Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.
A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.
Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page
I want to plant some object in the world. Now it happens to be made of signs, which may lead people to think, because it’s made of signs, that it’s pointing somewhere. But actually I’ve gone down the road and collected all sorts of highway signs, made a piece of sculpture out of these things that says Chicago, 35,000 miles. What I hope, of course, is that people will come along, gather in front of the sculpture and take a look at it—consequently, forgetting Chicago. I want to add something to the world. Now, what kind of object? Old romantic that I am, I would like to add objects to the world worthy of love. I think that the things one loves, most particularly in other people, are quite beyond anything they communicate or merely “mean.” Planting those objects is a moral activity, I suppose. You certainly don’t want to add objects to the world that everybody will detest: “Another slug made by Bill Gass.” That’s likely to be their attitude, but you don’t hope for it. The next question is, why is it that one wants this thing loved? My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first.
They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.
From William H. Gass’s essay “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.
In the ideal logotopia, every person would possess his own library and add at least weekly if not daily to it. The walls of each home would seem made of books; wherever one looked one would only see spines; because every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several. Utopias, however, have the bad habit of hiding in their hearts those schemes for success, those requirements of power, rules concerning conduct, which someone will one day have to carry forward, employ and enforce, in order to achieve them, and afterward, to maintain the continued purity of their Being. Books have taught me what true dominion, what right rule, is: It is like the freely given assent and labor of the reader who will dream the dreams of the deserving page and expect no more fee than the reward of its words.
Yet I should like to suggest (despite the undeniable sappiness of it) that the center of the self is this secret, obsessive, often silly, nearly continuous voice – the voice that is the surest sign that we are alive; and that one fundamental function of language is the communication with this self which makes it feasible; that, in fact, without someone speaking, someone hearing, someone overhearing both, no full self can exist; that if society – its families and factories and congresses and schools – has done its work, then every day every one of us is a bit nearer than we were before to being one of the fortunates who have made rich and beautiful the great conversation which constitutes our life.
From William H. Gass’s essay “On Talking to Oneself” (collected in Habitations of the Word).
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.]
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..
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! Read More
My photographs, I used a lot, but I used them as a teaching tool, and they really worked wonderfully,in a sense. Let’s suppose you’re trying to get the students to understand what [Immanuel] Kant meant when he said that the aesthetic experience is not mediated by concepts. Okay, show them a photograph of a floor of an abandoned building—I used to go into all of these abandoned buildings—that’s been sitting abandoned for years, and there are all these pigeons flying around, and they’ve layered the floor with guano, pigeon shit. Huge warehouses, light coming in shining off this, and it’s gorgeous. So you take a picture, which looks like—you know how with aluminum foil, when you crumple it up and then smooth it out again you have all these little lines and it shines and stuff? That’s what it looks like. So you show them a slide. “Oh, boy,” they say. Then you say, “It’s pigeon shit.” Concept. Bing! And I used to take pictures of dog deposits and bird shit, especially during the season when there was lots of huckleberries, some berries that would stain it, and sometimes it would be quite nice, and I’d use things like this, so they’d see it right away, they’d understand that there are names for things, forbidden them to see, and to get them used to seeing, because they’ll never have an aesthetic experience until they can do that. So I used a lot of it, and some of it would have been okay to put in along with an essay as an illustration, but not as “Look at this as a photograph.”
William H. Gass, in a 2013 interview with Rain Taxi.
I was a slow reader. That is, I was slow getting to be fast. I remember having a hell of a lot of trouble reading in the third grade. I learned how to read in the fifth grade, I think it was. But that’s puzzling, because, although I remember having a lot of trouble when I was in school because I couldn’t read, I also remember that I was reading Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with love and astonishment then. It was the first book I read that I remember with absolute clarity. Yet that was before I officially “learned to read.” By the time I was in the seventh grade I was a speed-reader. I became a member of a speed-reading team. Speed-reading teams were at that time fairly common. Our high school had a team of readers, and you went out and read against other schools, and then did these comprehension tests. One year I was the speed-reading champ of the state of Ohio. I read slowly now. I learned to slow down, and read properly, when I started reading philosophy seriously, and, as a consequence, finally learned to read poetry properly too. Now I’m practically a lip reader again, although I can still go like hell if I have to.
My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. A dog? A dog we don’t need. My mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal by poisoning it with the gin she sprinkled on the table scraps. Feed it somewhere else, my dad said. A dog we don’t need. My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. Our neighbor’s spitz–that mutt–he shits in the flower beds. Dog doo we don’t need. At least feed it somewhere else, my dad said. My mom made the table scraps tasty for her pal, the neighbor’s spitz– that mutt–by sprinkling them with gin. You’re poisoning Pal, my dad said, but never mind, we don’t need that mutt. My mom thought anything tasted better with a little gin to salt it up. That way my mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal, and maddened dad who wouldn’t let me have a dog. He always said we didn’t need one, they crapped on the carpet and put dirty paws on the pant’s leg of guests and yapped at cats or anyone who came to the door. A dog? A dog we don’t need. We don’t need chewed shoes and dog hairs on the sofa, fleas in the rug, dirty bowls in every corner of the kitchen, dog stink on our clothes. But my mom made the neighbor’s spitz her pal anyway by poisoning it with the gin she sprinkled on the table scraps like she was baptising bones. At least feed it somewhere else, my dad said. My dad wouldn’t let me have a pal. Who will have to walk that pal, he said. I will. And it’s going to be snowing or it’s going to be raining and who will be waiting by the vacant lot at the corner in the cold wet wind, waiting for the damn dog to do his business? Not you, Billy boy Christ, you can’t even be counted on to bring in the garbage cans or mow the lawn. So no dog. A mutt we don’t need, we don’t need dog doo in the flower beds, chewed shoes, fleas; what we need is the yard raked, like I said this morning. No damn dog. No mutt for your mother either even if she tries to get around me by feeding it when my back is turned, when I’m away at work earning her gin money so the sick thing can shit in a stream on the flower seeds; at least she should feed it somewhere else; it’s always hanging around; is it a light string in the hall or a cloth on the table to be always hanging around? No. Chewed shoes, fleas, muddy paws and yappy daddle, bowser odor: a dog we don’t need. Suppose it bites the postman: do you get sued? No. I am the one waiting at the corner vacant lot in the rain, the snow, the cold wet wind, waiting for the dog to do his damn business, and I get sued. You don’t. Christ, you can’t even be counted on to clip the hedge. You know: snicksnack. So no dog, my dad said. Though we had a dog nevertheless. That is, my mom made the neighbor’s pal her mutt, and didn’t let me have him for mine, either, because it just followed her around–yip nip–wanting to lap gin and nose its grease-sogged bread. So we did have a dog in the house, even though it just visited, and it would rest its white head in my mother’s lap and whimper and my father would throw down his paper and say shit! and I would walk out of the house and neglect to mow or rake the yard, or snicksnack the hedge or bring the garbage cans around. My dad wouldn’t let me have a dog. A dog? A dog we don’t need, he said. So I was damned if I would fetch.
From William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel.
Books whose blueness penetrates the pages between their covers are books which, without depriving us of the comfort of our own commode or the sight of our liberal selves, place us inside a manufactured privacy. This privacy is really not that of someone else. It must be artificial because the real world plainly bores us. Impatient, we can’t wait for nature to take its course.
When we take our textual tour through the slums, we want crime, violence, starvation, disease, not hours of just sitting around. We want the world to be the world we read about in the papers; all news. What good is my ring if the couple I am using it to spy on make love in darkness once a month, and then are quick, inept, and silent? Better rob banks. The money is always there. What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her ramp, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home. No. Vishnu is blue in all his depictions. Lord Krishna too. Yes. The blue we bathe in is the blue we breathe. The blue we breathe, I fear, is what we want from life and only find in fiction. For the voyeur, fiction is what’s called going all the way.
The privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately—not like the billboard which shouts at the street, or the movie whose image is so open we need darkness to cover the clad-ass and naked face that’s settled in our seat. A fictional text enters consciousness so discreetly it is never seen outdoors . . . from house to house it travels like a whore . . . so even on a common carrier I can quite safely fill my thoughts with obscene adjectives and dirty verbs although the place I occupy is thigh-sided by a parson.
We like that.
Thus between the aesthetically irrelevant demands of the reader and the aesthetically crippling personal worries of the writer, sexuality reaches literature as an idee fixe, an artifically sweetened distortion or an outright lie, while the literature itself leaks quality like a ruptured pipe.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.
The worship of the word must be pagan and polytheistic. It cannot endure one god. The Scots use blue brilliantly, for instance, and have their own term, blae, for gray blue, lead blue, and livid. The hedge-chanter is better known to them as the blue hafit, and if we pursue their names for the lumpsucker or sea owl, a fish of uncouth appearance, we come upon bluepaidle, or the even more common cockpaidle. The dictionary is as disturbing as the world, full of teasing parallels and misleading coincidence. The same fish is called a paddlecock on account of the tubercular skin which envelopes its dorsal ridge and which resembles the comb of that barnyard lord.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue.
So I shall, keeping one in each of my four pockets while one is in my mouth, describe five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows thieves break in upon our dreams to rape our women, steal our power tools, and vandalize our dreams. The commonest, of course, is the most brazen: the direct depiction of sexual material— thoughts, acts, wishes; the second involves the use of sexual words of various sorts, and I shall pour one of each vile kind into the appropriate porches of your ears , for pronounc-ing and praising print to the ear is what the decently encouraged eye does happily. The third can be considered, in a sense, the very heart of indirection, and thus the essence of the artist’s art— displacement: the passage of the mind with all its blue elastic ditty bags and airline luggage f r o m steamy sexual scenes and sweaty bodies to bedrooms with their bedsteads, nightstands, water-glasses, manuals of instruction, thence to sheets and pillowcases, hence to dents in these, and creases, stains and other cries of passion which have left their prints , and finally to the painted chalk-white oriental face of amorously handled air and mountains,, lewdly entered lakes. The fourth I shall simply refer to now as the skyblue eye (somewhere, it seems to me, there should be a brief pinch of suspense), and the fifth, well, it’s really what I’m running into all my inks about, so I had better mention it: the use of language like a lover . . . not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.
From William H. Gass’s essay-novel On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.
Remember how the desperate Molloy proceeds:
I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones I distrutibed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pockct of my greatcoat, and putting it in mv mouth , I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat bv a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had fin-ished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets , but not quite the same stones…. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.
Beckett is a very blue man, and this is a very blue passage.
From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (and of course, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy).