12 Winters Blog

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.

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