PRINT February 1997


William H. Gass’ Finding a Form

Finding a Form: Essays, by William H. Gass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. 368 pp. $26.

I HAPPENED TO BE passing through St. Louis one summer weekend in 1989, and, having a day to kill, I took a chance and telephoned William Gass in his offices at the philosophy department at Washington University. Ordinarily I would have hesitated before trying to contact a writer whom I admired; but Gass, as a philosopher, essayist, and novelist, was more important to me than most, and as luck would have it, he was in and invited me over. I remember that the campus was lovely; I remember that Gass was gray-haired and gracious. I remember very little of the conversation itself, except for our closing exchange. At the time I was in my mid ’20s, and Angry; Gass was in his mid ’60s, and Even Angrier; he’d once invented a character who said, “I want to rise so high . . . that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” It was a line I found hard to imagine coming from the generous, seemingly benign man before me; nevertheless, I asked him how he managed his own well-documented rage, expecting, I suppose, some sagacious words on self-possession, à la Montaigne or Emerson. “Oh,” he said cheerfully, “I go into the kitchen and break dishes.”

If Finding a Form is any evidence, there’s less intact crockery than ever in Gass’ home, but his cupboard’s loss is our gain. This is his fourth collection of essays on literature and philosophy, and it comes, surprisingly quickly, on the heels of the publication of The Tunnel, an enormous novel that occupied its author for several decades. The newer book gathers together nineteen pieces, on Robert Walser, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford; on Nietzsche and Wittgenstein; on avant-gardism and formalism; on the mediocrity of the Pulitzer Prize and the pitfalls of writing fiction in the present tense. It is a beautiful book, a dignified and deeply ambitious book, a dazzling book, and in many regards a troubling book.

Gass is an aesthete: the sort of writer, uncommon these days, who believes that art occupies a realm of its own, that its central qualities have no counterpart in the world outside—no counterpart, and indeed no equal. He loves literature, philosophy, and the essay, and his erudition is spectacular, as is his capacity to be moved; he does not like contemporary culture—movies and television, music, advertising—not because of prudery or puritanism (he is, in fact, an epicurean of sorts; certainly few authors in English write more strikingly about sex), but because he finds their pleasures faint, degraded, and corrupt. In an age when the banalities of cultural studies have become an inescapable presence in every academic journal and college curriculum, it’s exhilarating to experience the withering blasts of Gass’ ire, and listen to him as he enlarges upon them by citing passages of poetry or prose that he particularly admires, wrapping the whole in an ornate latticework of example, exhortation, supposition, cross-reference, and caustic aside. One can, of course, disagree with his tastes and beliefs, in whole or in part, but it’s difficult not to admire the force and frankness with which he writes. Thus:

I do happen to feel, with Theodor Adorno, that writing a book is a very important ethical act, consuming so much of one’s life; and that, in these disgusting times, a writer who does not pursue an alienating formalism (but rather tries to buck us up and tell us not to spit in the face of the present, instead of continuing to serve this corrupt and debauched society although it shits on every walk and befouls every free breath), is, if not a pawn of the system (a lackey, we used to say), then probably a liar and a hypocrite.

There is not a word wasted in that passage, not a punch pulled, but reading Gass hasn’t always been such an unmixed pleasure. I’ve always suspected that he was an inherently mediocre writer who, by dint of enormous intelligence and unceasing effort, was slowly making himself into a master. In the past, even in the midst of such marvels as On Being Blue, an extended essay on the erotic arts, one could occasionally see him straining for effect. He is now seventy-two, and at the top of his form: gone are the forced-sounding metaphors that sometimes marred his earlier prose, gone the sporadic, ill-managed, and sarcastic lapses into vernacular, the typographical games, the mere misanthropy and bursts of petulance. Where once one might have found oneself lost in a swamp of prose, within which the author himself seemed to have abandoned his theme, now the paragraphs are modulated with utter confidence, and if the argument sometimes wanders, we know nonetheless that Gass is leading us someplace. Finding a Form is a grand peroration, from a man who has thought and studied and written with extraordinary diligence and love of his chosen art.

For those readers not specifically concerned with literature, the essays on themes derived from the book’s title will probably be the most generative. And I believe that every art-school student in the country should be presented with “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” an essay that begins with the poet Pierre de Ronsard, to whom the term was first applied, and traces the subsequent structure and fate of the phenomenon with a brutally honest hand; he compares Le Corbusier’s program of civic self-betterment to that of a Rotarian, for example; and he points out the existence of a “conservative avant-garde” (among whose members he includes Pound and Eliot, Lawrence, and Céline) with an unhappy tendency to fall into racism and fascism.

Still, a potential problem begins to appear with Gass’ argument here. Writing against Pound et al., he says, “Art, the honest article, lives (with other realities) only in an active present.” So it does: but he condemns the present, too, in the passage I copied out above, and others like it throughout the book. So an obsession with the past is culpable, and a capitulation to the present is worse—and for the record, Gass dismisses Futurism, too. What then remains? An art, he argues, that is permanently original, permanently present, and he provides a list of those works that he believes belong in such a category (Bach is on it, and so is Schoenberg, Henry James and Gertrude Stein, Duchamp and Rothko).

I suspect that Gass is indulging in a certain degree of hand waving here; his point depends more on rhetoric than on argument. But it would be a mistake to accuse him, therefore, of succumbing to conservative canon mongering. In fact, one of the most agreeable of Gass’ traits is the deftness with which he sidesteps the common political categories of contemporary thought—radical, liberal, reactionary. I sometimes think he would say almost anything, if he felt he could say it well. Caveat lector: No real criticism occurs in Finding a Form, and no real theory emerges from it. It is more the record of one man’s reading, with all its crankiness and inconsistency left intact and uncorrected, and worth attending to as such—not because Gass is entirely original, still less because he’s obviously right, but because the evidence he marshals for his archaic cause is so lovingly assembled, and exquisitely expressed, that the whole book bids to illustrate the thesis it expresses: for it is itself so well made as to be inherently valuable, and I am glad it exists.

As I’ve said, it is a furious piece of work. But it ends with a spectacular, art-affirming passage, a single paragraph, composed of a single sentence several hundred words long. I can’t quote it all here, but it ends with “joy,” and the word is fully justified. It serves, moreover, as a kind of kaleidoscope lens through which one can look back on the book, indeed the career, that precedes it. Of course, it is joy he’s been after all along, and joy that he provides. As a promoter of difficult pleasures, more precious for being hard won, Gass has no contemporary equal.

Jim Lewis’ second novel, Why the Tree Loves the Ax, will be published next winter by Crown.