There is nothing in the world worth worship (William H. Gass)

Truthful people are a big pain. That is their aim in life: to be a big pain. Because we naturally love lies. Lies are more fun, far pleasanter to hear, for the most part, and certainly more effective. In fact, they are called for. Parents pretend they want to know whether Gertie is screwing in the parlor and whether Peter is smoking pot in the barn. And if the kids tell the truth, as they are beseeched to do, they will be ragged and snagged and grounded unmercifully. So the kids learn. Lying promotes freedom. Lying guards privacy. Lying saves lives and wins elections. It describes things as they ought to be. Of course, we need to be truthful, but only on occasion.Lying is a vice that succeeds, as so many other vices do, only in an environment of truthfulness. Remember the paradox: Cretans are liars, the Cretan swore. And retell to yourself the fable about the boy who cried, “Wolf … wolf …” one too many times. Vices need virtues and vice versa. I am speaking, of course, about the little lies of daily life, not the big lies of priests and politicians, those who want to fix things and those who want things fixed. 

People who publically complain of sin so often privately enjoy it. Lutherans, for instance, don’t like lust. Catholics and Calvinists are both against it. Mormons allow us several wives but it’s not on account of lust. Baptists are not on lust’s side. If you measure a man by the quality of his enemies, Casanova figures well.

The trouble with temperate people is that they are rarely temperate. All the temperance societies I know promote abstinence. “Nothing too much yet everything a little bit” is not their motto. No. Nothing is the operative word. “Masturbation in moderation” is not their motto. A truly temperate person doesn’t play golf every day. A truly temperate person doesn’t run more than a block a week. A temperate reader won’t read all of Austen or a lot of Balzac. Temperate persons eat sensibly, which means they never diet. But those whose profession is temperance only rail against sex and alcohol, drugs and atheism. Professionally temperate people are cranks. Atheism they ought to like. Atheists admire the word nothing. But they probably don’t admire lust much. Not a single favorable vote from the Methodists. Pietists—nix.

Piety is a nasty little virtue. Reverence for Pa the father, Ra the god, and hurrah the flag. Piety is respect for power and privilege, ancestors and the dead-and-gone deities. There is nothing in the world worth worship.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Lust.” Collected in Life Sentences. 

Ezra Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun (William H. Gass)

It is too easy—the name game—in this case.

Christened “Pound, Ezra Loomis.” If used as a verb, “pound” means to beat. If used as a noun, “pound” signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force. From time to time, apropos poetry, Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun, and concluded, if his practice may be entered as evidence, that the verb was most noticed when knocked off the sentence like a phallus from a kouros—“Spiretop alevel the well curb”—and when effects were hammered back into their causes with naillike hyphens—“Seal sport in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash”—hence into a compaction like a headache … splitting.

As location, a pound sequesters sick animals and strays. “Places of confinement for lawbreakers” is the definition that immediately precedes Pound’s name in The American Heritage Dictionary, after which we encounter the listing for “pound of flesh” and read of “a debt harshly insisted upon.” Certainly a pound is a large bite by any standard, yet it resembles, in being Shylock’s payment, the neschek of the Jews: money for the rent of money; not a gnaw but, in the way it feels coming due, not a nibble either. It is a tax on use, this thinning of the dime, as if money would otherwise be free of entropy; although to put the bite on someone has come to mean to beg for a loan, possibly as a return of favor, where the request is clearly not intended to invite the interest of the loan’s own teeth. So one meaning of “pound” has a relative called “blood money.” It suggests racial forfeiture.

On the other hand, the pound of flesh we subtract from the flank of a steer may increase our girth and relieve many a primordial anxiety. We call it “putting our money to work.” Wear and repair, profit or loss, depends upon your point of view, the angle of the bank and the direction of the bounce. Our poet depended without protest, for much of his life, upon funds supplied by the family of his wife.

The first few paragraphs of William H. Gass’s essay “Ezra Pound.” Collected in Finding a Form.

Most newness is new in all the same old ways (William H. Gass)

‘Make it new,’ Ezra Pound commanded, and ‘innovative’ is a good name for some kinds of fiction; however, most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions; or vapidly, when the touted differences are pointless; or opportunistically, when alterations are made simply in order to profit from imaginary improvements; or differentially, when newness merely marks a moment, place, or person off from others and gives it its own identity, however dopey.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Anywhere but Kansas.” Collected in Tests of Time.

Three Books


The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. 1979 2nd edition hardback from FS&G. Jacket design by Janet Halverson. A marvelous book—Fitzgerald’s editing is wonderful here—there’s a rich index that makes this book a pick me up and read me anytime kind of resource. Particularly great are O’Connor’s letters to ‘A,’ a smart reader whom O’Connor struck up a friendship with in letters.IMG_0522

The Marble Faun; or The Romance of Monte Beni by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1958 mass market paperback by Pocket Books. No designer credited. I love this cover and design—simple and elegant. The Marble Faun is the only Hawthorne novel (book, really) that I’ve yet to read.IMG_0523

Habitations of the Word: Essays by William H. Gass. 1985 trade paperback by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. Cover design by Koppel & Scher—and what a great design! (The quotation on the cover is from Gass’s essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence”). I had pulled this book out to find some lines from the first essay, “Emerson and the Essay,” for an American lit class I’m teaching. The essays collected here are brilliant stuff—literary criticism that surpasses “literary criticism.”

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About


From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.

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.’


‘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.