William H. Gass reads from his novel Middle C

The Inhumanity Museum

 

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! He would read the paper and make clippings out of it, like Pivner père in Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, who builds his own Inhumanity Museum:

…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. 

There is more.

This section of The Recognitions reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s faits divers, microtragedies composed in 1906 for the newspaper Le Matin:.

“If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,” M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself.

A thunderstorm interrupted the celebration in Orléans in honor of Joan of Arc and the 477th anniversary of the defeat of the English.

In the course of a heated political discussion in Propriano, Corsica, two men were killed and two wounded.

In Bone, the courts and the bar have reestablished contact with the prison, now that the typhus outbreak there has been curbed.

Clash in the street between the municipal powers of Vendres, Herault, and the party of the opposition. Two constables were injured.

Despondent owing to the bankruptcy of one of his debtors, M. Arturo Ferretti, merchant of Bizerte, killed himself with a hunting rifle.

Etc.

Scissors and Lemon, Richard Diebenkorn

Fénéon’s faits divers owe their survival to scissors and paste: His mistress cut each column from the paper and collected them in an album. A century later, NYRB published Novels in Three Lines, their own album of Fénéon’s faits divers.

Recently, the writer Teju Cole has followed Fénéon’s example, composing his own series of small fatesCole began his small fates while working on his “new book, a non-fictional narrative of Lagos.” Cole’s small fates had their origin in the crime and metro sections of the Nigerian newspapers that he read daily. Attracted to the “life in the raw” presented here, Cole revised the news articles into a synthesis of Fénéon’s style with his own. He felt that these stories were “too brief, too odd, and certainly too sensational” for his new book, and yet he was compelled to tell them anyway. Even if he couldn’t fit them into his new book, they were nevertheless part of his storytelling project.

Fénéon was elevating a preexisting form of newspaper reporting, artfully injecting humor and subtle observation into the structure of his faits divers, unlike Lessing, Gaddis, or Gass, who used clippings to inject reality—and the real human inhumanity of reality—into their fictional texts. 

Perhaps Fénéon was motivated by the same spirit as those later authors. Perhaps like Pivner the Elder in Gaddis’s The Recognitions “the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself.” There’s something defensive about the humor in Fénéon’s faits divers, a human reaction to horror we misname inhuman.

Is there another way to react? In her short story “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor converts the Inhumanity Museum into a strange, private shrine. Mrs. Greenleaf (whom the protagonist Mrs. May regards with utter contempt) buries her clippings and prays over them:

Instead of making a garden or washing their clothes, her preoccupation was what she called “prayer healing.” Every day she cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so, moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and, Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.

The opening lines suggest an ironic displacement. Mrs. May, a thoroughly worldly figure, devoid of spirituality, thinks that Mrs. Greenleaf should be “making a garden or washing,” activities we might associate with a kind of spiritual activity—Eden-building or purifying (for Mrs. May these would be quotidian chores). Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer healing is of course explicitly spiritual, but its spirituality directly responds to the awful lurid everyday morbidity of the news. 

O’Connor doesn’t use the same (in)direct cut and paste technique as some of the other writers I’ve mentioned here, but her fiction is full of newspaper and magazine readers. I think now of Bailey, the ill-fated father in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” whom we meet “bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.” There’s something lurid about the orangeness, a bright distraction. (In O’Connor’s universe The Holy Bible is the book everyone evades contemplating). And it’s in that same paper that the Misfit is introduced, the serial killer who brings the characters from distraction back to reality.

For O’Connor, the stakes couldn’t be higher—she was concerned for the immortal soul:

…in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.  This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

While O’Connor was deeply invested in her own “Christian view of the world,” I think she offers a description, if not a definition, of how the Inhumanity Museum can function in literary texts. It’s the violent shock of the real that the author wishes to evoke. The utter banality of how that reality is communicated through mass texts serves to bring the shock into sharper relief.

Is the goal then to unlearn the dulled reading habits that Gaddis showcases in Pivner?: “Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart.” Yet to be so fully absorbed into the pain and ugliness and stupidity of the world would surely result in crushing madness, or “chaos,” as Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook claims. And perhaps that’s why the Inhumanity Museum is such an important location. A museum has an exit.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published this post in August, 2014].

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 world was at war, sillies” (William H. Gass)

The world was at war, sillies. Everywhere. It was a very large war, deserving the name of “World.” It contained countless smaller ones, and the smaller ones were made of campaigns and battles, deadly encounters and single shootings, calamities on all fronts. But history can hold up for our inspection many different sorts of wars, and World War Two was made of nearly all of them: trade wars—tribal wars—civil wars—wars by peaceful means—wars of ideas—wars over oil—over opium—over living space—over access to the sea—whoopee, the war in the air—among feudal houses—raw raw siss-boom-bah—so many to choose from—holy wars—battles on ice floes between opposing ski patrols—by convoys under sub pack attacks—in the desert there might be a dry granular war fought between contesting tents, dump trucks, and tanks—or—one can always count on the perpetual war between social classes—such as—whom do you suppose? the Rich, the Well Off, the Sort Of, the So-So, and the Starving—or—the Smart, the Ordinary, and the Industriously Ignorant—or—the Reactionary and the Radical—not just the warmongers for war but those conflicts by pacifists who use war to reach peace—the many sorts of wars that old folks arrange, the middle-aged manage, and the young fight—oh, all of these, and sometimes simultaneously—not to neglect the wars of pigmentation: color against color, skin against skin, slant versus straight, the indigenous against immigrants, city slickers set at odds with village bumpkins, or in another formulation: factory workers taught to shake their fists at field hands (that’s hammer at sickle)—ah, yes—the relevant formula, familiar to you, I’m sure, is that scissors cut paper, sprawl eats space—Raum!—then in simpler eras, wars of succession—that is, wars to restore some king to his john or kill some kid in his cradle—wars between tribes kept going out of habit—wars to keep captured countries and people you have previously caged, caged—wars in search of the right death, often requiring suicide corps and much costly practice—wars, it seems, just for the fun of it, wars about symbols, wars of words—uns so weiter—wars to sustain the manufacture of munitions—bombs, ships, planes, rifles, cannons, pistols, gases, rockets, mines—wars against scapegoats to disguise the inadequacies of some ruling party—a few more wars—always a few more, wars fought to shorten the suffering, unfairness, and boredom of life.

From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.

Scenes from the Inhumanity Museum (William H. Gass)

416 b.c. Athens besieges the island colony of Melos, an ally of Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. Melos is chosen for its particular weakness and to prove to others the power of Athens. The Melians refuse to surrender because it would look bad on their résumé (they were a shame society) and result in slavery for their citizens. The Athenians decimate the population by killing the men and boys, taking the women into service, and later repopulate the place with their own kind.

149–146 b.c. Weakened by its victory at Cannae during the Second Punic War, the Romans, who simply outlasted their foe, burned Carthaginian ships, the pride of the sea, in their own harbor, then murdered the men, raped the women, and rampaged each street. Fifty thousand were sold into slavery, although, with such a plentiful harvest, prices could not have been advantageous. Emptied of all contents, the city was razed and left in shards and shatters, but scholars (the pen exceeding the sword once again) waited until the nineteenth century to salt the very earth the city once stood on. It made for a better story. I can only agree.

339. Because, among the Jews and the Magi, the number of Assyrians was, in clear evidence, multiplying, a firman was issued (possibly called a fatwa now) that doubled their taxes. Mar Shimun, head of the Assyrian cities of Seleusa and Ctesiphon, refused to enforce this levy, so it was carried out by collectors of particular violence and brutality in the hope that the Christians would abjure their religion in order to escape taxation and mistreatment. Just in case they did not, on the morning of Good Friday, 339, he had Shimun arrested for treason, all Assyrian vessels seized by the government, priests and ministers put to the sword, and churches torn from their moorings in the earth.

1200 et passim. Genghis Khan carried out mass murders in many of the cities he conquered, Baghdad, Samarkand, Urgench, Vladimir, and Kiev among them. Afterward, he appeared in several inferior films I have been forced by my mother to see.

1850–1890. Having infected the natives of America with smallpox, pushed them from their hunting grounds, thrashed them thoroughly in small engagements over many years, broken numerous treaties and agreements, the colonists resorted to death marches and emaciating dislocations over a period of nearly fifty years (the Trail of Tears that followed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 rid us of four thousand). Feeling a bit ashamed about collecting more scalps than the barbaric tribesmen, the white man made amends with bad booze, attic rugs, and baby rattles. The final indignity, in our present age, is permission we have given to the tribes to oversee and profit from tawdry gambling casinos erected on their reservations. Liquor and various drugs are available at cut rates, especially near borders. Speaking of borders, Dominican dictator Trujillo ordered all cattle-rustling Haitians, living close to the republic’s legal edges, be eliminated. Twenty to thirty thousand were—more than the number of cattle. Haitians speak a sort of French, Dominicans a pretty good Spanish, but the nationalities may otherwise be indistinguishable. The test chosen by their murderers was to require their suspect to identify a sprig of parsley: what is this? Instead of our present choice of curly or flat, Haitians would either say persil or pèsi instead of the Dominican perejil. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired to inspect their prey for circumcisions. Australians treated their indigenous populations rather as Americans did. They began with measles and smallpox, concluded with sabering, burning, and shooting. Tasmanian aborigines were nearly exterminated, but, like the buffalo, have since made a comeback, so all is well. Some claim our pacification program in the Philippines (1902–13), using cholera to do most of the damage, killed more than a million Filipinos, some of whom were actually dissidents. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired by these advances in germ warfare to encourage families of malarial mosquitoes to set up shop in the Pontine Marshes where they produced ninety-eight thousand cases in only two years. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired by their own example in German South-West Africa. They gave to history its first case, it is claimed, of state-organized genocide, led by a man perfectly named for it—General Lothar von Trotha. Two ethnic groups made up the colony’s population. The general removed 80 percent of one but scarcely 50 percent of the other. [Required two cards]

1639–1651. Cromwell’s army invaded Ireland to deny Royalists their farms and to put many of these properties in Protestant hands, at the same time preventing them from serving as a base for the return of the Crown to England. Colonization was indeed a British habit. When the French explored the New World they built outposts to facilitate trade; when the Spanish did so, after the initial slaughter, they settled in among the natives, often marrying them; but when the British arrived they drove the Indians away and built houses for themselves and handsome sideboards for their manners. This was not a new strategy but a successful one, except in Ireland’s case. Nazis were no doubt similarly inspired to repopulate Poland, as the Israelis to enlarge Zion. The Irish were encouraged to remain bitter by British behavior during the potato famine of 1845–49. The Brits outpaid the Irish for their own crop, vesseled the potatoes away, and left the people to starve. Stupid, stubborn, slippery: the British do not own these qualities, but in England’s case, they built an empire with them. The Irish moved to big-city America where they became cops. In their spare time, some rioted with German immigrants over saloon hours.

1793–1796. A part of France called Vendée was a persistent arena of religious conflict. It is difficult to separate the killing and maiming that takes place during a war with the sort that qualifies for the Inhumanity Museum. They didn’t want to pay taxes. (I’ve heard that before.) This time the tax was to be paid by their church. Economics and religion will always set a place blazing. At first, supporters of the church and Crown prevailed, the insurgency seemed on the point of success; but the new bloodthirsty Republican state sent a huge army to “pacify” the region by killing most of the people in it. Until these ruffians arrived, there was not enough “inhumanity” to qualify it for membership. Women and children, houses and municipal buildings, flags and symbols, were all equally eradicated. Beliefs had sharp queries run through them, but beliefs, however stupid or foolish or bizarre, have no more material a body than God himself. They cannot be so easily destroyed, and always outlive their believers, if only in quaint volumes and old tomes. There they lie until some half-wit gives them animation.

From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.

Sad Postcard in a Sad Book (Gass/Pancake)

20140311-143226.jpg

A book, you would think, is not a pocket, a purse, or a wastebasket, but people dispose of their sniffle-filled Kleenex between unexposed pages, their toothpicks, too, dirty where they’ve gripped them while cleaning their teeth—such in-decency—matchbooks with things written on the underside of the flap, usually numbers, of telephones, I suppose; or they leave paper clips and big flat mother-of-pearl buttons—imagine—curls of hair and all sorts of receipts as well as other slips of paper they’ve used to mark the spot where they stopped; and they file correspondence between leaves as if a book were a slide drawer—do they do that to their own books?—or they tuck snapshots, postcards, unused stamps, into them, now and then a pressed bloom—they stain, I’ve seen leaf shadows—one- to five- to ten-dollar bills, you’d never guess, yes, rubber bands, a shoelace, candy and gum wrappers—even their chewed gum that I have to pry out with a putty knife—people—people—I dee-clare—and newspaper clippings, often the author’s reviews, that are among the worst intruders because in time they’ll sulfur the pages where they’ve been compressed the way people who fall asleep on the grass of a summer morning leave their prints for the use of sorcerers like me to make our magic.

–From William H. Gass’s novel  Middle C.

I leave stuff in books all the time. In fact, I almost always leave something (a movie stub, a photo, a note, a picture my son or daughter drew, something) in each book I finished.  (I even wrote about it a bit last year). So I guess Miss Moss, the old librarian in Gass’s Middle C, would be royally pissed with my habits. I read this passage a day or two after a visit to my favorite used bookstore, where, looking for books by Grace Paley, I came across an uncracked copy of Breece D’J. Pancake’s super sad super terrific collected stories. I own the book, but in a different edition (fox on the cover), so I grabbed it out. Lo and behold, a postcard!–and of a scene straight out of Pancake’s own semi-beloved West Virginia, no less! The note, a token of friendship, accompanied an inscription in the book itself—is there anything sadder than an inscribed book abandoned to a used bookstore?

I left the book, postcard in it, easily resisting the initial temptation to slide it into one of the Paley volumes. Destined for another reader.

20140311-143234.jpg

Library Rules (William H. Gass)

We can’t frisk our customers—I wouldn’t want to put my hands on some—but in the reading room or anywhere—if you see someone taking notes with a pen, you must caution them. Highli—? Indeed. Highlighters—highlighters are evil, they must be immediately confiscated and their users given a talking-to, even if they are marking up their own books or some harmless paper copies. Oh … Marjorie raised her hands to heaven. How I hate highlighters—you don’t use them, do you? Joseph wagged his head. Good, she said, good sign. The dog-ear people do it, stupid students do it, and they will grow dog-ears in due time. You don’t do dogs, do you, Joseph? We never could afford a pet, Joseph said. Good sign. Good sign. Dogs are bad for books. Don’t ever do dogs. They chew. Cats are bad, too. They claw. They love to rub their chins on the corners of covers, leave sneezers of fur. Rub their chins and grin at you. Before they fade from view, Joseph said. Oh, you are a darling, I kiss the nearby air, Marjorie exclaimed.

But it would not be for the last time. The neighboring air got many a smooch. Marjorie’s approval made Joey happy. He was a success.

Do not lean with heavy hands or rest your elbows on a book, even closed, even at apparent peace. You know why, I suppose?

Ah—

It compresses the covers against the spine and may crack the adhesive.

Oh.

Do not use a book as a writing board. Points can make indentations, especially—you’d be surprised—on jackets, many of which are waxy, slick, easily marked, for example, with a fingernail. And never put your notepaper on an open book, even to write a word—a dozen crimes in one action there.

I wouldn’t do that. Open books are so uneven.

Never mark in a book not your own, but even then, unless you think you’re Aristotle, never make a marginal note or a clever remark you will surely regret, and always assume the author is smarter than you are—have you written a book on his subject? … well?—so put down your differences on a piece of paper made for the purpose, or keep the quarrel quietly in your head where it will bother only you and never fluster another, not even your future self who will have forgotten the dispute, you can be sure, and will not wish to be reminded.

Yes, ma’am.

Marjorie. Not Miss, Mizz, or Ma’am. Marjorie. Marjorie.

It was a nice name, he thought, well syllabled.

Don’t put your palms down on illustrations, reproductions, any page at all, really, because even the most fastidious sweat—men sweat the most, women have more discipline over their bodies—did you know that? except for their hands, their hands are public advertisements, they encounter a porcupine, a precipice, a proposal, and their palms get runny; oh yes, and in the old days, when men kissed a milady’s hand, it was the top of it they put their lips to, not the palm, you never know where the palm has been or what it’s been wrapped around. Well. Where was … Ah … Be wary. Inks may smear. Pigments flake. Thumb oils may seep into the paper, leave prints, and sweat attracts insects, did you know? also there may be a fungus in the neighborhood. Sweat is a magnet.

Gee, I didn’t know that.

Joseph. That is your last “gee.” Never even feel—“gee.” You are a grown-up.

Okay …“Okay” is also out? Gee … Okay.

Marjorie laughed like a wind chime. Good man, she said. Good man.

From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.

“Scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, schmucks, schlumps…” (William H. Gass)

When young and full of fellow feeling, Professor Joseph Skizzen had been tormented by the thought that the human race (which he naïvely believed was made up of great composers, a few harmlessly lecherous painters, maybe a mathematician or a scientist, a salon of writers, all aiming at higher things however they otherwise carried on) … that such an ennobled species might not prosper, indeed, might not survive in any serious way—symphonies sinking like torpedoed ships, murals spray-canned out of sight, statues toppled, books burned, plays updated by posturing directors; but now, older, wiser—more jaundiced, it’s true—he worried that it might (now that he saw that the human world was packed with politicians who could not even spell “scruple”; now that he saw that it was crammed with commercial types who adored only American money; now that he saw how it had been overrun by religious stupefiers, mountebanks, charlatans, obfuscators, and other dedicated misleaders, as well as corrupt professionals of all kinds—ten o’clock scholars, malpracticing doctors, bribed judges, sleepy deans, callous munitions makers and their pompous generals, pedophilic priests, but probably not pet lovers, not arborists, not gardeners—but Puritans, squeezers, and other assholes, ladies bountiful, ladies easy, shoppers diligent, lobbyists greedy, Eagle Scouts, racist cops, loan sharks, backbiters, gun runners, spies, Judases, philistines, vulgarians, dumbbells, dolts, boobs, louts, jerks, jocks, creeps, yokels, cretins, simps, pipsqueaks—not a mensch among them—nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, schmucks, schlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again Bible bangers, users, conmen, ass kissers, Casanovas, pimps, thieves and their sort, rapists and their kind, murderers and their ilk—the pugnacious, the miserly, the envious, the litigatious, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the lubricious, the jealous, the profligate, the gossipacious, the indifferent, the bored), well, now that he saw it had been so infested, he worried that the race might … might what? … the whole lot might sail on through floods of their own blood like a proud ship and parade out of the new Noah’s ark in the required pairs—for breeding, one of each sex—sportscasters, programmers, promoters, polluters, stockbrokers, bankers, body builders, busty models, show hosts, stamp and coin collectors, crooners, glamour girls, addicts, gamblers, shirkers, solicitors, opportunists, insatiable developers, arrogant agents, fudging accountants, yellow journalists, ambulance chasers and shysters of every sleazy pursuit, CEOs at the head of a whole column of white-collar crooks, psychiatrists, osteopaths, snake oilers, hucksters, fawners, fans of funerals, fortune-tellers and other prognosticators, road warriors, chieftains, Klansmen, Shriners, men and women of any cloth and any holy order—at every step moister of cunt and stiffer of cock than any cock or cunt before them, even back when the world was new, now saved and saved with spunk enough to couple and restock the pop … the pop … the goddamn population.

From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.

“I like the delete key best” (William H. Gass)

When Skizzen first became aware of it, he laughed, for he had miss-spelled “spell.” Well, not exactly. The additional l was a typo. “Spelll.” It was a machine-mad error, but the extra l could be easily deleted. That was one of the great virtues of this new invention. If words magically appeared on the screen (he was often unaware he was typing his fingers flew so fast, so briefly did they need to light upon the keys), they could be sent away just as readily. Not like a note that would leave of its own accord yet could not be erased and could not be said to have disappeared. He had been saying that a spell had been put upon mankind. Writing, not saying. He had been writing that a spell had been put upon our race. As if Circe had changed us into swine so that our little noses were wrinkled by concealed snouts, and inside those of us who possessed a male member a hog’s reproductive implement curled—a pig’s … sexual implement—a memoir of the moment of enchantment. Anyway, we did not see how foolish, how absurd, how wicked we were being. That was the gist.

Joseph had pursued a request for some books that he had asked the library to acquire as far as the library entrance, where a smilling young man had greeted him with this suitcase fulll of magic. We ordered some of these computers, he said with some excitement, and they just came. Want to play? The Music Department had been threatened with digitization, but their three-person claim on modernity was weak. So Professor Skizzen dutifullly sat at one end of a long library table and began pecking away: It is as if a spelll had been put upon mankind. How quickly the spelll enveloped the screen. We oinked and thought it singing, he wrote. The young man approached bearing his grin like a tidbit on a salver, so Skizzen hit DELETE and saw nothing more, neither his practice sentence nor the grin. Go on, the young man said, take it for a spin. Our new system will make it easy for us to keep records, he boasted. The bursar is out of his mind with delight. We rolled in the mud and believed we were bathing, Skizzen wrote, with his best hunt-and-peck. He knew Grin was grinning again, over his shoulder. Let the piker peek, Skizzen thought, I shall complete my edifying lines about the spelll that been put upon mankind. “We fought one another and afterward celebrated the carnage” soon materialized. With writing, he said aloud, the writing inscribes the letters, letters build the words, and, subsequently, the thought arrives—handmade like kneaded bread. With typewriting, you get letters by hammering them into existence. Or out, with x’s, if you don’t like them. With this sweet machine here, you issue a requisition. Well, now, I hadn’t thought about it that way, the Grinner said. With pen and ink, before we write, we think, because we hate the sight of corrections. With the computer we write first and think later, corrections are so easy to perform. I like the delete key best; it has a good appearance, Skizzen said, typing furiously. “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine.” Joseph determined to leave something behind as an animal might to signal its presence, so he keyed: “We eagerly awaited our own slaughter, as though we were receiving an award.” Now he spoke it as he played it. “Our haunch would hang in the smokehouse to season, and those of us who remained to feel would feel, like parvenus, that we had Arrived.” I’m glad you got these, he said to the Grin, though the young man didn’t seem to have any more grins to spend. I wonder how many unordered books these cost me. He slid his words the length of the long table where they disappeared over its edge into delete. Then Skizzen took his goatee away where it would be better appreciated.

From William H. Gass’s  novel Middle C.

William H. Gass Reading From Middle C