Gass, meditation, aesthetics

Reading books like The Tunnel by William Gass or his Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas may feel a tad taxing for readers who are not ready for the soporific rhythms of their flow. Admittedly, the term ‘soporific’ conveys an ambiguity here; which for the average/avaricious reader is negatively charged, obviously, referring to boredom really. But ‘boredom’ is another ambiguous term sensitive to the specificity of context, isn’t it. Turns on one’s attitude.

I have read my fair share of big and challenging tomes (Pynchon, Gaddis et al.) and even though it was the most accessible The Tunnel was also the most demanding one for me. It took a lot of time. Hell of a lot. To sludge through it. And maybe it is just some kind of a perversion on my part but it is one the dearest books to me. It is truly gorgeous indeed.

I think to read such quaint monstrosities is very similar to watching movies that are extremely slow-moving, so to speak. Think of Tarkovsky or Tarr. There is a peculiar radiance and rhythm to these works of art that envelops the viewer in an ambience of which she is only half-aware. Action and movement is retarded or, better yet, arrested and, in effect, secondary to the mood.. that ripples in concentric circles from a center.. that is eslewhere.. somewhere. It feels, actually, that the wheels of our cog-nitive being spin without being spun. And soon, we start to have the sensation that we are idling. Merely idling about. (Again, ‘merely’ is ambiguous: sufficient/insufficient?) And then, if we are not patient/open enough, we deem it to be nothing but a waste of time.

But this is an interesting question: what is a waste of time? Is an action-movie or the little excitements offered by the convoluted plot of a novel not a waste of time? Really: What is a waste of time? If nothing novel or meaningful or significant is experienced or learnt? If there is no entertainment? If our wheels are spinning for no reason at all; unoccupied, naked? Look at Beckett. Those texts are gorgeous too. And soporific. Idling. But still so enigmatically powerful. We feel that we are in the presence of… or, at least, that we are present.. with it.. and ourselves. I think, the answer to the previous questions lies in something like the following one: What happens exactly when we experience the ambience of these textures?

Well, experientially, it is a bit like waiting for someone/something. Not Godot, no. Let’s just say that I sit on a bench and I can hardly wait for that hour or two to pass. I look at my wristwatch every 5 minutes or so as I listlessly shift my posture. My mp3 player has run out of battery, I can’t listen to music. My tiny notebook that I always carry in my pocket is not with me this time so I can’t spend my time toying with words or concepts either. My sources of distraction are significantly dwindled. I know I could go for a walk to buy something or just idle about in the mode of a passive pedestrian, say, but I just don’t feel like it at the moment and, incidentally, I have already walked a couple of circles around the area anyway, so. Yes. This is where I actually notice and become aware of my anguish and agitation at being with myself. I feel as if, slowly, an aura of stifling ‘boredom’ was creeping over me, except I realize that it was there all along, and what is more, I even have the vague inkling that it is there with me all the time. The sheer burden of being on my own… decoupled from the soothing hum and buzz of everyday distractions.

Now, this feeling definitely harbors a strong amount of energy, which could be destructive if it causes unchecked distress as well as constructive and quite liberating if it results in a moment of intimacy (with my self). This intimate moment, if intensive enough, can bring up many unappreciated and unacknowledged thoughts and feelings that constantly swirl beneath the surface of my ’online’ (robot-pilot) being. The moment is potent with mental catalysis in other words. And this is what meditation is all about.

Meditation practice takes place on a personal level. It involves an intimate relationship with ourselves. Great intimacy is involved. It has nothing to do with achieving perfection, achieving some absolute state or other. It is purely getting into what we are, really examining our actual psychological process without being ashamed of it. It is just friendship with ourselves. (Chogyam Trungpa)

A text like The Tunnel is, in fact, a sort of site for such meditation. The sonic beauty of its verbal architexture silently reverberates in the back of my head as I read and, slowly and gradually, I feel intimately connected to something, somehow. Unheimlich. I kind of feel inside. In Gass’s own view, as we are reading we are

making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response; until its conceptual turns are like reversals of mood in a marriage: petty, sad, ecstatic, commonplace, foreseeable, amazing. In order to have this experience, however, one must learn to perform the text, say, sing, shout the words to oneself, give them, with our minds, their body: otherwise the eye skates over every syllable like the speeder… Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another’s words to become hers, his. (William Gass)

Thus Jorge Luis Borges (from his “Poetry” lecture):

The aesthetic event is something as evident, as immediate, as indefinable as love, the taste of fruit, of water. We feel poetry as we feel the closeness of a woman, or as we feel a mountain or a bay. If we feel it immediately, why dilute it with other words, which no doubt will be weaker than our feelings?

The feeling of interiority that gradually emerges from the performance of reading precedes all content/concept: it is pure affect. This is the aesthetic, basically. Here, I am not simply (no ambiguity here) caught with my wheels in the shifting sand of fleeting contents, kept busy and entertained (in every sense of the word): I am also resonating with an Other and I am connecting on a deeper level. Affect precedes concept: whatever I make sense of is always already based on a connection and it matters always less what (content) I experience than how I experience it.

Actually, vision and sound are great metaphors for distinguishing between these modalities of involvement. The seen connotes some kind of exteriority (detached from the seer) and sense and meaning (“I see”) and the possibility of control and manipulation while sound intimates a resonance or an interiority (that we share with an other). In a way, as I tried to sketch it in my previous blogpost, as I am opening my self towards the Other I am, in effect, opening my self towards my Shadow(s).

At the end of his essay “The Wall and the Books” Borges writes:

all forms possess virtue in themselves and not in a conjectural “content.” That would support the theory of Benedetto Croce; in 1877 Pater had already stated that all the arts aspire to resemble music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places – all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; this imminence of a revelation tha is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.

Yes, I guess, Gass agrees with Borges. Language is a material phenomenon that is potent with catalytic capacities and it is “word-music”, to use James Guetti’s formula, that sets its aesthetic dimension in motion. Word-music disinhibits a kind of liminal space.. where.. etc.

The aesthetic in this recipe then, let’s say, is: demanding/challenging stuff that is well-wrought enough to envelop the self in a meditative/therapeutic ambience that facilitates the process of its deconstruction.

It is a tangent, but in closing let me add: the author is not dead, never was and never will be: it is interpretation and its end-products that is dead. Thanks.


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