“Mothers” — William Gaddis

Books, Literature, Writers

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

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