William H. Gass’ Finding A Form

As I write this, birds are chirping outside my window, heralds of the long-awaited spring, and that feels profoundly appropriate, for reading Gass after a long absence renews my sense of the possible and awakens me once more to the beauty of the living sentence. It is both a gift to us, his readers, and a challenge, for no living English writer concerns himself more with the possibilities inherent in words. He is, for me, the very personification of the exacting schoolmaster, delighting in every successful phrasing yet quick to strike whole paragraphs in red ink.

Finding A Form, his fifth collection of essays, won him one of his three National Book Critics Circle Awards for Criticism, as well it should have, for Gass writes criticism with more care and attention than many a writer approaches the novel. There is also a familiar structure to his writing, something of a Gassian signature, that does not take long to recognize. “My stories are malevolently anti-narrative,” he tells us, “and my essays are maliciously anti-expository, but the ideology of my opposition arrived long after my antagonism had become a trait of character.” If he comes across as something of a curmudgeon, a my-way-or-the-highway writer, that’s because that’s exactly what he is, but the antagonism he loves to flaunt hides the deep appreciation with which he cherishes good writing. The titular essay, “Finding A Form,” is something of a manifesto, an attack on narrative structure for its own sake and a defence of the primacy of the word. “Early on I learned that life was meaningless, since life was not a sign; that novels were meaningful, because signs were the very material of their composition.” To signs he juxtaposes stories, which are “sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in buildings. Stories are a bore. What one wants to do with stories is screw them up. Stories ought to be in pictures. They’re wonderful to see.” Mere storytelling doesn’t interest Gass; he’s after larger quarry. As a former philosophy professor and one-time student of Wittgenstein, words shape his world, summon meaning, and sentences therefore form the basis of his every endeavour on the page:

The sentence – its shape, its sound, the space it makes, its importance to consciousness, its manifestation of the mind/body problem (meaning and thing fastened to the same inscription) – is it in my obsession with the ontology of the word that I find the ground for my own practice? Is that why I emphasize the music of the language, alliterate with the passionate persistence of old poems, wallow in assonance, clutter the otherwise open space of concepts with the clatter and click of dentals and other consonants? Are these the reasons I want the reader’s mouth to move as if reading were being in that moment mastered, and the breath were full of chewable food? No. The reason is that I cannot seem to write in any other way; because sound sometimes rushes ahead of sense, and forces such sense, gasping and panting, to catch up. I often think, overhearing myself at work, that I do not write; I mumble, I whisper, I declaim, I inveigh. My study is full of static when it is full of me.

His “no” here is somewhat disingenuous, for whether or not he is by constitution a musician of the word, he understands better than most the role language plays in assigning particularity to people, in creating the human individual, in flesh or on paper. As he will later write, “[…] every mark on the page, apart from its inherent visual interest, is playing its part in the construction of a verbal consciousness, and that means commas must become concepts, pauses need to be performed, even the margins have to be sung, the lips rounded as widely as the widest vowel, round as the edges of the world.” Here, then, is the foundational philosophy of his form: not story, not narrative, but the word, the logos – and this is the great joy in reading him, for he makes of every mundane sentence a symphony of music and meaning.

The 20-odd essays in this collection cover writers as mainstream as Kafka and Ezra Pound, and as obscure as Robert Walser, Juan Goytisolo and Danilo Kis; as well as philosophers as varied as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. The other important thing to know about Gass, aside from his lifelong infatuation with the poetry of prose, is that he has read everyone, usually more than once, and his judgment is buttressed by this wide-ranging exposure. I dare you to find, for example, a better one-paragraph summary of Nietzschean insight than this:

We become Stoics (if that is where we end up) not because reality is good and relentlessly rational, but because we feel powerless to affect events and are willing to be put in our place like a knickknack on a shelf, to cover ourselves, like our eventual graves, with dust. If we have to accept what we get, why not imagine that it’s just what we want? Our early sense of the injustice of justice will soon be driven off with kicks and curses, like a stray, to be replaced by a blindfolded figure holding scales. Another scenario has us advising one reddened cheek to offer the other, since such a gesture calms the smiting palm, decreasing the slaps of our masters; and we celebrate humility and obedience for the same wise reasons of weakness. Thus – and inevitably – the strong promote programs of exercise for themselves while recommending rest to everybody else; the cerebral study chess and pretend its bloodless board is one of battle; while wimps practice patience, servility and patriotism. Nietzsche bit our values as if they were suspicious coins and left in each of them the indentation of his teeth, because, for him, only the hard, not the soft, was genuine.

Later, because he loves concision, he will synthesize these insights even further: “Nietzsche is not a philosopher of subjects and predicates; he is a philosopher of verbs. He is not a grammarian, looking for rules, but an innovator and revolutionary who suspects syntax of many serious metaphysical sins.” Finally, this becomes the pithy, “His is the only philosophy that grins.”

One of the principal Gassian tones is accusatory, and in my favourite of the collection’s essays, “Exile,” he begins by invoking the famous exiles of history and mythology – Adam and Eve from Eden; Socrates from Athens; Satan from hell; Dante from Florence – before he confesses to his real subject: “I am talking about the loss of the use of a language (a use that, in my opinion, is its fundamental employment – the poetic in the broadest sense), and how that limb of our language has been cut off and callously discarded.” One thinks, immediately, of the degradation of language almost gleefully undertaken by our latest technologies, which substitute icons for emotions and abbreviate feeling itself (lol, imho, ttyl, thx – the list is endless). Gass knows better than most that a generation that cannot express itself in writing cannot express itself at all, that to banish poetry and literature is to banish an essential aspect of our very selves. “We have grown accustomed to silence from this sort of singing,” silence from poetry and linguistic beauty:

We make other noises. Yet it is an old rule of history that exiles return, that they return wrathfully, whether a banished people, a forbidden idea, or a barricaded way, to reclaim what should have been their heritage. They return wrathfully, not only because they remember and mourn the life they were taken from, but because the past can never be recovered, not even by a Proust, not if you wish to take up residence in it again. To listen to our stories, other selves have been invented to replace the dolls, who, if any remain, are alive somewhere in other arms. But of course poetry, if it returns, will never make us pay. It will not put us to death or in prison or send us, as it was sent, so sadly away. It will simply put us to shame.

Gass is far too modest to say it, too self-effacing, but he is one of the instruments of poetry’s wrathful return, putting the rest of us to shame with the beauty of his words and the sad contrast they provoke with our own diminished language.