Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 19, 2006

A TEMPLE OF TEXTS

Essays

By William H. Gass

Knopf. 418 pp. $26.95

No one is better than William H. Gass at communicating the sublime and rapturous excitement of reading. This essayist, novelist and teacher is now in his eighties, and yet he still approaches books as if he were a young man hurrying to a rendezvous with a gorgeous older woman. When Gass describes the diction of Robert Burton or Gertrude Stein, the sentences of John Hawkes or Robert Coover, he shifts constantly between reverent awe and visceral eagerness, between a hunger for more and a touching sense of gratitude. Yes, gratitude , for how else can an encounter with great beauty leave us but feeling riven, blessed and thankful?

A Temple of Texts is Gass's sixth collection of essays; the first, Fiction and the Figures of Life , appeared in 1970 and proclaimed the arrival of a new master of the ornate style. While most writers make their sentences as plain and sturdy as Davy Crockett's buckskin, Gass prefers his to dazzle with sequined metaphors or clauses that spool out like silken scarves from a magician's top hat. And yet for all his linguistic virtuosity, he always manages to sound intimate, confessional, even vulnerable. I love her, he says of Gertrude Stein, defying those elders of the tribe who deem the writer's sentences impenetrable nonsense. Here Gass recalls his first evening with Stein's early classic, Three Lives . Listen:

"I remember the room, the chair, the failing light in which I began the book, going straight through from Anna to Lena and then rereading 'Melanctha' immediately after; reading right on through the night, in an actual sweat of wonder and revelation I would experience with this work and no other. My stomach held the text in its coils as if I had swallowed the pages. . . . Why hadn't I known long before reading Stein -- was I such a dunce? -- that the art was in the music -- it was Joyce's music, it was James's music, it was Faulkner's music; without the music, words fell to earth in prosy pieces, without the music, there was only comprehension, and comprehension may have been analysis, may have been interpretation, may have been philosophy, but it wasn't art; art was the mind carried to conclusions ahead of any understanding by the music -- the order, release, and sounding of the meaning."

In some of his essays -- several in his previous collections, Tests of Time and The Habitations of the Word -- Gass's more theoretical sallies can be dauntingly hard to follow just because of his verbal music, which spurns the carefully expository oom-pah-pah for a kind of freestyle jazz that seductively sashays around his theme. Gass just can't help it; he loves the sound and color of words, from the strutting verbs to the rutting copulatives. His visual metaphors, like compressed poems, effortlessly make us see the familiar with new eyes; his longer pieces sometimes -- like "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures" (in Tests of Time ) -- sometimes even come framed as experimental short stories.

Occasionally, Gass's relentless Technicolor leaves his page somewhat blurry to the casual, hurried reader, so just slow down. His best work, and that means most of it, possesses a pointillist beauty, a warmth of human feeling and an urgency like that of no other essayist alive. You read Gass on writers that matter, and you immediately wonder how you've managed to live this long without Rilke, Robert Walser, Thomas Hobbes, Colette, Julio Cortazar, Malcolm Lowry, Sir Thomas Browne, Erasmus or Italo Calvino.

A Temple of Texts provides the most seductive introduction to Gass's world of words, if only because it includes an annotated list of his favorite books. Originally published as a pamphlet (I am looking at my own copy now), "A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars" reprinted the extended captions accompanying an exhibition at Washington University in St. Louis, where Gass taught philosophy for many years. He tells us that he dashed off these 100 to 200-word notes in just a few days, but they are marvelous miniatures nonetheless. Each is essentially a love letter, a Valentine. Plato's dialogues, Gass forthrightly claims, "are among the world's most magical texts." Paul Valéry's Eupalinos is "my favorite essay." "Of the books I have loved . . . there has been none that I would have wished more fervently to have written" than Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge . Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End stands as "the most beautiful love story in our language." Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space offers "writing which gives me a warm feeling, like sunny sand between the toes." See what I mean? You want to run to a bookstore already.

Besides this desert-island library, A Temple of Texts offers full-length meditations on Rabelais, Flann O'Brien, and The Arabian Nights , on Rilke and Rodin, on evil and sacred writing, and on the learned humor of The Anatomy of Melancholy , the wisdom of The Praise of Folly , and the churchly music of Thomas Browne's somber, Latinate prose. Indeed, the collection as a whole is largely a defense of the classics, an honoring of high art and fine writing in an embattled time:

"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."

In some essays Gass can scarcely subdue his anger at the enemies of art and civilization. The cowboy jingoist and the fundamentally religious won't find his views to their taste, nor will those who worship at the altar of the Internet or sacrifice to the American idols of pop culture:

"A book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. . . . In this country, we are losing, if we have not lost, any appreciation for what we might call 'an intellectual environment.' . . . Libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities . . . so that now they devote far too much of their restricted space, and their limited budget, to public amusement, and to futile competition with the Internet. It is a fact of philistine life that amusement is where the money is. . . . Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in."

Like the grizzled gunfighter who straps on his Colt yet one more time, Gass draws on a lifetime's skill, for invective, wit and persuasion, to defend what matters -- "the sustaining of standards, the preservation of quality, the conservation of literacy's history, the education of the heart, eye, and mind." Meanwhile, our world has come to worship crud, and Gass fearlessly, fiercely tells us so. For just this reason, many of the pieces on contemporary writers sound a valedictory note: William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin -- all gone, leaving only their wonderful sentences and books behind. But who will read them? Will you? These were authors who were serious about writing.

"How serious? Beckett serious." For instance, William Gaddis "never toured, read in circles, rode the circuit. He rarely gave interviews or published opinions. He didn't cultivate the cultivated, nose around the newsworthy, network or glad-hand, sign books or blurb. He didn't teach, prognosticate, distribute awards. He was suspicious of wannabes, wary of flatterers; he guarded his gates. He didn't write the way he did to prove how smart he was, to create a clique that would clack at his every move. Or to get reviewed. Or to receive the plaudits of some crowd. Or to be well paid and bathe in a tub of butter. Or to be feared or sneered at or put down by pip-squeaks. He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it."

Well, I want to thank William H. Gass for writing as well as he has. All my adult life I've read his fiction and nonfiction, envied his learning, bowed my head before his dazzling prose. Sometimes I have even found in his sentences my own thoughts come back to me with what Emerson called a "certain alienated majesty." Has anyone more nobly stated the very principles of reviewing? "What one can do, with description and analysis and expressions of enthusiasm, is entice, lure others to peek between the covers; to remove possible prejudices or expectations that might interfere with the experience; to provide suggestions of where best to start, what to expect, how to look or read or listen; and to give reasons why the work should be treated with seriousness and respect."

Here then, my friends, is a true Temple of Texts . Let us lift up our hearts with gladness before every page, and rejoice. ยท

Michael Dirda is a columnist for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com


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