William H. Gass: Interviewed by Jim Neighbors, 2002
William H. Gass and I met at the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature’s annual conference, in East Lansing, on the campus of Michigan State University, in April 2002. We made arrangements to meet in the morning for breakfast, at a cafe next to a bar. The owner was kind enough to open the bar to let us conduct the interview there, which we were able to do once we figured out how to use the tape recorder. Gass thoughtfully considered each of his answers to often demanding questions, and I was impressed by his capacity to move compellingly among the disciplines of philosophy, philosophy of science, history, and literature, as much of his fiction does. The interview, scheduled for two hours, lasted for three, testifying to the acuity of Gass’s mind and the avidity of his interest in these subjects.
The nature of the questioning focused on the relationship between history and writing history. We approached this topic in a number of different ways, sometimes focusing on problems of reference, especially on whether or not grammar bears a mimetic function, at other times on the comparative roles of the historian and the novelist in their representations of history. At other moments in the interview, Gass spoke with conviction about the importance of the writer’s position in helping to justify human existence. In an example close to home, Gass closes the interview with an especially revealing assessment of his reaction to the events of September 11.
Jim Neighbors: I’m going to begin with a question about beginnings. You’ve said an artist’s responsibility is to give coherence to something, to make a world believable and coherent. You have The Tunnel begin in a paroxysm of beginnings. Kohler’s “careening” can be viewed as an inability to begin an ending, or as a torturous engagement with the critical distance of introspection. The narration ends questioningly by teasing out whether to rise or lie down in sorrow, wondering about whether justice was done. What sort of coherence can be found in a novel twisted up with beginnings?
Gass: The idea is to discover a new kind of coherence by breaking up the traditional one which Kohler’s discipline represents. That is, as a historian, he is supposed to write history in a temporal, serial narrative, causally arranged, one that explains things and makes sense of things. And then when he begins his own sort of writing, initially he has no aim—he is not going anywhere. It is the opposite of a historical narrative: it is chaotic, subjective, repetitious, untrustworthy, and all the rest of it. Because his historical work would not ever be looked at by his wife, and he does not want her to see the pages that he is confessing on, he hides them between the pages of his historical manuscript. So the idea is that between the pages of any historical narrative there is this chaotic, subjective, but possibly real incoherence, concealed by the traditional mode of operation. What I wanted was to do everything to break down the traditional narrative historical flow. And there was another reason. The structure of the book is in a way an imitative form, imitating the digging of the tunnel itself. The tunnel has to have a concealed entrance, and so the book does not really begin for about one hundred pages—the opening is concealed in that sense.
Then the problem really is to discover another way of forming history which allows this approach, if you look at it from the point of view of a traditional narrative or history. Obviously, it is chaotic from the breaking up of all that. Now I have to form it in a different way, not in terms of a linear scheme, or causal connection, but in terms of what would be more like systematic inference. That is, instead of having a linear inference, like in a syllogism, you have lots of data which are organized by hidden principles to make a whole. So it is like taking pieces of collage, too: they come from all over to make a new whole.
I adopt a number of devices for this, including Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, so the book has twelve basic themes. Each of these themes is organized as a different set of relations in each section. Each section has a dominant theme, one of the twelve tones, and then in one section one of those will be submerged rather completely, and so they change their relationship with one another throughout the book. What I, in fact, ended up doing—to use a bad example, in a way—is overdetermined, like Joyce’s Ulysses. There is too much organization in this book precisely because I was disavowing traditional organization.
Neighbors: Do you think that there is ever a point at which any form of writing—historiography, fiction, narrative, stories—can be incoherent?
Gass: I would argue no, not really incoherent. It is hard to write incoherence because there are rigid laws of chance, even if we have a chance universe. That is to say, as you get into David Hume, you still have statistical analysis. Even if you have an honest poker game and everything is chance, you can exactly calculate the odds. Now, those odds, if you take Charles S. Peirce’s interpretation of odds, don’t have anything to do with a specific play, but only with classes of plays, so if you want to draw to an inside straight, and you are only concerned with one hand, go ahead-it’s fifty-fifty. Either you get it or you don’t. But if you are going to play a long time, then you are calculating the number of chances of drawing successfully, and there are rules and laws. It is hard to escape them at some point, the various levels.
Neighbors: Aren’t there different rules and different laws? A poker game is one thing; writing about the Holocaust is different. Are there not different laws governing different principles?
Gass: Yes. Actually another factor that I’ve always worked with, which appears at certain levels of The Tunnel, is coherent narrative for awhile, in the old, traditional, recognizable way. And then there are changes and shifts and fragmentation of a certain kind. It is very much as it occurs in nature. For example, if we are tossing a basketball back and forth, the air inside the basketball is acting in accordance with Boyle’s law, say. But the ball is moving through the air and obeying Newtonian principles. So you have systems. Newton works with objects of ordinary size. If you get too small or too large, things change. There are different organizational principles down to the ordinary syntactical organization of a sentence. Then there are organizations of paragraphs, and organizations of scenes, and different organizing principles all the way up to the metaphorical organization—“This book is a tunnel”—that organize it in another way.
Neighbors: If you start at the syntactical level, is there a point at which a verb is not a verb?
Gass: A verb is wherever it is in the system. You can make a noun into a verb. You can do things with prepositions, as you say, “that’s a little iffy,” or “this person is quite iffish.” The word will have a normal grammatical function, but you can put it into a position which changes its nature because the syntax is controlled.You can also, of course, monkey around with the syntax and alter it. Beckett does this, but he very often dissolves the syntax completely. He leaves the words with their normal syntactical tag floating around without syntax available, and so you are sort of floating. But no one is more musically organized than Beckett.
Neighbors: How would you compare The Tunnel to Beckett’s trilogy—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—around this use of syntax?
Gass: In Beckett, I think you are constantly realizing that a particular term is a noun but it isn’t acting like a noun, or it has lost its way, or, as often in Beckett, it is looking for its place just like the characters are. So you can see it hunting, particularly in some of the later work where it gets really dissolved. In the trilogy there are lots of ordinary sentences operating in an ordinary way. But in How It Is, they are beginning to break up, and in the later things they really dissolve. If you just put a noun down on the page—“apple”—around it is this aura of the syntax waiting. Then, again, an example I have used is a set of words like “eagle, hee, the three Frenchmen, haw.” The mind can’t help but start rearranging this. So you have at the same time the shadow of the traditional form with nontraditional syntax. When a word is moved out of its standard position, we feel the tension.You can actually grade the steps: how many moves do you have to make in rewriting the sentence to get to the standard, normal form? And then of course you can change the function and make a noun act as a verb, but we’re still aware that it is a noun doing this.
Neighbors: How does this priorness of syntax relate to your idea of lists, which I see as similar to Hayden White’s theory of the chronicle as existing somehow prior to the kind of narrativizing that we then do?
Gass: White had a view that lists really don’t have an order. Actually, in my new book I have an essay called “I’ve Got a Little List,” and it is all about the logic of lists. I believe that lists have a logical structure, an organization. For instance, think of the rules that you have to meet in order to get on a list or get off of it. Getting off a list is quite hard, because even if you cross things off of your grocery list as you buy them, they’re still on the list.
I don’t think that a real list is so incoherent that there is no order. Foucault talks about Borges’s list—the things that Borges said were in a Chinese encyclopedia. And you look at this list and Foucault says—jumping to a wrong conclusion, as he often does—that it has an order. But it is, in fact, a list of logical incongruities. Everything on the list is something that creates a logical problem—not perhaps a complete list of all the logical issues, but a list of logical problems by example. Borges wouldn’t write a list if it didn’t have an order. He’s questioning order, but he is himself very orderly. I would argue that not just anything is a list if it happens to be a bunch of stuff on the same sheet, and that there are lists of higher order or more order. I have always been interested in lists and in their hierarchy, arrangement, and so forth—how many items you have to have before you have a list, when it is a list and not a list.
Neighbors: Is it always a linear list, and are syntactical units always already syntax?
Gass: Syntaxes are always invisible for lists. When you start to make a list, there is always a kind of list that has a kind of order: a list of people to invite to the party, or your grocery list, or a list of things to do today, or whatever. Each one has its own directives and orders. You often do a grocery list in the order in which you would go around and shop for things in the store. You are trying to remember what you need, you go through the store mentally, so you have a list reflecting the order in which you shop.
Neighbors: But for Nietzsche, forgetting is very much a part of the epistemology of lists and list-making and syntax. Is your work reflective of Nietzschean forgetting?
Gass: Well, I play with it. Suppose I have a little list of things to buy, and one of the things that is on the list is rat poison. I am accused of poisoning my wife, let’s say. I say, “See, it is not on my grocery list,” as it is brought up as evidence, “because it is crossed off.” There is no way I can get it off the list. It cannot, in a certain sense, be forgotten, because there is something other than the individual doing the remembering. This is one of the reasons why we have histories. Progressively, of course, our memory is replaced by these documents, and what we are remembering is not history but the persistent stories that we use. The question, then, is what really is history—a bunch of these stories, or is there something out there?
Nietzsche is also interested in and has, in “The Use and Abuse of History,” this image of a cow in the field; he says this cow doesn’t have to worry about anything because it doesn’t remember the past and doesn’t anticipate the future, it is just happily in its present. This is Nietzsche’s notion of bliss. This sort of paradise of animals business (and you get it in Rilke) I think is totally nonsense. There is nobody scareder over time than animals. The cow may be munching away, but the cow’s ears are busy. The antelope may be out there but worried about the tiger or whatever. It is not that blissful world; animals do remember things. The idea that were we to have this Dionysian immersion—for instance, we are watching a basketball game and it is very exciting and we are screaming and yelling and being absolutely foolish. But we forget—we’re lost in the moment. Nietzsche’s Dionysian doctrine is supposed to be some sort of desirable loss of the past and an escape from what you have done and what is coming next. The bliss is not just dependent upon forgetting, it is dependent upon not anticipating as well—just living in the present, or James’s specious present. That is another problem, because how wide is the present?
Neighbors: You have raised an ethical dimension of your work. Socrates, of course, wonders if there is a possibility for right living, and Nietzsche wonders that in relation to Socrates. Isn’t trying to present a certain questioning of history an ethics?
Gass: What you are questioning—whether there were certain events that took place—is not questioning, at least not for me, because for me, events in the real world take place in one way and only one way. Actually, in Tests of Time there is a long piece on the nature of history done as a kind of fable. It actually reflects the first philosophical essay I ever wrote, which was called “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” which had to do with the status of fundamental moral intuitions. The whole problem of whether there exists an objective set of events that occur in one way is very complicated, because it would include not only the objective things but everybody’s subjective responses-those are items as much as anything else. Now we have all kinds of accounts of these events, and they are quarreling to see who will rule—who will be accepted as “the account.” And of course it is important to question those. But how do you question them? Do you question them in terms of “my account is going to run over your account, and how”? To establish ways in which competing accounts can be measured and you can decide which is better or more reliable than another is, of course, a crucial part of an intellectual life, and corrective processes will take place continuously, especially as new things turn up.
We are constantly dredging the bottom of the ocean for thousands of ships still sunk and bringing to light all kinds of new fragments of the past, which will produce new understandings. Those things are shifted back and forth in terms, I think, of a possibly statable, scientific, evidential procedure. And so while I would have very great questions to ask about any account of the Peloponnesian War, it is not that I think that all of these accounts are relative and one isn’t better than another, or that we can’t get at an improved account. I think we can. But it is essential to Kohler and his minions that history is nothing but a series of accounts, that the best accounts—that is to say, the most powerful, self-interested ones—win, and that history is totally relative to those accounts. I think that is a fascistic, immoral position and, of course, one of the reasons why I am so opposed to deconstruction.
Neighbors: Kant makes an argument in which, on the one hand, the object disappears. On the other hand, the cognitive faculties are arranged according to an objectivity: there is an imperative to act as if an objectivity exists. And that is partly why Nietzsche disagrees with Kant, because on ethical grounds, says Nietzsche, power is often indexed to objectivity.
Gass: It alleges it; it lies about it. The fascist says it is objective. And so they all change it. The communists changed history all the time to suit their purposes. Goebbels shifted his meaning because he started to believe his own lies. But they know, usually, that they are lying, and they know that they are changing things because it will be to their advantage.
Neighbors: Which means that they know that there is objective history and that they are representing it.
Gass: There might be a few who actually believe this. But there is suddenly a contradiction between the way in which people have to live and what they may assert. We see this among philosophers all the time. You get a room of philosophers and they are different—one’s a Platonist, one’s a pragmatist, but you can’t tell that from walking around and watching them behave, because there is a certain social structure and a certain way everybody has to act. Derrida leads a life in which he assumes every minute the opposite of what he is asserting in his philosophy, because he couldn’t live otherwise. What one recognizes is that often, over and over again, the official account isn’t true. But that is because you think there is something you can get at. If you think it is all a series of myths, then it is not an argument about what is true; we would just use the word “true” because there are some idiots out there who think it is important to be right, or true. Instead, we would know that there isn’t any truth, but we would tell them that our doctrine is true because that would work best for us—it would keep us in power.
Neighbors: But the statement that we know there isn’t any truth is contradictory, isn’t it?
Gass: Sure. It is the freshman philosophy course. It is a contradiction.
Neighbors: The ethical question I’m interested in here is what would be the difference in terms of the rhetoric of persuasion between our images based on a belief in an objective real as opposed to a belief in …
Gass: Well, if you didn’t, like myself, feel that most philosophical systems are fictions, what would that mean? It would mean that there are modes of existing, ways of living, ways of looking at things that are stylistically different from other modes. Just as there are many marvelous works of art based on different systems of construction and views of things, it would be more like I live in a Georgian house and you live in a Gothic house. Or I live in my Presbyterian world and you live in your Catholic world. We are just living in different houses. We choose because nature lets us and doesn’t inhibit too terribly. And if we are not impinged on too much by changes from the outside—like, say, the Egyptians for a while—we can be insulated and go on. It is a style now, like an artistic mode. And since nature does not prescribe, it doesn’t even prescribe when it is prescribing. I mean, nature says all men are mortal, and then we develop a system in which if we act certain ways and die in a certain way, we are immortal. There is nothing that we can not talk our way around in terms of the system. So we can live this way. We can pretend this is truth and then just choose which style we prefer. When I was in midshipman’s school we had to go to church services every Sunday. If you didn’t go, you were thought to be a malingerer. So I chose. There was a great cantor at the Jewish thing, so I went. Oh, he was gorgeous, and so I chose the aesthetically interesting one.
Neighbors: What I am confused about is the status of rules, say, in the syllogism that begins, All men are mortal. There are rules in scientific procedure. That there are rules, you seem to suggest, indicates the difficulty with perceiving the object extralinguistically.
Gass: It might actually be done.
Neighbors: What modes of perception are you going to use, then, to base your belief on?
Gass: Again, what we in fact do is start like Hume and trust sense impressions. But we don’t really. In fact, the last thing we trust is sense impressions. So we build equipment. The weatherman doesn’t stick his head out and say, “Gee, it’s cold today.” He measures it. And so we substitute measurements that are regarded as more objective,and we are prepared to say, “it is fifty degrees Fahrenheit,” with the only perception being reading the dial. And of course everybody will feel a little differently about the temperature: “I like cool weather more than most people, and it doesn’t bother me,” and so forth. We replace the perceiver, which was a machine, which did the perceiving because it was more objective. Then when we get that data, we put it into a system of calculations that is more objective, and so on we continue, constantly distrusting. It has always amused me that the deconstructionists talk about distrusting these things, but scientists distrust observation more than anybody.
The methodology of the sciences has its own history of errors and mistakes. We now know Bachelard’s work on obstacle concepts that come along and actually are there to interfere, to block the passage of investigation. When we changed from, say, a quantum mechanics picture to an Einsteinian one, that was a huge move. But it was possible to make it. And it is still possible to make it again, because we say, Newton is okay in this realm and Einstein in this one. But then we have to add, Can we exist with contradictory notions of the behavior of light? And we know that we’ve not got it right, yet because of contradiction, we’re still holding onto our current understanding. These methods are not exact in the way Socratic dialectic is, but it is a dialectical procedure which is based in and leads to probabilities, and nothing is, in that sense, certain.
Neighbors: But again, isn’t this notion of reliability, of knowledge based on probability, a very different kind of ethical disposition than a knowledge and ethics based on certainty?
Gass: Oh yes, sure. And there is a preference to be had there, ethically. Because you have to have a system, the moral and epistemological argument would be that a system has to be able to be self-critical. If there aren’t grounds for self-criticism within the system, whenever there are certainties, they start to cut out: “There is no point in questioning this, because this is a certainty.” Then you have no way of organized change and no grounds for reliable or sensible criticism and revision. And that means that when the thing goes to pieces, it will explode. It won’t be able to adjust. Alternatively, you have a system which, by changing its truths, as the Catholic church has regularly done, remains flexible over time and, as a consequence, survives until you get an old Polish pope. Wrong moves are less likely to occur in a system that is open-ended and open to revision and aware that you don’t have the whole truth and that you may have to change certain things in certain ways.
But we are not talking about democracy as a series of final views; it is a method of deciding issues—moral issues in a society. And if it is a method, even on those occasions when the umpire calls it wrong, it is right to go with the umpire. Socrates argues against escaping his condemnation, and one of the reasons is just exactly due process. He actually didn’t get a fair trial, but he goes with the system, and I think that one can argue that doing so is morally and epistemologically preferable. It does not imply relativity in the argument, because once the people arguing from the margin get into the center, they can change their mind about their relativities. They are arguing for a part of the pie, and in order to get their part of the pie, they think they have to change the position of the people who have pie, and they are right. It is again an old historical move.
“The advantage fiction has is that you can set the rules of your world.”
Neighbors: We have been talking about history in the context of The Tunnel. Let me ask a question about inference and history. If all you can see of trout are the ripples they leave behind, how do you know that they are trout?
Gass: How do we conjecture the electron from a space on a photographic plate? The essential elements of the universe, as scientists would classify them, are completely beyond observation, so they have to be inferred. One of the things that allows us to think that we have it correct is that mathematicians have anticipated scientists. One of my favorite philosophers is Gaston Bachelard—people don’t read his positivist philosophy of science stuff. He’s wonderful. Anyway, in one of his books he says that nature must be made to go as far as the mind goes. What he means is that conjectural theories done almost entirely mathematically are proposing possible things. The entity would have to be something that fits into this kind of set of equations. And then we begin to get empirical hints, that is, we make predictions that if the entity is what the mathematical scheme suggests, the following things are likely to be observed, and we begin to observe them. So then we give it a name, a quark or whatever. Odd things, and then we begin to make further hypotheses and conjectures on the basis of these imaginary entities. They are, in a certain sense, constructs, and we have obviously not got it all right about them, so they are projections. We predict the unseen on the basis of the seen.
But this is fundamentally no different from my reading how you’re feeling from your body posture, from what you say, because I am reading a consciousness that I could never experience. The difference is that I do have a consciousness of my own, which, I suppose, making these inferences, yours resembles.
Gass: Yes. So it is that attempt to make those intersubjective inferences. We’re at it constantly. It is natural for us to treat our pets as if certain things we’re inferring are true. Now, obviously, sometimes that is going to be way off, and sometimes it seems a pragmatic success, and so forth. Formalist writing presents an interesting conjectural problem that I find attractive. I was trained in the philosophy of science by positivists, and while I don’t share their confident view of the narrow position that they took, I have always been persuaded of the power of mathematics and scientific investigations and the attempt to establish methods. We have imaginary entities. They are not like religious imaginary entities. They are conjectural little hypotheses, and we can develop them in such a way that we have an image of the atom or DNA or whatever, and we get very comfortable and map a genome. But what the hell are these things? We have their shape, we have a model, and yet, over and over, we can do it only when we have a mathematics that allows us. Constantly, through mathematics, science creates systems for which there is no possible application, until later we catch up and find that we can find a way of using it.
Neighbors: Does your idea of mathematics include description?
Gass: It is not description. That’s what makes it pure. That’s why I like a novel that is pure. It is about itself, not about anything else. Its questions arise within it and are answered within it, or not. It is not guilty of assertions about the world. It isn’t asserting a mathematical system.
Neighbors: How does it become valuable?
Gass: It becomes valuable to mathematicians regardless, because the system has its own rules and regulations, and great mathematics and pure number theory never had any application, ever, since the beginning. Such considerations have never had any practical application.
Neighbors: At the time of their construction?
Gass: No. Something may happen. But other theories of mathematics that aren’t pure number but are nevertheless a development of, say, a new geometry, at a certain point are just mathematical. When A. Pare develops his system of new discovery, it is all in mathematical terms and is regarded aesthetically. It is immensely satisfying that it doesn’t apply. No, art in general, though I’m a formalist, is by no means pure like that, partly because its rules are so discursive and its elements undefined. One of the things that made mathematics and music so in alignment is that, at least early on, the number of elements that comprised the scale that the musician or composer worked with and the principles of composition were sufficiently limited that you could grasp them at the age of ten, and brighter people did. Now that is harder, because it has opened up. When you are writing history, it is really much more difficult. The advantage fiction has is that you can set the rules of your world.
Neighbors: Make it coherent.
Gass:. Yes, try. Now you are borrowing all kinds of material from it, and your impulses are by no means pure. You have all kinds of other interests—you have judgments. Secretly, I think, it is Platonic. The soul is tripartite for Plato, but reason must rule. He has another agenda, in which reason will exist alone and passion and desire will be gone, but in the world, in the harmonious soul, there is passion and desire, though they are regulated by reason. Aesthetic impulse has to regulate all of the other impulses that one has, and the more you have, the better, because it gives you the energy to do all of this work.
Neighbors: So does the imaginative faculty in the aesthetic replace reason?
Gass: Yes, you are trying to order. And the order is not easily—it is a systematic—it is very much Hegelian, in the sense that every element of the work not only has to have its individual quality, but it is also in a community of other things that it affects and is affected by until everything in the book modifies one and only one thing, like in Hegel’s absolute. And I think over and over again that philosophical systems may be false, and I don’t believe Hegel at all. But they are absolutely right when it comes to describing an ideal work of art. An ideal work of art is a Hegelian system in which every relation is internal. A change to any part ideally changes every other. Take photography. Every element of the photograph as a photograph is essential to the nature of the whole thing. You can’t change any part of it, ideally. When you are talking about a picture, this is true because the relations in the picture are all made up of certain things which are central to produce the image and, therefore, to produce the rhetorical effect. But most of it is externally related rather than internally. What Hume, in effect, said is that everything is externally related. And what Hegel said is that everything is internally related. My thought is, Well, in the world and in nature, some things are internal and some things are external, but in a work of art, what you want, what I want, is this unification. That means not that you are cutting off references, but that you are making the references not essential to the value of the work. They may be indeed about something, as I do think The Tunnel is about a world confused and full of problems, but it doesn’t have to be right about them to be a work of art, any more than does a plate of peaches painted by Cézanne. In one sense the world is mute. Everything is inside and justified and so on. But of course art can say things about the world, and it can even say true things—relatively true things, or relatively wrong things. There are works of art with greatness which are actually wrong about the world.
Neighbors: Do you see the Holocaust as history?
Gass: Sure. This is one of the questions that interested me in The Tunnel, and it is still a very big issue. It is the question of whether the Holocaust is an event that is to be lodged in history or treated as a historical construction, like “the Renaissance.” The Holocaust perfectly well has its antecedents and its causes, and it has a possibility of recurrence. And the idea that this is an event so unique that it cannot be historicized must be separated. As a unique event, it becomes almost sacred: only those who have been a part of it may talk about it. But I think it is a part of history and, indeed, go even further to suggest the possibility of it repeating here, in the U.S. I grew up in the Depression. When the Depression happened, we had a public that was not full of a sense of entitlement. The people who were thrown out of work were not only suffering but felt guilty, even though they had nothing to do with what had happened. They felt terrible. I remember the tramps who would come to the door who would work, rake the yard for a sandwich. These were decent people of an ordinary sort, reduced to this level. There were strikes and there were riots, but it was minor compared to the disaster now if something like this were to happen in this country. I think it would be awful, and we would get something similar to what we got with the Nazis. You think about what happened in Germany—an inflation that wiped out all of the middle-class savings. If that happened here, if we all got Enron-ed … I have a nice retirement because I have taught for fifty years, but suppose it got wiped out? Would I be pissed? That was one of the things that interested me. While I have that worry about the country, as a novelist I am not making a decision about this, although people haven’t noted the connection between The Tunnel and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but there is one. I did have a father who was a bigot. I grew up in a household where I saw that kind of attitude expressed all the time, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism around, much more than there is now in this country.
Neighbors: So the history that you are talking about here is a culmination of unique events which are discursive, or subject to discursivity, and yet which can be repeated.
Gass: Yes, and not uniquely—given certain conditions. Indeed we see it repeated in smaller versions over and over. You see, the Holocaust couldn’t even stamp out the Nazis; people will believe anything. One of my favorite passages from Hobbes is a list of all the things people have called gods. Wonderful rhetoric—great. It is also true. So the new book I am working on comes from my disenchantment—almost wholly—with the human race, and the character has what he calls an “inhumanity museum.” He collects this stuff, raising the question that Rilke raises in the Elegies, where he says plaintively, ‘Well, it was beautiful, wasn’t it?’ Have we justified all of the suffering, misery, and horrible things we’ve done to the world? Was art enough for Rilke? He was never sure. I am not sure at all; in fact I am pretty sure not.
Neighbors: Do you think The Tunnel is enough, is adequate?
Gass: Obviously I’m writing another book. All of my stuff has been not so much about moral issues in the Kantian as in the Aristotelian sense. Self-realization—realizing the potentialities of human beings within the context of community, where other people are allowed the same realization of what, in effect, Kant calls happiness as an a priori end, but not a moral end. It is the failure to realize what we could be that has persistently stayed with me.
Neighbors: Kohler’s immensely successful in creative production.
Gass: Well, yes. So were a lot of Nazis. Another issue that is involved there is that the fact that you are an artist or a thinker or a scientist or a great musician or a composer or a conductor or a singer didn’t prevent you—the humanistic enterprise did not save Germany. Yet humanism was a very powerful influence in Germany.
Neighbors: One could argue that the humanistic enterprise condemned Germany.
Gass: And that is one of the things The Tunnel talks about. I mean, it is so depressing to have people with intelligence, education, and sensitivity being monsters.
Neighbors: Kohler writes, “An event enters history because it is over. It is dead. It is buried in flame like a pigeon in its own shit. Historical chronicles are chronologies of crime in that any recital of the past constitutes an indictment.” Is there a form of writing that isn’t criminal, in this sense? And can one extend this criminology to all forms of representation?
Gass: A French magazine once asked a whole bunch of people, “In a line, what is your purpose in writing?” I gave a smart-aleck remark, but then I realized that this is probably what I think: I write to indict mankind. And the indictment, I think, is not damaging. It is true. Kohler is a part of that. While I wanted him to be sensitive, intelligent, educated, and sometimes charming, I also gave him the opportunity to think things and express them in the strongest possible way that were in a sense unthinkable, or were very obnoxious questions like, “How many do you have to kill to get a Holocaust? Where’s the limit?” But I also wanted him to be seductive.
Neighbors: Are you suggesting that Kohler’s playfulness, his playing with the Holocaust, is condemnable morally, and that to be moral in relation to the Holocaust is to keep some aspect of the Holocaust sacred?
Gass: Kohler’s use of limericks, not Kohler so much as Culp, the character, is frivolous. Culp is a character who reduces everything—flattens it, trivializes it—and that that I think is immoral. The limerick, as such, can be good or bad on its own basis, but the limerick was interesting to me because it does flatten, it does reduce, and there is a little contest that I have had outside the book for the tragic limerick—truly tragic, you know. Some people have sent things that are close. Most often they are tragic only in the sense that they try to include a tragic theme, but the form is still key. In other words, is there a form that does this to things? I’m not sure, but it seems likely, and that is interesting to me. For some people reading The Tunnel, it is sacreligious, immoral, horrible to write art about or do anything with the Holocaust. I don’t think anything is sacrosanct.
Neighbors: Do you think that historiography doesn’t have limericks, presumably because it is grounded by real events?
Gass: That is taking things seriously. Not glib. Heroic couplets would do the same thing.
Neighbors: Would take it seriously?
Gass: Wouldn’t take it seriously. They’ve got to be too snappy. The form insists on its dominance. One of the things that hurt Pope’s “Essay on Man” was that it had to be so smart: it is witty. The French love of epigrams is the same thing. You turn the phrase, and that turn, that polish, carries what? Evidential weight? A lot of emotional weight. That is one reason why poetry has greater trouble with the so-called problem of “truth” than fiction does, because fiction is so much sprawlier. Narrow forms insist on bending whatever you say to those forms and make it harder for you to utter “the truth.”
Neighbors: As in The Tunnel, couldn’t the limerick, in a certain context, suggest an even more potent version of the truth?
Gass: Well, not in what it says, but in that it exists and that it can be done, or that one can treat even the most hideous thing in all kinds of moods. Perfectly human.
Neighbors: I have another question concerning the status of metaphor in your work. Your essays are extremely literary, full of metaphors, and resist the definition of the essay as being discursive in a number of ways, while your fiction is extremely discursive. Do you want metaphor to convey, or resemble, the truth of the idea you are working, or of the object you are trying to represent? Or do you think of it at times in the Derridean sense of being a plunge into an abyss of a never-ending difference and deference?
Gass: I never plunge into abysses. I stay away from them.
Neighbors: But your characters do. The Tunnel could be called an example of plunging in that sense. But metaphor—what is metaphor to you in those terms?
Gass: The full metaphor is not accepted any more. It isn’t taken seriously, and as we say, an arm of the sea threw a curve at the batter. No. Things do deflate and become literal in that sense. That is a conventional, standard way of thinking. My notion of metaphor comes again from scientific practice. Science consists of two realms of scientific operation: on one view, mathematical systems are proceeding and developing on their own, with their own rules on relationship. Then on the other side you have a collection of observations—very chaotic, unorganized. The idea of science is to get the observations into the system, because over here in the system all is wonderful, deductive, clear (relatively speaking). If we could get the observations over here, we could create a model which is an invested system. What Galileo did, for example, was to figure out how to get motion into geometry, once he saw that an inclined plane was a triangle, or that he could get, say, distance as a rectangle with speed and time—it’s just the same formula as the area of a rectangle. Then somebody like Descartes transforms the whole science of mechanics by putting geometry into algebra—makes it a much more sophisticated, subtle system. Everything is transformed without any move except that the algebra swallows the geometry, and geometry has swallowed kinetics.
So you have those great moves, and what it means is that what science does is develop a model in which we look at the shadow the tree casts, and we see a right triangle. If we make a few measurements, we make some deductions. Now, what a metaphor tends to do, it seems to me, is that one element of a metaphor tends to stand as the abstract system, while the other is the set of unorganized observations, and what you build is a model that allows this observational system to be structured by the abstract system. That is a choice—it is arbitrary, in the sense that there is nothing more abstract about the one term in the metaphor than the other. And you can have interactive ones where they take turns—this suddenly is the abstract system where it was disorganized.
Furthermore, what is the system? Let’s say, “rose.” There is a history of the term, and it isn’t organized in a nice, algebraic way. It is, in fact, this great landscape of meanings connected in various ways, and sometimes not, and even connected with other meanings—“he rose up”—just on sound parallels. We now create this model that is one thing seen in terms of this whole system. Then, just as in science, you have the scope of the law. It only holds for gases. It has only a range of things. And so there is this scope of the metaphor: How far is it pushed? Is it just to be held for a certain distance, and then dropped? Shakespeare is wonderful, because he tends to hold on to an image throughout a play. For me, when you are doing this, you are exploring what would happen to this one meaning if it suddenly reorganized. Then it produces a multiple of metaphors, of models. One of my favorite examples is in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, “The hearts / That spanieled me at heels.” Antony is complaining that his followers have deserted him: “hearts / That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave / Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets / On blossoming Caesar, and this pine is barked / That overtopped them all.” Well, what happened there is a metaphor. “Hearts” right from the beginning is a pun on “harts,” in a way, and then the dog imagery for the followers is put inside, and then another one and then another one. Incredibly complex, incredibly rich multiplying imagery. You know how the followers behave, in detail. But every phrase is a metaphor.
Neighbors: And that knowledge of the followers’ behavior becomes an object that is carried through, a holding of the metaphor.
Gass: And you can play all the puns. “Do discandy”—they take back all of their sweets and “melt their sweets on blossoming Caesar,” so all of these spaniels are peeing on his tree. With “this pine is barked,” you get the slashing of the pine that is about to get cut down, and of course the barking of the dogs. The whole thing is so incredibly rich, and it carries through the whole play, creating system upon system of meanings. Some people drop an initial meaning fast. You complain that it violates the next image, or you say, “Well, you can’t call them spaniels now because you called them snakes in the first act.” There is a question of how meant things are. For me, it is a poetic imitation of scientific model-making. In fact, it can sometimes be really illuminating when you suddenly say, “Hey, wait a minute. We aren’t thinking of this richly.” It gets dangerous for poets. “My love is like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June.” But then I remember another poem: “Rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm …” So I remember that this newly sprung rose may have a worm attack—and it isn’t in the poem. But it is in the richness of the whole literary landscape, and philosophical terms are already packed with a whole history.
Neighbors: Philosophical terms in that sense behave in very similar ways to metaphor?
Gass: I think they are identical.
Neighbors: Part of the philosophical end of a poetic project, you’re arguing, is to acknowledge the tendency of metaphor to explode, disperse, exceed its scope, and then to write a scope that productively contains it.
Gass: You make a rule of representation. You say, let light travel in straight lines. If light travels in straight lines, I can start getting lots of things—the phenomenon of the shadow of the tree—into geometry. A rule of representation allows me to get it in, and that model works for a while. But then I have to think of light traveling in waves. And then that works, but only sometimes. In poetry or in fiction, it is the same kind of thing, but it is all kept at the figurative level. There is no practical payoff, but there is payoff in terms of emotional response, as, for example, in a play in which Beckett says the characters are living in garbage cans. All right. Life is like … and you say, “Yes.” This is scope. Yes and no. But the richness of the imagery of a bare stage and characters waiting for Godot, for instance, the one-limbed tree-suddenly the image is a metaphor for the whole of life. Well, it ain’t, of course, the whole, but in moments, as Emerson says, “in the right mood.” Philosophically, there are times when Aquinas seems absolutely sound and other times when he’s not. And then it is just one’s response to the world at a particular moment and a particular time where you are doing the same thing yourself—you are enveloping it in a mood and seeing it from a certain perspective. I am thinking of so many great poems by Thomas Hardy, where he will use transmigration, for example. He is standing there looking at a bush that grows out of a grave of an old flame and he talks about her being up in this bush. He knows she is not, but there is a certain metaphorical rightness in the poem.
Neighbors: How contingent are these moments of metaphorical rightness, as you say?
Gass: Oh, very contingent. The context changes. You might be in the wrong mood to see a Beckett play—you know, you just won the lottery, and the hell with it. “Life may be chance, but fortune smiles. A goat.” You can recognize in the great work a metaphor’s appropriateness to the world in a certain mode. That is straight Emersonian stuff. But I think at that point Emerson is right that the great philosophical systems are not only beautiful in themselves but right about the world—in a certain mode, it is as if things were this way. I remember when teaching Plotinus, who I like a lot—when the Enneads finish, it is one of the most beautiful moments in literature. What has happened is that reality has been dribbling away into darkness, and he says something like, “Life is but the flight of the alone to be alone.” It is one of the great lines in all of philosophy. And you think, “yes,” and see how you can suddenly rearrange the metaphor—you become the unorganized system suddenly in the system, and your life is now metaphorically seen in those terms, or in Beckett’s terms. But you can go from Beckett to Goethe to Sophocles reorganized, and it seems right. It makes sense. You can make sense out of everything.
Neighbors: But that doesn’t fall into the kind of relativism that you are—
Gass: No, that is like, I used to live in a Gothic house and now I’m living in a Georgian, and the Georgian is cheaper. There are people who would say, “Hey, you are living in a Georgian house, you can’t be really hairy—only in the Gothic.” That, of course, is obviously absurd, but you can treat all of these ideological things as simply places one has chosen to live in. It is like being stuck in one poem, or being stuck in Aquinas.
In the new book, I do a piece on invisible cities. I’m trying to fall into the spirit of Calvino there, in my own way taking off in this sort of homage to the way in which Calvino’s imagination is work- ing. I’m trying to say to the reader, See how it operates here? by performing it. But sometimes I am trying to say, This book is organized in such and such a way, and it is designed to do such and such, and it is about this, and so. It opens in such a way that it is clear much has happened before, that is unspoken. We are in the midst of our journey. All those things I want to be held accountable for. I want to argue that there is a specific edition of Marco Polo in Paris in the Bibliotheque Nationale, which has many old drawings by Westerners who had never seen the East, illustrating Marco Polo’s cities. And they are all medieval cities and resemble Venice. I am arguing that Calvino saw this edition and based the visual structure of his work on it. Now I have to prove that. One of the things I advance is that Calvino’s publisher, the man he worked for in Paris, where he was a scout for French literature, published a version of that text with those illustrations. That version was translated into English and published in my copy of 1957. I say that the water in one of those drawings is flowing through the city like wind-blown hair—well, don’t hold me to it. One should be able to look at the image and say, “I see what he meant.” But it could have been described differently. So there is a mixture.
Neighbors: Thinking of your interest in the way narrative sentences relate to history and the way metaphor relates to history, do you see any form of ethical imperative rising out of the events of 9/11 for contemporary writers, fiction writers, philosophers?
Gass: Nothing new. I already have such a bad opinion of the human race that nothing could change it—it just confirms. It is horrible, and one is disturbed, but nothing suddenly, like, “Oh, how could that happen?” or “I used to be a Yankee fan and now I will be …” None of this “America’s changed forever.” I think it is a lot of bullshit and, in fact, we’ll be back tomorrow ignoring … And in one sense we have to. In the other sense, we are just stupid. While it was happening, I thought, “Thank God it is not the Met!” And then I learned that the thing was full of art, and I had another sense of outrage—a different one, of course—and I know that had that been the Met, I might have become murderous. It was in a certain odd sense just people. And this rage comes from the whole response to history in which we have this glorious Kantian final ideal of the individual—self-regulated, so rational that they give themselves the law by considering everything else, the ultimate individual that Western culture has been aiming at, and which, I think, is a glorious goal. All that process in which every human being is infinitely worthwhile and the loss is catastrophic. We pay lip service to that all the time, and it ought to be true, but in fact isn’t. Beings are worth a dime—nothing. Everyday, thousands are dying. People killed. Nothing changes.
So in one sense, this awful response of the people is a response that is nevertheless reflective of the way in which human beings behave. It also has to do with a reading, an ethical reading of one of Rilke’s sonnets that concludes by arguing that this ruined statue with a mutilated piece has more reality than you, the viewer. I profoundly believe that to be true, and disastrous. And it says that you must change your life. “How can we go on playing if we lose so-and-so?” Everybody’s replaceable. Certain works of art, because they contain the best of the human race, are concentrations of the best we are, or as the Army slogan goes, the best we can be. That is why we take better care of our works of art and get really outraged if somebody takes a chip off of Michelangelo—it is a much more outrageous and awful thing because it is an attack on not just humanity, but humanity at its most fine and least harmful, where we are adding things to the world instead of taking things away. So the contrast between what we think we ought to be doing with human beings, the value we should be placing on them, and that total, careless disregard of human beings … And then when we do honor human life, we sentimentalize it and lie about it—it is all political baloney.
I was horrified at my own response, but then I realized that it really tells me about me, because I have reacted so badly to history and what happens every day. We read too many newspapers in our house. The awful ruination of the world. That kind of thing, which is a loss of opportunity—the loss of what could be. I am not talking about a utopia, just a decent kind of life. Which, indeed, one lives if you are fortunate like I am and live in a relatively affluent, beautiful little neighborhood in an urban environment that is rich and comfortable. Indeed the bourgeoisie did invent something good—comfort. Most of the time. At whose expense? Are they marginal? Oh boy, are they marginal. They are marginal to the margins. I taught for years—was that a public benevolence? Taught philosophy, marginal. And I taught marginal philosophy, so justification of one’s being in the world and having the advantages that I have had—being fat and healthy—what an irony that is. All of this, to me, is a constant problem. And then reading everything, and you must do something, and you try to, but you are also helpless in the scheme of things. People complained about Rilke because he didn’t worry about people starving at the corner. He had very little local interest, but he was interested in the human condition. It was the inescapable tragedy of mankind that he was concerned with. In one sense he was right to worry about that, because he couldn’t do much about the other anyway. The few times he did he ended up helping some street workman. He used to laugh. Ridiculous man. So there is that kind of problem for me all of the time.
And you write a book on it and you think, “Well, but Henry James.” And I think, “Yes, people should read Henry James and learn to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” But it doesn’t help. So what does? The only thing that saved people from the Nazis in Germany, basically, was that they had an opposing ideology. So the Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, stood up much better in camps under stress because they had a different superstition which held them. That’s a sad commentary. The lonely intellectual didn’t do well—even Walter Benjamin. Too civilized, too tormented, too this and that. To interiorize the guilt of mankind makes you weep. That is the kind of conflict—and there are many, many more—that makes tragedy, because there is no solution. I mean, I don’t see any solution. So we make a tragedy out of it. Out of the tribal conflicts that imitated the earlier tribal conflicts and the attempt to establish civic loyalty to a larger thing that is so much a part of the Greek tragedy, that’s what you get—conflicting schemes that have great loyalties and histories. No solution. But it yields us Sophocles. Was it worth it? Are we going to get something great out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that justifies having had it? No, I can’t see that.
Neighbors: What do you think the last words will be?
Gass: I didn’t pack my toothbrush … I don’t know. I would like to be able to say, “And we deserve it!” But I don’t think trees and streams and little birds deserve it. We haven’t, I think, justified our existence as a species. We take best care of the species that are just our pets. I’m a cat lover, so I know about that kind of idiocy. The new book is certainly about a guy who is a fake—a total fake—but he gets a job as a professor. He has no degrees. He is concerned about the possibility that mankind might survive, which would be the greatest catastrophe of all, he thinks. He is obsessively rewriting a sentence along those lines and collecting for this apocalyptic museum indicting mankind. But he himself is a fraud. I started out to write a collection of novellas, because I take so long and didn’t want to start anything more ambitious at my age—I’m almost 78 now. I wrote two novellas, one called “In Camera” and the other called “Charity.” The one I’m working on now was to be the title piece. It would be in the middle, and it would be called “Middle C.” This guy is a musician. But “Middle C” didn’t stay in the novella—it got out of hand. So I don’t know what I am going to do now. I just have to pursue whatever this damn thing is doing and see what happens. But it is spoiling my book. I had this notion of “Middle C,” and I don’t know what is going to happen. It is going to be a short novel, I think, but it is going to be a novel.
Neighbors: Didn’t you say that once about The Tunnel?
Gass: Yes, I did. And I’ll be done with it any day …
Originally published in Contemporary Literature 43.4 (Winter 2002): 617-643 © 2002 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reproduced by the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.