Sunday, December 19, 2010

Readings: Another Gass Attack

One of the attractive features of writing one’s own blog is that one is free to state an opinion without spending a lot of time substantiating it with extraneous material. One can simply say “I think such-and-such” and then go ahead and say such-and-such. If somebody wants to contest what you’ve said, they can do so in the comments. At that point you can either defend your opinion, or not, depending on whether you find your reader’s objections to be interesting, or not.

In the following consideration of Cartesian Sonata and other Novellas by the amazing William H. Gass, I am going to cite a few passages that I particularly liked from the last of the four novellas contained in the volume. The title of the work is “The Master of Secret Revenges.”

The first three novellas are all excellent as well. Each is slightly different in form from the others, but also similar in that each is a character study. Here comes my first unsupported opinion: “The Master of Secret Revenges” is a study of ressentiment as exemplified by the title character, Luther Penner. Both the first and the last name of the protagonist (or anti-hero) are significant clues to the character’s significance (that would be unsupported opinion #2, if you’re going to number my transgressions.) He is a clever weakling who spends his life perpetrating increasingly grandiose acts of revenge against those whom he feels to be putting him down. Finally he is martyred in the production of his greatest of all revenges: that of founding a new religion, of which he is the prophet.

As a child, the precocious perpetual victim of schoolyard bullies, Luther Penner temporarily develops the ability to see the souls of his tormentors, from which he gleans the following insight:

We are born morally pure, Luther Penner realized, but life dirties us, and we darken over time, so a self that might have been once radiant within, lightening our skin and shining through our eyes, becomes besmirched by anger, fright, and pride, by pettiness and mean designs. Over time our inner sun will dim, we shall be less and less morally alive, and one day night will pull down its blind, and we shall do a Dirty which leaves us at last with no more guilt or remorse than a squirrel feels for stealing the birds’ seed, and we shall find ourselves finally without humor or indignation or passion or desire or any inner heat whatever. It was what was meant by “the dark night of the soul.” We shall be zombies of the spirit. Like politicians too cynical to bother feeling the cynic’s superiority or even showing the cynic’s sneer.

Luther Penner is projecting like a bandit there (#3), but we note also that he is employing the second person in expounding his nascent philosophy. The next excerpt, although expressing rank bigotry, is presented here because I find it to be, nonetheless, funny (#4). In addition to being funny, it beautifully demonstrates Penner’s understanding of pervasive ressentiment:

He didn’t like fairies much. But he did believe every homosexual was getting even with a parent or two. The gay guy has got his father’s balls in a basket and is carrying them to grandmother’s house to wait for the wolf, he said.

The final excerpt is taken from the book’s closing pages. It is spoken by the novella’s fictional narrator; a man who befriended Luther Penner while both were students at a junior college, and who later researches Penner’s life by collecting his writings and by obtaining an oral history from his family and associates:

…I believe Luther Penner presented us with a mordant yet magnificent metaphysics: life perceived not simply as if it were lived amid a maelstrom of conflicting and competing myths, but as if it were dressed up in illusions deliberately designed by those who have been previously misguided, and who are now getting even as only secret enemies secretly can. How many in one’s own home or neighborhood—to examine a small sample—have been betrayed by isms and ologies of one sort or other, have given money to nutcase causes, and squandered much of the precious time of their lives in vain spiritual pursuits?

It is difficult to argue with that. But, by all means, have at it if you can show evidence to the contrary.