In a state of mitigated exasperation

I don’t want to inundate you with quotes, but my desire will not stop me from doing so. For upon encountering the following two passages from, yes, William Gass’ The Tunnel, I realized his narrator was, in the course of describing a colleague, also describing many a participant in this digitized forum we call the theological blogosphere. Regular readers of our fair blog will get the gist of the jab. I suspect everyone else will not need their hand held either though.

“There may be some truth in what you say, Herschel says, with his customary Cream of Wheat agreement: mildness of a sort which could never cause a bilious blowup, bland as ordinary atmosphere and nearly as impalpable. I call him the hedgehog because he is such a believer in both sides. You have a point, he likes to say, he enjoys saying; there is more than a little merit in that, he declares, as if removing a pipe from his mouth (actually, Herschel never declares, or asserts, or avers–I do that; Governali avows and Planmantee affirms; they do that–Herschel assents, or suggests; he elaborates, or gently opines); yes, well, what you say seems, yes, well, plausible to me, upon my brief entertainment of it anyway, yes, at first glance a nice notion, on the face of it a pleasant guise; but will such an idea survive a long haul over stony ground, you think? the scrutiny of a dental pick? the footsteps of many a traveler across the same ground? and will it survive journalists and cameramen, you know? town meetings? picnics spread out abundantly open?”

“It is impossible—not to say, nettlesome—to carry on a debate with Herschel because he is invariably prepared to grant you your point . . . after he has blunted it. He is quick to applaud your overall attitude (for the most part, of course) (on the whole) (by and large) (in the main). Meanwhile, he has so effectively clouded the countryside that you can never perceive the defining edge of anything, or circumscribe an ordinary outline in order to locate its elbows or touch its tits. Blur, fuzz, smear: that’s what he does—his specialty. It’s not that . . . he hates distinctions, but rather that he makes too many, and lays them down on top of one another repeatedly like an angry scratch-out of lines. On the other hand, you can never come to an accord, either—sing harmony. Not with Good King Qualification, Handsome Prince Perhaps. Not with Mister Maybe. . . . Not with every idea developed as an endless polyhedron. No, you cannot quarrel with Herschel, yet the Hedgehog lets nothing pass. If thoughts wore ties, he’d always feel compelled, in his wifely way, to straighten them. So with Herschel one is habitually in a state of mitigated exasperation.”

Oh that last sentence especially. So delightful. It is tattooed in my brain now.

‘Doom’ vs. ‘Der Schicksal’

I’m still plowing my way very slowly, but  more quickly in recent days, through William Gass’ troubling masterpiece, The Tunnel. I think I’ve managed to write more notes on some pages than there is text, what with the horrific gems on every tenth or so page. I offer this up for your edification, nude of context, in its birthday suit, as it were:

‘Doom’ has become a comic word as well: “Der Führer went recklessly to his doom.” It’s silly–‘doom.’ But I write down ‘doom’–I prefer the word ‘doom’ to others–because of its skull-like eye-holes, sockets into which darkness can be screwed like a dead bulb. Sein Schicksal ereilte ihn. Adolf Hitler could go to his doom because he had one. Only those who have made a pact with the devil have a doom. Hitler, Faust, Don Juan, Leverkühn, have dooms. I’m sure none of my students merits such distinction. The devil does not sign contracts with just anyone. Upon the tens of tons of anonymous millions, no judgment is pronounced. For them there is death, of course, but no doom. The trouble with history is its incorrigible and horrifying  honesty. Only the truly damned matter a damn to it. History is the abyss of the doomed. How does that hit you, Henry? Doom. Yes. ‘Doom’ is securely Middle English. ‘Doom’ is not der Schicksal. Der Schicksal cannot hack it. Der Schicksal is a shop where you can buy pork. So I write down ‘doom’–I prefer the word ‘doom’ to its brothers–because it looks like a busker’s malevolent mask; the consonants hook over the ears. And those same ears do not fail to hear the snickers which arise from my class like a rustle of leaves when I complete block-lettering the big pair on the blackboard and turn my unsmiling face to them. Damn you, I think. What do you aspire to? Nothing. Me too. But I want to be made an offer. I want a doom to go to. I aspire to the abyss.” (William Gass, The Tunnel, p. 185).


I’ve been broadcasting this short quote throughout my various social-media manifestations, but I keep returning to it, aghast (in a good way) and aglow (in an even better way) by the use of the word “pastured” in this bit of physical description from William Gass’ novel The Tunnel. I simply had to share it with you, the AUFS reader, as well:

“Work had pastured his face the way weather wears a field. Past burning, beyond tanning, not even any longer leathered, it seemed the sorrowful smoothing out of some angrily wadded paper, his bones like the shadows of bones behind his skin, a gift from the butcher for the dog.”

That is all.

Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?

I have recently been on something of a “contemporary novel kick.” While I typically incline toward novels by dead white men, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by white men who are in fact still quite young. Books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which I started reading this afternoon over lunch). (Oh wait, there has been one living white woman, too — Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.) There are things one could say about all of these. Indeed, I know of many a blog and/or magazine dedicated to doing as much. But for our purposes here, I feel like they perhaps need a little more time — or, to be honest, perhaps it is merely I who need more time to know what to say about them. But for the sake of a self-indulgent gravitas, we’ll condemn these works to their present youth and insist for now that they “grow up a little” before we include them at this table peopled (mostly) by those under 35. There is heady stuff afoot here, as you know, and the church must first be thought out of its imperial impasse and Milbank put in his place. Continue reading “Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?”