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Journey into the Dark

The Tunnel

by William H. Gass
Knopf, 652 pp., $30.00

The Tunnel is about a man who undertakes to establish an identity between the frustrations and disappointments of ordinary domestic life and the Holocaust. The man is a professor of history at a university in the American Midwest. The frustrations and disappointments are his own—The Tunnel is, in effect, his memoir—and they are of a fairly mundane sort: an alcoholic mother, a sexually stagnant marriage, a failed love affair, uninteresting children, dim students, bickering colleagues, and a general sense of lost entitlement. He has just completed a scholarly study, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, intended to subvert conventional notions about the morality of the Holocaust. He now writes The Tunnel as a kind of companion volume—so that his wife will not know what he’s up to, he interleaves the sheets of the two manuscripts on his desk—in which he gives vent to his many resentments, bigotries, and fantasies of revenge, and in which he identifies himself regularly and admiringly with the Nazis.

William Gass is said to have spent thirty years writing this book. It is his second novel. His first, Omensetter’s Luck, appeared in 1966; he is also, of course, the author of a number of volumes of essays and short fiction. In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator’s sour nihilism is also Gass’s, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do:

The narrator’s name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler’s father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass’s own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass’s) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking. Kohler is a few years older than Gass (who was born in 1924); but this is to make it possible for him to visit Nazi Germany in the late Thirties, and to be middle-aged, the time of reflection and regret, in the late Sixties, which is the period in which the book is set.

Kohler is also (again, like his creator) something of a philosopher. His interpretation of the Holocaust is based on a theory about the nature of history, which he explains as follows: “Neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors to which a skillful propaganda can seem to lend a causal force, and in that fashion furnish others…. If there is a truly diabolical ingredient to events…it lies in the nature of History itself, for it is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause.” The syntax of the last sentence might be a little clearer: what is meant is that people are incited to act not by past events, but by representations of past events (“it is the chronicle…which causes”), and those representations reflect the selfish interests of the people who do the representing. There is no past; there are only texts.

Kohler’s initiation into this line of thinking comes, as he tells us, during a student visit to Germany in 1938. There he sits at the feet of a professor named Magus Tabor (or “Mad Meg,” as Kohler affectionately calls him), whose histrionic lectures on the uses of history take up many pages of The Tunnel. These are mostly Nietzschean deconstructions with a Nazi twist—such as, “There is no Nature which we are compelled to obey, only a Culture which various interests conspire to place on its empty throne,” and “It’s a war of lie against lie in this world where we are,” and “Myths are history, and myths are made, preserved, and propagated in some language. Now then, my pure, young, decent countrymen: whose tongue shall be the one to wag?”

Kohler discovers in these exhortations an appealing philosophy of life, for they justify his sense that the will makes its own truth, and they permit him to understand Nazism as a splendid casting off of self-deception, a bold acknowledgment that morality is simply the mask that disguises the real motive for human action, which is the desire to be the dog on top. He declares to Tabor his admiration for the “New Germany”; he participates in the rioting on Kristallnacht; he returns to America. The details of his subsequent military service are sketchy, but he is evidently present at the Nuremberg trials, which he pronounces a “charade,” on grounds that if there is guilt in merely wishing the extermination of the Jews, no one is innocent. “Who of us has not destroyed our enemies in our heads,” as he puts it. “Suppose but a whisper of our wishes leaked out and half a continent was ready to rise and do your bidding?” He publishes these observations in a book called Nuremberg Notes, which is roundly attacked, but which launches his academic career.

About half of The Tunnel is taken up with reflections, in this vein, on the nature of history and our knowledge of the past, presented in the form of Tabor’s monologues, office debates among Kohler’s history-department colleagues, and the musings of Kohler himself. The remainder consists of Kohler’s recollections of various aspects of his private life—his parents and relations, his childhood terrors and ecstasies, the early years of his marriage, his love affair with a local salesgirl, his daily routine, and his tunnel. The latter is a harebrained attempt to construct an escape tunnel in the basement of his own house, an undertaking involving complicated schemes of concealment which are minutely described and which include breaking the neck of his wife’s cat and disposing of the corpse.

The personal stories are interwoven with the reflections on history, and the strands are matched in two ways. There is, first, a continual figuring of domestic events in the language of the Third Reich. “A little Führer’s been my father,” Kohler says; or, “I’ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen”; or (about his tunnel), “I am running away from home…I am escaping the camp.” An abusive tirade by his father is compared with a Nazi murdering Jews. A marital quarrel in which dishes are broken is made to recall Kristallnacht. Kohler’s banishment from his wife’s bed evokes Germany’s disgrace following the Treaty of Versailles. He catches the spirit of his married life at middle age in the phrase “as we auschwitz along on our merry way.”

Kohler’s ambition for this “domestic epic,” as he terms it, is to achieve for personal life what he imagines Hitler has achieved for political life: to unmask its brutality, to expose “the fascism of the heart.” Under-writing this enterprise is a theory of personal relations which is isomorphic, as he tells us, with Tabor’s theory of history. “I can tell myself the truth, too,” he says, “as Magus Tabor taught me, because ordinary life is supported by lies, made endurable through self-deception.” Underneath the smiling fakery, underneath the cosmetic surface of daily existence, there is only “the pit, the abyss, the awful truth, a truth that cannot be lived with, that cannot be abided: human worthlessness, our worthlessness, yours and mine.” Domestic life and Nazism are thus related thematically as well as metaphorically, and Kohler is given an extended fantasy about organizing a political party for the scorned and the embittered, those who feel defeated by life, shut out of the banquet. He proposes to name this “the Party of the Disappointed People.” Various banners and insignia, the latter looking somehow like biologized swastikas, are designed and are illustrated in the text, and a manifesto is drafted. Bigots, it is explained, will form “the backbone of the Party,” along with “all who are downwardly destined.” There are dreams of future triumph:

The Nazi movement was a pinnacle, but it peaked only for a moment. Its remnants may hope for more lasting luck next time, but I am confident that my group, the PdP, already huge, although a sleeping giant, will wake, will rise, will thrive.

The tunnel itself, at one point, is represented as a kind of monument to the movement. “Trajan’s column is a solid tunnel turning through the sky,” Kohler explains, “while my pillar will be made of air and go the other way; it will celebrate defeat, not victory.”

But the tunnel as a symbol is clearly intended to ramify in other directions as well. It is, for one thing, a substitute vagina: “I have my own hole now,” says Kohler, with his wife in mind, “your cunt is not the only cave.” But it also links up with a series of images, arising repeatedly in a variety of contexts, of circular shapes—not only “cunts” (a favorite subject of reflection throughout), but wedding bands, cyclones, coffee-cup rings, mouths, the letter O, and so on. A tunnel is a nothing enclosed by something not itself, and we are expected to see that this might be a fair description of Being, of life in the body: “a tall dark column of damp air,” as Kohler describes one character, “hole going nowhere—yes—wind across the mouth of a bottle.” Existence is a noise produced out of a hollowness. There is nothing within; there is only the form and the sounds it makes. The essence is empty.

This is, as it happens, exactly the theme of Gass’s most famous work of fiction, the short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968). And the dismissal of content as anything other than an effect of the manipulation of form, as something “deeper” than the aesthetic surface, has been the constant argument of his criticism.* It is alarming to discover these thoughts among the musings of a bigot, and this is therefore the place where most readers will wish that the point of distinction between the two Williams were a little more obvious.

  1. *

    Much of it is collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), The World Within the Word (1978), and On Being Blue (1976), all published by Godine.

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