William Howard Gass, who died on December 6 at the age of 93, is one of the very few philosophers of the 20th century to transcend the essential boringness of that social identity. What university committees did he serve on? What was his teaching load? What was the “impact factor” of the journals he published in? Who cares. Gass, who completed his dissertation under the supervision of the analytic philosopher Max Black at Cornell University in 1954, and who worked for a short time with (to the extent that one could work with) Ludwig Wittgenstein, also wrote what is perhaps the greatest, bleakest, most rigorous, and finely calibrated American novel of his era, 1995’s The Tunnel. Impact factor: either “incalculable,” or “n/a,” depending on your view of disciplinary boundaries.
Yet his literary output must not be seen as an abandonment of his earlier trajectory. Idiosyncrasy is the integrity of genius, it is sometimes said. Gass was writing philosophy the only way he could. His principal preoccupation in philosophy was with metaphor, which you might think is a perfect point at which to bring philosophy and literature into conversation. You might think this, until you read Black on the subject, writing around the same time Gass was completing his graduate work under him: “To draw attention to a philosopher’s metaphors,” Black observes, “is to belittle him—like praising a logician for his beautiful handwriting.” He concludes that while metaphors are unavoidable and might sometimes be harnessed for salutary ends, they are, in general, dangerous, “and perhaps especially in philosophy.”
It is not hard to imagine young Gass chafing at the bit that midcentury analytic philosophy had sought to place in his mouth. In interviews he sometimes compared metaphor to junk food, which is of course dangerous, but also hard to define. In a broad sense any food is junk if you eat too much of it, or at the wrong time; in a narrower sense, junk food is delicious, and can be very good for the soul. Black analyzed metaphor in order to be better able to contain it; Gass knew that language is nothing without metaphor. In his dissertation he hews fairly closely to his adviser’s method and conclusions, and if he had stopped there Gass’s contributions to philosophy would not have been particularly noteworthy. But it is in the way that metaphor eventually spreads for him, to become so much more than just a linguistic problem or a matter of how we represent the world, that makes this singular lifelong preoccupation of his worthy of attention.
Black’s greatest contribution to the history of thought was his purported refutation of Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles, which had held that two things that have identical properties are ipso facto the same thing. But what about a universe that consists in nothing but two spheres? If they are two then they can’t be identical. I picture Max Black, with a skinny 1950s necktie, delighted by his own cleverness, having KO’d this German Rationalist predecessor. I picture young Gass too, listening to Black, equally delighted by the thought of this austere possible world Black had thought into existence, imagining himself (as I do) orbiting around Black’s two spheres with a jet-pack, yet also finding himself alarmed by the presumptuousness of the undertaking. For Black’s spheres are not proposed as a flight of the imagination, or as a metaphor for something else, but as a rigorous thought experiment designed to tell us how reality really is. It’s all very clever, and all very dumb.
So Gass reaches back to a time when philosophy trafficked not in clever tricks, but in sage aphorisms. Five centuries before Christ, Anaxagoras wrote that “the descent to Hell is the same from every place.” This is the epigraph of The Tunnel.
This novel is called postmodern for reasons that need not detain us; apparently it has something to do with the fact that it is not just about the thing it is purportedly about, but also about the struggle of the character living through this aboutness, and the way this struggle both characterizes the character’s small and idiosyncratic life, while also opening out onto larger themes. But such a narrative conceit is one we see already in Huysmans’s “decadent” trilogy of fin-de-siècle Paris, in which a contemporary historian creates for himself the occasion to stare into the moral abyss of his own existence by researching a past horror. The particular horror in the case of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes is the life of the 15th-century aristocrat and serial-killing child-murderer Gilles de Rais, while for Gass’s Kohler it is the rather more familiar evil of Nazi Germany. The protagonist is working on a history, supposedly, of some of the horrors of that regime, but quite inexplicably his work takes an increasingly introspective turn, and he begins to ruminate on his own sins and sinfulness. He worries that his wife, who is not portrayed kindly either, will find the work-in-progress, so he hides it inside other books. Eventually he begins, equally inexplicably, to construct a tunnel, and to hide the dirt he must remove for this project inside the drawers of his wife’s antique furniture collection.
Gass would claim in his later years to have evolved rather far beyond the theory of metaphor laid out in his 1954 dissertation. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1976 he suggests that metaphor may in fact extend well beyond the linguistic realm, to objects, to whatever is “carried over” (to evoke the etymology of the word metaphor) and placed in relation to another object—like dirt, carried over to, and placed in, the drawers of your wife’s antique furniture. Kohler carried over big meaning; it’s just that that meaning was dirt. This is, as Max Black understood, a dangerous business. The Tunnel draws out the full danger of metaphor, soils the reader with the very linguistic tool that in Gass’s world-making hands is no longer merely linguistic, that his dissertation adviser had cautiously touched upon but from which he had warned his fellow philosophers to stay away.
Anaxagoras’s tunnels, with their uniform directionality, were based on the presumption of a cosmos with the earth at the center, and hell straight downward from there. But in the post-Copernican world tunnels come in many varieties: between dimensions, notably, between worlds; when they come up in connection with Nazi Germany, it is hard not to see them as a symbol of hope, of the possibility of escape.
Kohler writes from an indeterminate university town in the Midwest. To set an exploration of world-historical themes there is a choice packed with great humorous potential, but Gass is dead serious. He writes from the Midwest of America and gives the middle of that continent all the magnetic force it in fact has. Among the many tunnels of The Tunnel, whether described or only suggested, is also the one that seems to connect the “safe” world from which both Gass and his protagonist write, and the horrifying world they write about. Gass was always sensitive to the false perception that the Midwest was an honest, safe place—to the idea that it somehow constituted, for the Europeans who cleansed it and settled there, an escape from history.
St. Louis has long been the capital of American frontier philosophy, which must be understood as of an entirely different species than what emerged from the patrician metaphysical club at Harvard and similar Northeastern institutions. In the mid-1850s the German immigrant Henry Clay Brockmeyer set himself up as a handyman and naturalist in the wilds of Warren County, beyond St. Louis. He kept a journal there, later pubished as A Mechanic’s Diary. On a typical morning, Brockmeyer finds himself reading Spinoza, until he hears the scattering of squirrels outside his window, and grabs his rifle to go and shoot them. His favorite drink is squirrel bouillon, and he carries a jar of it around with him. He reads Hegel, and he goes out to follow the trail of the buffalo, and contemplates the dialectic as he goes. Some years later, when Brockmeyer begins to frequent the St. Louis Kant Club, the transplanted Easterners and the local bourgeois dabblers start to mutter about the rugged woodsman in their midst, speaking not only of transcendental idealism, but of how, for an American, philosophy is worth nothing if it cannot be put to work, if it cannot dig down into the dirt and transform this wild continent.
This philosophical legacy, occluded from the view of your average junior hire in philosophy at Washington University, still echoed in Gass’s imagination when he settled down there in 1969. He was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but grew up in the steel town of Warren, Ohio. His first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, of 1966, depicts another small town, in his home state, at the end of the 19th century. The vision of America Gass wishes to convey here is one that is more true the more unreliable the narrator. The most unreliable, and therefore truest, of the characters is the unhinged preacher Jethro Furber, whose jealous persecution of Brackett Omensetter anticipates some aspects of the drawn-out dance of death between the oil man and the evangelist in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood of 2007. But these latter fictional characters stand plainly for the two great motor forces that made America—psychotic material greed, and psychotic spiritual ebullience—while it would be hard to make any easy case for a one-to-one correspondence between any of Gass’s characters and any particular clear and distinct idea. This is America, not an allegory of America: where metaphors are transformed into dirt, and reading Spinoza is all too quickly abandoned for hunting squirrels.
James Wood has criticized Gass for violating the contract that fiction makes with reality when it undertakes to portray a character. Gass chooses instead to exercise his skeptical imagination by giving us characters who seem to wish, themselves, to soil that supposed contract. Gass has said that whatever becomes a focal point, the eye of a fiction’s storm, can count as a character, even if it is not a person or beast at all, but only an idea. This inevitably is a formula for reckless genre-blending, and Gass’s novels and novellas do often read as experimental essays. A good fiction, Wood probably thinks, cannot be an essay, because in order to be good it must know exactly what it is doing: it must be a perfect illusion. But the spread of metaphor from language to reality also means for Gass, I believe, that creative use of language can no longer pretend to be in the game of illusion at all.
It is an unusual choice, but for me the crowning achievement of Gass’s career is The Cartesian Sonata, a collection of four novellas published in 1998, which, if he were a weaker mind, might have been the period of the great victory lap following The Tunnel’s twenty-six years of gestation: the novel was widely applauded, but as Edmund Burke said, for a noble mind applause can at best be a spur. The novellas constitute, in my view, the supreme expression of Gass’s abandonment of the contract Wood seeks to enforce, freely moving between storytelling, philosophizing, and verbosity just for the sake of it. Already in the collection’s title, we see a hint of Gass’s greatest philosophical move, and the same one that is there in The Tunnel’s concretization, or perhaps better its soiling, of metaphor: “Cartesian,” in loose parlance, generally designates a high level of abstraction, a gutting out of the richness of corporeal reality, as when something is plotted in a system of Cartesian coordinates, and becomes both perfectly localizable, yet remains in a sense nowhere in particular. Such coordinates were part of the purification of mathematics that Descartes and others of his century effected, and this purification is itself what made us forget about the previously meaningful category of “mixed mathematics,” which kept numbers richly embodied within the world. No branch of mixed mathematics kept constantly to mind the perfect harmony of rational construction and sheer sensuality more than music. How could there be a Cartesian sonata, a synthesis of reason and beauty? William Gass can show us.
The novellas are the culmination of a singular philosophical vision, one honed in the presence of the austere geniuses of midcentury American analysis, but surely born with him, in North Dakota, and given its true shape in the presence of the adults, not least his evidently rather tyrannical father who committed against him the great abuse of making no sense, and of portraying the world itself as senseless. In adulthood Gass reported that his father had been a bigot, that “the depths of his bitterness scared me.” His mother was an alcoholic “puddle of silence.” The result of this upbringing, he often said, was a life of work based on nothing more noble than revenge against them. “I write because I hate,” he said in the same 1976 Paris Review interview. “Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste.” In its philosophical dimensions this work was the perfect synthesis of his congenital chaos with his trained austerity, and the perfect layering of sense and senselessness.
The Cartesian Sonata also perfects Gass’s power to move between the mental life and the brute being of stuff, between linguistic metaphor and dirt. At one point in it he describes Leibniz’s monads, the simple immaterial metaphysical unities that underlie the phenomenal world of things, as so many globules of milk fat. If Max Black gave us with his two spheres a perfectly legitimate yet perfectly uninteresting and flat critique of Leibniz, Gass gave us, with his fat blobs, a metaphor that is both recklessly inaccurate, and also, relative to his own philosophical vision, profoundly true.