Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review of William Gass's new book, "Life Sentences," Part One: for Hate of Nietzsche

REVIEW of William Gass’s new book, “Life Sentences”


Part one:

For Hate of Nietzsche



            Amazingly, I still read William Gass. This despite that I experienced reading his fiction like eating a fetid steak – its not that I won’t touch it again, its that I can’t – and despite the mother-hating, father-murdering inspiration for all his prose. Surly and eager to revenge himself on the world. There is a yet. Gass can turn a period. He can write sentences, and his best sentences are those whose subject are sentences: if it weren’t for his continual essays on the construction and appreciation of skilled, “self-conscious” sentences, I wouldn’t touch him.

            But to get to that, I have to wade through Gass’s bile. Was ever a writer so perfectly named? His vile temperament manages to make Emerson, the essayist of America’s expansive optimism, into a depressed writer of cynical gloom; and his take on Nietzsche seems to spell out an unprovoked character assassination.

            Fortunately, like Harold Bloom with his recent book, Gass has just put out another volume of essays in his old age; Bloom’s book was properly a book, by the way, whereas this book just a mishmash collection of previously published essay; but to keep at it till the grave is great, and as Bloom is driven on by his angel of love for great writers, Gass is driven on by his demon of resentment for great writers.

            At least, that’s the most sense I can make of his essay, “Nietzsche: in illness and in health.” He had already written an essay attempted to dismiss Nietzsche, (his complaint was that Nietzsche failed to give him an erection), so why this persistence? And what persistence! In this essay, Gass cites just about every book available about Nietzsche, apparently because he read them, quoting with relish the ones that have something to say of the great philosopher, leaving the rest who have something positive to say – why else would a man dedicate such efforts to write about another man – silent.

            What’s his beef, anyway? If Nietzsche is such a bad writer, then why keep throwing spears at him, even with an 80-year-old fist? I sense that after he quotes Crane Brinton Nietzsche would have “a continued use among adolescents as at once a consolation and a stimulus.” But Gass is no teenager. Gass wound, his gash from the spear of Nietzsche’s pen, is hinted at when Gass complains about the “Gnomic utterances, poetic outcries, hectoring jibs, oracular episodes, diatribes, and rhapsodize seizure – personality – style,” as being uncharacteristic of philosophers.

            It must hurt that an old German philosopher remains more relevant and interesting then you are or every will be – in your own language.

            He cites George Morgan as saying “Can anything be good which attracts so many flies” saying it was “a judgment well put, I think,” – and it is certainly a better quip than anything Gass gives us here – but he isn’t convinced, Gass, in all his bravado, remains tyrannized by this old Polish German. Flies are also attracted to feasts, after all, and what a feast Nietzsche’s various writings put before us, commenting on just about everything that ever existed and didn’t exist under the sun, with a style so powerful yet playfully childlike, that he will never go out of print, and of course remains the bestselling philosopher in most bookstores.

            But typical of a maggot, Gass is interested not in the feast, but in the rot. The essays title focuses on Nietzsche’ illness – mostly his physical illness, which he describes for pages – and this is precisely the focus of his previous essay on Nietzsche. Why?

            Gass’s wound hides behind his mask of “us.” “Nietzsche was a lover of life but a hater of most of us who live it because we did not—do not—live it, properly, fully, with appropriate abandon and delight and with mastery, the way a dancer may leap and spin and even look askance, exulting in her total control of eyelash and limb.” Convicted by the old German, Gass is never able to heal, not even in his old age, that time to make peace with the things that went before.

            Quick to criticize, slow to blame, (the opposite of Harold Bloom), Gass manages to sneer and insult nearly every figure in this seeming irrelevant and strangely uncalled for biography of Nietzsche and his illness. Wager is blasted for being vain, but not much praised for all that, Salome, Nietzsche’s one romantic interest, is given her own summary biography, mostly a catalog of her lovers who all committed suicide or at least attempted it after having known her; Winckelmann is hardly introduced as a German figure who influence Nietzsche before his made into a “strange” man who was not only an idolater of the Greeks, but a fake who didn’t really know what he was talking about.

            The old verbal acumen is alive her as it always is. Gass seems to prefer analogies that compare things to old dirty clothes, corpses, wounds, or rot. “Words like degenerate and purity surfaced [in Nietzsche and Wagner’s conversations] like corpses in the flow of their diatribes. In reference to Nietzsche’s military duty, he says that “the wounded were like the dirty and divested clothing.” Such metaphors are in fact leit motifs in the Gass genre.

            “A man is also his illness” he says, and that is his attempt to explain (away) this persistent judge on Gass’s own existence.

            But the sentences the sentences, Gass is only relevant when he speaks about sentences. And here he will do his damnedest to explain away Nietzsche incomparably eloquent sentences. “Tramping through the woods, or hiking up hills, was supposed to be good for you, and I imagine Nietzsche’s increasingly epigrammatic style appealed to the trudging mind, while his habit of hyperbole suited the mountain views. While reading him, I think we have to remember his steadily worsening physical condition, and understand how longing for a healthy and happy exertion might furnish his philosophical notions with his favorite imagery. His style reflected the fact that he scribbled on scraps, or dictated to friends. He wore optimism like a fur coat against he cold, and, in his search for a satisfactory communal life, grew increasingly solitary.”

            Mark it: Gass is admonishing us when we read the virile, powerful, optimistic tone and style and beauty of Nietzsche’s ideas, to keep in mind that Nietzsche was sick, had headaches, had ulcers. He will help you keep such images in mind by describing them for pages of his otherwise small essay. And note that Nietzsche’s optimism is explained away – has to be explained away! – because it scares Gass. Emerson’s optimism also had to be explained away, as a fake, as desperation. A genuine optimism doesn’t exist in Gass world, is a contradiction in terms. The world is shit and that’s all. Rotting comes next.

            So everything wilts at the Gassean touch. Human rapture is compared to the flowing of “weeds at the bottom of a stream.” One of the few actual Nietzschean ideas quotes referenced Nietzsche’s belief that animals live in the moment, so live a happy existence. No way in hell, Gass responds, and finally writes his first inspired paragraph of the essay, a catalog of the various bugs and beasts who live in suspense and fear. A whole menagerie of animals are cited, who all experience life like Gass does, before he nestled down into a reference to the “Parasites that luxuriate in the damp warm gloom of the guts.” He is grandstanding and is after a slam dunk: “The glorious happiness of a mindless browse in the gentle sun is never to be enjoyed by these creatures; the peaceable kingdom is a world at war, at hunting, and being hunted, at alarm and incursion, at lessons learned through pain and maiming, or death and else.” So there! How dare you, stupid Nietzsche, believe that any life is happy any where?

            But why did Gass cite this Nietzschean idea – surely an obscure one – and make no reference to the literally thousands of other Nietzschean ideas – not just the eternal recurrence and the superman, which he makes no mention of, but really much of anything? With such a wide and variegated corpus of writing, you would think Gass could find something to like in Nietzsche. Why is it Gass lingers on Nietzsche’s hemorrhoids and not his aphorism.

            Nietzsche reference to the meaning of Greek tragedy is dismissed without even being cited or explained. Nietzsche claimed the tragedies were the Greeks affirming life, saying yes to life, even in their most painful moments. Such a though is unthinkable to Gass – why in the world would he cite it? But he wants to denounce it indirectly, saying smugly that “Greek tragedies, if generalization so vast can be made, are more obviously built on the quite real conflict between tribal loyalties and the more rational communities asked for by the city-state.” Phew! So long as the tragedies mean that the world is a mess, we’re safe!

            Nietzsche’s ideas again are not cited, but Gass attributes Nietzsche’s style of writing to be basically the fallacy of ad hominem, of the genetic fallacy, and the single cause fallacy. It is slimy to read Gass project on Nietzsche with the very style of Gass himself is writing in.

            It is the wound, the Nietzschean wound, like an open ulcer in his gut, that Gass can’t recover from. If only he could see such a wound can only be healed by the sword that dealt it. Hiding again behind the editorial we, he sais that “Nietzsche was allowed to have several standpoints, the rest of us only one.” Whatever could he mean? Nietzsche seems to have dozens of competing theories on the psychology of other men.

            The problem really, is the epigrams, which are greater than Gass in his bloated periods and gaseous sentences. “Epigrams aren’t arguments. A forest of hyperbole resembles a forest of bamboo; outside one thinks only how to limit its growth, inside how one may cut a path through.” That is to say, confronted with Nietzschean wit and literary grace, he is thinking of knifing it down. And that Nietzschean optimism. Gass demands “But why should one be optimistic when there is so little evidence for it? … in Nietzsche’s life as well as ours.” Such optimism must be a last resort, a ruse, a fake, where there is “no other weapon against despair.”

            It seems that Gass can’t find one good thing to like in his better. He agrees, finally, with what he thinks Zarathustra means: “Nothing is sacred.” But when confronted with a man who is still more relevant and timely than himself, this is how he responds, not with praise like Bloom, but with sneers. Writers like Emerson and Nietzsche pose a threat because they actually seem to be enjoying life, to write from gratitude and not resentment (Gass says at one point his motivation to write was revenge against his no-good parents). How to survive the wound that only an utter innocence of gratitude for life can cut? Gass will be nursing this wound in the next life as well




\~ @M@ ~/



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