplipplipplish was their hearts’ register and all they were.” (145) Here concept & consonant, sound & expression of sound are I think united — & this unity, from Kick’s cat down to Omensetter’s ignorance of knowledge to Furber’s knowledge of ignorance, is crucial.

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    I find Guido’s observation re: god, his arguing “against Gass about Gass,” as really quite interesting. In his essays & interviews (here are two examples) Gass surely sees his activity as that of a kind of deity. Thus, I would add, some of the inscrutable aspects of structure that I flagged in my first comment, structures that are only purely (but not exclusively) the joy of the creator — on this I agree completely w/ Robert’s reading. Were we to adhere to Gass’ line on creativity, this would be enough; but Guido’s observation that there is no contextless “ex nihilo,” let’s say, from which the act of creativity occurs, this it seems to me, raises complications to the self-characterization as “divine” creator. Now, I’m unsure “when” such complications are most productively manifest: in the course of creating or of critiquing that which is created. (As much as we might want these moments to remain unified, the knowledge that they are is itself the moment they no longer are.) Does one, in other words, realize one is not God while in the midst of creating, due to the necessary effort perhaps, or afterward?

    This is a very unclear comment, I fear. Do not let it derail a fabulous conversation.

  11. Robert Minto Says:

    @Guido: In your reformulation, I thoroughly agree about the inadequacy of characterizing the author as God. I thought after your first comment that you were just saying that the author-god idea wasn’t Gass’s, but something I’d pulled from my ass. That behind us, I think we can agree that the actual relationship between an author and her sentences is more complex than either a god breathing text or an antenna picking up the message of the word itself — the question, as Brad rightly observes, is where the complications enter in. My thought — and here I’m speaking for myself, not paraphrasing Gass — is that the relationship between author and sentence is more that of prime mover than god (again, overly simplified: but less objectionable than the other at least). The main (not only) obstacle to a complete literary omnipotence is the fact that language, the equally eternal matter (to continue the analogy) an author works in, is more complexly sedimented than she can possibly conceive, much less organize with rigor, so that however much enormous creative energy is expended in the production of a novel, reading it and writing about it remain creative acts as well. That’s my suggestion as to the location of the complication. In short: I think you’re right, Guido, to argue against Gass about Gass in this way. Sorry for misunderstanding you the first time round, and thank you Brad for clarifying things.

    @Brad: You’re right, Gass does like to talk about his hidden structures. Especially in that mind-blowing interview where he reveals that The Tunnel is as formally structured as a Schoenberg. I hadn’t thought of that in this context. I guess I can buy your account of the subjective, note-level aspect of prose’s musicality. I find it less useful, however, than the larger sense, because it seems harder for anyone other than the author to perceive. Recognizing the union of form and feeling seems a lot chancier and more imprecise and ambiguous than recognizing the larger musical patterns of a piece of prose — your excellent example notwithstanding. Writing about how one perceives such union lends itself to teaching “prose appreciation” perhaps — when it catches, which, in Gass’s attempts at teaching it, it often doesn’t for me — but is much less useful as analysis. Forgive my unpoetic soul its preference for the latter…

  12. Brad Johnson Says:

    It is certainly less “useful” in terms of rendering analysis, I’ll grant you that. & even the experiences of that note-level, if/when they occur, are hard to translate beyond the experience itself. The greater question for me is which has more influence over the other: does the note-level aspect inform the larger-scale musicality, or is it more that the larger-scale musicality making possible the hearing of the note-level aspect at all. On this, I don’t rightly know.

  13. diana hereld Says:

    Very interesting question, Brad. My immediate reaction, I suppose, is to ask whether we’d have really noticed to the more intimate, note-level aspects without the larger- scale musicality to thrill us first. So I guess I’d be agreeing with the latter, then.

  14. Guido Nius Says:

    Words vs sentences, sentences vs stories, fixing meaning vs producing meaning.

    There are two aspects of creation: the creation itself and what is created. Gass is lyrical about the autonomy of the latter, but he is at the same time (Robert’s right for pointing that out) a control freak about the former. All kinds of structures, and games and riddles, are put in allowing him to claim his creation as the expression of his most individual effort.

    I don’t think this works although it is for sure a culmination of a couple of centuries worth of a literary tradition of super-artists, pre-shadowing the era of celebrities celebrated for their highly personal achievements. Atomic individualism is reflected in the craftsmanship of atomic sentences (sentences before stories, riffs before songs). This makes ‘On Blue’ sometimes stale and sterile in a gotcha kind of way. As if the desire of absolute control is less suspect in the world of words as it is in the world of everyday life. The desire for cleanliness, free of waste, when taken too far restricts the autonomy of what is created. It risks a turn towards what can be best expressed in this context as a play with the letter G.

    It is a good thing that the whole is released to achieve all of its generative capacity. Probably this psychosis needs balancing by pinning down the parts neurotically but one can take this only so far: the story always wins. Even the greatest of authors – and Gass is certainly all the way up there – cannot but follow it. Henry and Brackett – even either of the Lucy’s – will have more impact than the best of sentences that have been put on paper in their service. Could it be that Furber realized all this and his creator didn’t?

    And yes, I think the world of Pirandello.

  15. david cl driedger Says:

    The upshot of all this constructivism is, among other things, a sharp critique of the kind of literary criticism that spends its time looking for insights into characters, formalizations of plot, and deep moral lessons. What is all that stuff, really, but the effort to interpret the revelation of an authorial God who is not transcendent and therefore not worth the effort? (To steal my own thunder: those who read with such goals in mind are rather like Reverend Furber, forever trying to wrest revelatory insight from nature, except that in this case they are more foolish, even, than him because the nature they are consulting like the Delphic oracle is just some other human’s construction. “These days, often, the novelist resumes the guise of God; but he is merely one of us now, full of confusion and error, sin and cleverness.”)

    Why the need to create this decisive marker if only to follow Gass’s fiction “as he deals with the fiction of others”? Why is it not worth the effort? I find that I am terminally existential particularly when it comes to good literature. I find myself laid open, soft and fleshy, being pricked or caressed, not knowing what it means but attending to it still as it is both formative and, heck, even educational (if that passes for what you mean by a ‘moral lesson’). This is most definitely worth the effort. There are very few things in life that I find worth effort. It may well be that I am in Furber’s error but I feel that to be in Furber’s error is perhaps to be in a better place than I was before (even if I cannot be in Furber’s error but be in Gass’s sentences of it). And to pretend to step beyond it is simply disingenuous and creates a new structure that will keep me from the encounter that I approach literature for.

    I read your and Diana’s post before reading Gass’s Afterword and feared I was some philistine or simpleton trying not really for moralism but for encounter, at least. Then reading the Afterword I found that Gass was haunted by what haunted me, Furber’s for this (now to be fair I am a preacher not always knowing the margins of my own faith so don’t be too harsh on me for my association). There is maddeningly complex, detailed, formal, even contradictory structures around the Holy of Holies in the Temple but all that is negotiate an empty space, a for this of sorts. It seems that there should be more talk of madness in the midst of Gass’s priestly form. I mean this is the response to the tohu w bohu of the blank page and life that Robert began with and as tohu w bohu it is not ex nihilo.

    In an attempt to give this comment some sense of traction I would ask why Gass is not viewed either by himself or by others more as a priest than a deity?


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