William H. Gass: Interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, 2004
Broadcast on Bookworm
The following interview was recorded not in the KCRW studios, but in front of an audience at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Audio is here. The Bookworm program describes the show this way: “The greatest living writer of prose in English explores his deepest influence. Rainer Maria Rilke’s invocations to the supernatural orders and his requiems to the dead inspire the intensities Gass most admires. In this conversation, we witness the interpretation of two modern masters.”
Michael Silverblatt: We are recording this program in a hall at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the sounds you may hear during the interview are the sounds of people who have chosen to be here out of their admiration for William Gass. Gass seems to me to be our greatest living writer of prose in America, yet there has been inadequate talk about the content of his work, and still more inadequate talk about its influences and the way in which it developed as a literary style. In the last several years, Gass has been writing essays on the poet…Oh, so many names, Rainer Maria Rilke, but who began with the name Renee, sometimes called by his mother Sofia, when he was good.
William H. Gass: Yes.
Silverblatt: Rilke was dressed as a girl when he was a child, and as a good girl he was Sofia. And the forging of an identity as a poet seems to have depended upon his casting off identities put onto him, almost creating them as ghosts; writing elegies for versions of himself that were no longer supportable to him. Gass, whose work on metaphor and image is very profound, seems to trace, in Rilke, a movement that takes a trajectory from voice to groove—the groove on a record—the reproduced voice when that groove is played, becoming a ghost-like image, there is the sense that ghost and metaphor interpenetrate in their purpose, that people in fiction, in their joint roles, not so much as characters, but as traces, atmospheres, locations for the inter-surfacing of light. These wonderfully and strangely are found as well in Rilke. Gass will name them from time to time: Valery, Mallerme—but the beautiful three-dimensional sense that we are witnessing events in the world that have been transformed into interpenetrating fields of language, metaphor, light, sensation, sound—this is the fascination of the work. There is a recent essay by Gass that begins to suggest that what you read when you read Rilke’s novel, you’re reading a haunted house. You’re reading a convocation of ghosts. I would like to propose that in not too simple or obvious a way, this is the requirement for the house of fiction, as imagined by James and revised and re-imagined via Rilke by Gass. So I wanted to begin, after this enormous peroration, to ask, When did this encounter with Rilke begin?
Gass: I had gone as a visiting writer and teacher of philosophy from Purdue, where I was, to the University of Illinois, in the ’50s. It was at the university in Urbana that I just started to read him. I don’t remember in what ways the books came into my hands. But I did begin with the poems, the elegies, and I was overwhelmed in a way that is rare for me. There are many, many, many poets whom I adore. But Rilke was different. And it struck some sort of chord. I spent a long time trying to find out what it had hit in me, and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing; but it began to resonate. And although the individual poet, in his life as I began to read about it, was nothing like myself, I kept finding—or feeling sympathy even in my antagonisms. Because Rilke was in many ways a professional poseur. But I think one of the things that struck me early on was that Rilke had this strange, but very romantic notion that in order to be a poet, and to write the great poems that he wanted to write, he had to be a poet first. And once he was a great poet as a person, he would be able to write great poems. It wasn’t the common-sense view that you got to be a great poet by writing poems that were great—and then you were great, because you’d written them. No, first to be the great poet. So he worked very hard on his persona. And that persona was not initially Rilke, and we can see that in the early work. One of the things that Rodin taught Rilke was how to cement this into the greatness of the stature of the individual that he needed to be.
“This is what Rodin was teaching Rilke—that in order to draw a person in a moment, you had to know the whole thing.”
Silverblatt: One of the things that I love when I read, in order, your essays on Rilke—and you’ve been writing about him for years now—is the sense of Rilke becomes profound, and in one of the newest essays, which accompanies a beautiful new book, Auguste Rodin—it’s a retranslation of the two monographs on Rodin, early and late, that Rilke wrote—published by Archipelago Books. They’re a wonderful new press, and I want to commend them, not only for doing this book, but for making it so beautiful; for incorporating photographs by Michael Eastman of the Rodin sculptures; and for asking Gass for an introduction. The Rilke monograph is almost famous for its politeness. It’s the part of Rilke that is courting. He wants, in a sense, to be accepted by Rodin and that group. What Gass finds in the notebooks kept at the same time is that another phase of Rilke is beginning—his response to his extraordinary poverty in Paris. And his sense then—this is the culminating thrill of the essay—that we see in the planes of Rodin’s sculpture, the formation in space of different planes of identity. That the Rilke who’s busy being polite, the Rilke who’s being upbraided by Paris, by bohemian culture, that these are starting to be reflected in the planes of a statue, in the planes of a different kind of sentence; a different kind of line of verse that’s able to negotiate, as if it’s an uncoiling dragon and all its scales are catching light as it uncoils; a whole continuum of simultaneous emotion.
Gass: Yes, I think he’s changing—he’s trying to do something in one sense impossible: to make a verbal object into a thing. And Rodin is teaching him not only to make works of art from the ontological point of view—from the point of view of creating being, and placing it in the world as solidly as a statue. But also to give it the kind of almost impressionistic, multi-layered, multi-surfaced effect that Rodin was getting in his sculpture. But it is also, of course, for Rilke, an enormously important time psychologically. Because what he’s doing when he begins to write The Notebooks of Malte Lourds Brigge is to write about a failed poet. And Rilke is seeing himself for the first time as a failure. As someone who is risking failure. And while he is courting—in order to stay alive, he’s getting paid for this monograph on Rodin—he’s courting the genius, the success that Rodin is enjoying at this time. Moreover, Rodin is in a sense from his point of view sexually on the rampage, causing models to pose erotically. And here’s this little Lord Fauntleroy-type watching all this, who then goes back to this little squalid room in Paris, and who can hardly make ends meet. And who is also feeling an enormous amount of guilt because he has in effect left his wife and small child. It’s a mess. And that very mess is something that Rilke was able to make capital of.
Silverblatt: At that time in his letters, Rilke is writing descriptions of the Paris streets that will eventually secrete themselves into the sentences that begin The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. And it’s in Brigge that Gass detects the broken surfaces that he’s learning from Rodin. This book begins something in Rilke which is—I would say it this way: That everything in the world is alive. Everything is animistic. A woman weeping puts her hands to her face in a bowl. When she looks up, she’s left her face in that bowl. In other words, the transposition between people and things, between an inert world and a living world. Image is making everything come alive, and it’s as if the job of the writer is to take the dying world and not lie about the fact that it is a dying world, but bring it to life in a constantly animating prose.
Gass: I think that’s a key thing with Rilke, because in one sense, of course he’s not an animist. He knows that everything, in a sense, is not “alive.” But what he wants to do is to invest the world with that necessary respect. And to make it alive by inserting the poetic consciousness inside it. But he’s also working on a notion that pantheists have to work on. Notions that are developed even by such philosophers as Spinoza. Rilke doesn’t know he’s using Spinoza, but he is. And not even getting permission. What Spinoza suggests is that everything has its conatus, or its striving. It’s a version of a self-preservation doctrine. Now the problem for any great poem, for instance—Valery expresses this beautifully, too—is to create beautiful lines and beautiful imagery and beautiful ideas, each with their own integrity, and each with their own life, which will nevertheless work in a community. To get them to work in that community—how? To create a community in which a free spirit would choose freely to be. So, to put it at the sentential level, in the ideal sentence, every word would have chosen to be in that sentence, not just picked up and used there. And then he applies that to what he’s learning from Rodin, and what he’s learning from Rodin is the importance of light as a living principle in any surface. You break up the surface, you pick up the reflections, you make every part of that surface alive.
Silverblatt: This reminds me of a Gass sentence. The hero of the novel The Tunnel is thinking about how he doesn’t quite know what his wife will do when she discovers what he has been doing, which is digging an escape route from their house. At least he thinks he’s doing that. He says of her, “For she has more of passion’s poses on the varnished wooden hangers which comprise her than the children have costumes for Halloween.” And so suddenly we have a woman who’s made of a series of dresses which are costumes which are personalities which this man will never be able to anticipate. She is the continuum that we’re talking about. She is like a sentence that precedes plane after plane, so that we never know in fact where the sentence, i.e., where the woman, will go. He doesn’t know how to project her. Now I regard the consciousness revealed in your sentences as the product of a long, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious observation of the world. And a question of how to represent it. In other words, we don’t just want a cat, we want the cat at every moment. When it’s doing its Halloween dance, arching its back, when it’s playing the base, licking itself below. And how do we make something that is not single, but many?
Gass: Oh, yes, you learn the ideal. But it was at the same time that Rilke was working that other people were teaching the same lessons in Paris—Cézanne was teaching it, Gertrude Stein was learning this from Flaubert and Cézanne. And so was Rilke. This is what Rodin was teaching Rilke—that in order to draw a person in a moment, you had to know the whole thing. Now the whole thing can’t be crowded in in every sentence. But the way you write has to be informed by knowing all these other things, which you do not explicitly put in. This of course is something that painters understand perfectly. And then Rilke was finally understanding it.
Silverblatt: A lot of Rilke’s triumphs are also kind of trashy. There was a whole tendency in American poetry to make the inanimate come alive—it used to be called Midwestern Surrealism. The bones and feathers poetry. The movement beyond the misuse of metaphysical ideas—at what point can it become a triumphant art, as it surely does in the case of Rilke?
Gass: I think it does for most poets. I think that’s largely what poetry is made up of: a misuse of ideas. That if you took them out of the poetic realm, and started to examine them they’d come apart in a minute. What makes them exemplary is that they catch, indeed, how we feel. How we often feel about things is the animistic way. Bachelard has written of these things in The Poetics of Space and The Philosophy of No. What Bachelard was dealing with was the sense that as we grow up, we pass through an animistic period. And that stays with us. But of course we have to pass it on from this. But in the poetic realm, this animistic part, Bachelard argues, is the supreme part. So what we are, in the scientific realm is constantly moving, stage after stage, into higher abstractions. More mathematical realizations. A more complex and intellectual construction. Whereas in the poetic world we’re moving always back to the sense of the world that is alive, that makes sense because it has its wishes and desires just as we do. And with whom we can have a really intimate, warm, and angry relationship. There’s something immensely comforting about that. About the sense of seeing everything with the kind of respect that, say, a glass, has that we reserve for people. When that glass becomes a work of art, we treat it better than we treat people. And one of the reasons, I think, is that Rilke’s arguing that the work of art has more being. And it has more being because the highest consciousness of human beings has been put into it in the way it has been formed. So then, in that famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the Torso says, even though it’s broken, it has no head, no genitals, no legs, no arms. It says, nevertheless, to the viewer, “I’m more real than you are. You must change your life.”
Silverblatt: At a certain point in the making of abstractions, or the concretizing of abstraction, you built a “Temple of Texts.” It was comprised of 50 pillars, and those 50 pillars were the works that had influenced you, that hold up the temple of literature. In your holy of holies—the center of the temple—you put four Rilke pillars. The texts are The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; The Duino Elegies; The Sonnets De Orpheus; and Rilke’s letters. Each of these, in your temple, was accompanies by a paragraph of explanation. This is William H. Gass reading his description of the Rilke texts that are at the very center of the temple of his influences:
Gass: Yes, this is about The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: “There have been books that have struck me like lighting and left me riven, permanently scarred, perhaps burned-out but picturesque; and there have been those that created complete countries with their citizens, their cows, their climate, where I could choose to live for long periods while enduring, defying, enjoying their scenery and seasons; but there have been one or two I came to love with a profounder and more enduring passion, not just because, somehow, they seemed to speak to the most intimate ‘me’ I knew but also because they embodied what I held to be humanly highest, and were therefore made of words which revealed a powerful desire moving with the rhythmic grace of Blake’s ‘Tyger’; an awareness that was pitilessly unsentimental, yet receptive as sponge; feelings that were free and undeformed and unashamed; thought that looked at all its conclusions and didn’t blink; as well as an imagination which could dance on the heads of all those angels dancing on that pin. I thought that the Notebooks were full of writing which met that tall order. Of the books I have loved (and there are so many, many more than I could have collected here), from the electrifying alliterations of Piers Plowman (“Cold care and cumbrance has come to us all”) to the sea-girt singing of Derek Walcott’s ‘Omeros,’ there has been none which I would have wished more fervently to have written than this intensely personal poem in prose, this profound meditation on seeing and reading—on reading what one has seen, on seeing what one has read.”
Silverblatt: William Gass reading from his holy of holies, the four tributes to Rilke. We’ve been listening to a conversation with William H. Gass on the subject of Rilke, the formation of identity, the changing of identity to image, of image to abstraction, of abstraction to a rendering of prose. And we have watched how the many things he learns from Rilke enters the style of his appreciations. So that we watch a transformation occur from a person to a spirit, from a spirit to a style, from a style to an influence, and an influence to an alert to a writer of great singularity, and to my mind the most wonderful developed American prose that I know, the prose of my guest, William H. Gass.
Originally broadcast on “Bookworm” (November 11, 2004). Republished with permission.