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Shorter Reviews The World Within the Word, by William H. Gass; 341 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, $10.00. This second collection of essays by William H. Gass (I dare not write "essays and reviews" because all of Gass's reviews are essays) will be welcomed by every reader seriously concerned about the relationship of philosophy to literature. Such readers will, no doubt, have encountered many of these essays before (especially if they are regular readers of the New York Review of Books), but there will be some works previously unencountered (probably the final three) and, in any case, Gass's work gains from being gathered together. Gass is unique in our literary life in being both a philosopher (i.e., a trained philosopher in a sense of "philosopher" narrow enough to exclude, say, Norman Mailer and John Updike) and a fiction writer of major importance. The way in which all of his critical and theoretical writing on literature is determined by this combination of vocations is on display throughout this collection. It is, nonetheless, difficult to read through—Gass makes demands on his readers. No skimming, no slovenly, distracted reading, is permitted. Gass's style verges, at times, on the baroque, and implicitly demonstrates what he comes near at times to asserting explicitly—namely that easy distinctions between style and substance (indeed, easy distinctions like mine in this sentence, between the implicit and the explicit) will not do for imaginative literature. Surely these essays are works of the imagination. His greatest strength seems to me to be not the capacity to make a metaphor which somehow gives us an objective correlative for an abstract thought, but rather to convince us that philosophical abstraction may be a metaphor for a world which we can be brought to apprehend. Here are some of the figures discussed at length in Gass's essays: Malcolm Lowry, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Colette, Proust, Paul Valéry, Sartre, Nabokov, Freud and Henry Miller. Reviewing these reviews is an activity subject to Austin's law of diminishing fleas, but I would like to make a few remarks on them. Gass's discussion of Gertrude Stein is fascinating. He is one of the few critics who make a claim for her importance as a figure in twentieth-century literature plausible (though, since her importance is actual, it is clearly possible). The fact that this discussion does not make me want to read Gertrude Stein indicates my failing—or, possibly, hers. In the essays of this collection which are closest to "straight" philosophy (I am thinking particularly of those on Sartre and on Freud), Gass is both clear and persuasive. Indeed, "Sartre on 119 120Philosophy and Literature Theater" is centrally concerned with the whole range of Sartre's philosophical views. The essay which I find exemplary, though perhaps not typical, is "Mr. Blotner, Mr. Feaster and Mr. Faulkner." This is the best thing on the theory of biography that I have read. Gass has hard things to say about Blotner's biography of Faulkner, but his way of saying them is to reflect on what the significance of a human life could be, and his way of doing that is to create a "Henry Feaster" in full, monstrous, everydayness and then to show that Blotner has turned Faulkner into a Feaster. Here Gass's capacity not merely to illustrate an idea, but to show us what the idea really is, is given free play. The idea of so many biographers, that the significance of a person's life must emerge, if every possible detail of his or her daily life is accumulated and presented, is given its final burial. The last three essays, "Groping for Trouts," "Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses," and "The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words," are more theoretical and more problematic. Here, we pay a price for Gass's virtues, forwe feel like asking for a clearly stated thesis with supporting arguments, and he resists our demands. These essays carry on the argument of the theoretical essays gathered (among others) in his first collection, Fiction and the Figures of Life. If one were to reduce these...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 119-121
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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