On Being Blue
Proust believed that “only metaphor” could give “a sort of eternity to style.” But he also said that his “whole philosophy” came down to “justifying, reconstructing what is.” Taken together, the two thoughts point us not only toward Proust’s own achievement, the rescue of a fading world by means of vivid analogy, but also toward the work of William Gass and Stanley Elkin, whose styles are thick with metaphor and yet who practice close observation of things as they are. Metaphors arise, Elkin said in a recent interview,* from the careful study of appearances. “I try literally to look at what I’m writing about.” What he teaches his writing students at Washington University in St. Louis is that “things look like other things.” As the patterns on American sports jackets, to pick up a simile from The Franchiser, look like “optical illusions,…like aerial photographs of Kansas wheat fields, Pennsylvania pastureland, or the russets of erosion in western national parks.” “Every loving act of definition,” Gass writes in his new book, meaning definition in language, “reverses the retreat of attention to the word and returns it to the world.”
So we are placed at about equal distance from the view that words simply describe or imitate reality and the view that words make up reality all on their own, and Gass, at the end of On Being Blue, offers a paradigm for where we are, using a piece of Elkin’s prose as an illustration. A character in Elkin’s A Bad Man cherishes merchandise of all sorts, and Gass remarks that the man’s passion for these goods is “instantly convincing because Elkin’s passion for the language which relates it is convincing.” “What the eye dwells on—loves—the ear hears.” Obscene words on the other hand are “not well-enough loved” and some of them—bang, screw, prick, piece, hump, slit, gash—are perhaps too violent and full of hatred to be loved at all. “Reality is an achievement,” Gass wrote in Fiction and the Figures of Life, and it is in part a linguistic achievement. “Words are properties of thoughts,” he says in the new work, “and thoughts cannot be thought without them.” Again: “I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say.” The writer speaks tenderly to his paper, and, by caring for his words, constructs a world for his readers.
There is a lot of truth in this, and we need to hear it. Very few writers really care for words, and scarcely any critics, and too much of what passes for literature is merely a hurried or bullying gesture toward what lies beyond language. Nevertheless, high style has its perils. Roland Barthes speaks of a “desire” for certain words as closer to a childish, regressive compulsion than to a heroic passion. Flaubert’s tussle with French was a desperate and infinitely disappointing affair; Proust and James sought and endured long, teasing flirtations with their sentences. Dickens treated language like a groveling, indefatigable mistress, and Joyce loved it as a believer loves his God.
In the light of these precedents, Gass’s prescriptions look a bit bland. Both he and Elkin tend to love language in the way parents love spoiled children, and their styles are too full of winsome ways that only a parent could enjoy. Alliteration is a fair index, and will stand for many similar indulgences, including rhyme in Gass (“bless,” “caress”) and heartless invention in Elkin (“the illusion was they were indeed in the sea under water, Kopechne’d”). There is “Pennsylvania pastureland” higher up this page, and “russets of erosion”; and “reverses” and “retreat” and “return” and “word” and “world.” There is plenty more: laws, legs, language, lead-like look; cold, contusion; rotten rum, ruin; devils, delirium all occur in the first lines of the first sentence in Gass’s new book, and Elkin writes “goyish, gayish,” “avatar’d to well-meaning aunts” and much else along these lines.
In the following passage from Gass’s book a brilliant thought and a beautifully paced sentence are turned to sickly sweetness by insistent b’s and c’s and w’s, and a climb down clauses and the awful whimsy of Alice’s tea and tantrums:
blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through and as it opens—there—there—we’re here!…in time for tea and tantrums….
On Being Blue is a meditation on blueness, from blue jokes to blue Mondays; on the contexts and associations of the word, the appeal of the color; on color generally; on the interaction of the mind with the world; on sex in literature and (almost) in life. There is a slight fussiness in Gass’s thought which corresponds to the soft spoiling of his language, and I hope he doesn’t really believe that madness is a matter of differing tastes, or “a fiction lived in like a rented room.” Even the elegant epigram I quoted earlier (“people who can’t speak have nothing to say”) is close to simple literary prejudice; true only if we allow a wide range of meanings for speak, if we include a great many habits of sign and language usually thought to be beneath literature’s notice. But I’ve done complaining, and I shouldn’t have complained so much at all if I didn’t think Gass was a very good writer and On Being Blue a remarkable essay.
Its most eloquent section is a plea for the senses, and for consciousness, and for trust in their proper relation. Feelings—being blue as distinct from seeing blue—are more complex than sensations, Gass argues, and more can go wrong with them. But they are not private, simply subjective, they are curious compounds of our awareness of ourselves and our experience of others:
None of these inclusive responses is purely public, purely private; each of them is cognitive, the sum of whatever we know and are at any moment. We experience the world, balanced on our noses like the ball it is, turn securely through the thunder of our own applause.
All fussiness is gone from the thought and the writing here, and on this subject, berating philosophers for failing to hang on to color, for selling out to shape instead, Gass never puts a consonant wrong, alliterates with more than ordinary restraint. The early philosophers decided that qualities like colors were accidents, not essences, and Gass, racing from Aristotle to Descartes, arraigns the whole lot:
The campaign against quality was a campaign against consciousness, because that’s where quality was thrown like trash in a can. Although Descartes’ public purpose was to certify faith, his successful secret purpose was to clean up thought for the surgeries of science. For the most part, then, qualities were removed from the external world and given over to that same soul which was once said merely to perceive them, as though the telescope with its lenses had swallowed the stars.
And again: “Color is consciousness itself, color is feeling, and shape is the distance color goes securely.” And again: “Color is one of the contents of the world.” So that when Gass closes his essay by adjuring writers to “give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them,” and reverts then to the list of blue things (words) with which he began (“blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen…”), we should understand that this recommended flight into language is not altogether a promised victory, that blue is a color which lends itself to the sadness of retreats, and that the world beyond words and beyond literature, fortunately, remains crowded with scarlets and yellows we shall never be able to confine even in metaphor.
Elkin is not as poised or as authoritative a writer as Gass, but The Franchiser, in spite of the element of overkill in the prose, is a very good novel indeed. The difficulty with Elkin, and the source of one’s pleasure and irritation in reading him, is that he is funny without being comic. “I don’t think I am really a humorist,” he says in the interview I’ve already quoted, and he’s not. It is as if Lenny Bruce had never really been interested in laughter. Elkin dislikes this sort of comparison, understandably enough, since it doesn’t do any kind of justice to the power of his best work, where nightmare regions of accident and contingency open up under the spinning imagination, where a man literally sweats blood, for example, bringing that old metaphor to damp, unpredicted, detailed, medical life. But he’s stuck with the comparison all the same, because he is so funny, and because he is a compulsive cracker of the written joke—“I cover the waterfront, I hire the handicapped,” “I feel crummy, Egypt, crummy”—and pursues it into appalling dead ends—a man enjoying the texture of cloth becomes “a sucker for seersucker” and would, Elkin assures us, “have felt felt.”
Gags for Elkin seem to represent some sort of hold on randomness, serve both to clarify and to stave off the dizzying sense that nothing has to happen the way it does, and they afford Elkin and his heroes a recurring, cheerfully defeated stance: “All in all he felt pretty good. Not physically of course. Physically he’d never been worse.” “What does he have?” the hero of The Franchiser asks about the old man who is about to die and become his benefactor, starting him off on his career as a holder of franchises, a purchaser of pieces of names, Howard Johnson here, Fred Astaire there, Mister Softee, Colonel Sanders, H & R Block, Dairy Queen, and One Hour Martinizing in all kinds of other places. The hospital nurse, not beating about the bush, says, “Everything.”
There are really two novels in The Franchiser. One is historical, a vision of Seventies America, homogenized by coast-to-coast weather forecasts and a million identical motels scattered across the face of the land. The hero, Ben Flesh, drives up a ramp off a throughway and doesn’t know where he is. Well, he’s falling apart, he has multiple sclerosis, and is suffering an “ecstasy attack.” But how would he know anyway? Don’t all those franchised cities look alike?
Ben the franchiser, the peddlar of proliferating sameness, has had a hand in this himself, of course, he is one of the men “who made America look like America, who made America famous.” But apart from a fine encounter with Colonel Sanders, who turns out to be first, a French-speaking gourmet, and second, someone called Roger Foster, the theme doesn’t yield much fun or meaning, and mainly feels like a tourist’s observation worked up into a lather by a lively writer. But then Elkin seems to be attracted to this particular observation not by the fact that anyone traveling around America could make it and probably has, but by his interest in replication, and the puzzles hidden in the word identity, which appears both to assert and to deny the individuality of the self: the quest for identity; identical twins. This is the second, more mythological novel in The Franchiser.
Ben is godson to a man who has eighteen children, who adopt Ben as their older godbrother. They come in seven clusters, four sets of triplets, three sets of twins, and they all look very much alike—they are a genetic version of a Howard Johnson’s chain. They all have mysterious debilities and deficiencies: one of the girls can’t menstruate, another can’t hear loud noises, another comes down with children’s illnesses in her twenties, another wets the bed when she’s in her thirties; one of the boys catches plant diseases, another has cradle cap, another shits only twice a month, and another is racially prejudiced (“Please, Ben,” he says in one of the book’s many good moments, “not in front of the shvartseh.” “Irving,” Ben remonstrates, “she is your wife“).
Ben sleeps with the girls and befriends the boys, and toward the end of the novel most of the now middle-aged children die off in manners gothically suited to their particular quirks and ailments. One of the girls has some sort of iron in her bones instead of marrow, and is alarmingly heavy. She is cremated, and it takes three men to carry her ashes. Ben, meanwhile, his franchises tied up in a failing Travel Inn, his America caught in a galloping financial crisis, his nerves all haywire from multiple sclerosis, talks a lot, weeps a lot, and ends the book happy, grateful that he isn’t all the lamentable other things that he might have been—remaining only, Elkin suggests with the full force of his whole hyperbolic plot, the lamentable thing that he is.
It would probably be a mistake to try to squeeze all this into too clear a discursive meaning, but plainly what draws Elkin to these gags and scenes, what drives Ben’s long speeches and Elkin’s tours de force about hospitals and a heat-wave and a dance studio and a conference of anxiously dapper stereo salesmen, is a sense of mislaid individuality. Ben is too simple and too passive to be an individual: he is a franchiser, buried under borrowed names. The freak family is too much of a family for its members to be anything on their own: they are too much alike, similar even in the degree of weirdness of their separate afflictions. And beyond Ben and the family there is only a synthetic America, Ben’s territory and the family’s echo.
“What I write about,” Elkin says, “are people whose wills have been colored by some perfectly irrational desire.” But in The Franchiser, these wills have been colored by perfectly rational doubt, and a familiar American myth has been inverted, or perhaps simply understood. The individual will no longer carves itself on the world, it turns around and hesitates, because it has more company than it ever planned for, and it knows now that not even Colonel Sanders remembers who the real Colonel Sanders is.
Paris Review 66, Summer 1976.↩
Paris Review 66, Summer 1976.↩