From the archive
In its reliance here on metaphor, language shows us how separate its function must always be from that of sensation. The philosopher’s point Mr. Gass wishes to make in literary terms is that style is not just an addition to language but its essential nature: it enables us to inhabit “the blue” in a literal sense by removing us into the perspective of the sky, away from the earth. Rilke remarked that sex “requires a progressive shortening of the senses.” “I can hear you for blocks,” quips Mr. Gass. “I can smell you, maybe, for a few feet, but I can only touch you on contact. A flashlight held against the skin might as well be off. Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content…that there is no major art that works close in.” As Yeats put it, and Mr. Gass might well agree, “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul”; but it is the glory and the justification of “blue” language to remain perpetually virgin.
Undeniable; and yet blue can also be for danger, though Mr. Gass would not admit it. Blue boys can want the external world for one thing only—the words they can have it off with. Mr. Gass’s blue style is ideally pornographic because in it “there’s one body only…the body of your work itself.” The country of the blue, while it suggests so well that enchanted space where matter exists in words, is also self-insulating and self-gratifying. That is the risk run by Virginia Woolf as well as by modern stylists and disciples of the blue—Updike, Stanley Elkin (from whose novel, “A Bad Man,” Mr. Gass supplies a savorous quotation) and Mr. Gass himself. The truer stylist— Hardy, James Joyce—has too wide a repertory to play only on what Wallace Stevens called “the blue guitar.” “Ulysses” is made not out of blue but out of Bloom—a man and his meaning. Great writing has in it all colors: Mr. Gass’s favorites manage only one, though he gives himself and us a nice ride over the rainbow.