The Tunnel Big Read: Historical Philosophy and Broken Windows


We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 4, covering pages 379 through 522. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

We are in Week 4 of the Tunnel Big Read, but I’m going to begin this week with some thoughts on Week 3’s reading, since I did not have a chance to get to them last week. Week 3’s reading starts off with our longest, most concrete look at Magus Tabor, Kohler’s mentor and philosophical touchstone. The reading for Week 3 in fact gives us 35 consecutive pages of Mad Meg, including the scene of his death, one of the most touching and well-written sections of The Tunnel that I have encountered so far.

I think these sections also give us the long-awaited meat of The Tunnel’s philosophy of reality vis a vis historical fact and language. Here, Kohler introduces Tabor’s idea that “anything of which you could form a passionate conception automatically was,” [248] which gives us a very particular idea of what reality consists of. You can contrast this to the ideas of historical fact articulated by Planmantee and Herschel in the opening 40 pages of this week’s reading. These matters all, obviously, have a very clear application to Kohler’s own reality, concerned as it is with reconstructing and evaluating his life. Following Tabor, we would have to say that Kohler’s opinions on, for instance, his wife, exist in some meaningful sense outside of himself, even though they are quite obviously biased and the product of much anger. Do we buy that as readers? Would we take this philosophy into our own lives?

We reach something along the lines of the zero point of this philosophizing when Tabor declares that “Aristotle invents—okay, he finds—creates—the logic of the syllogism . . . and my good friend, the European mind is now in being! Well, the discovery of logic is nothing compared to the discovery of rhetoric . . . still . . . neither, you know, is an event in the same sense as a battle is, or an election, or the reign of a pope is it?” [254] So here we have Tabor making the very form of thought that undergirds all of Western history just one way of seeing the world among others. What does this do to any kind of reality that The Tunnel could be said to articulate? Referencing the great art of the Renaissance, Tabor later declares, “we can paint lies so allegorically belief will run to catch up, and create a culture out of sheer kookiness the eyes of others will envy, emulate, admire, adopt.” [258] Is historical and artistic fact simply sustained on belief? And if so, then what does that mean for Kohler’s philosophy of radical pessimism?

Interestingly, Kohler himself undermines any truths that we might take from Tabor, declaring, Tabor that “you could be certain of nothing with Tabor, for he was an absolute actor, and perfectly capable of raising and sustaining a purely rhetorical erection”? [250] But if this is the case, and if the world is nothing but words, as Tabor declares furiously, [268-72] then what does he become when, on his deathbed, “he had lost every medium for the spirit’s expression—all but his wary, unwavering eyes”? [273]

Another big theme in these opening pages is mortality: as Tabor recognizes that his death is approaching he begins to confront the fact of his own irrelevance, seemingly inevitable with mortality: “Not to be here, not to see tomorrow—which, when I see it I shall find as stupid and empty as I found today—is appalling, Kohler, appalling . . . to slip into the insignificance of history like a thought held in a dream . . . ” [250]

After this we get three curious sections: “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” [282-310] “Blackboard,” [310-7] and “Kristallnacht” [317-334]. These highly impressionistic accounts of moments from Kohler’s life are followed by his rather tragic account of “The First Winter of My Married Life,” [334-355] where he gives some hints as to the dissolution of his marriage. This week’s reading concludes with the interesting section “Family Album,” [355-375] where Kohler gives a photo-by-photo account of himself, and the rather harrowing “Child Abuse,” [375-9] where Kohler’s impatience with the cries of his infant son give some of the best testimony yet for his being a monster.

I’m curious to hear people’s impressions of “Windows,” “Blackboard,” and “Kristallnacht,” particularly the last. In there Kohler seems to be conflating actual things that happened to him (a homosexual encounter?) with historical episodes in the history of the Third Reich. Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” also seems to be linked in some way to “Windows,” where it appears Kohler attempted to participate in some kind of anarchist group by throwing a brick through a window (but failed, throwing his brick through a window that was open). Did Kohler participate in fascist activities in some meaningful sense? What exactly was his interest in Herschel Grynszpan, whose murder of a German was the pretext for Kristallnacht?

And lastly, to transition to a different subject, what did you make of Kohler’s youthful essay on reading [302], which begins “A book . . . is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune . . .”?

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My response to all this is going to be a bit uncooked, but… I’ve been thinking about the questions with which you end this post: how the metaphor of the window develops throughout these passages (Why Windows Are Important to Me; Kristallnacht; and The First Winter of My Married Life).

That passage you quote seems key: “A book, I wrote, is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune; each page at least faintly reflects the face of its reader, and hands down a judgment; each page is made of mind, and it is that same mind that perceives the world outside, and it is that same mind that reflects a world within, and it is that same mind that stands translucently between perception and reflection, uniting and dividing, double dealing” (302). In the window one sees one’s own reflection superimposed over the view of the world; one cannot see out without seeing the (reflection of) the self, and that reflection too is subject to judgment. How does this relate to the historical philosophy you mention above–that the rhetoric of a thing is as real as the thing, each philosophy just a way of seeing among all the others, each fact a matter of what one chooses to believe? (If this is a good summary on my part. And I can’t answer this question, only pose it.) By this metaphor: Kohler is documenting the ghost of the self he sees when he looks on the world, which he sees projected upon the world–is this the relation between diary and history? That one can’t look out upon the world without seeing one’s interior reflected?

Windows—in the Kristallnacht section, he watches the neighbor with whom he’s obsessed (“the Turk” or “Greenspan” as he comes to name him, as a double for Grynszpan, about whom he reads) out his window, seeing into the other man’s window, and constructs the other’s imagined life through limits of that (doubly restricted) view. (In that one passage he can’t figure out where the light switch is, and surmises somewhat ludicrously there must be not merely two people in the room making love, but a third, who switches the light on and off.) His own existence seems less real to him than this imagined, glimpsed other’s (a foreigner, like him, or “a Jew,” he suggests). When (as you say & as I seem to remember he repeatedly reminds us, although I can find none of the passages at the moment…) he throws his brick through the window of a shop on Kristallnacht, he says he himself doesn’t break a window, his brick sails through a window already broken.

The metaphor above returns here as well: watching through a window is a metaphor for reading. 321: “When I dug into the data about Grynszpan… wasn’t I peering into his privacy too, unbeknownst to him or his shade?” And watching through windows leads to a kind of complicity, he tells us on (322); but he ends up being very dodgy about what that complicity is: “there’s been one bit of history-making to which I have—in a most minor and irrelevant way, of course—lent a hand” (322), but he won’t say right away what it is, except that it is “if you like, spiritual,” and he goes out of his way to diminish its importance.

Similarly, while he has earlier said he didn’t break a window on Kristallnacht, when he actually tells the story, he does indeed break windows. (Unless I’m misreading this? Pages 331 to 333?). He says he & his chums only “mimicked the manner of the mob” but of course by joining in they were the mob. (As an aside, I don’t think this is an anarchist group—it’s just he and his friends participating in the mass violence of Kristallnacht.)

The question of personal (the quarrel) vs. historical (the war) comes in here too: Kohler wonders: did Grynszpan act out of the political motives usually ascribed to him, or out of the revenge of a jilted lover? (In which case he was a tool for the Nazis—the quarrel becomes a means toward war—the personal becomes the historical—)

And then Kohler ends the whole passage on a personal note, with the radical pessimism (as you nicely put it) we’re coming to know as his: “I watched, read. I waited for a reassuring sight: of a life lonelier than my own, more sordid, tasteless, tepid, thin. … You see, I said to my cold soul. For my part, it wasn’t just Jews.”

And I think we’re within the same metaphor—windows; reflection; judgment—in the passage on his marriage. It’s reflection that destroys his marriage: the other couple who lives in the other half of their home. Kohler and his wife are terrified at the thought that this other couple can hear them and judge their lives as K and Martha hear and judge in turn; they’re terrified that their own lives might be as knowable and sordid as the lives of this other couple. The power lies with the one looking through the window, not the one who is seen. But if the window also reflects, then one is always stuck seeing the smallness of one’s own life, the ghost of one’s self and its failings everywhere, the window or the page “hands down a judgment”… So that what destroys Kohler and Martha is merely seeing (or hearing, in this case) their reflections: having to witness themselves by witnessing the others through the wall.

I know I haven’t tied all this together—just that it seems the idea of windows are the key… And there is something here about the fear of seeing the true self in its pettiness. What the Nazis were able to achieve, according to Kohler, is that “they rose as gods from the graves of their middle-class lives” (309). This is what he cannot achieve & what it seems he (monstrously) aspires to; maybe this is where his complicity lies.

I’m starting to think Kohler is not a character but rather a concept. He’s not a William, he’s a Misery; A sometimes sympathetic, sometimes pathetic misery.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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