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Authors: William H. Gass

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BOOK: Finding a Form
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A sentence, any sentence, is consequently a passage of thought. Dare I give you, as an example, one of mine? A housewife has begun to discover, when she comes downstairs in the morning, the bodies of cockroaches on her carpet—bugs which have probably been killed by her cat.

Never alive, they came with punctures, their bodies formed from little whorls of copperish dust which in the downstairs darkness I couldn’t possibly have seen; and they were dead and upside down when they materialized, for it was in that moment that our cat, herself darkly invisible, leaped and brought her paws together on the true soul of the roach; a soul so static and intense, so immortally arranged, I felt, while I lay shell-like in our bed, turned inside out, driving my mind away, it was the same as the dark soul of the world itself—and it was this beautiful and terrifying feeling that took possession of me finally, stiffened me like a rod beside my husband, played Caesar to my dreams.

There is, in the first place, the movement of the character’s mind, which thinks of the roaches as, in a sense, born with the punctures which killed them, inasmuch as she never sees them any other way. Nearby the bodies are little patches of body dust, probably from the punctures themselves, and she thinks, next, of their creation in traditional Christian terms. Her mind returns to the fact that they must have been dead and upside down when born. Next the cat is given a role in their conception. She puts the punctures in. Body becomes soul, because the bony structure of the roach is on the outside, it is the true interior, in a sense immortal because it is bone; it will not decay. Furthermore, its composition is formally beautiful.

These thoughts are part factual, part conjectural, part playful. Their playful nature disappears when the point of the piece comes in view. The housewife thinks of herself as, like them, lying in darkness and, like them, turned inside out, her bones becoming her being. The Pythagorean (later neo-Platonic) phrase “dark soul of the world” completes her odd epiphany. Beneath the traditional Pythagorean triangle of light, given over to the tyranny of the One, the Straight, the Male, is the dark triangle of the Crooked, the Many, and the Female. But now that triangle has been tipped over. Its elements are in plain view. Free. As most wives and mothers, lying beside their sleeping husbands, punctured themselves, are not. When she overcomes her fear of roaches and begins to appreciate the beauty of the bug; when she sees beneath the socially correct arrangement of things its hidden inner order (for which, we have to remember, she has no small responsibility herself), and can appreciate that interior beauty of which she should be the proper mistress, instead of her kids’ health or the household laundry, then she will share the point of view of a god—that is, an artist, and therefore a god whose name is spelled with a very small

Well, the fiction from which I took this paragraph is a sort of feminist piece. That movement of the housewife’s mind, however, which the passage at least elliptically presents, is not the same as the movement of the words themselves, and hence is not identical,
either, to the passage of the reader’s eye and understanding, which begins with “Never,” proceeds to “alive,” unifies these, continues immediately to “they” (“they were never alive”), and subsequently attributes this absence of life to every previous appearance of the bugs, whether actual or symbolic. After all, roaches wear their skeletons like children at Halloween. Soon the reader’s attention is spirited away to theology, and to philosophy as well if he’s alert to the reference, but only to select what seems needful from these realms before returning from creation’s little whorls of copperish dust to modify these few phrases once again (never alive, forever dust). In short, reading (any reading) is recursive and usually parabolic. While the eye and its attention are shuttling back and forth, the order of the language never entirely disappears but continuously reforms the final amalgamation.

So far, the statically presented structure of the sentence has put two other minds in motion: that of the character whose thoughts are being described, and that of a hypothetical Reader. The former is an active, fictive movement of thought, the latter a devoted process of attention. An additional mind of which the sentence must make us aware is that of the capitalized Author, the constructor, for it is certainly worth realizing that although the character feels, in that sentence, insightful, there is no reason to suppose she feels lyrical. She may feel frightened, moved, unsettled; but the author’s mind is in a poetic mode, calm, measured, allusive. The author never thought these phrases in their printed order. The author never thought the sentence the way one might think: What time’s lunch? The author did think a great many other things while in the so-called throes of composition. He wrote many more versions, tried numerous combinations, flopped about as awkwardly as a boated fish, said the words to himself time after time in a displeased mumble, but hoped they sang nevertheless; since the sentences he wants to make are like these roaches, firm, immobile, shaped, with their shell the same as their soul—that’s what he, the writer, is thinking while he writes—and they are also like a residue the reader will find in the morning; for every sentence
allowed to remain upon the page will resemble the dazed survivors of a battle, after the dead and wounded have been carried away, when their alternatives have been rejected and erased, to leave some words still standing on the field, but standing as markers over graves.

Of course, in the case of this particular sentence, written in the first person but in the past tense, the movement of the narrator’s mind is itself multiple. There is what she thought at the time—that is suggested—and there is how she has chosen to think about it later, how she now describes it (which might be as lyrically as the author does, but also might not).

In any event, and after many years of scribble and erasure, I came finally to the belief that sentences were containers of consciousness, that they were directly thought itself, which is one thing that goes on in consciousness, but they were other things as well, in more devious, indirect ways. Insofar as the words referred, they involved—through those designations—our perceptions; thus a good sentence had to see and hear and smell and touch or taste whatever it was supposed to see and hear and smell and touch or taste; that acuity and accuracy of sensation was, in those sentences that invoked it, essential. Even in sentences that describe a thought instead of a perception, the thought has to be well seen.

The narrator is writing about the legs of the roach. Both kinds, she says,

had legs that looked under a glass like the canes of a rose, and the nymph’s were sufficiently transparent in a good light you thought you saw its nerves merge and run like a jagged crack to each ultimate claw.

The writer has to be sufficiently accurate about the world, he preserves his authority, but what is crucial is not testability; it is, rather, the precision and clarity of the construction, because what the writer is doing is creating a perception his character is supposed to have, and since the story is about “eye-openers,” then the sentence had better seem open-eyed.

In reading what the character sees, the reader sees; but what the reader sees, of course, is not the thing but a construction. Since we know that we are witnessing a perception, we are, in effect, seeing an act of seeing, not merely an object, which might be seen in a number of ways, because in the text there are no more ways than are written. There is no more object than the object which is made by its description. John Hawkes is the American master of the sentence that sees. When his prose perceives a horse, that horse becomes visual as though for the first time. But what makes Hawkes’s horse so magical is not merely the way it is made of precise visual detail—any vet might equal that—but the sense of responsiveness and appreciation, relish, worship, in the eye’s sight.

The sentence is a literal line of thought, then, but also an apprehension, sometimes of a thought, often of some sensation. It is also aimed. It has energy, drive, direction, purpose. Now we are dealing, in our artificial consciousness, with the element of desire. Some sentences seem to seep, others to be propelled by their own metrical feet. Some sentences are ponderous, tentative, timid; others are quick, burly, full of beans. Consciousness is equally flaccid or energized; or, in more complex cases, some aspects are nearly asleep, others wholly on the
qui vive
. The short declarative fragment, brisk and direct as it is, can also, with its calm assurance and its confident closure, reduce the sense of urgency in the sentence, even introduce a feeling of unsleepy repleteness. For instance, in this brief list of the properties of a place:

The shade is ample, the grass is good, the sky a glorious fall violet; the apple trees are heavy and red, the roads are calm and empty; corn has sifted from the chains of tractored wagons to speckle the streets with gold and with russet fragments of the cob, and a man would be a fool who wanted, blessed with this, to live anywhere else in the world.

Desire, thought, perception … next, passion: each inhabits the sentence it is made from. Feeling infuses the thought, is pleased or confounded by what is heard or touched or seen, is made despondent
by what it expects, or eagerly awaits the fulfillment of its needs. Repetition, diction, the way the language is caressed, spat out, or whispered by the writer—every element, as always—combines to create for the sentence its feeling. I think of it as a kind of conceptual climate. Gertrude Stein believed that emotions were the property of paragraphs, not sentences by themselves, though a sentence might often act as uppity as a paragraph. Here is another sample of my own method of mood management.

For we’re always out of luck here. That’s just how it is—for instance in the winter. The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hair, eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters, lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray. Cars are gray. Boots, shoes, suits, hats, gloves are gray. Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are gray, everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.

Above all, I believe, consciousness is the residence and nurturing place of the imagination. Without impudent comparisons, without freewheeling fancy, without dreams, without invention, without the transformations of metaphor, the burglaries of meaning that symbols commit: without such aeration, prose deflates, our tires turn on air; flat, they will only leave their rubber on the highway; but, in addition, the other elements of the good sentence—desire, feeling, sensation, thought—require the imagination for their construction. Let us go back a moment to the bugs, whose armatures are their armor, for a comparison of their state with our own.

I suspect if we were as familiar with our bones as with our skin, we’d never bury dead but shrine them in their rooms, arranged as we might like to find them on a visit; and our
enemies, if we could steal their bodies from the battle sites, would be museumed as they died, the steel still eloquent in their sides, their metal hats askew, the protective toes of their shoes unworn, and friend and enemy would be so wondrously historical that in a hundred years we’d find the jaws still hung for the same speech and all the parts we spent our life with tilted as they always were—rib cage, collar, skull—still repetitious, still defiant, angel light, still worthy of memorial and affection.

The finest writing is for the voice. There are several good, not to say decisive, reasons for this. No word is a word by itself. Every word is multiple, and not simply because there are homonyms and homophones hanging around, pretending to be friends. A word is made of sounds. A word is made of marks. A word is made of the little muscle movements in the throat which accompany our interior speech—that invisible, inaudible, yet clearly heard interior talk of which Samuel Beckett made himself the master. So there are two spoken tongues to set against the one we write. And if we allow the written word to stand for the spoken one, and silent speech to precede both, then the written word works in three realms at once, not just one.

The mouth is our sustainer: with it our body is fed and our soul made articulate. Orality as a developmental stage is as early as any, near to our deepest and often most desperate feelings. The spoken language is learned at the point, and in the manner, in which we learned to live; when we heard love, anger, anxiety, expectation, in the tones of the parental voice, and later began to find the words we had heard forming in our own mouths as if the ear had borne their seed. Moreover, we still communicate at the daily and most personal level by speaking, not by writing, to one another. If the telephone suggests physical closeness at the price of spiritual distance, E-mail promotes that impersonal intimacy sometimes experienced by strangers. Writing has even lost the kinetic character the hand once gave it, or the portable conveyed through its worn
and pounded keys. Prefab letters pop onto a screen in full anonymity now, as if the mind alone had made them, our fingers dancing along over the keyboard as unnoticed as breathing until something breaks or the error beep sounds. As Plato feared, the written word can be stolen, counterfeited, bought, released from the responsibility of its writer, sailed into the world as unsigned as a ship unnamed or under borrowed registry. Suppose politicians were required to compose their own lies, use their own poor words, instead of having their opinions catered—how brief would be their hold on our beliefs; how soon would their souls be seen to be as soiled as their socks.

The sentence—its shape, its sound, the space it makes, its importance to consciousness, its manifestation of the mind/body problem (meaning and thing fastened to the same inscription)—is it in my obsession with the ontology of the word that I find the ground for my own practice? Is that why I emphasize the music of the language, alliterate with the passionate persistence of old poems, wallow in assonance, clutter the otherwise open space of concepts with the clatter and click of dentals and other consonants? Are these the reasons I want the reader’s mouth to move as if reading were being in that moment mastered, and the breath were full of chewable food? No. The reason is that I cannot seem to write in any other way; because sound sometimes rushes ahead of sense, and forces such sense, gasping and panting, to catch up. I often think, overhearing myself at work, that I do not write; I mumble, I whisper, I declaim, I inveigh. My study is full of static when it is full of me.

BOOK: Finding a Form
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