William H. Gass’ The World Within The Word

The foremost distinguishing characteristic of any good writer is a fascination with words. This never struck me as a very high bar, for words are inherently interesting: try thinking or communicating without them. We use words not only to describe the real and the possible but the impossible and the imagined. A hoped-for future, a reimagined past, all potential sorrow and bliss exist within the right words, carefully arranged. Politics and philosophy are possible only through the word, and so, unsurprisingly, cannot be mastered without first mastering language itself, its uses and abuses. This is something of the meaning hinted at by the title of William H. Gass’ second collection of essays, The World Within The Word, though only two or three essays attempt to argue this point philosophically – the rest are content to showcase his appreciation (for Nabokov, Faulkner, Lowry, Miller, Colette and Gerturde Stein – always Stein) or heap scorn (alas, poor Sartre).

One essay, the volume’s first, is unusual for Gass in that it touches on a subject personal to him: his mother’s almost suicide. “The Doomed in Their Sinking” begins hauntingly: “Crane went sudden as a springboard. The Gulf gave nothing back. My mother, I remember, took her time. She held the house around her as she held her bathrobe …” It’s a disorienting beginning, and typical of Gass that he cannot openly broach his mother’s demise without the intermediary of a famous literary suicide. We get haunting descriptions of her gradual decline: the half-way houses and addiction clinics where all personal effects are confiscated “because the crazy can garrote themselves with a length of breath, their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns,” but we gradually catch something of his purpose when he makes himself explicit:

Yet my mother wasn’t what we call a suicide, even though she died as though she’d cut her throat when the vessels burst there finally, and my father, who clenched his teeth till neither knees nor elbows would unfist, dying of his own murderous wishes like the scorpion who’s supposed to sting itself to death – no – he wasn’t one either: both had a terribly tenacious grip on life … so that some suicides will survive anything, and many who court death have no desire to wed her … it mixes us up …

Gass’ mother died a gradual death, an alcoholic’s death, and though the coroner’s report would not contain the word “suicide,” Gass still wants us to classify her demise as such, the predictable culmination of her attitude and actions. “My mother managed. She was what we call a dedicated passive … liquidly acquiescent … supinely on the go. Still, she went in her own way – the way, for instance, her robe was fastened.” What follows is an extended meditation on suicide, looked at from philosophical, sociological and literary perspectives. Why, for example, is suicide skewed towards the affluent and at-ease? Because “the burden of being is felt most fully by the self-determining self.” And if that’s the working definition of suicide, an escape from the burdensomeness of existence, then why not expand the definition?

If we are to call suicide every self-taken way out of the world, then even the Platonic pursuit of knowledge, involving as it does the separation of reason from passion and appetite, is suicidal … as are, of course, the search for ecstatic states, and longings for mystical union.

There are more ways to escape existence, it would seem, then there are to merely exist, and we should therefore be wary of trivializing the suicidal mentality. “If, according to the social workers’ comforting cliché, [suicides] are often a cry for help, they’re just as frequently a solemn vow of silence.” Recall Hamlet’s last words, spoken with something between hope and trepidation: “The rest is silence.” The volume’s title comes from Malcom Lowry: “When the doomed are most eloquent in their sinking, / It seems that then we are least strong to save.” Which prompts Gass to this terse, culminating reflection: “Writing. Not writing. Twin terrors. Putting one’s mother into words … It may have been easier to put her in her grave.”

That opening essay, I feel confident pronouncing, is a masterwork of the genre, as versatile and arresting as the essay form allows, but note also how its concluding proposition reflects on this volume’s title. Why should it be harder to bury your mother’s remains than conjure her being in words? Because the words invoke memories, communicate feelings; the corpse and the coffin are symbols, to be sure, but static ones – only words can bring a dead mother back to life, if only in your mind.