William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“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”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.
If judging a book by its title, a reader might opine that Where Art Belongs, the eighth volume in Semiotext(e)’s “intervention series” would include: a consideration of spaces and contexts conducive to creativity and also art making, a list of places that inhibit art appreciation or stifle creativity, as well as, a discussion of the aforementioned spaces, places, and contexts, that leads to a conclusion of where, in fact art belongs.
However, Chris Kraus’s book by this very-same title does not offer manifestos, sweeping judgments, prescriptions, nor proscriptions. Kraus’s nuanced approach is more akin to a cultural anthropologist who considers creativity in its natural habitats, the spaces where art comes into being; where collaborative and destructive energies merge to mount momentary feats of brilliance; where repetitive, nearly obsessive photographs of landscapes shot through windshields of moving cars, or within New York apartments (dust bunnies included) form an oeuvre; where absence lends presence; where words equal art, and art envelops all.
It seems that Kraus believes no space is entirely barren, or incapable of sparking inspiration. For example, she examines the creativity of American Apparel founder Dov Charney, and aligns his creative corporate vision with the 1960’s artists collective Chia Jen, or The Family, as described by member (and choreographer) Simone Forti: “The life we lived in common provided a matrix for the profuse visions we lived out in various twilights.” Kraus posits that in contemporary culture, corporations like Charney’s may channel creative energy that once resided solely within art’s realm, and in doing so become a kind of art. She goes on to say:
From its manufacturing philosophy of vertical integration to its marketing and the deliberate location of its gallery-esque stores in urban neighborhoods on the cusp of gentrification, American Apparel resonates against the economic and psychogeographic state of the culture like a gigantic work of conceptual art. As an artwork, it is breathtakingly brilliant in ambition and scope.
Kraus shows that the contemporary world is linked by unlikely connections–a world where prison laborers make computer keyboards that generate profits for a corporation that funds a foundation, a foundation which, in turn, supplies mosquito-netting to an African country to prevent malaria on a grand scale. Tracing such disparate connections is an art unto itself. With technology, distance has collapsed, and with physical distance, other barriers and demarcations, too. Commercial products now mimic conceptual art, in that “far more creativity goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves.”
This diminishment of the object as a commercial product parallels the disappearance of the object from the work of art, as Kraus states: “all art is now conceptual, deriving value through context, at a second remove.” Disappearance also figures significantly in Kraus’s essay “No More Utopias,” which examines the work of performance artists Bas Jan Ader and Elke Krystufek. In 1975, Jan Ader disappeared while crossing the Atlantic on a solo voyage to Europe–he was completing the third and final act of his performance piece, In Search of the Miraculous. The grand myth of Ader’s disappearance has informed Krystufek’s work, and provided her with inspiration. From the beginning, Krystufek’s artwork has been marked by her excessive and extravagant appearance, in countless self-portraits, and later in hybrid portraits/self portraits of figures like Lenny Bruce and Katherine Mansfield, whose physiognomy blends with Krystufek’s. However, Kraus notes that in some of Kryustefk’s most recent work, she does not appear. Instead she follows a man with her camera, and chooses to document decorative style over human figures. Kraus doesn’t state this outright, but by drawing the comparison she leads the reader to consider how Krystufek’s identification with Ader may have influenced her withdrawal from her own work.
In Where Art Belongs Kraus performs a parallel disappearing act. She has played prominent roles in both her fiction and in Video Green, her first book of essays on art, which also chronicles her California life, her dominant/submissive practices with various boyfriends and lovers, her housekeeper’s incapacitation from AIDS, and even ties in details about tenants. And in her first novel, I Love Dick, Kraus’s namesake, Chris, is the lead character, who develops an obsession with a prominent art school theorist, an obsession which she channels into letter writing and collaboration with her husband on how to best seduce Dick, which in turn becomes a kind of performance art. Kraus often creates intimacy through self-revelation and prostration on the page, and part of her genius resides in masking where reality cedes to fiction.
However, in Where Art Belongs, Kraus stands back from the narrative. Her opinions, personal interjections, and asides pepper the essays, and she appears in an essay about the Sex Workers Art Show, but she allows for distance. It seems that she riffs off Ader’s disappearance, Krystufek’s transformation, and also the subtlety of photographer Moyra Davey’s self revelations. Kraus admires the way Davey reveals herself, specifically the way she deals with her chronic illness. Kraus compares this to how Walter Benjamin writes grief: “ Davey’s writing is informed by illness, but it isn’t about illness. Life, as Deleuze once observed, isn’t personal. Davey offers herself as a protagonist to lead us towards recognitions that arise in a heightened intellectual/emotional state through correspondence.”
In Davey’s essay, “Notes on Photography and Accident,” Davey claims her writing process is like a photographer’s: “I go out into the world of other people’s writing and take snapshots. These ‘word-pictures,’ like Benjamin’s ‘pearls’ and ‘corals,’ have Sontag’s ‘talismanic’ quality, and from them I can make something.” If there is one guiding force in the art Kraus examines–whether it’s Davey’s gathering of fragments, or the collaborative elements of collectives like Bernadette Corporation and Tiny Creatures, or even American Apparel–it’s the emergence of an organic creativity, of collaborative generation, of making art from the unexpected and improvising, of reveling in the chaos of art, of life.
Kraus opens Where Art Belongs with an essay on the Tiny Creatures Gallery in Los Angeles, and this essay begins with founder Janet Kim‘s Tiny Creatures Manifesto: “Tiny Creatures is not a gallery. It is Tiny Creatures. / Tiny Creatures is not a venue. It is Tiny Creatures.” Art is one grand experiment; it is generative, not sterile, forced, or overly refined. In this aspect, Kraus aligns Tiny Creatures with bohemias of generations past, from the East Village of the ’80s to other earlier “artistic experiments of the last half century.” The spirit remains the same, it’s only the spaces and contexts that change. Kraus mentioned that she began to write about Tiny Creatures after the gallery closed, but says it was significant that she spoke to the members while their stories were still “unsanitized.” And while institutions, art museums, and corporations may be easy stand-ins for sterility, Kraus’s investigation also demonstrates how creativity will resurge in unlikely spaces, how it will burrow in and burgeon wonderfully, like brilliant flowers growing between sidewalk cracks.
Ed SimonJune 10, 2016 | 3 books mentioned623 min read
In the writing of Willa Cather, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Chabon, Stewart O’Nan, and Ellen Litman we see a fuller expression of the raw energy of Pittsburgh than one does in the simple platitudes of official civic boosters.
We have in the past noted the paucity of books about football among sports writing’s most cherished tomes (though there have been a few). Even in the list of “The Best Sports Journalism Ever” that I posted recently, there was only a single football piece represented (the Plimpton), and it is only obliquely about football. So, when I saw The Week (one of my favorite magazines) had highlighted not one but four football books in its most recent issue, I thought it worth noting. They are: Boys Will Be Boys by Jeff Pearlman about the hard partying Cowboys during the team’s dynasty of the 1990s; Giants Among Men by Jack Cavanaugh harks back to the New York Giants of the ’50s and ’60s and looks at football as it was in a much different era; War as They Knew It by Michael Rosenberg covers the Michigan versus Ohio State football rivalry during the tumultuous 2970s on college campuses; and Playing the Enemy by John Carlin is not quite about football but brings to light how a single rugby game in South Africa helped the country begin healing as apartheid ended.Meanwhile, in the comments of the original sports writing post, bdr mentions a pair of books that give the literary treatment to that other, other football: soccer.”(Excellent) novelist Tim Parks wrote a book about following Serie A squad Hellas Verona around Italy for a season (as they tried to avoid relegation – unsuccessfully) with its hardest-core fans called A Season with Verona, that’s terrific.”Philip Ball, who covers soccer for The Guardian, wrote a book about Spain, Spanish history, and how it all plays out in Spanish football called Morbo that’s even better.”