Last week in New York City was William H. Gass week as three encounters with the man and his work sent me sailing, coming to be a little more in love with words and the people who love them.
As word wars are rampant, as speech clutters and cuts, creating human happiness and pain, I feel a duty to point people toward Gass’s essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence” from his book Habitations of the Word. It is a startling read touching on what words do, how they are created, who creates them, how the minds and egos of those creators edit and embellish them, and whether when printed they are used wisely, artistically or atrociously.
Gass, a fiction writer as well as an essayist, but more completely defined as a philologist and a philosopher of language, works his own artistic and poetic designs into his language no matter the format. For instance, in On Being Blue, his feverish spate of language described words and consciousness using the concept of the color blue as his main theme. This work resembles a treatise but treatise as a book-long poem.
For my own part, I’ll concentrate on the first section of the “Soul” essay where Gass spills some soulful sentences on words:
Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs. So of course in the customary shallow unconscious sense, we comprehend the curse, the prayer, and the whoop. We’ve heard roars of rage as raw as grubbed-up roots, and hunger’s whimper from at least the dog. We’ve digested suave excuses like iced cake, and gotten sick on slander, drunk on lies. With words we follow the metaled links of honest argument and harken with the same ear to the huckster’s pitch and the king’s command. Because of words, deep designs can be licked from a shallow dish, although not a few false promises, grandly served, are soon flat as a warm drink. Yet they lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like flies. (114)
It’s a paragraph I’ve read a half dozen times (and now typed out)—read to be happy, re-read to smile, delighted in the “w’s” that start the first five sentences and recur throughout, the “they’s” at the end. It is Gass celebrating the power and the tyranny of language, what it does and how it changes our lives. In writing about the soul in the sentence he populates the early pages of the essay with examples of Baroque prose, highly ornate language from the 17th Century, with examples from exemplars Sir Thomas Browne and Ben Jonson. These titans are employed as a segue to examining what it means to write, to create and caress a sentence into a presence—a being who casts such a convincing energy it can’t be ignored.
Who can write such sentences? Artists. Gass is interested in seeing writing as it is—hard work. In all professions people practice; the business of writing is no different:
…to recognize that the kind of character an artist needs in order to get any sort of work done in our world will not greatly explain the character that work has when—in relief, or in pain and disappointment—it does get done at last. The obstacles overcome, the fences taken at a stride or slowly and awkwardly climbed, are left behind. They are the wake of writing, not the hull of the craft. (116)
The processes of writing are relatively hidden. A tortured existence does not equal great works, nor the other way around. And what is it that impels one to smear themselves on the page? I’ve never read a more apt description of what it takes to keep sucking in the dust of living and cobbling together artifice made great art than in this excerpt:
…psychological disabilities which propelled the writer into prose in the first place must remain unresolved, the relief obtained paltry and wretched indeed; the pain which preceded the pain of the present must painfully continue to the last; the mad raw youth must be the old man mad; for what is fame, don’t we pretend to believe? but a distracting noise, and sexual pleasure a promise which draws itself away with a toot like a departing train? what is the strength of a steel pen when the soul’s grasp on itself is loosening? what pride of prick or cunt’s conceit can disguise from the spirit the spirit’s repeated humiliations? where can money go to buy more genius, don’t we say? in the wet earth…will wealth keep away the common rot, improve our prose, purchase a plot on Parnassus, when our modest dot of immortality faints like a distant star in a bright and boundless sky? (117)
Gass knows that recognition is as gleaming as gold and as soft as stool. Many artists who have reached the heights and pressed their noses into another consciousness have also recessed, trading in tension for some beautiful but unsatisfying inertia, including the later Scorsese and Hemingway. But artists whose fires die out should still be commended, for at one time they were headed for a lifetime of commitment and calculation: “To write as badly as Wordsworth is not easy. Even for Wordsworth it was a difficult as when Wordsworth was writing well.” (120)
It is no secret that many write out of loneliness and frustration. Gass endorses holding onto that anger, holding up Henry James and Rilke, among others, as those constantly inquiring, hammering away and parsing their peccadilloes to keep themselves young and hungry—fighting and finding their form into their last days.
A few days before reading the essay I reread his short story “Mrs. Mean” in the collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. The tale begins innocently enough as an unnamed narrator observes his neighborhood and neighbors from his front porch in a small Midwestern town. He describes their foibles and peoples their pulses with his own judgments: “I sail my boats on their seas. I rest my stories on their backs.” ; “I take their souls away—I know it—and I play with them; I puppet them up to something.” He is a magician, but a mean one and so he gives a woman whose name he doesn’t know a mean name—Mrs. Mean. But she eludes him. He can’t contain her, can’t explain away her overbearing, her swearing at and hitting her three young children (angels by no means) or a sullen and silent husband. Is she as bad as the narrator says? Is she the mirror for the meanness that is him?
After thirty pages, the last ten of the story shift and the narrator unleashes himself into the story fully instead of concentrating on the other characters. He finds success in badgering an old man about moles and moles that may be on his wife’s body—a dialogue Gass renders in one paragraph with a rat-tat-tat style:
And then he said that there were moles upon her body, on her thigh. The thigh, I exclaimed, the home of beauty. The right side or the left? The left. The left! Momentous conditions are being satisfied. Are they low upon it? high? Near the hip. The hip! Glorious! Were there two? Two. Two! And the color: brown? red? black? Yellow. Yellow! What a marvel! And the hair that grew there? The color of the hair that grew there? Surely there was hair. There must be. My friend, you must look again. Look again. Again. Determine it precisely.
So he sounded with the bait. He was hooked through his throat to the tail.
Such sensuousness, such humor. All to end with a sentence as sound and soulful as a sequoia: He was hooked through his throat to the tail. There is energy, there is economy—4 “t’s” to this monofilament line. As rich as a metaphor could be in describing his bullying relation to the old man—luring and catching people unawares, codifying his position in the neighborhood for he must lord over someone because of his failure to snag Mrs. Mean. Ultimately though, Mrs. Mean falls away as an active character and we are left with a lonely (though married) narrator. A man killing himself with opinion and conjecture. He wants Mrs. Mean’s anger to “bite and burn inside” him. He wants to live inside all the neighbors because his own life is so unfulfilled: “Shut in my room as I so often am now with my wife’s eyes fastened to the other side of the door like blemishes in the wood…”
“Mrs. Mean” stayed with me. Though a re-read, parts were still muddy to my untrained mind, but surely lasting with language. Travailing myself with form, Gass had shown me a new way into the house. Let the narrator fester, let him shove his misery off and try to implicate everyone else as tyrants when of course the master puppeteer was the meanie-poo.
The day after reading “Mrs. Mean” the seminal event in my week of Gass conjunctions occurred. He was in town to introduce an award from the National Book Critics Circle given to his beloved press, Dalkey Archive. I knew I’d at least see the master on stage. But the day before the ceremony my friend John Madera called to let me know he’d just seen Gass at the infamous Strand bookstore. Luckily I was about a mile away. Sitting in a café, I fumbled to pay my check and ran across town with a backpack full of books. I was introduced and we made our way to the basement to help Mr. Gass and his wife find books on Elizabeth Bishop as research for an article he would be writing about the newly released book of correspondence between Bishop and the New Yorker.
Being in the B’s, Gass thumbed through a book by Borges that didn’t seem to number in the 20,000 he owns—Seven Nights, released by New Directions. Soon added to his cache, I told him I had just reread “Mrs. Mean.” He’d written it over fifty years ago, 1957 to be exact. One of five stories making up a book which remains his most popular today. Though the earliest story was begun in 1951, the book didn’t come out until 1968. He told me publishers turned him down for ten years; he couldn’t get anything in print. Hearing this from a man whom others and myself consider the greatest living American writer can only embolden one to press on and to be born somewhere in the middle of our first book, as Gass says in the preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.
Gass’s speech at the awards the next night, purposefully prepared, was the highlight. He spoke of how Dalkey had taken so many chances, publishing avant-garde work, losing money and how the books he and others had written wallowed in some obscurity, being unread, even by friends. Going through the work of Gass and the work he points one to is its own MFA program, a program with the master Virgiling one into the tradition, into the continuum of words and their power.