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 …