Tests Of Timeby William H. Gass
In the first of three parts, Gass addresses literary matters and writers, and contemplates, among other things: the nature of narrative
In these fourteen witty and elegant essays, William Gass (“the finest prose stylist in America”—Steven Moore, Washington Post) writes about writing, reading, culture, history, politics, and public opinion.
In the first of three parts, Gass addresses literary matters and writers, and contemplates, among other things: the nature of narrative and its philosophical implications; experimental fiction and its importance; literary “lists” (including the currently controversial canon of western literature) and their use. In part two, Gass looks at social and political contretemps: the extent and cost of political influences on writers; the First Amendment, the Fatwa, and Salman Rushdie; our view of Germany, as in “How German are we?” Finally, Gass gives us a celebration of Flaubert and considers the problems of writing history.
Tests of Time is William Gass at his most dazzling. It is a high-wire act of thinking and writing that serves up what Vladimir Nabokov called an “indescribable tingle of the spine.”
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The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications
One: Telling Stories and Fashioning Fictions
Polemical Introduction During Which the Field Is Previewed and a Distinction Is Endeavored
Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration. Last week, Little Freddie saw a cartoon of "Jack and the Beanstalk" on television. He especially liked the giant, who frothed angrily at the mouth and whose nose, when he smelled the blood of that Englishman, took on the shape of a hound. The beans Jack got in exchange for the cow had smart-alecky faces on them, and Freddie enjoyed watching those faces register dismay when they were hurled into the garden by Jack's angry and emaciated mother.
In the tale Grandpa prefers (and will recite if he's asked), "hound" and "ground" do not rhyme. The way Grandpa tells it, the seeds sprout immediately and have thirty meters of twigs almost before the stalk leaves the . . . earth. The way I tell it, however, each scape grows so slowly that only generations later may a greatgreatgrandkid named Jack put a leg up on a limb. Aunt Cecile, who is a feminist, puts all the action underground, and has Jack climb down roots into the womb of the world. Perhaps the most popular account right now is by the rap group Faerie Boat, with its hypnotic bean counter's beat. At some point, we may decide that the telling has betrayed the tale and is no longer properly a version. Is it a version if we adopt the bean's point of view, for instance? if we set the story in Brooklyn and have the plant, like kudzu, consume the entireborough?
Every recital will be a version, but no version is the tale itself, which has by now taken its seat in the realm of Forms. I called upon the story of Jack and the beanstalk because the giant is clearly a henchman of the Demiurge. The way I tell it, the stalk pierces the clouds only after several centuries have elapsed, the giant is jolly and green and says please, and his hoard is composed of stocks and bonds.
Freddie asks Grandpa for the story because Grandpa gets on with it, which is what stories want, and what Freddie, who is a kid and impatient, also wants. The way I tell it, we watch the cow's milk dry up as slowly and in the same detail as a spill on the kitchen counter. The funny little man Jack meets on his way to sell the spavined creature has a beard I take an hour to describe. Stories fly like arrows toward their morals. Remember the Biblical story about Jonah?
Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me." But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
God doesn't care a sweet Smyrna fig for anything but results, so when Jonah runs away instead of doing the Lord's bidding, the Lord has him swallowed. What sort of fish? who knows? How does Jonah survive? who cares? But when Guy Davenport redoes the story, Jonah is said to have
a fine black beard, round as a basket. Though his carpetbags were neatly strapped and his clothes showed that he was an experienced traveler, there was a furtiveness in his eyes, as if there might be someone about whom he did not care to meet.
And Davenport tells us that Jonah's "body was inside the fish for three days, but his face looked from the fish's mouth, and he held on to its back teeth."
To begin with, stories break up the natural continuum of life into events. Next, stories arrange these segments in a temporal sequence, in order to suggest that whatever happens earlier is responsible for what happens later. The miraculous is naturalizedit's as easy as dreamingthe way the beans, the stalk, and the giant are given residence in the world, or as the fish is, with its finicky appetite. In stories, all events tend to be given the same weight or value: the cow's milk dries up, the family starves, Jack goes to town to sell the creature, and so on. In a story, it won't do to say: after the battle of Waterloo I tied my shoe.
This linear movement always has an aimsave Mom from starvation, extend Israel's territories into Assyriaand when the story has a happy ending, aim and outcome are the same: Jack nabs the gold to pay for his mom's food habit, Jehovah acquires the treasures and devotion of a great city where six-score thousand persons live, and much cattle besides.
In stories, there are agents and actions; there are patterns; there is direction; most of all, there is meaning. Even when the consequences are tragic, there is a point; there is a message, a moral, a teaching. And that is a consolation. It is consoling to believe that our lives have a shape, a purpose and direction; that the white hats and the black hats have appropriate heads beneath them, and are borne about by bodies with the right souls inside; that there are historical entities, called events, which we can understand, periods which have cohesion and personalities all their own, causes we can espouse or oppose, forces we can employ, and so on.
Stories have to have a certain size. An arrow, to boast of flight, must fly awhile. Jonah is about as brief as one dare be. When Valery noted down an idea for a frightening story as "it is discovered that a cure for cancer is eating living human flesh: consequences," he knew he had only a germ, the seed of something which would probably grow past story into fiction; something we recognize as an idea for a Roger Corman movie. And when Tess Gallagher tells us Ray Carver took his copy of The Best American Short Stories to bed because he had a story in it, she has given us only an anecdotal sentence. Even here, the sort of anecdotal detail the sentence provides will depend upon the precise wording of its presentation, because, for example, taking a book to bed and taking a book into your bed don't point us in the same direction. How about: He took his book to bed and put it beneath his pillow, where, formerly, he kept a pistol? We are on our way at last.
But should we believe in the story's simple determinism, in its naive teleology, its easy judgments, its facile divisions of time, its Chutes and Ladders structure? especially when stories are morally devious. Their opening events are always an excuse, for the real aim of every story is a justification. Goldilocks is a teeny-trasher who wrecks the peaceful house of the three bears; Jack is a dim-witted and ungrateful thief who not only steals from the giant, who never did him any harm, but also chops down the vine which got him to the gold; God makes a fool of Jonah to satisfy His own greed for adulation and dominion. It was all Eve's fault, don't forget; the story of the Little Red Hen does not encourage Christian giving; Noah's ark discriminates against gays; and Clint Eastwood is allowed to kill all the redlegs he can catch after we've seen that opening sequence in which his wife, kids, and cat are raped, scalped, stolen, and murdered by them. But how about the story of the boy who cried "Wolf! Wolf!"? Well, it teaches us not to lie continuously to the same people. I've yet to meet a moral that really was.
Stories invent a world which isn't there. Stories are abstract and indifferent to detail. A story asks for the complicity of its readers, who share its ups and downs and tacitly approve the wickedness it wishes to justify. Histories do mostly the same thing: write up the past in a way that will authorize some present misbehavior. Stories try to keep us naive and trusting. Yes, indeed, they console us. They console us by shielding us from the truth. That is one reason the nineteenth-century novel was such a delight to the bourgeois. It was story glorified by fiction. These novels (many of them great as works of art) made lives dedicated to power and money, greed and oppression, when clothed in Christian morality and other pious superstitions, sincere and meaningful. Nobodies were made to feel like somebodies. There are those who would argue that that was a good thing, though nobodies they remained. These novels diligently described life as a lot of ladders to be climbed. Occasions like confirmations and schooling, engagements and marriage, children and promotions, raises and retirements, were simply rungs on the way to honor, ownership, and salvation, like Jack shinnying up his phallusquite a feat in itself.
Fictions, on the other hand, pull flashbacks and other tricks, fill their pages and the stories they pretend to tell with data: descriptions, expositions, conversations, digressions, monologues. There are characters with fictitious psychologies and fabricated pasts. There are chapters on the history of magic beans, explanations of why cows cease to yield, pauses which ask us to admire the beard we didn't know Jonah had. In his story he is an abstract instrument of God; in his fiction he is a false prophet.
It might be plausible to suppose, as Hilary Putnam does, that if we turn the crank on a certain character, he will project his world on the tabula rasa of our reading, as if the world were an inference and the inference were useful to us in our own; but the world of Celine's novels creates the character who presumably experiences them; there is no separation, and therefore there is no inference. The data of any fiction, without the style and structure of that fiction, cannot guarantee any kind of real consequences. As soon as a so-called truth is removed from a literary text, as it must be if it is to be of further use, it loses its predictive power. Only in Henry James, only Henry in his final manner, only in The Golden Bowl, only in this or that particular scene, can a set of consequences confidently come into view and be felt as inevitable; because, in fiction, such connections are established by the writing as a whole, and only by the writing as a whole; no amount of data diddling and systematizing will make its mechanical motions turn a wheel or plow a field. Or reasonably suggest a course of life.
Alliteration does more than candor can to justify God's ways to man.
We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. That is just another one of our problems, and one wonders will we ever grow up. But we do not tell ourselves fictions. Fictions are too complicated; often they are nearly as long as life itself. And the good ones are frequently just as puzzling, so we don't know what to believe finally about Madame Bovary any more than we know what to think of Father Mulrooney, who has been accused of molesting the pipe organ.
During Which a Genealogy of Narration Is Formally Begun
There is a good possibility that our fondness for narratives, as well as a great part of the structure of narratives themselves, derives from genealogy and the defining of kinship. Hesiod makes sense of the jumble of myths about the Greek gods by tracing their descent. Each beginning is a genesis, a begetting, and each such seedling later adopts precisely the shape of the tree of knowledge: the knowledge of whose kids are whose, and to whom they belongboys as bearers of the name and guarantors of tribal continuance, girls for intermarriage and other forms of trade.
The family tree will eventuallyit's hopeddescend like rain, each son establishing a new, though subordinate, beginning and each daughter connecting the family's fate with someone else's fortune. "I give you my daughter, you give me cows." The gods begin the same way their stories dowith the word.
This descent is therefore generational and linear, but the line, straight while contained within one life, and multiplebranchingas it expresses a family's spread, becomes cyclical the moment we allow our attention to shift from the father who has fathered to the son who will.
Myths of origin are the first genealogical narratives, and are laid out in a casual series. God is making man in His own image; the Demiurge is forming our world as a qualitative expression of quantitative law; dry lands are caused to emerge from the oceans as if they were models for swimsuit competitions; we make somehow, in our desperate imaginations, parents so we know where we came from, and we invent descents so we know what our history is: Gods, then heroes, then menages of gold are transmuted into those of bronze on their way to lead.
For Freud, illnesses are "fathered," often literally; everything important about a person originates within the family. The first disappointment becomes the model for all future disappointments; the first glimpse of something sensed to be sexual is tainted forever by the feelings it stirred; my stammer started, my vegetarianism has its roots, my preference for Republicans, as well as the day my heart first hardenedall are instigated in the family, tied to family figures, and are hence as tribal as the Sioux.
Time is thus the medium through which the first tales unfold, even if, as in Plato's Timaeus, Time itself (as the moving image of eternity) has to be created. Once . . . when? . . . upon a time.
Narrative is linear. It marches in moments from moment to moment. Although the telling of a tale may choose to begin at the ending and work back, as far as the story is concerned, there is a First Event, and this event is therefore privileged. The events which follow never follow at random, even though Goldilocks simply happens on the house of the three bears; Jack just bumps into the man who sells him his beans; Plato's shepherd, Gyges, rounding up his flock, fortuitously stumbles on the cleft where the strange corpse lies; Mary was merely resting by the window when the damage done by God's phallic light was announced.
The fact that Time can be envisioned only spatially, most often as an arrowed line, does not shake narration's faith in the string on which its episodes are strung.
If a story's strategy is based on seasonal cycles (plant propagation rather than the human kind), the time line is likely to be circular, time turning around on itself and its events repeating: the world is periodically consumed by fire, drowned by flood, or simply blown away in a wind, and everything then begins again.
Meet the Author
William H. Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the recipient of the first PEN/Nabokov Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, a Lanan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, a Medal of Merit for Fiction, an Award for Fiction from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from both the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He is the author also of Reading Rilke, Cartesian Sonota, and Finding a Form. He lives in St. Louis.
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