Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Michael Dirda on William Gass's A Temple of Texts

William Gass has published another book of essays. It is admiringly reviewed by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post. Here's the passage that caught my eye:
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.
Just to provide some context, the subtitle of the review is "William Gass celebrates high art and decries the crush of mediocrity." Specifically, William Gass dislikes crappy books, really likes great books, and is annoyed -- I am too -- by the fact that libraries seem to be spending the majority of their resources on things like Internet stations instead of more books. Gass is also upset that the world seems to honor trash a great deal more than art: "It is a fact of philistine life," he writes, "that amusement is where the money is."

I do not disagree with any of this -- what I am curious about is how Dirda decides to describe this critique; he says that Gass lays his smackdown on the world's worship of crud fearlessly. Now, I have read a couple of Gass's introductions (they were good) and I can believe that he is as good as writer as Dirda indicates -- but does anyone believe that it takes anything like courage for a tenured professor at Washington University to deride the mediocrity of American popular culture? Will he lose his job? Will the CEO of MTV and a couple of judges from American Idol come over to his house and beat the crap of him?

No, I doubt it. I doubt it because this is about as conventional an opinion as an aging literary author can hold. Maybe a few young culture studies professors at his school will call him an elitist, but I suspect he will rather relish this.

Dirda does not mention other professors, though. Here are the people he thinks Gass is daring to offend: "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."

That's right, Gass doesn't care who he pisses off. Consequences be damned! Can you just imagine the look on Bush's face when he opens up his copy of A Temple of Texts? He is in for one rude awakening. As are all the other churchgoing cowboy jingoists interested in literary criticism, and possibly a few well-read ranchhands.

To be clear, I am not saying that authors must only put out books that they believe have a good chance of influencing the people they criticize; very few books would be published if this were true. (See preaching to the choir.) But it is delusional to call an author courageous for taking on people who will never read him, and who don't care what he writes -- when he is flying so far below the radar of his victims (or, in this case, I suppose, over it) that he is not even inviting a confrontation. Orhan Pamuk, on the other hand, could legitimately be characterized as fearless. So, for that matter, could David Irving, who was recently jailed for holocaust denial.

I am not arguing that any of these people are better thinkers or people than Gass. As Orwell pointed out in his great unfinished essay on Evelyn Waugh the courage that it takes to express a certain opinion is no gauge of its validity:
It is nonsense to pretend, for instance, that at this date there is something daring and original in proclaiming yourself an anarchist, an atheist, a pacifist, etc. The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing, is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend antisemitism. But this example that I have chosen immediately reminds one of something else—namely, that one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage that is required in holding it.
One of the passages that Dirda quotes provides a clue as to why a modern author might like to think of himself as taking on powerful enemies, and also why a smart reviewer might go along with it, despite the fact it is obvious that the usual response of today's powerful to high culture is total indifference. Here is William Gass on the great books of the past:
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...
This is demonstrably untrue. (That sentence goes on a while longer, by the way; it is always good to pay attention to when a writer gets really carried away, because he will frequently be lying.) Think of every great book you can name, every consensus classic: for every author who was persecuted, you will find a hundred who were greeted with either praise, censure (of the kind that doesn't draw actual blood), or complete indifference -- that is, they got exactly the same reception that writers get today. Gass's "usually" isn't even valid for the writers that he examines in this collection of essays. The powers that be did not bother to come after Rilke, Stein, Burton, Gaddis, Walser, Elkin, James, Ford, etc. -- maybe some pissy reviewers did, but that was it. The only person that I can see qualifying at all is Joyce, and all that happened was that his book got banned, which is much less painful (physically, I mean) than getting shot or burned.

What I noticed in that rhapsodic passage, in addition to its lack of accuracy, is a nostalgia for a time when it seemed like writing was of consequence -- when one could call a writer fearless and not be saying something ridiculous. Roth has a wonderful passage about this sort of envy in The Prague Orgy, when Zuckerman almost seems to wish that he lived under a repressive government: every sentence would be an act of defiance against the censor; manuscripts would have to be smuggled out of the country before they could be published.

But the sad fact, as far as I can tell, is that writing has rarely been of political consequence in the way that Gass implies, even in our own horrible 20th century. Plenty of people have been persecuted, it is true, but this has not always been correlated with the quality of their writing -- and there is nothing about great writing that is fundamentally inflammatory for the powerful. Most great writing, as Gass admits, is only consequential to the readers that it connects with.

This is why I never quite understand the despair over our culture that emerges every few years with a new book from Bloom or Gass. The majority of people who have any love of literature will admit that, at least since there has been a large reading public, shit culture has ruled the roost. Even the great writers who achieved a measure of popularity in their lifetimes now seem to have been appreciated for the wrong books or the wrong reasons. Most devotees of art also usually believe that greatness eventually finds or creates the audience that can appreciate it, and that mediocrity (no matter how much it is praised) will soon be buried under the avalanche of more recent mediocrity. Has anything really changed so fundamentally in our world that this will stop being true?

(I do get the impression that things have gotten worse in universities when it comes to teaching literature. But it is the habit of lifelong professors to mistake this for the declining intellectual and artistic health of the entire society. If they want to find passionate and serious readers - who do not go through books simply looking for evidence of something or another - I suggest they stop hanging around students and other professors. A love of reading will occasionally survive a university education, but it will rarely survive the decision to start teaching there.)

Anyway, I tend to believe that things are not as bad as he says. Our political and economic elites certainly seem much less literate than they have in years past, but I don't know what effect this has on the general state of literature. Randall Jarrell and Dwight Macdonald - writing mainly in the 50s - both made similar criticisms: the books they stomped on are now justly forgotten; the books they loved are appreciated, as usual, by a few; and despite every despairing assessment of this country's intellectual landscape, America -- as far as I can tell -- has not produced fewer works of art in the last fifty years compared to the fifty before that. It has produced a great deal more shit, I suppose, but that is not really relevant.

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