“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“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).

Some notes on beginning Evan Dara’s novel Flee


A. What a cover on Evan Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, don’t you agree?

B. From the back cover:


C. That’s all there is. Well, okay, there’s an ISBN too. But no blurbs, no other text.

D. “Something always going on—” is the first line of Flee. It’s also an apt description of Dara’s formal technique, a constantly-shifting series of dialogues, monologues, overlapping, cross-cutting, diverging—always out there ahead of the reader. That dash there—that dash is the simple summative signal of it all, a little typographic pole that simultaneously connects and interrupts.

E. The most obvious point of comparison for Dara’s technique (besides his amazing debut novel The Lost Scrapbook) is William Gaddis’s stuff, particularly J Rthe verbal dazzle, the few stray lines of poetic stage-setting in lieu of traditional exposition—the throw-the-reader-in-the-deep-end stuff. David Foster Wallace frequently attempted the same rhetorical mode, most successfully in §19 of The Pale King. (It’s entirely likely that The Lost Scrapbook could have had the same following that Infinite Jest achieved had Dara done anything to promote the book. But here I think of Gaddis in his Paris Review interview: “I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this ‘life and personality and views’ you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid”).

F. The point of contrast though is Dara’s abrupt transition, sometimes it seems mid-sentence, from one speaker to the next. Just as we feel (nearly) comfortable with who this particular narrator might be, another voice interjects, or rather continues, or re-trajects the discourse—as in the second chapter of Flee (“38,842”), where a college student driving home in snowy weather to pick up a book by Paul Krugman gives over to a number of speakers all describing the closing of the local university, Pitkinson (this closing’s being the presumable, like, plot of Flee so far I suppose)—faculty and staff and townies and residents—until a grad student takes over to report the speech of one Professor Gray, himself bearing witness to the downfall of the school (Ghost Sociology is the issue)—and then of course the chapter gives over to more rumor, more speculation. “Something always going on—.”

G. So I’ve read the first three chapters (“38,839,” “38,842,” “36,551”). But wait: The next chapter (“35,717”–do the titles reflect the dwindling population of the town (Anderburg)?)—but wait the next chapter, I see by scanning, offers some new, perhaps, rhetorical gesture—a section in a different font? Chunkier paragraphs?

I have to go see about this. (More to come).

“The Blue Jay” by Billy Gaddis — Juvenilia from William Gaddis


William Gaddis juvenilia from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. (You can read the entire piece there).

OOPS! (William Gaddis)


Another little nugget from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. Their description:

The Freedom Forum calendar showing a quote concerning the Pulitzer Prize by William Gaddis on December 15, 1995. Includes autograph commentary by Gaddis.

“Those involved. Wyatt — A painter” — William Gaddis’s autograph notes for The Recognitions


More great stuff from Washington University’s Modern Literature Collection.


“Dear Willie” — William H. Gass Writes to William Gaddis


From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection.


“Authenticity’s Wiped Out” — A Passage from William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:

. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis

I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel–so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Two tremendous novels. And the author maneuvering his car out of a dark and cramped driveway, the last time I saw him, with four or five friends and acquaintances calling out instructions as the car backed onto the country road, headlights shining on our waved good nights.

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis. From the Fall 2003 issue of Conjunctions.

The Inhumanity Museum


Scissors, Richard Diebenkorn
Scissors, Richard Diebenkorn

Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:

[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]

March, 50

The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph.

July 13th, 50

There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.

July 29th, 50

Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.

Aug. 3, 50

America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.

The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:

30th March 2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.

This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this? 

Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.

I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:

Friday June 18, 1999

Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..

There is more

Tomato and Knife, Richard Diebenkorn

I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).

Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine): 

We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.

“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha! Continue reading “The Inhumanity Museum”

The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. (William Gaddis)


After the injection, he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous. Man fights lion in zoo, barefisted. Cow kills woman. Rooster kills woman. Dogs eat Eskimo. As he turned the pages, folding them smartly back over the bulk of the newspaper, he relaxed a little at his comparative safety away from the news, drew comfort from the train wreck (he was not in it), the bus accident in Chile (nor in that), the meat-ax slaying (he had not done it), the headless corpse (not his), and so the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself. Even though the evening paper repeated the news of the morning paper, he read attentively again, reworded, of the hunt for the unknown person who was releasing birds from an uptown zoo, of the discovery of two priceless art treasures, original paintings of Dierick Bouts, in a pawnshop in Hell’s Kitchen, of the murder trial in Mouth, Mississippi, where just that morning the husband’s heart had been exhibited in court. All of these civilized wonders were brought together, he was made to feel, expressly for him, by the newspaper. True, they kept him in such a state that he often bought late editions of the same newspaper, seeing different headlines than those tucked under his arm, only to read the story from column six suddenly elevated to a banner across columns one to four. True, often the only way he could know whether he had read a newspaper was to turn to the comic strips, where life flowed in continuum; and recognizing them, he knew that he must have read everything else closely and avidly, that nothing had evaded his eye, nor penetrated to his heart round which he had built that wall called objectivity without which he might have gone mad. As the tales of violence seemed daily to increase it hardly occurred to him that he was living in such unnatural density of population that it daily supported disasters sufficient for a continent. Added to this came the blood of the world, piped in on wires, and wireless, teletype, undersea cables, and splashed without a drop lost in transit upon Mr. Pivner, who sat, hard, patient, unbending, wiped it from his eyes, and waited for more.

An inhumanity museum from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I’m citing part of the passage for a bigger thing I’m working on now—it’s a bit too long for that thing, but too good not to share in full.

William Gaddis and David Markson, New York, 1964


(From The Letters of William Gaddis, Dalkey Archive).