March 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.
Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.
— William H. Gass, “Lust”
January 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
It would be a decade before I would encounter my first great library. By “great library” I mean a library whose holdings are so huge that no one quite knows what is in its basements; a library in which Vivaldi scores may lie hidden for a hundred years; a library of density as well as scope; a library that will turn no book away—trash or treasure—for a good library is miserly, proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from; an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like; and finally a library that makes generous awards, and then lets me win one.
[. . .]
My books are there to comfort me about the world, for only the wicked can be pleased by our present state of things, while the virtuous disagree about the reasons for our plight and threaten to fall to fighting over which of us is responsible for the misery of so many millions, and in that way steadily increasing the number of hypocrites, jackals, and rogues.Among them, writers of books.
No occupation can guarantee virtue the way hard labor makes muscle, and only sainthood requires it as a part of its practice. So the writers write, perhaps improving their texts from time to time, but only rarely themselves.
But the books . . . the books disagree quietly, as the minds of the many readers in the library may, without the least disturbance; and in that peace we can observe how beautiful, how clever, how characteristic, how significant, how comically absurd the ideas are, for here in the colorful rows that make bookcases seem to dance, the world exists as the human mind has received and conceived it, but transformed into a higher realm of being, where virtue is knowledge, as the Greeks claimed, where even knowledge of the worst must be valued as highly as any other, and where events as particular as any love affair, election, or battlefield are superceded by their descriptions [. . .] for these volumes are banks of knowledge, and are examples, carefully constructed, of our human kinds of consciousness, of awareness that is otherwise momentary, fragile, and often confused. Among the shelves, where the philosophers tent their troops, there is a war of words–a war of the one supportable kind–a war of thoughtfully chosen positions, perhaps with no problems solved, but no blood spilt; shelves where human triumph and its suffering are portrayed by writers who cared at least enough about their lives and this world to take a pen to paper. Thucydides knew it when he said, concerning the conflict that occurred on the Peloponnesus, in effect: this war is mine. History occurs once. Histories happen repeatedly in reader after reader.
Every-one of these books is a friend who will always say the same thing, but who will always seem to mean something new, or something old, or something borrowed, something blue.
William H. Gass, “Slices of Life in a Library” in Life Sentences (2011)
December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
“[The ideal reader] is skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longeurs, forgiving over error and the author’s self-indulgence, avid for details . . . ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines. Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? yes; and shall this reader be one whose heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs? that would be nice; and shall every allusion be caught like a cold? no, eaten like a fish, whole, fins and skin; . . . oh, [the ideal reader] will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses, thus a finger for holding its place should be appointed; a mover of lips, then? just, so, yes. large soft moist ones, naturally red, naturally supple, but made only for shaping syllables, you understand, for singing . . . singing. And shall this reader, as the book is opened, shadow the page like a palm? yes, perhaps that would be best (mind the strain on the spirit, though, no glasses correct that); and shall this reader sink into the paper? become the print? and blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation . . . from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language? yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
— William Gass, Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
December 12, 2011 § 3 Comments
In preparation for facilitating an online discussion this week & next, I’ve been re-reading William Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck . As I did, I’ve not only re-discovered my old markings, mysterious arrows & excited stars, & esoteric notations, some of them & others those of the previous owner(s), but more importantly those passages couldn’t dare touch, only recite, then & now. I thought I might share one of my favorites: Henry Pimber’s naming of the trees.
November 21, 2011 § 2 Comments
It’s been a busy week or so, so I’ve not been able to attend to things around here. Perhaps I might return in earnest tomorrow. I’m reading Valéry’s Dialogues, so I may feel so inspired. One never knows (I certainly don’t).
In the meantime, I thought that I might flag a new audio interview with William Gass (complete with a reading from his forthcoming novel Middle C).
A favorite line, which I think our friend Tom Clark might appreciate:
I used to love teaching philosophy for may reasons. One of them being that I could feel fairly confident that no student listening to me would ever believe what I say. Imagine being believed. It is a horrifying thought.
September 30, 2011 § 4 Comments
Indulge me, if you will, a reading from William Gass’ downright essential (& scandalously out-of-print) collection of short stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I posted this same recording elsewhere a couple of months ago, but there are a sufficient number of newcomers (I think) to revisit it.
Gass, of course, is famous for doing a lot of so-called postmodern gestures in his writing–postmodern to those who have never adequately understood modernity. He is widely acclaimed, & criticized, for emphasizing the visual elements of the page. Sentences in some books fall from the line, letter by letter. Others are quite randomly in different fonts. Coffee stains the corner of some pages. This is all interesting enough, but for me this is all subordinate to the aural dynamics at work. His prose quite simply has a musical quality to it, as I’ve discussed with a friend of Departure Delayed, which I feel is better heard than explained.
I kind of botch the opening thirty seconds or so of the recording. Not at all happy with that. But I think it gets better, the tone and annunciation smooths, and occasionally the music plays.
September 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
It’s always an event in my house when William Gass has a new essay available (subscription only, unfortunately):
As if in the shade of Emily Dickinson (at first not a favorite), Elizabeth Bishop was inclined to scatter dashes about (a habit perhaps borrowed from her letters, or in hidden imitation of a mentor, Marianne Moore), which these New Yorker editors removed and replaced with commas, also, it seems, in similar abundance. Alas, there are so many kinds of commas: those that lie like rocks in the path of a sentence, slowing its gait and requiring the reader’s heed to avoid a stumble; their gentler cousins, impairing a pell-mell flow of meaning the way pebbles slow a stream; commas that indicate a pause for thinking things over; commas enclosing phrases the way the small pockets in a purse hug hairpins or collect bits of loose change; commas that return us to our last stop, and those that some schoolmarm has insisted should be placed, like a traffic cop, between “stop” and “and.” Not to mention those comma-like curvatures that function like overhead lighting — apostrophes they’re called — that warn of a bad crack in a spelt word where some letters have disappeared to apparently no one’s alarm; or claws that admit the words they enclose aren’t theirs; or those that issue claims of ownership, called possessives by unmarried teachers.