1. Liminality, Nature, and Postmodernism
The concept of liminality is rooted in the pioneering anthropological work of Arnold van Gennep and his various successors, such as Mary Douglas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and—perhaps most of all—Victor Turner. Insofar as the novelist and philosopher William H. Gass is concerned with the slipperiness of semiological systems, it might be said that he shares an intellectual affinity with structural anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss. Yet, Gass’ preoccupations with the self-referential worlds of metafiction would also appear to be an inversion of the social and cultural practices that constitute anthropological study. In this article, then, I do not want to suggest that Gass’ writing either draws upon or mirrors the uses of liminality as an anthropological tool but that his fiction repeatedly enacts an engagement with boundaries—the bordering between self and other, private and public, human and non-human—which, in turn, reflects Gass’ own ambivalent position within the American grain of literary tradition. For the purposes of this article, underpinning these interactions is the fraught relationship between nature and artifice. To explore these ambiguous relations, the article seeks to re-position Gass’s most well-known work, the short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), alongside the criticism of his near-contemporary, the poet and academic Charles Olson, another writer also concerned with the boundaries between the author and the landscape that s/he inhabits. By invoking Olson, the article necessarily calls into play a series of other liminal positions in which to reorient Gass’ work—the early postmodern criticism of the period, influenced by amongst others Martin Heidegger; the legacy of modernism, most notably that of New Criticism; and, further back still, the nature writing of the Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Ultimately, I suggest that Gass’ writing—like Olson’s—is marked by a quality of situated-ness which yet remains both provisional and tentative. It is a grounding in art, nature, and tradition that remains groundless, which persists by necessity in liminal formations.
Having said all of that, to think of this arch-postmodernist as in some senses a nature writer may seem misplaced. Despite Christopher Manes’ suggestion that ecocriticism emerged, in part, as a symptomatic response to postmodernism’s challenge to such grand narratives as the illusional autonomy of the human subject and the concomitant “silenc[ing] of nature” (22), the postmodern practice of such key theorists as Jean Baudrillard would seem incompatible, as Greg Garrard has argued, with the fundamental tenets of the environmental movement. As Garrard writes of Baudrillard’s troubling of mimesis via his dual concepts of simulacra and the hyperreal:
Such implacable scepticism towards stable truth claims must be antithetical to an ecocriticism that attends to problems of representation, but is founded ultimately in the assumption of real environmental problems. We must distinguish between an enervating scepticism towards truth in general … and a revitalising scepticism towards certain supposed “truths” of popular ecological discourse. (192)
A similar position is taken, in a different context, by John McLeod in his study of postcolonial London where, although indebted to deconstructionists such as Julian Wolfreys, for whom the urban landscape is a palimpsest of multiple and mutable representations, McLeod’s project is to set those discursive constructs of the city against the lived experience of its migrant populations (7–11). The positions, then, of critics from quite different fields such as ecocriticism and postcolonialism (to which could also be added critics concerned with identity politics, for instance, in terms of feminism, LGBT, or disability) toward postmodern theory is that its more radical truth-claims—the arguments which, within the work of theorists such as Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Jean-François Lyotard, and Paul Virilio, came to define postmodernism in the 1980s—need to be set against (or set aside) some form of baseline reality. This resistance toward postmodernism, however, does not do away with the postmodern altogether; indeed, as Garrard does so in his discussion of animal theory, ecocriticism has made explicit use of such postmodern concepts as Donna Haraway’s formulation of the cyborg (170–73). Instead, the tension that ecocriticism explores between the unknowable world, except as a thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), and its multiple, contradictory, and complementary representations returns us to an earlier moment in the development of postmodern thought, an historical point in the late 1960s during which postmodernism—a concept that had only recently crossed over from post-war American sociological discourse into Humanities departments on US campuses—seemed to be synonymous with the practices of experimental French novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and poststructural theorists such as Roland Barthes. It is a moment embodied in Gass’ fiction and criticism.
2. Metafiction and the Gass Aesthetic
Gass is perhaps best-known as a critic for introducing the concept of metafiction to describe the work of experimental writers such as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flann O’Brien. In this pioneering essay, originally published in 1971, Gass makes clear for him that metafiction constitutes the meeting-point between fiction and philosophy, principally the language games that he became familiar with as a PhD student at Cornell University in the early 1950s:
The use of philosophical ideas in the construction of fictional works … has been hastened by the growing conviction that … they have the further advantage of being almost wholly irrelevant as accounts of the real world. They are, that is, to a great degree fictional already, and ripe for fun and games. Then, too, the novelist now better understands his medium; he is ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is a master—language. (Fiction 24)
Metafiction, then, is not merely writing about writing: it is the construction of a totally realized simulacrum within language and divorced from all referents to the outside world. Such a position would seem to be a premonition of the one advanced by Baudrillard from the end of the 1970s, but to gloss Gass’ criticism in this way, would be to elide the distinction that he is making between fiction and reality. Whereas later postmodernists, such as Baudrillard, regard the real as no longer authentic in any objective sense but subsumed in a state of hyperreality, where the prevalence of simulacra and the remaining vestiges of reality are indivisible from one another (6–7), for Gass the importance of metafiction is that it is distinct from an external reality that he does not seek to erase but which he views as impoverished. Instead of aligning Gass with Baudrillard, it would be more accurate to associate his outlook with that of near-contemporaries such as Susan Sontag, in particular her view in “Against Interpretation” (1964) that the impoverishment of reality arises from the overabundance of objects:
Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life—its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities … , that the task of the critic must be assessed. (Against 13–14)
As Charles Newman has argued, summarizing Gass’ aesthetic stance, fiction “operates as a distinct and whole addition to reality; in this sense, fiction always challenges conventional reality. Yet fiction is a world which can be entered, and against which one can measure oneself” (63). Just as Sontag argues that due to the claustrophobia of urban living the role of the critic in how s/he responds to art must be re-evaluated, so as not to merely add to the cacophony of experience, so Gass, according to Newman, proposes “a new set of contractual relations” not between the word and the object but between the writer and the reader (63). In testing his/her preconceptions about the dual natures of fiction and reality against the fictional world that Gass has created solely within language, the reader is forced into becoming an active participant within Gass’ creation. Following Sontag’s precept that “[t]he aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us” (14), we can argue that Gass’ reactivation of the reader is designed to make him/her more aware of themselves, their relationship to their surroundings, and their perception of the senses. Although Gass begins, like Baudrillard, in the realm of simulacra, both the motivation and the trajectory of his critique end in an altogether different region; far from the subsuming of fiction and reality into a hyperreal, Gass’ use of metafiction seeks to reconnect his readers in relation to their own situated-ness.
3. Situated-ness in Charles Olson
Practically contemporaneous with Gass’ criticism of fiction’s mimetic function, William V. Spanos inaugurated the first issue of Boundary 2 (1972), the pioneering academic journal dedicated to postmodern literature and poststructural theory, with a call for “an existence-Art, one which, by refusing to resolve discords into the satisfying concordances of a telos, constitutes an assault against an artificialized Nature in behalf of the recovery of its primordial terrors” (167). Spanos took his cue from an equally Heideggerian emphasis upon situated-ness in which, as in the labyrinthine mysteries of anti-detective stories such as Borges’ “Death and the Compass” (1944), the protagonist is lost in an endless relay of signs and their symbols, which negates the rationalizing logic of causal progression and forces them to experience the authentic albeit threatening emotions of dread and fear. In seeking to find late modernist equivalents to these fictions, Spanos lists among others the open-field poetry of Olson, the nouveau roman of Michel Butor and Robbe-Grillet, Pop Artists such as Claes Oldenburg, and developments in poststructuralism, phenomenology and the cybernetic-inspired theories of Marshall McLuhan.
Although Gass was well acquainted with the work of the French New Novelists, Olson’s name in particular stands out from this list. Commemorated a couple of issues later in a special double-edition of Boundary 2, Olson had already displaced the mastering intelligence of the poet by placing him, as he put it in his essay “Projective Verse” (1950), “in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” (Collected 240). In anticipation of Gass and other metafictional writers such as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, Olson pays special attention to both the “reality outside a poem as well as a new stance towards the reality of a poem itself” (246). Like Gass’ concern with the arrangement of sentences, Olson is preoccupied with the building-blocks of verse: the syllable, line, and breath. It is these that construct the apparatus into which the objects that comprise the content of the poem can be introduced:
Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption to which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature … and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. (247)
Olson displaces the subjectivity of the poet not in terms of his early mentor Ezra Pound’s faux objectivity—as in “In a Station of the Metro” (1912)—nor in terms of his contemporary William Burroughs’ production of the subject as an instrument of control, but as an object no different to other objects within the systematic arrangement of the poem. This repositioning of the subject as part of a circuit reveals the environmental aspect of Olson’s thought:
It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself … But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. (247)
This turning inwards equates with Newman’s claim that what Gass’ self-referentiality produces is opaqueness: “The window of language is no longer in fact a window, but its own autotelic agency: Opacity as Reality” (67). However, this formulation only partially describes the effect of Gass’ writing if we read its situated-ness along lines similar to that of Olson’s poetry and criticism. For instead, opacity does not equate with silence despite—or rather because of—Gass’ inward turn from literature’s mimetic function. As Gass himself acknowledges: “Talk is essential to the human spirit. It is the human spirit. Speech. Not silence” (“Art” 90). This too, paradoxically enough, is the point of Sontag’s analysis of “the aesthetics of silence” in the work of writers and artists such as Samuel Beckett and John Cage: “somebody’s silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence, for imputing speech to it” (Styles 16). Or, as Cage himself put it: “What we require is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking” (109). Opaqueness in Gass’ fiction, and amongst the work of his near-contemporaries, is the prerequisite then not simply for silence but, more specifically, for the silencing of the authorial subject so that other sounds and voices can be heard; an oral (aural) tradition that Gass regards as his artistic ideal: “By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write” (“Art” 69).
4. The Singularity of New Criticism
This commitment to orality may help to explain why Gass’s short stories have endured from that same period of intense experimentation in the work of writers such as Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Joseph McElroy, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Ronald Sukenick. But it serves to explain two further motivations within Gass’ aesthetic. First, as Newman argues, there is little in Gass’ notion of metafiction that would be unsympathetic to the formal textual analysis of New Criticism which dominated the Humanities faculty at Kenyon College, whilst Gass was an undergraduate student there, under the presiding influence of John Crowe Ransom. Despite the viability of Newman’s contention that Gass modified the focus of New Criticism—following the institutionalization of its modernist practice—to concentrate upon the role of the reader, he downplays Ransom’s early influence upon Gass, whom he was reading whilst still at high school. Although Gass did not officially study under Ransom, it is more than likely that he would have been aware of Ransom’s pioneering essay, “Criticism, Inc.” (1937). Here, Ransom fashioned a series of do’s and don’ts for the formalist study of literature, stripping away the affective fallacy of readers, plot synopses and other forms of esoteric research overly concerned with the content of the text, historical contextualization, philological research, and moral criticism, to leave only what “the poet wants to preserve” from “being killed by prose”:
The critic should regard the poem as nothing short of a desperate ontological or metaphysical manoeuvre. The poet himself, in the agony of composition, has something like this sense of his labors. The poet perpetuates in his poem an order of existence which in actual life is constantly crumbling beneath his touch. His poem celebrates the object which is real, individual, and qualitatively infinite. He knows that his practical interests will reduce this living object to a mere utility, and that his sciences will disintegrate it for their convenience into their respective abstracts. The poet wishes to defend his object’s existence against its enemies, and the critic wishes to know what he is doing, and how. (601)
Despite the pedagogic and propagandist motivations of his essay, in its attempt to create a new kind of critic who will both espouse and cement the doctrine of close reading, Ransom keeps returning to this singular object—the activity of writing in giving shape and coherence to an experience of the world that is always already in the process of dissolution—and to the tentative amity between writer and reader. In that sense, although Gass’ oeuvre is imbricated with the philosophies of language that he subsequently encountered at Cornell via his PhD supervisor Max Black and (briefly) Ludwig Wittgenstein, he too keeps returning to this lacuna at the heart of Ransom’s criticism as his fictions obsessively revolve around the communication of objects. Orality, precisely because of its unresolved, provisional, mutable, often communal and contextually sensitive nature, complements the pursuit of Gass’ narrators in their attempts to provide meaning to their experiences.
Yet, secondly, this pursuit of meaning and of its oral communication only reinforces the situated-ness of Gass’ prose. His narratives orbit the mystery of the object as a thing in itself (Ding an sich) and the concomitant slipperiness of the discursive representations that it engenders, drawing in their helpless narrators as part of its gravitational pull. The labyrinthine structures of Gass’ stories, although invoking comparisons with both Borges and Robbe-Grillet, can instead be read—following Olson’s displacement of the centrality of the authorial subject—in terms of their implicit environmentalism, in which the narrator is no different from any other object within the given field of articulation and expression. Such a move, however, produces two consequences. First, following the suggestion of SueEllen Campbell with regard to the possible affinities between poststructural theory and ecocriticism (131–33), the emphases upon systems within both the poetics of Olson and of environmental thought points to a common pattern in which units of meaning are regarded as part of an unfolding network, whether that be in terms of an ecology or a semiotic. Watson L. Holloway for example, following Tom LeClair’s work on Don DeLillo, argues that Gass’ title-story can be read as an early instance of systems fiction: “fiction that is configural, ecosystemic, transactional” in which the binary opposition of either/or is erased for a more porous, simultaneous and open-ended relationship between self and other, subject and object, individual and environment (74). Second, however, and again following Olson’s poetic researches into the history and landscape of his hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, this ecosystemic approach must be contextualized within what the poet William Carlos Williams termed “the American grain.”
5. Gass and Tradition
As Stephen Fredman has argued, the attempts of modernists such as Williams and T.S. Eliot to justify their literary experiments in terms of a tradition of their own making ironically points to the fundamental groundlessness of their projects. Williams writes of the combined force of Edgar Allan Poe’s criticism that “[i]t is a movement, first and last to clear the GROUND” (219). For Fredman, the revisionism that Williams ascribes to Poe accurately describes his own situation in 1925, of clearing the ground in order to establish the authenticity of his own poetic in a retroactive act of canon-building (16–17). Olson, too, is caught in the same process but, as Fredman shows in his detailed study, it is to Thoreau that Olson turns and, in particular, to his Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). There is little point here of recapitulating Fredman’s fine analysis. Yet, it is worth comparing the turn inwards of both Gass and Olson with the following passage from Thoreau’s account where he listens to the sounds of the forest:
All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph. (169)
Despite, or perhaps because of, the rhetoric—Thoreau’s “universal lyre” neatly equates with the Romantic metaphor of the aeolian harp for the combined and multi-faceted aspects of nature—the consonance of the ethereal melody “with every leaf and needle of the wood” points to the ecosystem that underwrites the passage. Following Andrea Wulf’s recent biography of the life and work of the philosopher Alexander von Humboldt, for whom close observation of the natural world revealed its underlying interconnectedness, it is possible to see here von Humboldt’s influence on Thoreau’s thinking (as it can also be seen operating upon quite dissimilar contemporaries such as Poe and Hermann Melville). However, whilst the passage is indebted to Romantic and Enlightenment ideas, it also looks forward, via the originality that Thoreau ascribes to the echo, to the tension between the internal reality of the art-work and the external reality of the world of objects to be found in Gass and Olson. The echo “is not merely a repetition,” a simulacrum in more postmodern-sounding terminology, but rather conveys something of the essence of the wood. At this point it is worth recalling that Ovid’s tale of Narcissus and Echo not only relates a story of self-love and thwarted desire but also describes the creation of two separate yet related art-forms: painting and music. In the former, the artist cleaves toward self-portraiture even when depicting a reality other than him-/herself, whilst in the latter, the composer abandons any pretense at self-embodiment for a medium abstracted from the reality that it evokes. Thoreau’s echo, precisely because it appears to lack any originating source, conveys the interconnectedness of nature where each element, each leaf or needle, resonates with one another. In that sense, Thoreau’s relationship to the wood is synecdochal, where the part is substituted for the whole, but in which the absent or incomprehensible totality is conveyed through how each part reverberates with the other. Such a relationship, however, can only be apprehended by the human subject, in this instance Thoreau, falling silent and admitting himself to the sounds which he receives: the primordial language of the wood that Thoreau represents through his onomatopoeic rendering of what he hears.
As Lawrence Buell has written, “Thoreau is today considered the first major interpreter of nature in American literary history” (171), but as he details in his study of Walden’s composition and narrative progression, this position was not achieved without complication: he not only had to surmount his lack of a scientific education and early debt to Ralph Waldo Emerson but also his own solipsism “by defining as an essential part of his individuality the intensity of his interest in and caring for physical nature itself” (172). Such a struggle appears, at face value, to be absent in Gass’ work. Instead, the narcissism of his metafictions would seem to side with Emerson’s perception of nature as a coherent sign-system, to be decoded by the educated (male) observer, rather than Thoreau’s gradual surrendering to the otherness of nature:
In the old days we might have supposed that the daffodil was much, much more interesting than the word daffodil, but I simply would deny that. The word daffodil is much more interesting than daffodils. There’s much more to it. (Gass qtd. in McCaffery 151)
Yet, whilst on the one hand, Gass is divorcing himself from the Romantic ecology of writers such as William Wordsworth, to explore the interplay of signs and symbols that we inhabit and attempt to make sense of our reality, on the other hand, an epistemological struggle remains between the discrepancy of signifiers and the world that they only nominally describe. Such a conflict complements not only Thoreau’s attempts to come to terms with the limits of his previous experience and his encounter with the natural world but also with Olson’s need to negotiate the example of his literary mentors, Pound and Williams, through his rediscovery of the history and geography of Gloucester. The singularity of creation that both underlines and potentially undermines Ransom’s formalist doctrine is also exemplary of this conflict between language and reality, a tension that Gass attempts to circumvent through his grounding of an Anglo-European tradition that includes Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valéry, but which (as Fredman would argue) only points to the essential groundlessness of Gass’ project. Almost inexorably, then, Gass is compelled to return to the Mid-Western landscape of his birth, for instance, in the title-story of his collection and in “Order of Insects” (1967), which Gass himself regards as “the best thing I ever wrote” (“Art” 89).
6. “Order of Insects” and “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”
“Order of Insects” is narrated by an unnamed housewife who has recently moved into a new home. The story has some unconscious echoes with Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe,” first published in the same year, but whereas in that story the protagonist’s madness arises from the claustrophobia of the domestic routine, here the narrator’s instability emerges from the dead bugs that she begins to find around the house. Whereas Zoline’s protagonist struggles to be the ideal housewife, Gass’ narrator prides herself upon her efficiency: “I am terribly meticulous myself. The house was clean, the cupboards tight and orderly, and we never saw one alive” (164). In other words, the domestic space also embodies the narrator’s ideal conception of herself but with the proviso that, as with the insect shells that she keeps discovering, there is an underlying deadness at its heart; a deadness also conveyed in the increasing sterility of her marriage. If, in one sense, the story suggests both the ultimate arbitrariness of boundaries, and the inescapable proximity between purity and contamination, in another sense, the story implies that the mounting entropy comes not from without but from within; that order engenders its own chaos: “I could not imagine where the bugs had come from” (164).
The narrator’s initial reaction is one of abjection, yet she experiences a vicarious “thrill of horror” (165) as she hoovers up the dead shells. Bit by bit, she is drawn into examining the insects even though she knows that it is “no study for a woman … bugs” (164). Her anatomical introduction to the study of the insects is via “a little dated handbook in French” (165), the ambivalence of which arises from the disparity between exploring something so base in a language so “elegant” (165). Gass characteristically foregrounds the discrepancy between words and the connotations that they suggest, and the object that they are meant to denote: “The picture didn’t need to show me there were two, adult and nymph, for by that time I’d seen the bodies of both kinds. Nymph. My god the names we use” (165). Yet, recalling Thoreau’s invocation of the wood-nymph, the dead shell—by virtue of its very deadness—acts as an echo not only of the living original but also of the natural world to which it belongs. As the narrator comments, “[n]ow that the heavy soul is gone, the case is light” (166), so that the insects become an object of contemplation; an art-work: “Corruption, in these bugs, is splendid” (166). Although Frederick R. Karl sees Gass as working within a pastoral tradition (53–55), as Buell similarly remarks of Thoreau, Gass also recognizes the danger within pastoralism of distancing the human subject from an authentic—as opposed to aesthetic—experience of nature. However, whilst the narrator appreciates the order of beauty that she discovers within the apparent ugliness of the insects, she also recoils from what is nevertheless “a roach … and you a woman” (167). Her growing aesthetic and scientific interests reflect back upon her status as a housewife. She has transgressed social and cultural boundaries of what is approved as feminine interests; as she acknowledges: “I no longer own my own imagination” (167).
This tension between property and propriety, between self-possession and self-decorum, reasserts Gass’ characteristic concern with the imaginative realm as complementary to an external reality that can be judged against fiction’s internal coherence. Here, however, the utopian and liminal space of the imagination allows the narrator to project herself into the body of the dead insect, “while I lay shell-like in our bed” (168), an imaginative contact with the non-identical world of nature that permits her to begin speculating upon her own frustrations in married life and in her stereotyping as a wife and a mother: “The ordinary fears of daily life… . Womanly, wifely, motherly ones” (168). By story end, her fascination with the bugs has turned into a full-scale interest in entomology, from which her husband and children “have taken fright and do not care to pry or to collect” (170). Like Thoreau, she has re-educated herself via the close observation of nature whilst also seeing that obsession as central to her own solipsistic personality. Yet, unlike Thoreau, she remains constrained by her feminine roles and socioeconomic dependency; Gass leaves open the possibility that her narcissism is in fact the product of her confined existence. Whilst on the one hand the narrator has freed her imagination, on the other hand, she ends by admonishing herself: “How can I think of such ludicrous things—beauty and peace, the dark soul of the world—for I am the wife of the house, concerned for the rug, tidy and punctual, surrounded by blocks” (171).
Ironically, the title-story (and final story of the collection) is divided into thirty-six block-like sections. As Gass has said of the story’s final composition:
For me any piece is a play of various forms against one another. When I am playing with forms, it is often simply to find a form for something odd like the garbage … There is one right order and the problem is to find it. (“Art” 84–85)
Although in one sense, following Holloway’s application of the systems analogy, Gass has found the right form, in terms of how the published story takes shape, in another sense “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is about the attempt to find a narrative solution. Letting “the garbage” in is another way of describing how writers and artists from Thoreau to Cage and Olson fell silent in their works, so as to permit the detritus of the outside world to inhabit the artistic space. It is also a way of managing the entropy that permeates “Order of Insects” by framing it within a collage-like structure, reminiscent of artists such as Kurt Schwitters or more contemporaneous Pop Art. The still center, however, of the narrator’s cataloging of the mid-Western town means that the story does not abandon itself altogether to a postmodern ethos but retains, even if only provisionally, a modernist call to order.
Several critics have picked-up on the opening allusion of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” to W.B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), in particular, the protagonist’s identification with Yeats’ narrator who constructs a mythical city, a simulacrum of Constantinople, in which to practice his art (see, for example, Holloway, 66–67). Yet, equally relevant are lines 25–26—“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing” (128)—in that Gass’ protagonist has not escaped from the natural world but, in moving to this Mid-Western town, has immersed himself further. In seeking to describe the town, the narrator offers a self-portrait—his own personal frustrations, artistic paralysis, and social alienation—but the catalyst for this representation remains that of the town itself. As the narrator acknowledges, “I must pull myself together, get a grip … but I feel spilled, bewildered, quite mislaid” (Gass, “In the Heart” 202), so that the captions that herald each new section begin to slip from their usual denotation: the final part to be labeled “THE CHURCH” instead describes a basketball game (205–06), as if team sports are analogous to the communion of the Christian faith. The slippage between content and context indicates Gass’ characteristic tension between reality and its representation, but this discrepancy does not erase the importance of external reality as a touchstone to Gass’ literary experiments. Instead, contrary to the sentiments of Yeats’ narrator, nature rather than artifice plays a significant role in Gass’ story.
Most explicit is the compulsive listing of what the protagonist sees: “Some were ordinary flies; there were the large blue-green ones; there were swarms of fruit flies too, and the red-spotted scavenger beetle; there were a few wasps, several spots of bees and butterflies—checkers, sulphurs, monarchs, commas, question marks—and delicate dragonflies … but principally houseflies and horseflies and bottleflies, flies and more flies in clusters around the rotting fruit” (204). The blurring of the types of insect so that they resemble punctuation marks may, on the one hand, indicate Gass’ feeling that we can only know the world through the grammar and syntax that we devise for it, but on the other hand, it also suggests the narrator’s inability to grasp the fullness of the natural world: as a professional writer, he falls back upon what he is familiar with, the layout of the printed page. Yet such a list, in its own way a kind of collage, only foregrounds the page that we are reading, a microcosm of how Gass’ composition foregrounds both the text itself as a made thing and, implicitly, its disparity with the natural world as a given. As in the work of Gass’ literary mentor, Stein, and more contemporaneously the later poetry of George Oppen—for example, a nature poem such as “Psalm” (1965)—words are both tender and small, their fragility being the only way through which the writer can commune with the complexity of nature. By deliberately silencing his own egotism, an experimental writer such as Gass can listen and respond to the panoply of nature with the hope of communicating something of that complexity to the reader. In the context of the beginnings of the environmental moment at the start of the 1960s, this reverse silencing assumes added political urgency.