The Stupidity of Mankind, Its Misuse of Reason: An Interview with William H. Gass

By Len GutkinApril 1, 2013

The Stupidity of Mankind, Its Misuse of Reason: An Interview with William H. Gass
THE LEGENDARY NOVELIST William H. Gass’s long-anticipated new work, Middle C, is a caustic delight. The author’s third full-length work of fiction, Middle C follows the fortunes of Joseph Skizzen, born in wartime London to Austrian émigrés pretending to be Jewish. The Skizzen family (minus the father, who abandons them) eventually makes their way to Ohio, where Joseph grows up and, with the help of some forged diplomas, becomes a professor of music at a small Christian college. Skizzen has a strange secret, though. In the attic of the university-owned house he shares with his mother, he has been curating an “Inhumanity Museum,” an obsessively tended collection of news items detailing human atrocities. He’s also been endlessly worrying over, and revising, a certain grim sentence, the earliest version of which runs as follows: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.”

Gass, a retired professor of philosophy at Washington University, has written 16 books, including his much-acclaimed novel The Tunnel (1995) and On Being Blue (1976), a work of aesthetic philosophy. He was kind enough to consent to an email interview about Middle C.


Len Gutkin: You’ve said of writing The Tunnel that you had dodecaphonic principles of musical composition in mind, but in Middle C the application of 12-tone composition to writing becomes a part of the plot. Not only does Skizzen stake his claim to a faculty position on his ostensible knowledge of 12-tone composers, he delights that one of the pithiest versions of his sentence has “Twelve tones, twelve words.” Can you say something about the relationship, for you, between writing and music? Is Middle C’s overarching structure predicated on musical form?

William Gass: The Tunnel is built of 12 themes. Each theme has its own section, which it dominates. But every theme is present to varying degrees in other parts. Middle C is a suite of styles. Different instrumentation to match changing moods. Some chapters are more melodious than others, light and tripping, morose and slow. Above all my stress is on voice, on the sounds language makes as it passes over and into the page. There are a few musical subjects, too — ideas rather than tunes — artists who have fled their country and changed their religions, or the way orchestras are managed, etc. I write for the ear. That makes me old-fashioned.

Sometimes I also write for the eye but these appearances are meant to be operatic scenery. Middle C’s structures aren’t always musical, sometimes they are simple narrations. That’s how the book opens.

LG: Skizzen strikes me as a (relatively benign) cousin of The Tunnel’s William Kohler — in terms, for instance, of the mad capacity of each for monomaniacal commitment (Kohler to the PdP and to digging his titular tunnel, Skizzen to his Inhumanity Museum and to his endlessly finessed totem sentence). In their shared obsessiveness, both might also be seen as descendants of the insect-haunted protagonist of your classic early short story, “Order of Insects.” Do you perceive a common thread here? What’s the role of obsession in your fiction?

WG: Gaddis maintained that the writer needed an obsession; he or she would then worry about it like a cat with a rag. The obsession may be hard to spot and it took me some time to discover mine: the stupidity of mankind, its misuse of reason. The housewife in “Order of Insects” is escaping ordinary attitudes about an insect to perceive the bug’s beauty, and measure it against her own life.

LG: On the topic of links between The Tunnel and Middle C: both contain hilarious set-pieces skewering the foibles and pretensions of university faculty. It’d never occurred to me before to think of you as a satirist of academic manners, but in fact you are! You’ve spent, of course, much of your life in the university. How has that affected your writing? What do you make of the relationship between writer and university?

WG: I make some fun of the evangelical small college, and the academy’s love of committees, but the university is still the best place on this planet to be. It is the most civilized. There are idiots, of course, but the community is full of more intelligent, sensitive, creative people, fewer dumbsters, bigots, less bad behavior, than any of the world’s places. Where else is equality better realized? Or where can the young mix with and learn from somebody in their 80s? I have been especially well treated by my university, and that institution is a great patron of both the sciences and the arts. It gives the writer time. It gives the writer stimulus.

LG: You’re as well known an essayist as you are a fiction writer, and one of the pleasures of your fiction is its essayistic mode — in Middle C, for instance, the description of Skizzen’s article on Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen is also an instructive mini-essay on that work. Which comes more easily, the nonfiction or the fiction? Do the two mutually reinflect one another, or are they at odds?

WG: In my case, the essay is often easier to compose because it has a better sense of subject; it has a clearer understanding of where I am supposed to be going with a piece of work. Moreover, the essay usually has a promise (I shall write on x) and a deadline (by March 1) compelling me to reach an ending. But both kinds of prose are difficult beyond lawn mowing. And sometimes the essay becomes a book-long enterprise, with all the traps that lie in wait. Generally, however, prose is prose whatever the prose is up to, and wherever the struggle is.

LG: Skizzen gets his college teaching gig by exaggerating an interest in Schoenberg, and modernism in music and the other arts comes up a lot in Middle C. And of course your nonfiction often focuses on major modernists, from Rilke to Stein. How would you describe your relationship to high modernism? What differences do you see between your generation’s investment in modernist precedent and that of younger writers? 

WG: I don’t particularly like tags, even relatively innocent ones like “High Modernism.” I call myself a “decayed modernist” on particularly bad days. The group that I am frequently imprisoned in (Abish, Bartheleme, Barth, Coover, Elkins, Hawkes, West, etc.), or the bunch that’s an immediate generation behind (Caponegro, Ducornet, Evanson, Millhauser, Marcus, Olson, Joanna Scott, etc.) do not, as writers, resemble one another except that they tend to be weary of the worship of fake realism, standard plots, worn-out characters, and low IQs.

LG: You’ve written a book about Rilke — containing your translation of the Duino Elegies — but the verse in your fiction is usually of a very different sort: Middle C’s corrosive ditty on faculty meetings (“This is the way we smirk and sigh, lurk and spy, favor buy, / this is the way we smile and lie / to prepare for the faculty meeting”) or The Tunnel’s unforgettable obscene limericks. Can you say a bit about your interest in — and talent for — comic light verse? 

WG: There are coarse words and there are coarse forms. It is good to have some handy, just as it is helpful to have the highbrow available. Every form, many rhythms have their own social place and we use them as necessary. I was never any good as a poet, try as I might. But I also don’t think “light verse” is to be misjudged. I have found I can brag about my little venture into playland. I’m good at it. The ode? Not so much. In The Tunnel I offer an award to anyone who can write a genuinely tragic limerick. Some folks have tried but the puzzle remains. What is there about the form that seems to make seriousness impossible? Poems in visual shapes have a similar effect. In a recent issue of Conjunctions I have a poem in the shape of a saltcellar. I think it is very funny. It is also deadly serious. So are Gilbert and Sullivan.

LG: Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum is premised on a sense of human brutality colored by his own experience of World War II and, more generally, on the unprecedented bloodshed of the first half of the 20th century. What might Skizzen make of the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s claim in The Better Angels of Our Nature that in fact, the two world wars notwithstanding, human violence has been trending sharply downward over time, and that there is therefore reason for optimism?

WG: That’s a lot of bunk. He hasn’t any idea about how many Africans, for instance, were murdering one another in the year 555. Does he also figure in our calm acceptance of motor accidents, for instance? In St. Louis, one or two are murdered by guns every day. The Museum doesn’t have to argue our behavior has got better or worse. The present condition is bad enough. It has probably always been this awful. And even if we are nicer, what kind of a horrible nicer is it?

LG: Are there any writers — past or present — whose work seems particularly neglected to you and whom you’d like to see become better known?

WG: A few years ago I would answer without hesitation — Ford Maddox Ford. Even now, when his text is being disgraced on TV, The Fifth Queen is ignored. Instead I’ll have to point to the tons of incredible paper filled by orators and preachers. The sermons of John Donne and Jeremy Taylor contain marvels. Sir Thomas Browne is breathtaking. Nowadays we don’t much believe in their points of view — all the better — we can enjoy the majesty, the cleverness, the care with which their prose is composed.


LARB Contributor

Len Gutkin is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He has written for TLS, Boston Review, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!