Vale American postmodern writer William Gass

The New York Times reports: William H. Gass, a proudly postmodern author who valued form and language more than literary conventions like plot and character and who had a broad influence on other experimental writers of the 1960s, ’70s and beyond, died on Wednesday in St. Louis. He was 93.

Here is a transcript of an interview with William Gass  who spoke to me in Melbourne from his home in St Louis in 1996. It appears in my book Speaking Volumes: Conversations with Remarkable Writers (Scribe).

William Gass is America’s brilliant literary essayist, novelist and teacher. While his essays are full of civility and light, his novel The Tunnel is in stark contrast. William Kohler, the main protagonist, is a man in his fifties, a professor at a Midwestern university who’s just finished his magnum opus, called ‘The Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany’. When he sits down to write an introduction, he writes, instead, his own tunnel, full of self-loathing, loathing for humanity, and bigotry. Here are his justifications for the Holocaust, his hatred for the victims and his miserable masturbations over his marriage and his affairs. The ‘tunnel’ is a metaphor for a sewer, an alimentary canal, a vagina. And it’s also a tunnel that Kohler is secretly digging underneath his house.

The book itself is designed like a thing that doesn’t want to be read. There is the foreboding cover, in black and white and red, reminiscent of the swastika flag and meant to be exactly so. Inside are designs of flags for the party of disappointed people, cartoons, typographical games, and filthy limericks and ditties in bold type. All this from a man who revels in metaphor. It’s Gass’s method and his theme, and was the subject of his PhD thesis in 1954. Gass has been a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St Louis, and he’s now Director of the International Writing Program there. He’s been the recipient of many awards for his fiction. For the last thirty years, though, he’s been writing The Tunnel. He said that he wanted to make art out of evil, to prove the point, he would say, in the tradition of Flaubert, that art has nothing to do with morality

RAMONA KOVAL: You’ve been quoted in this country in one review, saying that you wanted to give grandeur to a shit, and elsewhere that you set yourself a task to prove that you can create art out of evil. Can we talk about this task first? What was driving this wish of yours for some thirty years?

William Gass: It wasn’t that wish alone, of course. There are a lot of motives for working on a book for this long. And indeed for writing any novel, because even a bad novel usually takes five years to do. So you have to bring together all the impulses that are driving you. But one of them, certainly, was an aesthetic challenge. And that was the question of whether or not one could take on certain kinds of contemporary evils and give them eloquent expression; and by so doing try to give voice to the very satanic impulses that seem to me very much abroad in the land. That certainly was one aim. It’s of course a view that I have about aesthetics — that since art is for me primarily a form matter and not a content matter, it should be possible to render anything whatsoever beautifully. So the idea was to do this, if possible. Of course for some people, to make eloquent ideas or attitudes which they find morally repugnant, magnifies the moral repugnance, and a great many reviewers responded to the book in that way.

KOVAL: What are your thoughts on the way the book has been received?

GASS: Well, it didn’t surprise me any. If you write a book like this, you’re challenging people, almost pushing them, and you’re bound to get a lot of angry responses, and I did. I got some very positive ones as well, but the results were very mixed — and indeed sometimes mixed in the reviewers’ own minds, torn. I got a lot of reviews by people who were torn between liking certain parts of it — namely, the way it’s written, so to speak — and disliking what it’s all about. And I suppose it’s a perfectly natural result and I’m not surprised by it.

KOVAL: Professor Gass, do you think you have succeeded?

GASS: Oh well, one never succeeds in doing what you wanted to do. The only thing I can say I succeeded in doing is finally finishing, which it didn’t look as if I might, for a long time.

KOVAL: What are the parameters for judging whether you have created art out of evil?

GASS: I chose the Holocaust as a background for this book because it seemed to me that I wouldn’t have to worry much about whether this was evil or not — and I would be working in an area with someone who is basically a fascist mentality, and that this is bad would be something I wouldn’t have to establish. So then the question would be whether or not you can move the reader to realise that a certain kind of successful artistic expression is being given to ideas which they find repulsive.

Now readers are going to find some ideas more or less repulsive than others, and very often — it’s been reported to me and that I think is what I was aiming at — they were seduced into following a line of reasoning or feeling, only to discover at the end that they were accepting things which they find either untrue or disagreeable. That entrapment of the reader through rhetoric is one of the devices that I try to use in the book, but it’s also an attempt to establish the seductiveness of language to obscure the truth, to persuade people of even deranged positions. This is, of course, a part of the so-called Hitler rhetoric connection and it’s one of the elements of the book, too.

KOVAL: Does this make art a game?

GASS: No, this is far too serious a matter. It’s a problem of proving, if you like, by an attempt to demonstrate, that people who read or appreciate art from a political–moral point of view are simply wrong. And the best way to do that is to write as well as possible about something that they are going to find untrue and wrong. But this has been easy to do, all through history — it’s harder to write about good people than bad people. Shakespeare created far more great villains, I think, than he did heroes. And almost everyone, in fact, who’s an interesting character, is an extremely complex mix of good and bad and smart and stupid and so forth. And I hope to do that with my narrator. Kohler is not simply a completely black, stupid, evil person; he’s a very learned, savvy, sensitive evil person, which makes him a lot more evil.

KOVAL: In your collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life, you say, though, that the art of the novelist is a divine game.

GASS: Well, yes — divine. People use the word ‘game’ in a very strange way. When I use it in terms of ‘divine’, I am suggesting simply that the gods do make sport of us; but that the project is to create an object which is completely and as perfectly finished — as perfectly ‘in us’, interesting and so forth — as possible. But it’s not a game, in the sense that you’re playing against somebody, or a game in the sense that you’re merely amusing yourself. Anyone trying to read this book is not going to, I think, feel that it’s a game in the popular sense of the word. It might be a game in the mathematical sense.

KOVAL: Yes, I was referring more to a mathematical game. But you really think that a novel should stand alone, it should be autonomous?

GASS: That’s right, yes.

KOVAL: But how autonomous can fiction really be, because mostly it is actually about familiar kinds of things, to us.

GASS: Oh, yes. Language is about things, as much as it is. It has its reference to the world and it has its dimension of conceptual relationships as well. The crucial part is what you do with those connections. If you’ve got a book that refers to the world, in the first place you have a reference, usually, by the language of the text to the language of society, manners, and so on. Because in fact our lives are surrounded by symbols of various kinds and we engage in producing signs in our actions and so forth. So for example, if you’re reading a novel of Henry James, you’re reading at least two languages: the language he uses, English; and the language of society which he is referring to. So he’s writing in the language of society as well as in the language that’s, strictly speaking, ‘a’ language. And then what he does with it, is to use that to create an entity which is complete in itself. In my view, you’re not supposed to look through the book at the world — unless you’re looking through the book at the world’s language as well. You’re looking at what the writer has constructed, not at what the writer has described.

KOVAL: Aren’t we supposed, though, to care about a character as a human being, and not see him simply as a construction on a page? Isn’t that part of the art?

GASS: No. That’s childish. That’s to confuse, seriously, a creation. These are not real people; they’re verbal constructs. To imagine that they’re real is a very, I think, naïve mistake. It’s an old argument, going of course as far back as Plato, who thought the same way — that people should not be confused about these things. Fiction is not a road to truth. If you want to take the road to truth, you go through science and philosophy, say, or mathematics possibly. That’s certainly validity. The novel may of course contain things that turn out to be true, but then you have to re-establish them on their own feet and examine them the way anyone investigating the truth about something would. The novel is an imaginary world, not the real world.

KOVAL: The way most people read . . .

GASS: Oh, yes. Well most people are not interested in art. They are interested in the world, they are interested in themselves, they’re interested in people like themselves, and the novel has traditionally played on this. It has created, indeed, this so-called ‘realistic’ tradition, which bourgeois society really loves. But of course it’s not realism at all, actually. It’s a fake. In a realistic novel, which people then mistake for life, you tend to know everything that’s going on — values tend to be relatively clear, action proceeds in a cause-and-effect manner, there’s a point to things, a purpose, there aren’t obscurities, the narrator is telling the truth, and of course it all leads to a final resolution. And I just think that while that’s all very nice — and I love Trollope too — it isn’t life. Life is not storytelling. Life is full of obscurities, repetitions, confusions, pointlessness — in fact pointlessness is what it’s all about. So in one sense, oddly, I would argue that my book, for all it’s so-called confusing surface, is more realistic than the so-called realistic tradition.

So the people who read novels to pretend to find out about life are just fooling themselves — but they want to be fooled. And there are a lot of novelists ready to oblige them.

KOVAL: But how can a novel which deals with the Holocaust, with Hitler and the camps and Kristallnacht be absolutely self-contained, when the events happened in the real world?

GASS: Well, even if you say the word ‘chair’, you’re referring to something in the real world. The question is, what you do with it once you get it there? My Holocaust isn’t the real Holocaust. It’s hardly even dealt with. Kristallnacht is touched upon in a few pages, but that’s about it. What’s important in those pages is how it’s described, how it renders a particular kind of mentality, rather than anything it tells us about Kristallnacht — it says nothing about Kristallnacht, actually. The book is also equally full of philosophical notions. But they are being used artistically, I hope, rather than to present some single and final critique, let’s say, of history. There’s lots of stuff about the problems of history in this book, but I’m not solving any of them. I’m employing them, I hope.

KOVAL: So by employing them, though, does this not carry some moral responsibility?

GASS: Well, every action can be judged morally as well as aesthetically or economically or psychologically. One can judge books that way. There are probably a number of books that people might want to say were immoral. I don’t know what they would quite mean — for some people, for example, it would lead to people having a different point of view that they didn’t agree with, something of that sort. Those kinds of works, just like any other action, could be judged morally or immorally. But the confusion comes when somebody supposes that because they think the book is in some sense immoral, or in some sense untrue, therefore it’s a bad work of art. That I am very firm about. I think that’s a mistake.

KOVAL: There are some really terrible ditties and limericks in this book, and I just wanted to read you one and talk about it: ‘They discovered in one of the camps / how to make Jews into lamps. / But whenever they skinned them, / The dirty kikes bit them, / So, their jaws held by wires / With a fine pair of pliers / They extracted their teeth in advance.’

Now what are we to make of this ditty?

GASS: Well, it’s put in the mouth, or in the character, the mode of a certain character in the book, named Culp. Culp is in fact in this book an aspect of the narrator, as is everybody, or almost everybody. So that the various historians who are referred to in the book are all parts of the same single narrator. Culp is writing the limerickal history of the world, sequences which begin, ‘I once went to bed with a nun’. This guy is a compulsive punster as well, and he is always reducing things through these kinds of manipulations. The limerick is a very interesting form, from that point of view, because it is very hard to write a limerick in which this doesn’t happen — that is, the form somehow works to reduce and flatten, and it’s derisive, so that if you write anything in that limerickal form, you tend to be squashing it like a bug. And that is an interesting aspect of the whole way in which certain people deal with things, and that’s certainly a part of this narrator’s character. Of course people are going to concentrate on the disagreeableness of doing this, but what makes it disagreeable is that it’s successful.

KOVAL: So you’re saying that the limerick is immoral, the actual form is immoral, rather than the content?

GASS: No. It isn’t necessarily that it’s immoral, but it does certain things. It deflates just by its form alone. Now I happen to think that everything needs deflating from time to time. This book is based on the principle that there’s nothing sacred. It’s odd now that for many people only the Holocaust is sacred — which is a very strange inversion of the idea — so it’s treated as though it were untouchable except by certain kinds of hands, and that you can’t make jokes about it, or you can’t be derisive about it, or satirical about it or whatever.

KOVAL: There are other ditties about Jews being made into soap. Now unfortunately members of my family were made into soap. Unfortunately for them, unfortunately for me, and maybe unfortunately for you — because how do you expect me to read this without thinking about what really happened to them, and about why you’d want to make light of that?

GASS: Well it isn’t making light out of it. I mean, it is the opposite, ultimately, the opposite effect. The character is making fun of it, in the form, but the book isn’t making fun of it. That’s why it’s there. You see if one thinks that the book is making fun of it, of course then you’re really going to have a problem and you’re going to, I think, miss the serious or aesthetic purpose of the book.

KOVAL: It seems to me that you’re saying that reading morality into a text isn’t mature, in a sense, but you’re actually defining this text in some kind of moral universe. You’re saying that you want to make the reader aware of the fascist, the Nazi, the nastiness, and in their own characters you want them to become Kohler themselves, in a sense. Now you must be doing that for a reason, a moral reason.

GASS: Oh yes. Yes, yes. But I didn’t mean to say I didn’t have any moral impulses in writing the book. I had plenty. I think one’s higher impulses, one’s lower ones — one’s everything — need to go into it. The question is, if you’re trying to write a work of art — as opposed to a work of journalism or something of the sort — then, ideally, those aesthetic concerns must dominate and control all the other ones which are there. But of course this book is an attack on bourgeois realism, because it’s false, in my conception of the world. There’s a great deal of moral, political, social impulse in this book. There’s a great deal of Sinclair Lewis warning: it can’t happen here. Well it certainly can, because the reason I set this in Indiana is precisely because that state has always been a hotbed of Klu Klux Klan and other right-wing organisational activity. So there’s a great deal of moral fervour, if you like, in the book. But the point I would want to make about this is that the fact that you approved or disapproved — and a lot of people, including Jews, approve of the moral point of view I’m taking — does not make it a good work of art. Those elements appear together but they are separate in judgement, and I’ve argued that my whole career. You could not take any work of art that requires the full organisation of a human being and assume that there aren’t moral elements in it. Certainly in everything we do there is. The question is whether or not ultimately what’s ruling in the work is the aesthetic form, or whether it is basically going to slide into propaganda, slide into journalism or something of the sort. In a work of journalism, where you’re trying, let’s say, to tell the truth or persuade people to a certain point of view, then the ethical or scientific or whatever views would be paramount and the aesthetic would be a tool.

KOVAL: What happens if Kohler becomes a hero of the Klu Klux Klan?

GASS: Well, you can never tell. Kohler couldn’t possibly be, I think, a hero of anybody’s, because he is not only a bigot and prejudiced against a particular class, like Jews or something, he loathes everybody, including himself. Now if you really read the book properly, it’s not going to be possible for you to join his party — the party of the disappointed people, as he calls it — and make him some sort of idol, if you remember everything he is. Because he really hates mankind, as he says, and in that case it’s hard to make him heroic for anyone, I would think. On the other hand, misreading is a fundamental occupation of mankind and they could, you know, do anything with him, I suppose, if they felt like it. But this book is also not something people who have that kind of interest are even going to read. They can’t get through it. The book’s design is to prevent most people from getting very far in it. The Tunnel has a ‘hidden entrance’.

KOVAL: But there is some light in The Tunnel, because Kohler once wanted to be a poet, and his mentor was Rilke, but he gave all that up. So there is the distant sound of the sacred order in the text.

GASS: Yes. That’s because Kohler cannot simply be a person who is nothing but evil or disagreeable. He has to be a person who has many good qualities and is sensitive, intelligent and so forth — and he has also got to be putting those qualities to dubious uses. One of the things I wanted to do was to indicate the fact that here’s somebody who did want to be a poet but who also chose Rilke, who’s politically dubious. And he gives it up for history for a peculiar kind of history, namely the view that there isn’t any reality to history except the rhetoric and power of the text. And that, I think, is a basic fascist point of view, where the aim of a historical text is the domination of the minds of the people reading it, and a belief that there isn’t any fundamental reality out there that you can call history, that everything is false in that sense, or relative.

KOVAL: Yes. If you in fact make little Kohlers of the readers, though, aren’t you allowing them to assume the premise of the book that Kohler himself is writing — that book called ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany’ — that there are no moral differences between Hitler and Nazi cannibals and Kohler and the reader. I mean, you may not be particularly interested in making moral universes, but what of the effect of the work on the reader? Aren’t you stripping the reader of a sense of their own moral worth?

GASS: Well that would be a good thing, I think — temporarily that is — if people suddenly began to identify with Kohler in the sense that I would identify with him, that is, I think Kohler is, in a certain way, Everyman. But I have no worry that people are going to turn into Kohlers by reading this book. In the first place, it’s the kind of book that most people who are likely to suffer from that delusion are not going to get through. They’re going to resist it or they’re going to understand what’s going on and not be upset by it.

KOVAL: So you believe in the supremacy of the intellect?

GASS: I would put it this way: I believe it ought to be, but I would not confine the intellect, or reason, simply to some brain function. I think there are rational emotions as well. But certainly one of the things that this book is propelled by is the disgust at human behaviour because it’s irrational.

KOVAL: Well for me as a reader, I didn’t feel as if you made a little Kohler out of me. For me the universe you painted, the mind Kohler you admitted me to, is utter insanity, you know, a deranged mind, from the beginning.

GASS: My first novel had a minister who some of the characters thought was crazy as well. I never think of them as crazy. I have too many colleagues just like this guy. I don’t think they’re crazy. They’re very dangerous and they’re hard to identify, because they are basically impotent, waiting for the right leader to come along, the right moment, the right catastrophe which will release them. Just beneath the surface of human life, which goes on in a relatively benign or boring way, are all of these people who, given the right moment and the right circumstance, may indeed become powerful and then we are in real trouble. And in that sense the book surprisingly has more currency in the United States than I ever would have dreamed. The circumstances of fascism revealed in every nick and corner of the country, in so far small ways, is nevertheless there and is what in another sense the book is about, if you like.

KOVAL: You’ve kept Kohler steadily in your sights for thirty years, which is extraordinary. How did you do that when you as a person must have been steadily changing?

GASS: Probably the most difficult aspect of structuring a book is trying to keep it as if it were written in one blow by one person who doesn’t change in that sense. The only way I could possibly even come close to managing that task was to create a character so strong and heavily defined that although I change or I am in another world, each time I sit down to write about him, I have to enter his defined position and then allow him to take over.

KOVAL: The New York Review of Books reviewer said that he had great trouble in distinguishing Kohler from Gass, by, I suppose, the very fact that Gass could create Kohler. What do you say to that?

GASS: Well, it’s an elementary aesthetic error which you try to correct in freshman courses. That tendency to identify the writer with the major character is so naïve. But this reviewer had another agenda. He’s not so unsophisticated as not to know what he’s doing — he wants to make that observation because his desire was not simply to thunder against the novel, he wanted to convict the views of the narrator. That would require, of course, a very selective reading, for one thing. And it led to some amusing things. He went so far as to find out what kind of weight I had, you know, whether I was fat like Kohler, and I am overweight now, but when I started the book I was quite thin. So it’s very funny.

KOVAL: What of the typographical changes in the text, the cartoons, the flags, the diagrams and symbols? What was their function in the text?

GASS: They have a great many functions. This guy is not writing a book in any of the ordinary senses of a book — he is not supposed to be fashioning a novel — and he is doing it entirely for himself. And it is somehow coming from inside, so he can doodle, crumple pages, do all kinds of odd things without saying, ‘Gee, that doesn’t belong’. Because in one sense, anything he does, anything that comes from him, belongs. Now I, as the writer, have to integrate all of these things, but the surface of the book has to look as it does — and had we had time and money enough, it would have had even more of this character.

KOVAL: I wonder whether it was a typesetter’s nightmare?

GASS: They did a wonderful job at Knopf, I think, in trying to design it and to carry out as much of what I wanted to do as was possible within any reasonable budget. One page is presumably written on a grocery sack. Now I would have loved to have had an actual grocery sack in the book. This page has a red stencil, an ‘extra strength no double-bagging needed’ kind of stencil on it. This sack represents — or ideally, if it were made of the actual paper, would be — the sack in which the narrator and his mistress carry a bunch of oranges around, with its sort of Marxist sensuality, on the occasion of their love affair. Then it’s also the sack that they get into when they get into bed. And it is also the sack she gives him when she dumps him, and so forth. So the imagery is carrying a lot of symbolic weight in the text, not just decorating the page. But the narrator is just fooling around, in one sense, the same with the crossword puzzle stuff that takes place or the crumpled page. Again, we had to try to represent those things, but in the manuscript, I have a crumpled page, I have the grocer sack.

This also then raises the question of the nature of language. Now we’re using language, language is opaque, every word is equally abstract, it may refer to something not abstract but it is abstract — and suddenly here is the thing itself.


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