The Phenomenology of Reading Brilliantly

William Gass might be the oldest and most important writer you have never heard of (post in the comments if you are familiar with this man). He is a thoughtful writer, one not concerned with satisfying the marketplace, or stretching out already thin prose into several long and superfluous books. His list is short, a few novels, some short story collections, and… lots and lots of essays. These are primarily essays about ideas, which turn into long forms discussions about things you might only think of incidentally.

A book on the various appearances of the colour blue in life and literature, a book on the structure of sentences, a book of books called A Temple of Texts (2006), wherein you will find discussions on John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gertrude Stein.

His essays and discussions on Stein, are what particularly stand out because of her famous sentences.

In Gass’s 2013 conversation with critic Michael Silverblatt, the venerable writer talks about what he calls the Phenomenology of Reading Brilliantly, because reading Stein is an exercise in anticipating what the reader is going to do; re-read the sentence, so she repeats herself, and anticipating what the reader is going to do next, repeats it two more times, so the reader is both confused, satisfied, but still confused.

It’s a good kind of confusion though, because it is teaching you how to read, like reading the stones on a rock wall, or cracks in a sidewalk. It repeats, yet is still incongruous. People might fault writers for ‘not being clear’, but would they fault the sidewalk, or fault the faultline for raising a ruckus along the New Madrid or the Red Sea–sure, they would.

Nature is rife with inconsistencies, it’s just too inconvenient that it continue what it has been doing for billions of years, while we are trying to plod our way along the straightest, most consistent path possible.

Writer’s are also a force of nature, or rather they channel the energies of the Earth into hand motions that resemble the erratic movements of seismic waves, or the peaks and troughs of an ECG.

But society reacts as if they have been hit with a 9.1 on the Richter scale whenever they read something that doesn’t wrap itself up in 6 hours and 275 pages, or better yet, 1 hour and 45 mins in one passive sitting while eating dinner along with 4 or 5 Miller Lights (have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?).

While it might seem like I am being facetious, this is actually the climate of culture and intellectualism, since… the beginning of written or for that matter, oral language. There have always been two worlds, which really are like night and day, which sometimes slips into an eternal kind of night, or half-light, as in Finnegan’s Wake.

But reading, like writing, should be a journey, I mean, what are we afraid of? There is nothing in that book that can hurt us, unless what we fear is already in our own mind. As Lyn Hejinian says, in The Language of Inquiry (2000:143), “What appears to be the search for the right word is more often and more accurately a search for the right object, itself as unstable as a word and located in an unstable terrain. The figuring that occurs in moving through the mobility of a dream, and the literal refiguring of figures in the dream, take place also in the course of writing. In this sense, the process of writing, like the process of dreaming, is a primary thinking process. Thinking explores, rather than records, prior knowledge or an expression of it.”

Dreaming also comes under the censure of the pedestrian literati who gatekeep all who dare enter the library halls, or barnes and noble walls, but who do very little exploration themselves (probably).

Dare to wander these halls?

Dreams are to waking life, what the unconscious is to conscious. What mythology is to history. We know they’re there and possibly that they mean something, but whatever import or prescription they have is for us to discover on our own.

But they do mean something, perhaps more than what passes for real.

Yet there still isn’t much of a place for dreams in our culture. Arguably there isn’t much of a place for anything besides the marketplace or the mall. We are constantly being told, not to write about them in our fiction, even though dreams provide some of the best stories I have ever heard and some of the most exciting situations I have ever experienced. A universe of rich and interesting possibilities eschewed for the sake of realism. They say it’s because writing about dreams has become cliché, but what are the mundane details of everyday life if not cliché (if they’re not now, they soon will be).

If we can be made to believe that reality is all there is, then the established order has no rivals. We become the servants of things rather than things being servants of us.

One way I have found to get around this is to simply present the dream as an experience. That after the dream was over, it became my experience, like any other, and my intellectual property. This is not as easy as it seems, since writing something already made is harder than making it up ourselves, because we don’t know who made it up, or how it got to us in the first place. So any attempt to reproduce it is doomed to failure. It already exists somewhere in its perfect, preformed state and we don’t know how to get there from this, imperfect, state.

The closest this usually gets to realism is magical realism, surrealism or some other mode that allows for the frequent breaks of the weird, eerie or strange into the quotidian, mundane.

Is it still a transgression of everything that is honest and decent if we do as we have suggested and treat the dream as experience? In my way of reasoning, if the reader or the critic does cannot tell the difference, the distinction ceases to matter and so, no longer fall into the category of hackneyed literary device.

And still, despite these prohibitions, dreams continue to play prominent parts in all manner of movies, television shows and from what I can tell, novels. It’s only the ‘inexperienced’ writer that doesn’t get to use them. Sure, there are bad examples, but somehow they have all made it through the mill and into whatever format they’ve taken. In this way reality is a lot like a dream; things happen for seemingly no apparent reason, they are arbitrary, subjective, perverse, ironic, fortuitous, kismet, coincidental and synchronous. They tell you it’s a rule, but it’s only wrong if you get caught. Which is how it works in art. Art tries to mimick nature, or what passes for nature, but cannot bring itself close enough to perversity, to destroying its own life, to capture it faithfully. The way culture mimicks nature is against all rules and laws of nature, not the other way around. Nature can’t break any laws, because it is ruled by them. It is the law.

Thanks for reading.

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