William Gass and the Music of Prose

In response to trying to produce a critique of Omensetter’s Luck as a whole, the biggest challenge has obviously been to narrow down which direction to take. As someone who tends to absorb and/or retain art and literature in terms of affect, I’d like to briefly touch on the part of the work of most interest to me psychologically, or in this case, psycholinguistically.

Before I sway too easily into the grave error we’ve been cautioned against that leads down the road of merely looking for insights into characters and ‘moral lessons,’ I’d like to keep just a moment more in regards to Robert’s thoughts on syntax and conceptual music. I have very much enjoyed (coming from a strong music theory background) seeing terminology one also uses in musical structures (i.e. phrase, period, subject, and later assonance and consonance when dealing in sound devises such as those in Frost, Swinburn or Emerson) being employed here.

A couple of days ago, I read a lovely essay by an Italian student at the University of Bologna entitled Dwelling upon Metaphors: The Translation of William Gass’s Novellas. What caught my eye in this dissertation were his thoughts on Gass’s essay in Finding a Form, “The Music of Prose” specifically. In this portion, he sees this ‘conceptual music’ as a type of second syntax:

 Musical form creates another syntax, which overlaps the grammatical and reinforces that set of directions sometimes, or adds another dimension by suggesting that two words, when they alliterate or rhyme, thereby modify each other, even if they’re not in any normally modifying position. Everything a sentence is is made manifest by its music (Gass, 1996).

This sheds an interesting light toward the question Brad previously posed, “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?” I mentioned briefly that I also had wondered this, and on first instinct was inclined to agree with the latter. Would we have even taken the chance to note the more intimate underpinnings of the text (the sentence Brad noted on p. 145, “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever…” being an excellent example) without previously taking in the ‘larger-scale musicality?’ I’m inclined to be doubtful.

In defense of the conclusion being the latter, where the larger-scale musicality makes possible the emergence of the smaller intricacies, what immediately struck me about Gass’s literary style even upon a cursory reading was this: simple diction and syntax. Except it’s not simple, not at all. It is what caused me to read and reread Tott’s indiscriminating rants on his imagined travels as metaphor for his pain time and time again. Of the entirety of the work (and I have mentioned it already in an earlier comment) my favorite is as follows:

 His dreams were not embarrassed by clichés, but in each he always knew the precise feel of the air, what  manner of birds were singing, the position of the sun, the kind of cloud, the form of emotion in himself and others, and every felicity of life (13).

I can’t recall ever reading something quite like it. In the complete chaos that surrounds Tott’s rambling, out comes this complete lack of repetition, a conclusively original thought and absolute clarity of mind. Gass’s sentences are so incredibly thick that they insist on being read time and time again. He has been called an unabashed sensualist, to which I feel there can be little dispute. I find it is the sentences-his use of diction and syntax-that ceaselessly hold blame for his linguistic success. Though they are unarguably essential, I feel it is his combination of words, not necessarily his aping vowels or repeated consonants that really render the work.

At the end of the day, we can already begin maneuvering the ins and outs of either side, and I know a good case can be made for both. However, this process could also clearly result in the dog chasing his tail. If we widen our gaze and apply this question to a broader spectrum of art and literature, could we pose it again and come to the same conclusion? Or is this a quandary best left specifically to this subtly explosive form?

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12 Responses to “William Gass and the Music of Prose”

  1. Guido Nius Says:

    Diana, I have been wondering about this, my own musicality being limited to listening. The difference between sentences and musicality could be in the additional dimensions words allow. On top of syntax, rhythm, melody there is semantics and there are associations, implications, conventions. Could it not be that the musicality is just another way of restricting from all of the possible sentences those sentences that generate in the most salient way an original thought?

    The creation of unique meanings, going beyond the piece parts, reminds of an essay of Davidson (I forget the title and I do not presently have the time to look it up). There is for sure a continuum over words, sentences and stories, but the key part is that something new is generated: a delta above and beyond the elements. Key sentences will be able to to function alone but then there will always be something added when sentences combine. One could experiment with this: in submitting the sentences to a control group that did not read the entire account and a group that did. Is there something equivalent done in music?

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Apologies for the too-long delay in commenting here, Diana. Silence says nothing to the quality of the post, I assure you.

    Now, while I think we would all likely agree there is at the end of the day no proper choosing between the two “sides” — dialectical dance partners, they are, if nothing else. We’ve all confessed a certain preference or predilection which we are inclined to defend, of course. This being primarily a philosophy blog that’s to be expected. As such . . . I will simply reiterate my expected bend toward the sounds over the over-arching musicality. This may well do w/ the fact that I’m not at all musically inclined. Not only can I not play an instrument, i cannot read music; and I’ve forgotten every musical term & concept every taught me in my jr.-high chorus classes. The degree to which I love music, which is actually quite intense, is built on my sensitivity to sounds I cannot conceptualize. (Not unlike trying & failing ot process something by La Monte Young, and yet occasionally in the course of listening hear something not quite “musical” but sonically revelatory.) Which is to say, while I’m fully on board & Robert (& your) affection for the ‘conceptual music” idea, I hold fast to my insistence that this music is not always strictly conceptual either; that in being music it is both more & less than the concepts it summons & creates.

  3. Diana Hereld Says:

    Guido, my apologies in the lateness getting back to you. I think we’re all kind of in travel mode this week.

    In terms of your first question: “Could it not be that the musicality is just another way of restricting from all of the possible sentences those sentences that generate in an original thought?” Sorry, could you just clarify what kind of ‘musicality’ you mean here? A cruel question I suppose, but just trying to make sure I follow correctly-did you mean musicality of the smaller devices of consonant repetition and letter play, or musicality in the grander scale of things (which is what I was thinking of in looking at sentences as a whole) ?

    In regards to your second question, I almost wish Brad had jumped in on this one, because I’m afraid I’m about to make well-known my ignorance as I’m not sure quite how, but, I know things like this in music do exist. Whether it be in the way music is broken down and analyzed, or in the way some types of prog music are actually composed and put together, it exists (and be ‘prog’ I’m thinking more Zappa, Cage, Beefheart, etc). Again, I’m not sure if I’m answering this properly, but I feel in some sense this is what takes place when a descant is created from some type of traditional folksong-they literally take the tones (and words, should there be any) and pull them out to a line that literally sits and moves on top of the other melody and harmony lines. It’s like a harmony line, but above everything else, and with only token bits taken out of the original thought. It is a created entity, not generally something that was there in the beginning.

    In terms of this type of thing that was there in the beginning (i.e. actually created and composed with full knowledge and intention of it’s existence), I could be *very* wrong but I feel John Cage has some work like this based on selections from Thoreau’s journal. Again, could be wrong.

    If you think of that Davidson essay, please let me know!

  4. Diana Hereld Says:

    Brad, not at all. I know you guys are on the move, as was I. Let me first address this: “I will simply reiterate my expected bend toward the sounds over the over-arching musicality. This may well do w/ the fact that I’m not at all musically inclined.”

    I tend to disagree with the above statement for a few reasons-first, I would say in speaking with you about various musicians, on the contrary, you are musically inclined, far more so than the sullen child who is capable through force of playing Chopin’s waltzes repeatedly and to perfection, only to eventually hate it and after escape, never return to music again. To be honest, it’s very possible I feel as you do with myself and philosophy-I wouldn’t say it’s that I’m completely disinclined, but more that I lack the training and/or haven’t taken the time to give myself the linguistic tools in which to better understand and express myself. But that is a different discussion entirely.

    Because it is a vein I’m currently researching myself in music psychology, let me respond to this: “The degree to which I love music, which is actually quite intense, is built on my sensitivity to sounds I cannot conceptualize.” We may have talked about this before, but this is unique, and I’ve had lots of fun (whether one respects Jung’s personality dichotomies or not) kind of breaking down the personalities who feel as you do. To make it simple, I’m the type of person who is content (regardless of how I adore some types of math rock, etc.) to listen to a song on the ‘full-scale level,’ and let it be. I don’t always need to even bother with the smaller bits I can’t conceptualize. On the contrary, some of my dearest friends have been ones who I would argue almost need that in music-they have to have those intricacies and constant unexpected cadences, etc. to even be fulfilled in music. So more than an issue or whether or not you are ‘musically inclined,’ I feel that’s near-irrelevant and it’s far more to do with the psychology behind our individual preferences at work. But that’s just my take.

    Lastly, this: “…that in being music it is both more & less than the concepts it summons & creates”

    Perfect. I’m not going to mess with that one.

  5. Guido Nius Says:

    Diana,

    I was traveling too, not the best of moments to have a discussion.

    As to Davidson: “A nice derangement of epitaphs” is the essay I wanted to refer to.

    On the 1st question: I see both types of musicality as constraints on what can be written. Music is external to straightforward saying what one wants to say. But if what you want to say is not straightforward (because it is new), musicality helps to “find” an expression of what is not (yet) given to be expressed.

    On the 2nd question: I was literally asking whether there is empirical research in which two groups of subjects are listening to the same phrases but one the phrases in isolation and another the phrases in context of the over-all piece. I do think prog is à propos because it does indeed take things apart to re-assemble.

  6. Diana Hereld Says:

    Guido, thanks! Looks like I did a number on interpreting what you were trying to say, my apologies. I completely agree with the first point, in that musicality helps to find that expression. Very much so.

    On the second point, yes, this exists. In many forms, actually. There are quite a few scientific studies in my field and in the surrounding ones (music ed, music and personality, etc.) to monitor brain/BOLD response in this kind of activity to answer all kinds of questions the psychology and applied neuroscience of music. And, with the more recent development of the rtfMRI, I feel these types of studies are going to all but explode in their use and function.

  7. Guido Nius Says:

    I would love it if you could find me some clickable (non-paywalled) references, or merely the names of key researchers. Music may not be my area of expertise but research of this kind is (although I would hope that there are also protocol-based studies, sometimes I feel that the quantitative results of MRI’s and such are giving a false sense of comfort to researchers as well as a too easy way for popular success: “We have found the God-area of the brain!”, and such things).

    No offense meant, my interest is genuine.

  8. Diana Hereld Says:

    Heh, no offense taken. I very much agree, which is why in reaction to the unfortunate types of music ‘therapy’ that kind of try and take a bunch of paranoid schizophrenics and express emotions through drum circles, I chose the applied neuroscience of music instead. I’m ever the skeptic of things like you mentioned, and I try and only spend my time looking into protocol-based studies.

    I know this research exists because I begin in a week doing something very similar myself with children with ASD, but non-paywalled ones are going to be hard to come by, especially since what I was thinking is happening only in the last 6 months or so and not public domain. I’ll have a look though for something tangible you can easily access. There’s a lot out there, it’s obviously just knowing where to look.

  9. Will Says:

    Hello,

    My name is Will. I recently discovered William H. Gass, became enthralled, and tonight, during my search online for like-minded Gass admirers, I stumbled upon this website with its enlightening posts on the author in general, Omensetter’s Luck in particular.

    Diana Herald’s post “William Gass and the Music of Prose”, Robert Minto’s post “On Some Sentences of William Gass”, and the ensuing conversations have all been interesting and informative. I applaud Diana, Robert, Guido Nuis, and Brad Johnson for their contributions. Kudos.

    Confession #1: I’ve not yet read Omensetter’s Luck. I have read In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and The Tunnel.

    Confession #2: All of you seem like professional philosophers or at the very least, dedicated students of philosophy/literature, erudite, well-informed, well-versed, scholarly dames and gents. I’m none of those things, not by a long shot, though I certainly wish I was. I don’t mean to blow smoke up your asses, but I just wanted to confide that I’m not on equal footing here and that I know it. Please overlook my shortcomings and oversights.

    For the reasons mentioned above, I feel as though I may be intruding. The discussion has drawn me in, however, and I’m compelled to toss in my two cents, especially regarding one thought in Guido’s post that interested me.

    Guido wrote:

    “There is for sure a continuum over words, sentences and stories, but the key part is that something new is generated: a delta above and beyond the elements. Key sentences will be able to function alone but then there will always be something added when sentences combine. One could experiment with this: in submitting the sentences to a control group that did not read the entire account and a group that did. Is there something equivalent done in music?”

    And later:

    “I was literally asking whether there is empirical research in which two groups of subjects are listening to the same phrases but one the phrases in isolation and another the phrases in context of the over-all piece.”

    Interesting. It would be an interesting experiment, at least to my mind. For some reason, when I read this, my thoughts jumped immediately to one particular sentence in ITHOTHOTC. I know these posts have dealt primarily with Omensetter’s Luck, but consider the following sentence found in the crot titled “HOUSE, MY BREATH AND WINDOW” which is, in turn, found in INTHOTHOTC, of course:

    “Downwound, the whore at wagtag clicks and clacks.”

    (Confession #3: I cannot, for the life of me, get this sentence out of my head. [As it turns out, many of Gass’s sentences have this effect. Don’t even get me started on the first sentence of the earlier crot in that story titled “MY HOUSE, THIS PLACE AND BODY”. It overwhelms.] And I have no idea what it means.)

    Unfortunately, since I’ve read all of ITHOTHOTC, I am excluded from Guido’s theoretical experiment. I would not be able to objectively deem this stand-alone sentence either musical or not, because I’ve encountered it within the context of the work (really, the work’s language) as a whole. (No matter. My single opinion would matter only in small part. Guido proposes a sizable group for his experiment, as he should.) In fact, I dislike the term “musical” for our present purposes and would prefer to simplify the discussion. I may be completely off-base here, but I do believe that we, all five of us, are concerned with this question in general: At what point does language become art? Language’s aesthetic threshold – what is it? What is the smallest unit at which language may achieve aesthetic merit in its own right rather than within the context of a larger whole? (This concern of mine is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the work of one writer [language artist, prose stylist, etc.] against another: Why are any five consecutive Gass sentences so much more aesthetically pleasing than any five consecutive sentences written by, say, Stephen King? More on this later.) Language’s musical capabilities play a part, of course, and I don’t mean to dismiss that facet of the discussion. (In fact, one might argue that in the arena of language, artistic language [i.e., language possessing aesthetic merit – "artistic" is a rather dead word, I know, and I only resort to its use so as to keep from having to write “aesthetically pleasing” or “aesthetic merit” over and over again] is synonymous with musical language. There may be some truth to this, though I have my own reservations. I still believe that language need not be musical in order to possess aesthetic merit. It may be, but it need not be. We’d need to more adequately define “musical”. I’d be happy to digress even further, but I’ll leave that question alone for now.)

    Back to the question at hand. What is language’s most basic unit of art? (Or should the question be: What is art’s most basic unit of language?) Is it the work as a whole? A passage of some indeterminate length? A paragraph? The single sentence? A syntactical unit within a sentence? A phrase? A single word? The syllables within a word? The letters within a syllable? The single, ever-lovin’ letter – be it k, q or z – we all learned in our youth and have ever since sucked on, munched down, swallowed whole, spat out, forgotten about, fondled, and found strewn like bird feed by a park bench? I don’t know what it is about William H. Gass’s prose that enthralls me, but I do know that whatever it is, it must works its magic on an almost atomic level. Yes. The linguistic atom – that is what we seek. For every whole its parts, I always say, which is a personal mantra I use to describe language’s beautiful power and also an inappropriate euphemism I use for sexual intercourse.

    If my comments are welcome, I will post again soon and complete some of my thoughts, especially regarding the sentence I momentarily brought to bear above and have now strayed quite far from. My musings probably come across as quite juvenile, shallow, and uninformed. They are. I am unfamiliar with analytical philosophy, have never read Wittgenstein, and like the name Chomsky for no other reason than it’s chewy and feels good to say in my mouth.

    auf Wiedersehen!

  10. Diana Hereld Says:

    Hello there! So sorry it seems no ever got back to you. Not sure how I missed it, but please don’t apologize-I’m far from having read much Wittgenstein (or a plethora of analytic philosophy, for that matter). And defining what is and is not musical-that indeed is another conversation! I think we certainly meet here, however, and that’s the best attempt I’ve seen to sum up the majority of this discourse:

    “I don’t know what it is about William H. Gass’s prose that enthralls me, but I do know that whatever it is, it must works its magic on an almost atomic level. Yes. The linguistic atom – that is what we seek.”

    Very good.

  11. Will Says:

    Thanks Diana. Also, I apologize for misspelling your last name. I noticed this soon after I posted my reply.

  12. Diana Hereld Says:

    No worries. Everyone does, official postings included :)


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