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The Tunnel Big Read: The Desire to Know the Truth

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.

Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle in and begin reading this beast of a novel, let’s talk about the opening pages. What we seem to have in the initial pages are throat-clearings and drips of plot, although I’m going to make a guess right now that, rather than simply being Gass meandering toward the book’s focus, this style will typify all of The Tunnel. Knowing what I do of Gass as a critic and a reader, as well as going by my read of the initial 100 pages, it seems right now that the lack of much clear direction will be as much the point of this book as anything else. This is undoubtedly a large part of why The Tunnel has attracted labels like “difficult,” “so damned literary,” or even, showing the elegance characteristic of that periodical, “a load of crap” as per James Bowman in the National Review.

In other words, The Tunnel will clearly try your patience at times; so far I’ve found much of it downright confusing and obscure on a first reading, although I’ve also found that the book’s frequent pleasures and wit more than compensate for the occasional feeling of being lost in a thicket of words. And so far I’ve found that if you take it slow enough and give yourself time to look back and do a little re-reading, I think the book coheres enough.

I also think, as per the first week’s chunk of text, that confusion and patience-trying are something of The Tunnel’s point, and perhaps the fact that virtually all critics have made particular note of that aspect says something important about that continues to be the expectations that a novel must live up to. Gass clearly makes no bones about dismissing these “requirements,” and if you look at his 50 most influential books (collected in A Temple of Texts), you’ll see that the books he most likes also defeat these expectations.

What sticks out to me most clearly about the first score or so pages of The Tunnel is how invested it is in the act of writing as a physical/mental process, and how it relates this act to a search for the truth. Gass is clearly foregrounding this aspect of his novel, and perhaps we would do well to consider why a book that so palpably writhes in uncertainty, that so clearly avoids clear narration, so bothers us. Why do we consider this unduly “difficult” when this is our own life experience? What in our world conditions us to expect that a book would and should be anything different? And what relationship does this bear to the truth, particularly those truths recorded by history/narration and by our own experience.

The tension between these versions of “truth” is clearly present right at the instigation of the novel’s action: our narrator’s diary, his search for a personal truth, springs from the completion of a monumental work of history. In effect The Tunnel is a work of literature that comes as the complement to a work of history, and thus the very conceit of the book represents this tension—the relationship of capital-H History to capital-L Literature. Whereas history has the requirement of order, literature is free to luxuriate in the chaos of thought, and it seems that in the latter Gass locates something essential about the act of writing down our thoughts in language. On the book’s very first page, our narrator, William Frederick Kohler, says, with some resignation, “I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.” [3] This is followed, on page 8, by the question, “Is writing to yourself a healthier insanity than talking to yourself?” Here, before he has even said a word, Gass seems to be questioning the very heart of his enterprise: Can words contain a life? Is the attempt a sort of grandiose form of madness?

But what, one wonders, is the alternative? On page 6 Gass introduces the German historian Magus Tabor, aka, Mad Meg, in whose baleful chair Kohler writes and spends the majority of the novel. Mad Meg seems to be some sort of an omen to Kohler, a warning of where he might end up: that is, as a historian in whose eyes “night had fallen” [6]: “those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circulating chair—sank into the past—into death—into history.” [6] Or perhaps Kohler is already there and knows it.

There are some recurring motifs in this first section. Kohler repeatedly describes the quality of the light in his study where he sits in the imposing chair from which he composes this journal: “In this empty hour the light takes on an imprisoned harshness.” [13] There are also many statements regarding the construction of history and its relationship to an individual’s life: “when I had written what I had written; when I had reached the present—the dead end of history—to find it empty as an empty pantry.” [11] The book also seems very concerned with the diary as a literary form: just what is its point?, what can we learn from ours, and those of others?, how should it be composed?, and why?

These all seem to come back to the search for the truth, which I found to be the most prominent aspect of the first score or so of pages. Those opening pages seem to culminate, in a way, on pages 20-1, where the following words are written in out large type, interspersed between the rest of the text: “Sincerity,” “Empiricism,” “Classicism,” “Confession,” “The Complete Dishonest and Unwholesome Truth.” Here Gass speculates about the various ways of arriving at truth and how they fall short of that mark: “but what was his sincerity but an excuse to be selfish out of love for a comfortable maxim?”; “and not because experience couldn’t bring them to wisdom better than the Greeks, either, but because experience is broad and muddy like the Ganges”; “yes—he has felt up far too many facts during all his reading, in all those books, like a breast through the bubbles of a rough cloth, to have faith in their smooth plain names”; “whereas I look for love in knotholes and other rounded ironies”; “sincerity—this Christmas wrap around a rascal—could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?”

This seems to be both the impetus of the book and the source of its baggy (at times frustrating) form: a very human desire to reach the truth despite not knowing what it is. (This search for the truth is entwined with Kohler’s search for a form for his journals.) So how can Kohler know when he’s reached a “true” account of his life? What method is there by which he can impose an explanation and on order on the events which he is about to narrate for us? Can he even rely on human categories like “guilt” and “innocence,” which he seriously questions as anything other than constructs in the quote excerpted from his book on page 13: “Thus, neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors . . .”

I think this kind of relativism would shock many of us, and I imagine this foreshadows some of the darker revelations about Kohler to come. We might wonder what Kohler’s motivations to know the truth are, particularly as he appears to have spent some time undermining the categories of guilt and innocence with regard to one of the great crimes of the 20th century. We shall read on . . .

One final thing. To help us all orient, here is Gass’s description of the book, as per Michael Silverblatt’s review in the Los Angeles Times

William Frederick Kohler “teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.’ As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn’t want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of ‘Guilt and Innocence,’ since he knows she will never read them.”

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12 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: The Desire to Know the Truth

  • GRH

    I remember seeing somewhere (an old issue of CONTEXT, or maybe liner notes for the insane 50-hour MP3 audiobook of the novel) a diagram Gass drew of Kohler’s Tunnel. He talked there or elsewhere about the book having a false opening, as Kohler’s actual tunnel is concealed by the furnace (if I’m remembering correctly). Not to pass judgment on its aesthetic success, but this gambit positions the first 100 or so pages (up to, I think, the tray of calling cards, or thereabouts) as a kind of decoy mess, a mess of pages to be shoved into the furnace, maybe, or a disorderly pile of tunneled-out dirt. It’s interesting to think about where the actual tunnel part of this tunnel begins, and what that says about the nature of the substrate Kohler wants to tunnel into.

    One other thought: I was talking with someone the other day who, like me, has had some dealings with Gass in person, and the fact that he’s really one of the more insanely generous people you could ever meet. It makes me think in a way that he really wants the conflation of WHK and WHG to happen – that he doesn’t want you to be able to use any daylight between the two as an escape from the conception of human nature etc. the novel’s trying to force on you. But at the same time, via the small penis bit and other elements, Gass also wants postmodernly to let you in on the joke, to get poMo credit for his Modernist method. Or maybe popomo credit for his poMo…you get the idea. I still can’t decide if this is a design flaw or not, but I’m convinced that wanting to have things both ways is a hallmark of this book.

  • Gs

    I enjoy Kohler’s litany of the ignorances and half-truths of which he’s accusing himself and society. He’s usually lyrical and often crowds the bullseye with his voluminous shots. I have a liking of metaphors as does Mr. Gass. Two additional metaphors stand out in my reading of the first 75 pages. Kohler is giving himself and society 100 lashes for believing in what amounts to the ‘chicken scratchings’

    of civilization, be it literature, philosophy, history, etc. The second metaphor is that all this consideration and ‘learnedness’ is not much more than a fog. The fog can’t in anyway be cleared to produce a clear vision of things. This is at the heart of Kohler’s laments. For me the fact of this fog is a beauty which Kohler reveals. The fog is not deadly, inaccessable, or a contrivance. The inability to find truth and, the inevitably necessary deduction that what passes for truth is not wholly truth, becomes the only truth among societies perceived truths. Shakespeare writes in HAMLET, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

    But behind the aesthetic runs the thread of Kohler’s own judgments or truths. The title of his book ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany’ is evidence of Kohler’s judgements. In contrast to Kohler’s judgements, which I imagine are contained in ‘Guilt and Innocence . . .’, stands Kohlers beef with the norm regarding the aesthetic of truth or the truth of aesthetic. I think this portends a relation by Gass between Kohlers incriminations against the learned aspects of society, the Nazis’ blindsides against Jewry, Gypsies, etc., and whether Kohler himself should suffer recriminations, in his being just as far from the truth as anyone else. I will emphasize that this dynamic, if it exists in the book, should be read as rooted in Kohler’s worldview not Mr. Gass’s.

    So far, I’ve really enjoyed the book. To run across this character, Kohler, who sees Socrates, Plato, Kohler’s own writings, and others as, to some extent fooling themselves as well as everybody else with their meditations, has been sort of eye-opening.

  • I find myself wondering how much of Kohler’s search for truth is a private one and how much a public one; he reflects on the diary form on page 9 (“your language out of reach of any public meaning, your own eye kind”) while other times the rhythm of the language rises to pure rhetoric, the transcript of imagined speeches (the “I did not”s of page 71-2, for example.)

    • Eric

      “If I fall asleep in church, and that puts a match to the ass of the preacher, why, then, my somnolence is a part of the service; but if I surreptitiously scratch my balls at a wedding … my private itch, sneaked scratch, aren’t atoms of anything” (139).

  • [...] really suffice? Is true confession really even possible? Or in confession, are we — as a commenter at Conversational Reading suggests more broadly and as becomes more and more important through this [...]

  • Eric

    That’s Planmantee speaking there, I should say.

  • Paul

    I have to admit I’m struggling with this book. Although I’ve read plenty “difficult” books in the past sometimes this one tries my patience. As mentioned by Scott there are some lovely passages where Kohler describes his childhood and neighbourhood. For me these are the best passages so far. The limericks are good fun too!

  • It seems to me non-trivial that this is a failed (or failing, as you read along) introduction to his great work of History. The dithering, digressions, speculations, word-play, childhood reminiscences, etc. are expanding this introduction into a book length endeavor, which in practice fulfills a function contrary to that of introducing. That this introduction is in effect an obstruction that is preventing Kohler from finishing his book and the potential reader from approaching it seems to be exactly what is intended. The Tunnel would burrow down, away from the light, in an attempt to escape knowledge and its sister construction, truth. The problem with this truth, to Kohler, seems to be its total artificiality, as it seems to be a by-product of his carefully crafted Guilt and Innocence, and its methodical and deliberate judgements.

    Truth as a consequence of explication of a causal chain is exactly what plot in narrative is supposed to deliver. We should assume that G&I, as a History book, would follow a tight explication of the causal chain that would affix guilt or innocence to the participants of the nazi genocide. Kohler seems to resist, emotionally and aesthetically, this neatness. So far, he seems to be deliberately creating a textual “mess” so as to avoid getting to the “neat” explication of events. This, i think accounts in part for the form, or lack of, of The Tunnel.

  • I am also having trouble with the material used for this novel. As someone pointed out in a prior post, some of Gass’ choices seem to be influenced by his debate with Gardner. It would seem that by breaking such an emotionally laden cultural taboo in his mishandling of the Holocaust theme (as well as some minor escathological themes) he is attempting to demonstrate that there is a possibility of beauty and literature even in the most harrowing, horrible subjects. Are we to assume, however, that this is an amoral approach to the Holocaust? Is Gass trying to portray Kohler aesthetically without tackling the moral issues his text bring up? Or is it the case that Gass’ portraiture of Kohler is intended as an indictment (much like Kohler’s G&I is an indictment -or not- of the German Nazis)?

    Is Kohler attempt to “stay away” from truth derived from artificial causal explication as exemplified by his History book to be taken as parallel to Gass’ position re Gardner about literature being purely aesthetic and amoral?

    I have a big problem assuming that the intentions of authors when they submerge the reader in the psyche of monstrous characters is necessarily an attempt at critical portraiture. One clear example of this would be Nabokov’s Humbert, where there is a clear attempt at gaining the readers sympathy. In Gass’ case, though, there is no attempt at obtaining sympathy for Kohler from the reader, he is portrayed as essentially monstrous and repulsive. I don’t think, considering Gass’ opposition to Gardner’s thesis of the inherent morality of literature, that this should be taken as an attempt at judging Kohler’s own “guilt or innocence”.

    • Hmm, I have plenty of sympathy for Kohler, especially as we get a bit deeper into the book (I’ve just finished the reading for week three, so I’m a little ahead). Maybe I’m just a monster too?

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