12 Winters Blog

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

—-.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 2007.  Print.

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: