The Washington Post
A Temple of Textsby William H. Gass
Winner of the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, "A Temple of Texts" is the latest critical collection from one of America's greatest essayists and novelists. Here, William H. Gass pays homage to the readerly side of the literary experience by turning his critical sensibility upon all the books that shaped his own development as a reader, writer, and
Winner of the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, "A Temple of Texts" is the latest critical collection from one of America's greatest essayists and novelists. Here, William H. Gass pays homage to the readerly side of the literary experience by turning his critical sensibility upon all the books that shaped his own development as a reader, writer, and human being. With essays on figures ranging from William Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein to Flann O'Brien and Robert Burton, Gass creates a "temple" of readerly devotion, a collection of critical explorations as brilliant and incisive as readers have come to expect from this literary master, but also a surprisingly personal window into the author's own literary development.
The Washington Post
"No one is better than William H. Gass at communicating the sublime and rapturous excitement of reading."-Washington Post
Dalkey Archive Press
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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A Temple of Texts
By William H. Gass
Random HouseWilliam H. Gass
All right reserved.
To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics
I'm here to tell you--speaking through the glass, between the bars, by slow post, in the babelous halls of the Academy--what you would like to hear: why, in doing what you've done, you've done the right thing.
They say you have been reading, even studying, the classics. You have been doing this at a time when not only are the classics regarded by many as one cause of our wretched world's unjust condition but at a time when the very word classic has become suspect, and is used most neutrally now to qualify old cars in good condition or to single out products stuck in an agreeable rut while the world furiously alters around them, such as Classic Saran Wrap or Classic Coke, although original is more frequently preferred, along with old-fashioned, to describe the Colonel's original recipe, or dad's best girl before she became his ball and chain.
When coined in the reign of Servius Tullius during the sixth century b.c., it meant the group, among citizens, to be called upon first; that is, during a time of war, the strongest, boldest, bravest, most fit to fight; while, when the state faced choices of difficulty and moment, the wisest, most temperate, and fair; so that then, when it was used of writers, it referred to those of the first rank, and also, by an obvious step, to their works. Therefore it should now designate, with regard to the education of a citizenry still concerned with their community, the books that have most completely represented and embodied its culture, as well as those that will best instruct, enlarge, and ennoble the mind, discipline the passions, and encourage a useful and respectful approach to experience.
A classic in its field is a work with which one should begin if one expects to master its subject; something that is therefore seminal, not only begetting more books that take it as their topic but also one that contains the discipline's founding principles, or serves as the starting point for its exploration, as Jefferson City, Missouri, once did for wagons entering our uncharted West. Even if you are in determined opposition to some traditional position, it is with the classic text you must begin the fight, though if the fight is to be fair, you must accept the risk, implicit in the inequality of the contest, of defeat, and of a turn to your heart, and of a change to your mind.
Literary classics break new ground, instigate change, or establish fresh standards of value, enlarging the scope of the canon, discovering new qualities of excellence, and confirming the importance of range, depth, mastery, and perfection in any artistic activity. It is instructive to observe that those who have carefully cultivated such a field of endeavor are not after yield per acre, but excellence per inch.
Oddly enough, people have always distrusted the classics, but it is now publicly acceptable to take pride in such distrust. We all dislike intimidation, so we worry about being overwhelmed by these tomes above which halos hover as over the graves of the recently sainted, because we wrongly believe they are fields full of esoteric knowledge worse than nettles, of specialized jargon, seductive rhetoric, and swarms of stinging data, and that the purpose of all this unpleasantness is to show us up, put us in our place, make fun of our lack of understanding; but the good books are notable for their paucity of information--a classic is as careful about what it picks up as about what it puts down; it introduces new concepts because fresh ideas are needed; and only if the most ordinary things are exotic is it guilty of a preoccupation with the out-of-the-way, since the ordinary, the everyday, is their most concentrated concern: What could be more familiar than a child rolling for fun down a grassy slope--that is, when seen by Galileo, a body descending an inclined plane? What could be more commonplace than Bertrand Russell's penny, lying naked on an examining table, awaiting the epistemologist's report on the problems of its perception? What could be less distinguished a subject for Maynard Keynes's ruminations on the source of its value than such a modest coin? Why should the question--What good is that?--alarm us, or why, in an age when most of the world worships money but calls its chosen God Father instead of Chairman, Lord instead of Coach, Most High instead of Star, should we shy from the same questions Plato asked, and not ask them about our business, about our love affairs, about our lip-served gods, about democracy?
Classics are by popular accord quite old and therefore out of date; while by the resentful they are representative only of the errors of their age, their lines sewn always on the bias, their authors willing tools of power and unjust privilege. Odd, then, that the good books were usually poisons in their time, when those biased pages were burned, those compliant authors jailed, and their ideas deemed diseases of the worst kind--corruptions of the spirit--to be fought with propaganda first, followed by prison, fire and firing squad, the gallows and the stake, all at the behest of the powers in place--majesties, Popes, czars, sultans, CEOs, and CIAs--the writers' names made to stand for Machiavellian casts of character, Marxian acts of mischief, Humean disbelief, and not for the clear-eyed hard-boiled arguments, exposures, revelations, condemnations, and realities their works contained.
The good books are the fruit of the tree of knowledge all right, and the devil is always offering us another fellow's damned opinion, which, were we to sample it, might cause the scales to fall from our eyes, so to see suddenly that king and queen, God and all the angels, are naked, shivering, and in sore need of shoes. That is why just one good book, however greatly good, when used to bludgeon every other, turns evil; why we should be omnivorous: try kale, try squid, try rodent on a spit, try water even though there's wine, try fasting even, try--good heavens!--rice with beans. The good books are cookbooks and good readers read them, try them, stain their pages, adjust ingredients, pencil in evaluations, warn and recommend their recipes to friends.
I think it is usually wise to approach a contemporary work with skepticism; it is the new work's task to establish its authority, to persuade you to believe in its essential worth whatever strange or commonplace thing it may say or do. With a classic, the situation is otherwise. Arnold Bennett once wrote a little book he called Literary Taste, a work of such immense good sense, it surprised me, for I did not expect it from a devoted follower of Zola's naturalism, an Edwardian down to his steam yacht. It is a book of admirably blunt assurance. He informs his readers, and there were many, that "your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point. If you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book." Bennett is talking about taste--the perception of excellence--not about truth. Regarding the truth, you are earnestly entreated to differ. Appreciation is Bennett's subject and reading's desired result. If you do not admire the writings of Thomas Hobbes, it is not Hobbes whose ghost now has to feel uneasy. Of course, adjustments must always be made. It may be that in a state of nature, since it is a state of war, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, but in our present state of mediocrity, it is cowardly, shallow, tedious, banal, and uselessly drawn out.
The good books provide us with the most varied of intellectual diets, and not liking broccoli or squid or beets or brains or kidneys or kohlrabi is not permitted the cultivated palate, nor is a disdain for Pascal, which I confess I have, nor a dislike for Saint Paul, despite his disagreeable ideas, nor a failure to appreciate the sublime vision of Plotinus and to shiver at his ecstatic yet melancholy summation of the highest spiritual life of man--with its unbearable lightness of being--as "detachment from all things here below, scorn of all earthly pleasures, and flight of the alone to the alone." The healthy mind goes everywhere, one day visiting Saint Francis, another accepting tea from Celine'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--before taking a hard-earned vacation in the warm and luscious fictions of Colette. You will live longer and better by consuming deliciously chewy fats and reading Proust than by treadmilling to a Walkman tune and claiming to be educated because you peruse the Wall Street Journal and have recently skimmed something by Tom Wolfe.
Nothing too much but everything a little bit--this describes the classic diet. One needs a bit of Wittgenstein to balance all that Hegel, a dash of Chekhov to counter Dostoyevsky, and some Sterne to maintain one's sanity after a series of unscheduled encounters with Sir Walter Scott. It is a blessed variety, like that of a blooming garden: so many ways to grow, to be fruitful, to captivate, to soothe, and to be beautiful.
Emerson understood well the importance of keeping company with greatness, for you cannot improve your chess game by playing against those whom you can speedily put to rout; only when you take on opponents who can give you a sound thrashing will you learn how to win with grace. Yet, what is the goodness that makes the good books good? That confers this greatness on the great ones? Whence comes the character of "the classic" that gives it that cachet?
They glow because their authors are such fine, upstanding people from the best families, graduates of the most expensive schools, and representative of the nobler classes. When I was your age, we would have said to that suggestion: in a pig's ear. Do you see a halo hanging over Heidegger's head? Their authors are murderers, thieves, traitors, mountebanks, misogynists, harlots, womanizers, idlers, recluses, sots, sadists, liars, snobs, lowlifes resentful of any success, vicious gossips, gamblers, addicts, ass-lickers, parvenues, whose pretenses to nobility were (and are) notorious: for instance, the clown whose father was a highland peasant named Balssa, lately come to town, and who renamed himself Balzac after an ancient noble family, and finally put a "de" before it, as if he were parking a Rolls in front of a tenement in the belief it might cause the johns to flush--a house, when Henry James paid a visit to Tours to take in the birthplace, he found to have been recently built but already a ruin, a row house that could at least have had the dignity, he said, to be "detached"--yes, a cheap pretender, this Balzac, who would go on to create a world more orderly than God's, almost as complete, and from beginning to end in better words, commencing with the fact that they were French. How about alleging that they glow because the good books uphold the finest ethical examples, support the highest values, display the most desirable attitudes? The way The Inferno is a testimonial to forgiveness? Or the Iliad a paean to pacifism? And by such edifying examples of revenge or the pleasure of killing an enemy, morally improving their readers, agenbiting their inwits, bestirring them to love their neighbors a bit better than themselves. Well, up a donkey's rear to that, too. One of the many lessons our great teachers, the Nazis, taught us is that no occupation, no level of society, of wealth or education, no profession, no religious belief, no amount of talent, intelligence, or aesthetic refinement can protect you from fascism's virus, not to mention a dozen others. It is not a contradiction for the Chaucer scholar to beat his wife, especially if she resembles the Wife of Bath.
Okay. So the glow of the good books is the glow of truth: That's why we read them, why we treasure a play like Hamlet or a poem like Faust or a treatise like Aristotle's Physics. Oh sure. There's another bit of nonsense to blow out your nose. The human world has always been one of violent disagreement. This disagreement may have its source in the simple determination of who shall get what, but it expresses itself in a quarrel of customs, disputes among doctrines, in bigotry, calumny, profanation, in tribal, religious, and racial hatreds. Moreover, this divisive plurality of opinion is not just between one man and another or one segment of society or political party or sect and another, but between one era and another, one civilization and another, one way of life and--not another, but--all the others.
Just as we find formerly forged links between languages that are now apparently different, and can group them into families, some quarrelsome, some benign, we can also collect cultural opinions and practices into cliques or classes or covens; but these similarities will not save us from their contradictions, any more than folks in families stop shouting, needling, or knifing one another the moment they recognize their connections. No line is cut, no blood is spilled, more readily, more frequently, with more ardor, than the bloodline. Saturn swallowed his children because he could do it; other fathers must resort to more ordinary methods of domination and revilement. Mothers kill their children oftener than strangers do, and a brother begins to hate his brother before that brother's born.
The opposing sides of a contradiction may both be false, we know, but only one of them can possibly be true, and this simple certainty ensures that most claims, among the Wars of the Words, are without truthful merit; that when ways of life brag of their correctness, they make such boasts against the chances; and how shall we choose between the Aztecs and the Romans, the Zoroastrians and the Hindus, or among one of seven saviors, or select from the myriad descriptions of the world, which no more resemble it than our fat aunt's hat, the one we want to wear? No, the good books don't sing harmony. They cannot be good because of that.
But in them, comprising them--as the atom the molecule, the molecule the compound--there are more sentences than people alive in this world, sentences that exhibit a range of savors surpassing your spice rack.
Excerpted from A Temple of Texts by William H. Gass Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
William H. Gass—essayist, novelist, literary critic—was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He has been the recipient of the first PEN/Nabokov Award, the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamondstein Award for the Art of the Essay, three National Book Critic Circle Awards for Criticism, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, the Award for Fiction and the Medal of Merit for Fiction from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He lives in St. Louis.
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