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Authors: William H. Gass

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To whom and to what do they look? Not many classes ahead of them was Annie Ann Anderson and Barry Gaylord Linger (about whom there still circulates scads of Workshop gossip), and just see where they are now—with stories appearing in the
New Celeb Yorker
, with a collection out from a prestigious commercial press, with interviews, readings, nibbles from the films, professionally snapped publicity photos featuring glamorous hairdos, a hard-asnails agent, and a fresh fiction-rich divorce. Because few of the
young people I met on my travels had the romantic aspirations my generation had, I decided that they lacked ambition. I was wrong. They have plenty of ambition, but it is of a thoroughly worldly and commonsense kind: they want to make it … the way Annie and Barry did … they want to be hot, imitated, sought.

The principal perils of the present tense are its limited scope and its absence of mind. It looks; it watches; it sees; it mops. There is one act or felt object, then another. The present tense cannot cope with the present day. As far as the contemporary world is concerned, the present is so full of pus you cannot see the wound.

The present tense with its problems will probably pass. Writing programs, however, are very American and very successful, and will doubtless remain. It has been in every program’s interest to feed its students into the commercial world of publishing somewhat as collegiate athletic programs feed their players to the pros. The present success of the short story, like the present success of the present tense, is not merely the consequence of a conservative atmosphere in our country (although it may substantially account for the absence of youthful idealism and general social concerns in this work); it is, in my opinion, the reflection of an established and dominant institution, with its connections, personality, and structure. Times—the cliché has promised—change; scribblers come and go; fads, like that for the present tense, fade; authors, critics, consumers, all eagerly await the next wave; but in the Detroits of our culture, the manufacture of writers continues.

And a general malaise may remain, because where can the young reasonably dream of making a difference? They can recycle beer cans and paper; they can try to save the ozone layer and the rain forests; they can campaign against drunk drivers. Young men can hunt, fish, and sit in bars. Young women can learn how to kick balls and cast votes. But the world is out of all control, not merely theirs. And literature in the grand sense has ceased to matter. What is left is the immediate world around them, its ordinary worries, its ups and downs, the some fun and much sorrow of student domesticity. The past is merely inertia, the future is dismal though unknown,
and what is is mostly an image, a flicker, a formula for the eye. Hype is hollow, but so are all the trees.

Weary of the present tense as I am, I shall probably look back at it with longing when the fad for the future arrives (as it periodically threatens to do). After all, Pauline’s perils were expressed in gloomy expectations. So as I wait to be run over or cut in half, I wonder what tense I shall be tied to next—where I can hear the buzz of the saw? the “just past” that leaves a slam in the ear like an angry lover? or the canoe approaching the falls?

Weary as I am of the present tense, I have grown quite fond of mopping. I mop. A previously hidden pink appears. At which I marvel. I wring the mop’s strings and squeeze water in the sink. If I am large, white, as cold as the fridge, why don’t I just let it continue to thaw like an early spring? The puddle grows. My mop makes wide swipes. Back and forth. Up and down. Husband is—has turned—my program off. Cecile’s voice went snick in the middle of a groan. Now there are only my sounds, the sounds of swiping, squeezing, draining. So no more cold war. Lukewarm war at last. I splat my mop—splat!—and watch the water spatter. That is/was fun. I am/was happy.

FINDING A FORM

T
he writer, by choosing to write rather than ride Beckett’s bike or Don Quixote’s nag, is choosing to relate to the world through words. This is as true of a historian or philosopher as it is of a poet. In my case, at least, the choice was an illusory one, for early on in my life I felt overwhelmed by the world (which, for anyone young, is not likely to have borders far beyond the family). It was a world which was certainly no worse than average, not much better either, so it was not one inherently overwhelming, one which would do the strongest of characters in. No. It found in me a weak respondent, a poor player. I was the sort of actor who specialized in exits.

I had a lot of models to follow: first, a father who railed at the world while he listened to it on the radio; who blamed the wops for his discomfort, the bohunks, the spicks, the kikes, the niggers he had to try to teach in the industrial high school where he was a warden more than tutor; a person who took no risks, resisted advancement, remained satisfied to be safely a nobody, who nevertheless would mutter under his breath about it; and then a mother who invested all her savings in bad stock—me—a woman of useless sensitivity and fruitless talent whom my father cowed and bullied, although he offered her (as he offered me) only verbal abuse; still, it was abuse that never tired him, that could be continuous, proving to me what words can do, how words can empower the powerless. As a consequence of these repeated though bruiseless blows,
and the fact that for women then there was nothing to do but keep house and suffer hubby and raise kids, so that when I—an only child—grew up, and inevitably drew away as well, she was left marooned in her kitchen and breakfast nook, where bottles of gin washed ashore as though a whole fleet full of spirits had foundered; and she took those bottles in as though they were meant for her womb—children to replace a kid—and that’s how she bore her death to its term, for she was drunk more than a dozen years before the blood vessels in her throat burst and she drowned by drinking her own blood.

I had a maiden aunt, too, who had brought Grandma to visit, moving this elderly woman about from relative to relative so each would have an equal share of the burden, and who stayed on after her charge died, discreetly, gradually, stubbornly, secretively, surely, taking over the management of the house, the helpless world of women, from my mother.

Passivity, self-mortification, substitute gratification, impotent bitching, drink: these were the ways of life set before me. Now, when considering the insides of a writer, pondering the psychology of the occupation, I always look first for the weakness which led him to it; because, make no mistake, writing puts the writer in illusory command of the world, empowers someone otherwise powerless, but with a power no more pointed than a pencil.

So in my own situation, where I was taught to deflect my desires from their real object onto another, safer, simpler one; where, when confronted with a problem, like a good Stoic, I strove to alter myself rather than the world, since my self seemed more in my power, and because my aim was usually to relinquish instead of conquer. During this character-creating time, I found I had one facility: I had, on my side, a little language. We do what we can do, and I could do that. Reading and writing aren’t arithmetic. I read to escape my condition, I wrote to remedy it—both perilous passivities—and there is scarcely a significant character in my work who is not a failure in the practice of ordinary existence, who does not lead a deflected life. Often, though not always, they live inside a
language, and try to protect themselves from every danger with a phrase.

All the world may be a stage, for those who can act in it; and it may, instead, be a game, for those who have the skill and can play; it may be reduced to a square of canvas, redone as a screen full of images; it may be replaced by the sheer shimmer of beautifully related sounds. But for me the world became a page; that, I said, with Stoical acceptance, is the way I wanted it; it is what I would have chosen. It is natural to speak of your own weaknesses so winsomely they will seem strengths, as if everyone else is inadequate if they do not have your inadequacies. We also contemplate what we cannot control. I contemplate the world through words.

The window, in this way, became a central symbol in my work, assuming more and more importance as that work went on. If it were literally true that I saw the world through a window, I would merely be the street spy, peering out on the alley to see what I could see, and making sure nothing went by without my notice, nothing went on without my approval. But when a character of mine looks out through a window, or occasionally peeks in through one, it is the word “window” he is really looking through; it’s the word “pane” that preoccupies; it’s the idea of “glass,” of separated seeing, of the distortions of the medium, its breakage, its discoloration, its framing, that dominates and determines the eye; it is, therefore, the fragility of knowledge that gets stressed, the importance and limitation of point of view, the ambiguity of “in” and “out” that it provides, the range of its examples; the fact that windows are display cases, places where wash is dried, pies are cooled, caged lovebirds hang, where potted plants sit, souvenirs rest from ancient trips, and where light enters only to become a pale patch of warmth for the cat; but above all, the window is a place which waits for that light, endures the darkness, receives each scene; and then, through both the word and its phenomena, provokes reflection; indeed it demonstrates how “pane” permits me to say I am separated from the world by a transparent sheet of cruelty, as though its plane were a piece of paper, as though each word were
itself a window through which I could see other words, other windows, as well as myself: always observant, always passive, patient, speculative, so when one at last undertakes an action, as my narrator does in my novel
The Tunnel
, he throws a brick, as others did on
Kristallnacht
, but through a Nordic shopwindow by mistake. He’s guilty all the same, of course, but now, by implication, he is guilty of the lesser (though larger) crime of hating the whole of mankind.

Consider the difference between an ordinary fact of experience—a woman’s face reflected in what remains of a broken window—and the resonance of the simplest sentence when we listen to the vibration of the words: “Virginia’s face was reflected in the broken pane.”

It is during these early days of life, too, that the many motives one might have for doing anything are combined and given their priorities. The successful execution of any long and difficult project, especially one done alone and without the support of any social structure, requires the cooperation of every significant desire one has—the theft of their energy, if you like—in order that more determination can be found for the task than its own allure might generate.

Freud’s oft-quoted wisecrack, that men write for money, glory, and the love of women, might bestir a banker to his business but will not suffice to account for the composing of poetry and the writing of fiction—fundamentally unfunded, unwanted, and unappreciated enterprises. Of course, writers want glory; they want money; they want to be loved, to be sexually pleased and politically empowered. They also want to play the sage, the moralist, the philosopher, and tell the world where to go. They dream of crowds rushing off at the insistence of their voice to pull down the statues of their rivals. Oh, yes, indeed, they desire to impose their will. But it is a mistake to suppose that the speaking of this or that truth, the display of this or that moral stance, the advocacy of this or that point of view, is, or even ought to be, the principal aim of the artist. That is not to say these values and opinions will be absent. Who can set aside their beliefs, their angers, their greatest fears, as
if unfeared at all? Who can fail to praise whatever has given them the most satisfaction, the deepest love: why walk on one’s hands when one needs to run?

What is critical to the artist is not the fact that he has many motives (let us hope so), or that their presence should never be felt in his canvases, or found in the narrative nature of his novels, or heard amid the tumult of his dissonances. In the first place, our other aims won’t lend their assistance without reward, and they will want, as we say, a piece of the action. No; the question is which of our intentions will be allowed to rule and regulate and direct the others: that is what is critical. It is a matter of the politics of desire, or, as Plato put it when he asked this question of the moral agent: what faculty of the soul is in control of the will?

I believe that the artist’s fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making. Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day. If, of course, one wants to be a publicist for something; if you believe you are a philosopher first and Nietzsche second; if you think the gift of prophecy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion.

The poet, every artist, is a maker, a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself. I am happy this is an old-fashioned view. I am happy it is Greek. One decent ideal can turn a rabble of small-minded and narrowly self-interested needs into an army. I cannot help adding that, in my opinion, one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other. Disbelief is healthier, is a better exercise for the mind, and I admire it even when I see someone’s disbelief busy disbelieving me.

To see the world through words means more than merely grasping
it through gossipacious talk or amiable description. Language, unlike any other medium, I think, is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself. Certainly we can picture things to ourselves, but we picture them in order to consider their features, to analyze them, judge their qualities. Even the painter talks to himself as he plans his vacation, he does not draw to himself; the lover speaks of his desire, he does not draw his penis on the bedsheets; even the musician says things to the grocer, he does not hum. The rationalist philosophers were not right when they supposed that the structure of language mirrored the structure of reality (language and reality bear little resemblance and come from different families); but they were right when they identified it with thinking itself. Words may refer to the world (though any finger can point to Paris), but words are also what we think with when we point our finger at Paris and say, “Paris.” Literature is mostly made of mind; and unless that is understood about it, little is understood about it.

BOOK: Finding a Form
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