19 October 2008


Just as the order of numbers in a sum makes no difference, just as there is no special sequence to towns on a map, the mind and the masterpiece may pass back and forth between thoughts as often and as easily as trains between Detroit, Duluth, and Denver, and chapter headings are, in fact, only the names of places. Oral literature had to be sequential (like music before tape), but type made possible a reading which began at the rear, which repeated preferred passages, which skipped. As in an atlas, the order was one of convenience, and everything was flat. A geographical history rolls time out like that. Of course, there are stories still; an evening's entertainment, that's all human nature asks for; but masterpieces have to bear repeating and repeating. There are no surprises, no suspense, no tears, no worries in them. We know what will happen to Ahab. Duncan's dead, and Anna's under her train. I can tell you the page. The Wings of the Dove lies spread before us now as openly as Iowa. Literature in the eyes of the human mind is like land seen from a plane. And so is Gertrude Stein when we find her. Macbeth shall murder sleep again, Tom Jones receive a beating, Heathcliff . . . ah, well . . . "Oblige me," she says, "by not beginning." Netherfield Park is let at last. Mr. Gradgrind is still proceeding on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over. Bloom is carrying a piece of soap about. The next century is approaching like a distant train. John Barth has just written Chimera, Beckett has brought out The Lost Ones, Nabokov a book called Transparent Things. And they are reissuing The Geographical History of America almost a hundred years from the author's birthday. Oblige me, she says, "Also by not ending."
~ William Gass, "Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence," The World Within the Word

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