William Gass – Opposed Thumbs

“It is with rueful longing, sometimes, that the naturalist in us undertakes to describe the life our longing calls “the idyll of the animal.” We ponder the spider as it spins, and end in admiration for its patience, its persistence, the instinctive geometries of its web, even its ruthless indifference – a callousness it cannot be blamed for; or we track the lion to and from its lair, or watch the tiger in the tense alertness of its stalk; and we envy how organised the insects and animals are, how – to us – they seems always to express the essential; they know nothing, we think, of distraction, guilt, excess, anxiety, delusion, pride, shame (Nietzsche’s example is a herd of grazing cows, unmolested by memory or foreboding, the present passing from one ruminating stomach to another as if life, when processed, delivered only milk); and how fortunate these creatures are, we imagine in such moments, because each of them possesses the superior efficiencies of its species; they fit without their measure being taken; whereas we perceive a painful inexactitude in our forms and functions; the fit is the tantrum we throw when we fail to find our station; and so we say that we have these gifts because we need them, because basically we are a handful of opposed thumbs: we don’t know how to live.”

—William H Gass, Finding a Form

i can spend quite a time thinking about passages like this. What is at its heart beyond a stylistic exercise. Articulate vs. Intellectual. I bought a William Gass Reader that was published recently, one of the books I may take with me for the summer; for easy grazing, but with just a little grit.

2 thoughts on “William Gass – Opposed Thumbs

  1. You have touched what I consider the central pleasure of reading Gass: the ambiguity of his sentences, which can seem to be language unfolding according to the purely musical impulses which he enunciated so well in his essays on style, the sonorities of words untethered from the sensical, until you turn your head slightly and from the new angle the same sentences appear to be the stringently ordered pensees of a philosophy professor, as Gass was for most of his life. I find this double-perspective inexhaustibly interesting; I love rereading those sentences; but it tires me just imagining the mental labor involved in constructing sentences like that, so I can only take Gass in small bites, masticated for a long time.


    • I can understand, Robert, that sensation of being over-satiated, which I also get from Guy Davenport’s writing. The rich after taste is better after small bites.


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