Category: Gass, William H.

how inspiration works (quote): II

cont’d in Gass, READING RILKE

After training,… after an education, comes practice. Intense. Extended. Mindful. Careful. While continuing to read, to imitate if necessary, to learn. Rilke’s easy way with words led him astray, and he was late in his mastery of Goethe, Hölderlin, and many others. Rilke’s salad days were followed by arid stretches, by doubts, difficulties of all kinds, and these were painful for him, but no doubt necessary. Meanwhile, he was trying to understand his own conflicted nature. It is important to remember that the body fuels the mind. And that character controls both. The creative life of the mathematician is usually over by age forty. Perhaps the emotional problems the scholar is fleeing, by working in a world of total abstraction, no longer exert the same fearful pressures. Rilke needed his neuroses, he thought, and he refused, for that reason, to undergo psychoanalysis, although it was suggested to him.

Once one has become a mathematician, a physicist, a poet, then what one knows, what one feels and thinks, can be focused upon a particular problem. “For fifteen days,” Poincaré tells us, “I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions.” Despite his own denials, a sleepless night full of colliding ideas allowed him to establish the existence of such a class. Next, he wished to represent these new functions through the quotient of two series. This was a conscious choice. And the choice was made by an analogy with solutions achieved in other areas. Meanwhile, Poincaré had agreed to go by bus on a geologic excursion. Mathematical issues were far from his thoughts. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step [of the bus] the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.”

As in Rilke’s case, the ultimate solution to this complex problem was achieved in stages. Work. Blockage. Insight. Verification. Followed by the orderly development of the new idea.

Poincaré then turned his attention to what appeared to be quite a different set of problems in arithmetic, but he had a signal lack of success. Giving up in disgust, he took a few days off to visit the seaside. Then, for him, the Rilke-like moment arrived: “One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.” Further verifications follow. That is to say: proofs. “Naturally I set myself to form all these functions. I made a systematic attack upon them and carried all the outworks, one after another. There was one however that still held out, whose fall would involve that of the whole place.” One more blockage. Now he has to leave his work to go through military service (Poincaré is no exception to the rule of youth). While he was walking down the street one seemingly ordinary day, “the solution of the difficulty which had stopped me suddenly appeared to me.” He had to delay writing down this solution for some time, but time was no longer a factor. Eventually, he did it with dispatch.

In each stage of Poincaré’s amazing discovery, there are the same factors: initial talent, life preparation, focus, failure, distraction, revelation. In Rilke’s case, we can be considerably more detailed in our description. And the delays are sometimes years rather than weeks or days. Not only is the inspirational moment preceded by a lifetime of practice, but its environmental conditions must be fully met—in effect, the gun must be loaded and cocked before the trigger is pulled. However, since one is never sure what all these conditions are, they are realized by luck as much as plan.

how inspiration works (quote): I


To my mind, the most persuasive explanation of the phenomenon we are pleased to call “inspiration” (pleased because we like mysteries, we like to think ourselves chosen) is the one offered us by the mathematician Henri Poincaré in a little essay, “Mathematical Creation,” frequently reprinted from his illuminating book Foundations of Science.

The ground must be there. The ground is an individual’s genetic facility with the medium. But we must not be mistaken about what this facility is. Poincaré is at pains to point out that an inborn knack with numbers (a ready memory for such operations) has little to do with mathematical creativity. Nor does the ability many have to pick up languages as if the languages were thumbing a ride (again, a ready memory, a gift Rilke also had) give promise of poetry or playwriting or any other creative work. The ground Poincaré is speaking of is the ability to make fruitful connections between otherwise unlinked elements of the medium—mathematical connections in his case—resemblances, parallels, analogies—which constitute the synthesizing side of the science or the art; as well as the analytic aspect—the ability to discern deep differences among things as apparently similar as twins.

If the ground is there, we can begin to till it. The elements of the medium must be internalized. The principles of their manipulation must be mastered. Again, we must not confuse learning a language with the training necessary for its poetic use, precisely because the poetic use is a radical reversal of its function in ordinary life. Paradoxically, our budding poet must be “trained” to “play.” If both rules and elements are few in number (as, relatively, they are in music, mathematics, and the formalized genres of poetry, and as they are definitely not in fiction, history, anthropology, or philosophy), then useful results may be possible, even expected, by youthful efforts in these fields.

The training does not conclude with the internalization of elements and rules. The practice of other mathematicians, or poets, or composers, must be studied, heard, consumed. This listening, this reading, must be of the analytical kind I have called (in the case of language) transreading. For what is crucial to creativity is the repeated experience, by our young practitioner, of quality of the highest kind. Really gifted people know that values are as “out there” as cows in a field. And a sense for such significant combinations must be developed. Creativity concerns correct choice. I should say that the whole nature of a culture can be seen in its patterns of selection. The entire history of both art and science supports the view that some choices are better than others.

What does one learn? To ask the right question. As I noted in the section on transreading, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason in effect asks it: namely, why is a thing what it is, and not some other thing; or, why was this word chosen rather than some other? It may be that the nature of the universe does not provide answers of such completeness, so that we are left with half an explanation (what a thing is, not why it could not be otherwise), but works of art are supposed to bear more justification for their existence than you or I, a fox or flower or blade of grass, have to. There could be causes for the cosmos, but no reasons, or all of IT and the whole of WE could be accidents. The artist must do a better job than God has, although, having internalized the reasons for his choices, he may not be easily able to articulate them. Nevertheless, they’ll be there.

gas fest


“iffy,” “light,” is how Gass describes MIDDLE C, which is almost certainly his last novel (“No more novels” he says in the same interview). moreover Gass is getting really old; the best we can hope for is probably one last book length essay (is BAROQUE PROSE still in the works?)

middle C is mediocrity. the protagonist Joseph Skizzen is a nobody and a fraud just like the rest of us. his family fled Austria, pretending to be Jewish, assuming new identities and names at every step from there to Ohio. the father abandons them in the process. there’s a lot of business with identity and the self — Joe’s mother has to replace her birthname Nita with the adopted Miriam, and even Joseph’s car (he fakes his own license to drive) has two names, the Rambler and the Bumbler.

Yet, if only an act, what a reality! She would quiz the sky: Who was he [the father]? and Joseph, now in his wiseass teens, would reply, Who is anybody? which would mightily annoy his mother, for she felt, in her world, you knew for a lifetime, and a lifetime before that, because you could perceive his grandparents, provided you knew them, who someone was, and how they would be when good or bad fortune came; who would shovel when it snowed or cough when it rained; who sharpened the scythe before they swung it; who, when burlap bagged the apples, drank the most cider; and who would be a column and a comfort when sickness overcame your life and lowered it into the grave. He’s a steady fellow, folks said of steady fellowy sorts, as if there was nothing higher to be attained (30).

and there in characteristic lyrical brilliance is Miriam’s belief in the stable (or steady) individual subject. identity is also linked with historical trauma:

Nobody was better. We were all illegal. […] Everybody claimed to have received, in his or her inherited past, a horrible hurt. This justified their resentment, though it was the resentful that had harmed them. Opferheit. Victimhood was commoner than any common humanity. Mutual suspicion and betrayal feuded men together. Exile was birth by another name. (30)

of course we all inherit a past, but even this is shaky ground for finding out who you are. MIDDLE C explores Joseph’s past in a nonlinear fashion, skipping from his boyhood and youth working at a record shop, underperforming and dropping out of college; adulthood, faking ID and papers to work at a library in another town; building a fake CV to become Joseph Skizzen, professor of modern music history at Whittlebauer, and curator of the Inhumanity Museum. like Theresa Cha’s fragmented excavation, none of these discrete pasts help to crack the mystery of who Joseph is. he’s the sum of all the phoney personas.

some of my favorite chapters concern the Inhumanity Museum, and Joseph’s obsessive reworking of one sentence: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure” to “The fear that the human race might not endure has been succeeded by the fear that it will survive.” The sentence versions are in bold and come with a little bit of prose, like variations — and the the book’s 45 chapters seem to work in a similar way.

it’s all wonderfully misanthropic. Joseph’s ruminations about writing this one sentence sometimes spin off into amazing visions of apocalypse:

Markets worldwide would crash as reckless cars on a speedway do, striking the wall and rebounding into one another, hurling pieces of themselves at the spectators in the stands. With money worthless — that last faith lost — the multitude will riot, race and race first, God against God, the gots against the gimme. Insects hardened by generations of chemicals would consume our food, weeds smother our fields, fire ants, killer bees sting us while we’re fleeing into refuge water, where, thrashing, we would drown, our pride a sodden wafer. (25)

i wonder if MIDDLE C is a parody of social-realist fiction. it’s the most plotty of Gass’s narratives by a lot. it seems to throw us a bone by sketching out a protagonist who does things and finds himself in trying and unjust circumstances, and has a clear backstory, but uses it all to show how childhood offers no answers to adult psychology. there’s one scene in which Joseph and Miriam (who live together) visit the daughter Deborah and her husband’s family. it’s an aggressively boring domestic scene. It’s entirely cliched and Gass knows it, as if he’s packing in as many naturalist tropes as he can and getting by only with his prose style.

identity is part of the “machine of modernity.” it amounts to political representation, one of modernity’s many mechanisms.

His identity, Joseph Skizzen slowly realized, was wholly his affair. Further, the best security for that secret self was the creation of a faux one, a substitute, a peephole pay-for-view person. […] Go into debt. Get a loan. Buy a car. Learn to drive. Pass a test. Receive a license: with a face on it that says, Hi! I am the guy I say I am, see my smile? read my date of birth? my weight? my height? in my head, brown eyes are brown, make no mistake, I am that guy — there — under the laminate. (141)

tracing Joseph’s growth means also looking at what he reads and listens to. we get Thomas Wolfe, Bruno Schulz, Schoenberg, Bartok; all of whom Joseph has great reactions too but also as “Herr Fraudulent Prof” knows nothing and bluffs his way through one lecture after another.

our favorite artists and thinkers and heroes and people are components of our own being. the nonlinear structure of the novel dispenses with any telos of who Skizzen becomes — we’re beyond the simple bildungsroman. instead of a line we’re in a space where Joseph has and will become. at the same time, the closest we can say is that he’s become like his father: does the inherited past win out after all?

and there’s a lot to be made of all the women in Joseph’s life. except for Hazel, the car saleswoman and gifted church singer, their names all start with M. Majorie and Miss Moss in the Urichstown library are an odd couple but also seem to blur together. indeed the lack of quoted speech blends together the 3rd person narrator’s lyricism with the speech of the characters in a pleasing way. but these women are strange and a little predatory; in two cases Joey has to fight off the advances of another woman. actually he doesn’t get down with anyone in the novel. perhaps acheiving identity through love and personal relations is another one of those novelistic themes for the trash bin.

it’s plotty, it’s biographical; it should be Gass’s most accessible work yet, and it is in a way. but on the other hand, perhaps the next level from that lecherous fascist William Kohler in THE TUNNEL is a dude only vaguely misogynist, whose achievements will amount to nothing, is confused about who he is, uncertain about the future, and sometimes feels deeply lonely. just another life.

the space of becoming is what Badiou identifies as “ceremony.” MIDDLE C demonstrates how we can be different things in time without necessarily experiencing these things as a whole intelligible self, and does so with the quiet life of a nobody. a ceremony of a novel.


concerning cockroaches

Thank you all visitors and readers for 666 total blog views!

IMG_0058i apologize in advance for throwing in the last two stories in one rushed post — im moving to the east coast this weekend.

“Order of Insects” is a very short and strange piece. It’s unique from the others by having a woman narrator, a housewife who becomes pre-occupied with the roach carcasses that turn up in their new house. She never finds them alive (and im reminded why i hate shag carpeting). There’s not even a tease of narrative progression here — her discourse is like a domestic essay, wandering in thought, from bugs to death to fears to hobbies to a woman’s place in relation to these things.


breath of a salesman


In “Icicles,” the third story of Heart of the Country, we follow a guy named Fender from one evening to the following one, in which he counts peas in his pot pie, goes to his work at a real estate office, bungles a house showing, and looks at the icicles forming on his house. The people in his lonely world include Pearson, his boss and a bit of a gasbag, his co-worker Glick whose youthful hobbies grate on Fender’s nerves, and a woman named Isabelle.

This piece unfolds as a mile-a-minute free-form indirect discourse made of monologues and self-dialogues and autobiographical memories. And yet for all the stuff presented there’s a lot that Fender won’t say, even to himself — shameful thoughts that he has to repress, and is the source of his gradual unhinging. He has sunk so far down into his mind, his inner language, that any words that come out of his mouth astound him with their seeming artifice; he’s estranged from his own outward self.


Mrs. Mean and the missing beans

IMG_0058Next entry in this INTHotHotC series is on “Mrs. Mean,” which is what our narrator designates the mean ol’ lady across the street, who cusses at and beats up her four kids who run riot on her lawn and those of the neighbors. That’s almost all that physically happens. There are some portraits on other members of this vapid, geriatric community, as well as anecdotes within anecdotes and multiple digressions. Remembered stories intrude themselves, as they often do. Our narrator is an educated man who casually uses literary allusions, and has many nasty contemptible thoughts — perhaps he’s a rehearsal for THE TUNNEL. Once again we seem to be squarely in late modernism: it reeks of the classics, emphasizes internal psychology, no plot but a playful cascade of images. It has interesting ideas about how we speculate on the lives of others from what is truly an extremely limited set of information, and so much the better for the narrator, he prefers his imagined constructions to whatever the “reality” could be; a comic dance with solipsism.

Once again it’s really well written, and a world away from the despairing roughness of “The Pedersen Kid.” i can see why many would like that story best out of the collection; i would have if my tastes were the same as when i was a teen, and Faulkner and McCarthy were god. Nowadays i gravitate to the funny suburban oddness of “Mrs. Mean.” It has an appealing, dare i say Joycean? lyricism. Who else can write something like: “The lane looks empty of all life like a road in a painting of a dream. I am a necromancer carrying a lantern. The lamp is lit but it gives no light,”  and it somehow pulls off?


don’t eat the brown snow

[CN: alcohol abuse, domestic violence]

“The Pedersen Kid” is the curtain opener of IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY, Gass’s early collection of stories. ill be doing an entry on each one in the book. Who knows what kind of editorial or publication issues there might be, but im surprised that i dont find “TPK” in more textbook anthologies. Every part of its exquisite composition and brooding darkness screams Murican Classic! The next edition of Norton’s Short Fiction should replace HEART OF DARKNESS with it. Seriously.

The narrator is an adolescent boy. His sentences are simple, every word is a 1-cent word. The North Dakota farmer dialect comes not through grammatical mannerism but in choice words, and a lack of adverbs: the glass “rolled slow by ma’s feet.” There’s something of a plot though nothing is resolved, the mysteries only intensify in ambiguity, the single quest we follow fails, the dialog is perfunctory and ridden in useless conflict and competition. There may or may not be an intruder out there in the snow, but Pa’s alcoholism threatens to explode in violence at any moment. There is a menace from within and without, no warmth.


the teachings of Gertie (selected quotes)

“Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” by William H. Gass, pp. 69, 75-76, 81, 112, 118, 122


Books contained tenses like closets full of clothes, but the present was the only place we were alive, and the present was like a painting, without before or after, spread to be sure, but not in time; and although, as William James had proved, the present was not absolutely flat, it was nevertheless not much thicker than pigment. Geography would be the study appropriate to it: mapping body space. The earth might be round but experience, in effect, was flat. Life might be long but living was as brief as each breath in breathing. Without a past, in the prolonged narrowness of any “now,” wasn’t everything in a constant condition of commencement? Then, too, breathing is repeating — it is beginning and rebeginning, over and over, again and again and again.