Friday, July 3, 2009


On this July 3, as America tunes up for its annual day of self-congratulatory symphonies, allow me to pre-emptively piss on the parades by presenting a few select passages from the always aphoristic and absurdly alliterative essays of William H. Gass:

"Our culture...desires men who will be willing to be mowed down in anonymous rows if need be, used up in families, in farms and factories, thrown away on the streets of sprawling towns, who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found."--Habitations of the Word

"Consciousness is all the holiness we have."--Habitations of the Word

"Theology, it appears, is one-half fiction, one-half literary criticism."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"...the chief point in life is to die of something and never for something if it can be helped."--Tests of Time

"Francis Bacon prosecuted his patron, Essex, for treason, and was found guilty himself of bribery and consequently expelled from court. Vianini was burned at the stake...At the hands of the Inquisition Giordano Bruno suffered the same painful fate. Nothing was ever done to Louisa May Alcott."--Tests of Time

"In every country, in every clime, regarding any rank or race, at any time and with little excuse, orthodoxy will act evilly toward its enemies. Survival is its single aim--that is, to rigidify thought, sterilize doubt, cauterize criticism, and mobilize the many to brutalize the few who dare to dream beyond the borders of their village, the walls of their room, the conventions of their community, the givens of some god, the mother-smother of custom, or the regimen of an outmoded morality--and even the Greatest Good itself could not fail to be bruised by such handling, and rapidly rot where the bruise had been."--Tests of Time

"One sign of a sound idea is its fearlessness."--Tests of Time

"Writers must reveal and accuse. It will happen naturally. No need to aim at some selected target. Writing well will put the writing in the bulls-eye."--Tests of Time

"When all is well, everyone is ill but will not know it."--Tests of Time

"Early on I learned that life was meaningless, since life was not a sign; that novels were meaningful because signs were the very materials of their composition. I learned that suffering served no purpose; that the good guys didn't win; that most explanations offered me to make the mess I was in less a mess were self-serving lies. Life wasn't clear, it was ambiguous; motives were many and mixed; values were complex, opposed, poisoned by hypocrisy, without any reasonable ground; most of passion's pageants were frauds, and human feelings had been faked for so long, no one knew what the genuine was; furthermore, many of the things I found most satisfactory were everywhere libelously characterized or their very existence was suppressed; and much of adult society, its institutions and its advertised dreams, were simply superstitions that served a small set of people well while keeping the remainder in miserable ignorance."--Finding A Form

"When I looked at man, I did not see a noble piece of work, a species whose every member was automatically of infinite worth and the pinnacle of Nature's efforts. Nor did history, as I read it, support such grandiose claims. Throughout human time, men had been murdering men with an ease that suggested they took a profound pleasure in it, and like the most voracious insect, the entire tribe was, even as I watched, even as I participated, eating its host like a parasite whose foresight did not exceed its greed. Hate, fear and hunger were the tribal heroes."--Finding A Form

"If life is hard, art is harder."--The World Within the Word

"If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey."--A Temple of Texts

"Yeats grew old disgracefully. It is the only way to go."--A Temple of Texts

"It seems incredible, the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams. That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber..."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"It is the principal function of popular culture--though hardly its avowed purpose--to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage. War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"Even Arnold Bennett noticed that we do not measure classics; they, rather, measure us. For most people it is precisely this that's painful; they do not wish to know their own nothingness--or their own potentialities either..."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"The artist is a lover, and he must woo his medium till she opens to him; until the richness in her rises to the surface like a blush."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

And to bring this Gassean litany to an end, one of my favorite quotes from Gass's great essayistic precursor, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."--from the essay "Circles"

Have an unsettled Fourth of July.

No comments: