Barthelme has managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness (William H. Gass)

Barthelme has managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness. Nothing surrealist about him, his dislocations are real, his material quite actual. Radio, television, movies, newspapers, books, magazines, social talk: these supply us with our experience. Rarely do we see trees, go meadowing, or capture crickets in a box. The aim of every media, we are nothing but the little darkening hatch they trace when, narrowly, they cross. Computers begin by discriminating only when they’re told to. Are they ahead that much? since that’s the way we end. At home I rest from throwing pots according to instructions by dipping in some history of the Trojan war; the fete of Vietnam is celebrated on the telly; my daughter’s radio is playing rock—perhaps it’s used cars or Stravinsky; my wife is telling me she loves me, is performing sexercises with a yogi Monday, has accepted a proposal to be photoed without clothing and now wonders if the draft will affect the teaching of freshman chemistry. Put end to end like words, my consciousness is a shitty run of category errors and non sequiturs. Putting end to end and next to next is Barthelme’s method, and in Barthelme, blessed method is everything.

From William H. Gass’s 1968 essay “The Leading edge of the Trash Phenomenon,” an ostensible review of Donald Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.

The aim of the artist (William H. Gass)

The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.

–More from William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.

Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness

‘I miss TV,’ Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.

‘The former television of commercial broadcast.’

‘I do.’

‘Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,’ displaying the board.

‘Oh, man.’ Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandibular’s much tinier and more vulnerable throb. ‘Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases “Order before midnight tonight” and “Save up to fifty percent and more.” I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss “Sermonette” and “Evensong” and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at.’ He felt his face. ‘I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.’

‘Vapid ditty,’ pretending to notate.

‘I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say.’

‘Emotions of mastery and control and superiority. And pleasure.’

‘You can say that again, boy. I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.’ …

The man tended to look up at him like people with legs look up at buildings and planes. ‘You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval.’

Orin’s way of looking up as he remembered was nothing like the seated guy’s way of looking up. ‘But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.’

‘Inflicted.’

‘I don’t think I exactly know,’ Orin said, suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside. The terrible sense as in dreams of something vital you’ve forgotten to do. The inclined head’s bald spot was freckled and tan. ‘Is there a next item?’

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996).


Perception, Plato said, is a form of pain.

The working consciousness, for instance, is narrow, shuttered by utility, its transitions eased by habit past reflection like a thief. Impulses from without or from within must use some strength to reach us, we do not go out to them. Machines are made this way. Alert as lights and aimed like guns, they only see the circle of their barrels. How round the world is; how like a well arranged. Thus when desire is at an ebb and will is weak, we trail the entertainer like a child his mother, restless, bored and whining: what can I do? what will amuse me? how shall I live? Then

L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosite,

Prend les proportions de l’immortalite.

The enjoyment of sensation as sensation, a fully free awareness, is very rare. We keep our noses down like dogs to sniff our signs. Experience must mean. The content of an aimless consciousness is weak and colorless; we may be filled up by ourselves instead—even flooded basements, some days, leak the other way—and then it’s dread we feel, anxiety.

To tie experience to a task, to seek significance in everything, to take and never to receive, to keep, like the lighter boxer, moving, bob and weave, to fear the appearance of the self and every inwardness: these are such universal characteristics of the average consciousness that I think we can assume that popular culture functions fundamentally with regard to them.

—From William H. Gass’s essay “Even if, by All the Oxen in the World.” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life. The lines of verse are from Baudelaire, which I suppose is a third citation, no?


Continue reading “Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness”

Have you met a typical nonperson lately? (William H. Gass)

Have you met met a typical nonperson lately? Then say hello, now, to your neighbor. He may be male, but his facial expressions have been put on like lipstick and eyelashes. His greeting is inevitable; so is his interest in the weather. He always smiles; he speaks only in cliches; and his opinions (as bland as Cream of Wheat, as undefined, and—when sugared—just as sweet) are drearily predictable. He has nothing but good to say of people; he collects his wisdom like dung from a Digest; he likes to share his experiences with “folks,” and recite the plots of movies. He is working up this saccharine soulside manner as part of his preparation for the ministry.

These are the “good” people. “Bad” people are unreal in the same way.

Nonpersons unperson persons. They kill. For them no one is human. Like cash registers, everyone’s the same: all will go ding and their cash drawers slide out when you strike the right key.

So I don’t think that it’s the message of a work of art that gives it any lasting social value. On the contrary, insisting on this replaces the work with its interpretation, another way of robbing it of reality. How would you like to be replaced by your medical dossier, your analysts’s notes? 

–More from William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.

Why are works of art so socially important? (William H. Gass)

Why are works of art so socially important? Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. Certainly, images exist, shadows and reflections, fakes exist and hypocrites, there are counterfeits (quite real) and grand illusions – but it is simply not true for the copies are as real as their originals, that they meet all of the tests which I suggested earlier. Soybean steak, by God, is soybean steak, and a pious fraud is a fraud. Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare – rarer, let me say – than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceit, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must in itself be noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, we fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland – true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart and none of us will ever be as real as vital, as complex and living as he is – a total creature of the stage. 

–More from William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.

We create insanities (William H. Gass)

Put yourself in a public place, at a banquet—one perhaps at which awards are made. Your fork is pushing crumbs about upon you plate while someone is receiving silver in a bowler’s shape amid the social warmth of clapping hands. How would you feel if at this moment a beautiful lady in a soft pink nightie should lead among the tables a handsome poodle who puddled under them, and there was a conspiracy among the rest of us not to notice? Suppose we sat quietly; our expressions did not change; we looked straight through her, herself as well as her nightie, toward the fascinating figure of the speaker; suppose, leaving, we stepped heedlessly in the pools and afterward we did not even shake our shoes. And if you gave a cry, if you warned, explained, cajoled, implored; and we regarded you then with amazement, rejected with amusement, contempt, or scorn every one of your efforts, I think you would begin to doubt your senses and your very sanity. Well, that’s the idea: with the weight of our numbers, our percentile normality, we create insanities: yours, as you progressively doubt more and more of your experience, hide it from others to avoid the shame, saying “There’s that woman and her damn dog again,” but now saying it silently, for your experience, you think, is private; and ours, as we begin to believe our own lies, and the lady and her nightie, the lady and her poodle, the lady and the poodle’s puddles, all do disappear, expunged from consciousness like a stenographer’s mistake. 

–From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life. I shared the paragraphs preceding this one yesterday.

We nullify the consciousness of others. We make their experiences unreal. (William H. Gass)

You can measure the reality of an act, a man, an institution, custom, work of art in many ways: by the constancy and quality of its effects, the depth of the response which it demands, the kinds and range of values it possesses, the actuality of its presence in space and time, the multiplicity and reliability of the sensations it provides, its particularity and uniqueness on the one hand, its abstract generality on the other—I have no desire to legislate concerning these conditions, insist on them all.

We can rob these men, these acts and objects, of their reality by refusing to acknowledge them. We pass them on the street but do not see or speak. We have no Negro problem in our small Midwestern towns. If someone has the experience of such a problem, he is mistaken. What happened to him did not happen; what he felt he did not feel; the urges he has are not the urges he has; what he wants he does not want. Automatically I reply to my son, who has expressed his desire for bubble gum: Oh, Peppy, you don’t want that. Number one, then: we deny. We nullify the consciousness of others. We make their experiences unreal.

–From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.