A Temple of Texts: Essays by William H. Gass

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the fall of 2004, William H. Gass delivered a lengthy address as part of the Lannan Foundation’s “Readings & Conversations” series. The essayist, novelist, and critic took listeners through eight of what he called his writerly preoccupations—metaphoring and preaching among them—and read passages from several of his books to illustrate his points. Nearing the lecture’s end, just after reading a harrowing Holocaust passage from his novel The Tunnel, Gass broke from his textual tour to make a larger statement about the origins of inhumanity.

I have taught philosophy, in one or another of its many modes, for 50 years, Plato my honey in every one of them. Yet many of those years had to pass before I began to realize that evil actually was ignorance, as he and Socrates had so passionately taught. That most beliefs were bunkum. And that the removal of bad beliefs was as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision was to the body it imperiled. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse than having a nose full of flu. And when I see the joggers at their numbing runs, I wonder if they ever exercise their heads, or understand what the diet of their mind does to their consciousness.

It is a fitting passage to have in mind when first entering the 81-year-old’s newest essay collection, A Temple of Texts, a book that in some ways resembles a workout video for those found more often in the stacks than on a track. Throughout the book’s 25 essays, Gass is the champion—sometimes joyful, sometimes harsh—of intellectual fitness. For him, reading is a form of aerobics. It is a demanding, exertive, physical act, and as such it stretches, tones, and conditions those who are turning the pages.

In the collection’s first essay, the previously unpublished “To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics,” Gass outlines the course one might take to remain mentally vigorous. “The healthy mind goes everywhere,” he writes, “one day visiting Saint Francis, another accepting tea from Céline’s bitter pot—ask for two sugars, please—and hiking many a hard mile through Immanuel Kant or the poetry of Paul Celan—a pair who will provide a better workout than the local gym.” Describing his first encounter with Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, Gass appears like a boxer wobbling on a corner stool. “I remember the room, the chair, the failing light in which I began the book,” he writes, describing a round-two rereading that went “right on through the night, in an actual sweat of wonder and revelation I would experience with this work and no other. My stomach held the text in its coils as if I had swallowed the pages.”

Books as nutrition: He champions this as well. Gass recalls first reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a child. “I knew now what was real, and I would never forget it,” he writes. “I began to eat books like an alien worm.” He hasn’t stopped. In the essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” Gass leads us to a passage from Dickens: “One can browse this paragraph like a meadow, there is so much that is tender to be chewed.” A passage from John Hawkes “nourishes more certainly than lunch.” Of his close friend, the late Stanley Elkin, Gass gives a pre-meal instruction: “The mouth must work while reading him, must taste the intricate interlace of sound; wallow, as I now am, in the wine of the word.” Gass once provided a side-by-side comparison of a book and a bottle—“Books need to breathe, too,” he said in the address “On Reading To Oneself”—and indeed his pieces pack a punch of intoxication: they are exhilarating, stimulating, invigorating, and they can make you feel greater and wiser than you really are. Take this last paragraph of “To A Young Friend,” in which he wonders what kind of sustenance the classics provide:

They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.

If you feel at all like this ‘you’ is you—a lover of literature and libraries—you should be at home in A Temple of Texts, Gass’s most literature-focused collection. It includes several forewords, introductions and afterwords Gass wrote for against-the-odds novels (Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds; Robert Coover’s The Public Burning; John Hawkes’s Humors of Blood & Skin), as well as his review of a book of just those types of front- and back-matter writings. In the last of those, Gass feels surprisingly unconcerned dropping disparaging conclusions—“Introductions are usually a lot of baloney”—without ever mentioning his own slices recently served.

There are other reviews as well, and their rewards for the reader are informational—we learn a great deal about the authors and the times in which the books were born—as well as critical and interpretive; Gass’s ability to distill a book’s essence is matched by few. Gabriel Garcîa Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for instance, is “about the impotent revenges of the impotent….about the heart blowing to bits from the burden of its own beat”; Coover’s prose is “occasionally leisurely, like a sailing ship, bobbing along on the waters of history, but then it will shift suddenly into high gear, zip away, and rocket off”; O’Brien’s books are like food processors: “Actual things were inserted into them and whirled about and chewed and chopped into the consistency of fiction, whereupon the mix would be poured into the world again, real once more but altered altogether”; François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel “will appear wooly and rough, its course haphazard, but its sense is consistent, unified, pure yet iridescent, as though silk had swallowed water, and it has been set down more in weeping than in writing, more in despair than glee, more when sober than when drunk.” This is a reader who truly enters the sentences in front of him, who remains fiercely alert and committed to describing what it’s like inside.

Gass’s highest, most personal praise is saved for those he called friends: William Gaddis, John Hawkes, and Stanley Elkin. The essay “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books” includes Gass’s previously published introduction to The Recognitions, but also two new personal pieces, the first a travel image of the two authors in Russia and the second a memorial. The latter, in part, describes the effect that novel had on its author and readers:

So in the absence of the author, in the absence of the audience, we, the faithful, did create an icon, and make the sudden appearance of this skull-busting, heartbreaking book—its sordid reception, the ensuing silence—into an emblematic cause célèbre; because what The Recognitions proved was that great ambitions were still possible, were not just instances of romantic futility; that the real, the original, the genuine work of art could be accomplished; that the novel was not dead, as many liked to think, but had only taken a brief nap, a short snooze; that the book’s bleak outlook could be shared with something like a wry smile rather than the suicidal funk the sad seaminess of its worldview suggested.

In his tribute to Hawkes, Gass declares that we “are disordered, arthritic fingers without palms,” and deems Hawkes the master reader of those long-gone palms: “Who has rendered this condition more ruthlessly than Hawkes has, or furnished our barren countrysides with their hanging trees and human sluices more honestly, yet with wealth, with the attention one lover has for another? For his work has always refused ruin in the act that has depicted it, and his life’s labor was the joyful showing forth and celebration of such a healing art.”

Celebrated most movingly is Stanley Elkin, Gass’s colleague at Washington University in St. Louis. Included here are Gass’s introductions to The Franchiser and The Living End, as well as a tribute that touches on Elkin’s battle with multiple sclerosis. But here, as elsewhere, Gass is most concerned with the quality of the work that has been produced. He writes that Elkin “goes on loving the [world’s] menace and the waste, the tacky, cheap, lovelorn, gimcrack life our modern lot has all too often come to.” He continues:

[A]ll of it—our whole cornpone commercial culture—becomes so transformed by Elkin’s attention, his love and his writing, so changed, altered beyond any emblem, that even an enemy of crud such as I esteem myself to be—grim, bitter, and unforgiving—is won over, and I walk through the dime store in a daze of delight.

Perhaps that is the Gass you’ve heard of: grim, bitter, unforgiving. It is a reputation he enjoys encouraging. And on no subject is he more unforgiving that he is on religion, specifically dogmatic ideologies that he believes drain the brain. “We shall systematically constrain the minds of our children to ensure that, though tight and small, they will have the right shape,” he wrote in the collection Finding a Form (1996). In Tests of Time (2002), Gass capped several critical remarks of monotheism with a straightforward, if sweeping, statement: “Faithifizers are dangerous. History tells us so.”

For Gass, though religion is always inferior to truth and reason, the subject itself is fascinating. It was the International Writers Center he founded and led, after all, that hosted “The Writer and Religion” conference in St. Louis in 1994. Participants included J.M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, and William Gaddis, and the presentations included “The Fundamentalist Challenge” and Gass’s own essay “Sacred Texts,” which is reprinted in this new collection. What the author finds dangerous about so-defined sacred texts is “their sophistical methods of argument, and consequent abandonment of reason, their rejection of testing and debate, and their implicit disparagement of experience, since they, not life as lived, contain all that really needs to be known.” They offer not exclusive revelations—how could they, as a ‘they’?—but rather impose ignorance, create conformity, contain contradictions, and offer illusions. “Fantasies cannot be refuted,” he writes near the essay’s end. “We may tire of them; they may lose their charm, effectiveness, or purpose, but you cannot bruise a cloud, only wait until it blows over.”

Faith and belief are dependably present in this collection’s remarkable essay “Evil,” published in Harper’s in 2004 as a review of Susan Neiman’s book Evil in Modern Thought. As he does in almost any non-fiction piece he writes, Gass turns this essay into a tour of intellectual history. In this single piece, the reader meets Kant, Milton, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Plato, Prometheus, Hobbes, Lawrence, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Newton, Erasmus, Montesquieu, Swift, Pope, Rilke, and Goethe. They have been summoned for a discussion of the two “ontological sizes” of the problem of evil: the first is factual (Does evil exist? What are its causes?); the second, philosophical (How should we define evil? What is its justification?). Replayed on the essay’s pages are the Lisbon earthquake, Cambodia, Rwanda, 9/11, and the Holocaust, with Gass taking special interest in our responses to these disasters. “Following the Final Solution, God’s apologists had a lot of explaining to do,” he writes. “Humanists were equally shamefaced. A few threw up their hands. Wasn’t it futile to speak of morality after such a failure of morality? Nevertheless, a thousand thumbs were thrust into the dike. Excuses were released like birthday balloons.”

Continuing, Gass states that many people believe in “Providence and its Overseer, but when a tornado blows away the trailer park they lived in, they thank God for sparing them and congratulate themselves, neglecting to notice who the wolf was who sent the wind their way and flindered everything they treasured.” Since that piece was published, of course, the world has seen, among countless other tragedies, Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami in Asia. Coverage of both featured such statements, with The New York Times Magazine’s massive article “The Day the Sea Came In” ending by quoting a hand-made sign amid the devastation: “Thank you, Allah. The tsunami is a gift that has brought those we love to paradise.” Evil, Gass would say, is as man-made as that sign. “Nature’s built-in sanctions (men are mortal) inhibit no one,” he writes, “because there is always a brisk market for solace and the honey of future rewards.”

The centerpiece of this new collection is its title piece, “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars,” originally an exhibition and booklet created to inaugurate the International Writers Center in 1991. The ‘pillars’ are 50 books that helped shape William Gass the writer, and each one is listed and given a brief, colorful description. Gass prefaces this piece’s inclusion here with a short essay called “Influence,” intended to encourage readers not to view the Temple as a best-books list, but as a collection of those books that at that time had influenced him. There are only minor changes to the 1991 version—Invisible Cities has disappeared, and with it this gem on Italo Calvino: “He could organize a pudding”—and the author has retained the fresh language of a document that was reportedly produced in a rush.

Touring the Temple, it is great fun not only to be in the presence of such personal material—we see a pint-sized Gass trying and failing to check out Ulysses from his library—but also to hear someone who has consumed thousands of books offer decidedly definitive statements. Of Paul Valéry: “No writer I know, writing on any subject, demonstrates such a perfect power of discrimination.” Of Hobbes: “The prose is unequaled in English philosophy.” Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is “the greatest work of literary criticism ever,” while Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is “the high-water mark of Modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.”

Above and beyond all these names, though, is Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Gass once deemed “as close to me as any human being has ever been.” This book certainly makes clear why. The Temple’s inner chambers are given to Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, and collected letters, and the book features two additional essays on the poet, each one learned and absorbing. First is “Rilke’s Rodin,” which chronicles the ways in which those two artists’ styles and artistic identities were forming in each other’s presence. The essay was originally published in 2004 as the introduction to Rilke’s excessively admiring monographs on the sculptor, for whom he briefly worked. And second, there is “Rilke and the Requiem,” a long and challenging exploration of how death and friends and ghosts haunt and influence the poet’s work. Gass offers incisive commentary on specific lines—compellingly placing “Requiem on the Death of a Boy” into Rilke’s own life—and more general, larger ideas about art. For instance, Gass writes that most poets fail

because they bewail their state instead of describing it; they evaluate their feelings instead of forming them; and although they believe their joys and sorrows should be known, they are unable or unwilling to transform their consciousness into an adequate poetic language, they fail to make of their poem ‘a thing’ that can sit in the world as fat and steamy as a teapot…

This is one of William H. Gass’s greatest skills: articulating, and indeed celebrating how the finest artworks find a physical place in our lives. And in this, his most personal and generous essay collection, he does it so often and so magically that the book almost rattles when I carry it. A book is a bottle to consume, a bulb to illuminate, a can of spinach waiting to be opened.

Or, as Gass writes in this collection’s “A Defense of the Book,” a book is a bike: “You travel under your own power and proceed at your own pace, your riding is silent and will not pollute, no one is endangered by your journey—not frightened, maimed, or killed—and the exercise is good for you.”

That you is you. Gass’s bike seats two.

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