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.