50 Books: On Being Blue by William Gass

William Gass as photographed by Herb Weitman

Today I read an email—from a smart guy who was clearly a top-decile writer of English—that contained a parenthetical aside inside a parenthetical aside. Neither interruption improved my understanding of the sentence or my assessment of the person who wrote it, but I sympathized. The urge to add one more layer has overcome us all. Probably it is more likely to overcome those of us who have a knack for writing sentences. Nuances occur to us and we try to pack them in, for the same reason we overfill the tacos we make at home, until anyone else who tries to eat them winds up with a mess running down the back of their hand. The mess in this analogy is, uh, implications lost to unclear syntax. The filling falling out of the back of a taco is the failure of reading comprehension, whose rate increases with complexity until the audience for a given sentence shrinks to one. I am sorry for the inscrutable metaphor, but I had so much meaning for you to savor and I wanted to pack it all in there, until the tortilla just split apart.

How we put meaning into English sentences—or rather how it enters the reader’s mind unbidden, particularly overtones of sexuality related to color—is the subject of William Gass’s On Being Blue, which is billed as “a philosophical inquiry.” It is that. It is also a tour de force, partly because form follows function and partly because, it would seem, Gass really enjoys writing. That’s the gist of his surprisingly affecting closing argument, which is that [SPOILER ALERT] you’re going to die soon, so you should write as much as possible. He does not explicitly advocate this kind of maximalism until the end of the book, but he tacitly endorses it along the way through maximalism of other kinds.

On Being Blue is hard to read. Despite his argument that the function of the writer is to create, via sentences, a consciousness for the reader to experience, a lot of Gass’s sentences demand we step away for a second to figure them out. I often read before bed, but I found that I could only comprehend this book in daylight. My approach was to read a sentence, think about what it meant, and then read it again to check my work. The distance this method imposed was compounded by the fact that I was re-reading; I first read On Being Blue about five years ago and, I realized with growing horror, remembered very little from the first time through. Instead of recognizing old twists and turns, I found the book to be like a hedge maze that, embarrassingly, I was lost in for a second time. The flaw in this analogy is that you cannot step up into the air and consider the hedge maze from above, whereas I kept removing myself from the flow of Gass’s argument to puzzle out what he just said.

This thicket of language is the right way for Gass to expound his theories of connotation and how the sentence says what it does not state. Most failures of comprehension were my fault. Occasionally, though, I was taken by the uncharitable suspicion that he was being intentionally abstruse. Take this paragraph from page 73, where Gass is discussing the changing significances of blue over time:

Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies. Rarer still, since such sensitivity in the brush tip is a rarity (in the penis rarer, in the poet rarest of all), color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if it rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

Emphasis added, and bro: you’re thinking of an octopus. That’s the remarkable cephalopod whose configuration alters with its mood. If you were to use this term that every child knows, you would admittedly lose some elucidation of meaning but also shave off one euphemism and two subclauses from what is already a very cumbersome sentence. I’m willing to do the work, but don’t make me jump through hoops to prove how cunningly you make them.

Clearly, this kind of maximalism is a choice. The question is whether it is necessary, which is a polite way of asking whether it’s performative. Maybe that parenthetical about penises and poets is necessary to unify perceived color with subconscious sexual desire and the artist’s craft, which is an important part of Gass’s overarching thesis that “blue” material enters into language through color and metaphor. Or maybe he made the connection and couldn’t resist pointing it out, i.e. telling us that he did.

That may be the real inquiry at hand in On Being Blue. Where does sophistication shade over into demonstration? When does the parenthetical not add another shade of meaning but rather indicate, as my high school English teacher said it did, a part the author knew he should leave out but lacked the discipline to cut?

Gass makes a compelling argument that there is another type of discipline: the type that leaves everything in, overfilling the taco but doing it so skillfully that nothing falls out. On Being Blue is proof it can be done, but I still wouldn’t eat it in the car, so to speak. It’s thrilling for that reason, though, and in its insistence on radical density it becomes a kind of manifesto. Part of maximalism is doing what is not strictly necessary, and in writing that is usually synonymous with failure. Paradoxically, it is also the precondition for success.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next on our reading list: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

Kathy Griffin’s head photo is wrong aesthetically, not morally

A photo of Kathy Griffin taken by Tyler Shields for TMZ

The thing about performatively threatening the president is that you want to make it symbolic. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that. You can threaten a person who symbolizes the president, as Snoop did when he expressed his frustration with powerful clowns. Or you can make the threat itself symbolic. If I sent you a drawing of me stabbing you in the chest with a knife, you would probably go to the cops. But if I sent you a drawing of one stick figure urinating on another, with the figures labeled “me” and “you” respectively, you would probably take it as less a literal threat than a gesture of contempt. Introducing symbolism lets you perform violence against the president and expect it to be taken as an artistic expression rather than a threat.

That’s where Kathy Griffin messed up. This picture of her holding a severed head is not symbolic enough. With its big stupid hair, the head looks too much like Trump. And campy though it may be from a special-effects perspective, we are clearly looking at a murder scene. The violence is not symbolic, and neither is its target. It’s a photo illustration of Griffin holding up the severed head of the president.

A lot of people have condemned it as a threat. Threatening the president is illegal, even in a joking context, and the AV Club reports that the Secret Service is investigating. I bet their investigation finds that Kathy Griffin ain’t gonna do shit. This photo was obviously a stunt. K-Griff herself said it was all a jape, once it turned out no one thought the picture was cool. I quote Twitter:

2/ OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.

— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) May 30, 2017

Welp, there goes your plausible deniability re: that could have been anybody’s head. But more importantly, why didn’t anyone think that picture was cool? I submit that the moral condemnations are a dodge, and a reasonable person would not take this photograph as a threat. The problem with it is not moral but aesthetic. All it achieves is to neatly convey the pitfalls of political art.

What does this picture make us think? It tells us that Griffin is very displeased with President Trump. After that comes a howling silence. There is no nuance to any of it, no source of additional meaning. Her face is expressionless, suggesting neither knowingness nor innocence, irony nor sincerity. She makes no comment on her own attitude toward the president. She makes no substantive comment on the man himself, like if the head were smoking a cigarette or wearing Gaddafi glasses or something. Unless you want to argue that her blue blouse symbolizes support for the Democratic Party, the only idea this picture conveys is “Kathy hate Trump” in capital letters. But a piece of paper with that printed on it wouldn’t be audacious enough to go viral.

This audacity introduces the defense that it’s not the photo that matters but the act of releasing it. In the same way the art wasn’t in Warhol’s soup cans so much as in the act of painting them, “Trump Head” is not a photo but a concept piece. Publishing this picture is like putting a shark in a lucite tank or submitting a urinal to the Grand Central Palace exhibition. What happens when Griffin issues a blunt, potentially illegal expression of hatred for the president? You could argue that’s the artistic question examined here, and it’s not a photo but rather a piece of performance art.

Except what happens is utterly safe and predictable, so it fails as performance, too. It’s not as though this picture will cost Griffin her gig in Branson. With the possible exception of Log Cabin Republicans, the overlap between her audience and people who will be offended by this photograph is small. Here lies the natural sin of political art. Where good art asks questions or introduces unfamiliar sensations, political art is tempted to tell people what they already know.

That’s why Bill Maher sucks now. He’s not surprising me to make me laugh; he’s agreeing with me to make me clap. Griffin’s severed head photo does the same thing. It styles itself as defiant, but it’s a bid for applause. It seems dangerous to hold up the head of President Trump, but when you think about it, anyone else’s head would have been riskier. That’s what makes him so insidious.

The worst thing about having this man as president is the brutalization of the poor, sick, and brown. The second-worst thing is the terrible judgment his election laid upon our country’s soul. But way down the list, and perhaps too little remarked, is the problem of how his flat, stupid badness has flattened and stupefied art. So many of us feel so strongly against him that we are apt to mistake any mirror for a picture. The question of how to say something interesting about this man is getting increasingly hard to answer, and yet he is so terribly important.

A petard is an explosive charge, not a flagpole

The president sits comfortably on a little box he found.

People sometimes asks me why Combat! blog is not more popular. These people are themselves nerds, consumed by questions of esoteric knowledge while carefree personal trainers make their spouses feel attractive and fun. They have no sense of the common reader’s interest, whereas I, who operate without illusions but with Google analytics, know this blog will never be widely read. All sorts of interesting things that the general public wants to know about are happening on the internet, from Kardashians to one weird trick that cuts belly fat. But I can’t stop thinking about this quote from former White House aide Ronald Klaine, in this Times story on President Trump’s lackluster first 100 days:

“If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.”

First of all, way to avoid the natural conclusion of this sentence, “…a petard of his own erection.” That would probably be too good for this world. But I must find fault with Klaine’s locution anyway, because he has made a common mistake. A petard is not erected. A petard is a small explosive charge used to blast a hole in a wall or door. Recondite knowledge after the jump.

Continue reading

Unfalsifiable: “Thirsty” is the worst insult we have


Of all the names you can get called on the internet, “thirsty” is the worst. This is not to say “thirsty” is the worst thing you can say. That would be the n-word. But the n-word is one of those insults that reveals more about the person who says it than the person so insulted. When someone uses a slur, people think less of him immediately. He is a bumpkin or a coward. The person who calls you thirsty, on the other hand, establishes himself in a position of superiority. From there he observes your behavior and dismisses you with a word. It’s a pretty sick burn.

Continue reading

Unpacking that Skittles analogy

Donald Trump, Jr. upholds the family brand.

Donald Trump, Jr. attends a costume party as his dad.

Is there any more odious concept than Donald Trump, Jr.? His father already embodies the danger of inherited wealth: a 70 year-old brat whose claim to the presidency is that he’s been rich his whole life. Must we push the joke by giving him a child of his own? And must that child look like an extra in American Psycho? The less said about Trump, Jr. the better, lest we repeat the mistake we made with his dad. Unfortunately, he deployed a robust analogy yesterday, when he posted this image on Twitter:


It really makes you think. It also makes you dumb, by directing how you think away from basic facts about how refugees work. Letting them into the country is like eating Skittles, but their number is not like a bowl, a terrorist is not like a Skittle that kills you, and malnourished kids with big eyes and scared parents are not like candy. Otherwise, it’s a great analogy.

Continue reading