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Exil de l'auteur, exil des genres

Pierre Gault
Jean-Paul Regis

Why William S. Wilson doesn't write like Franz Kafka: the story as operation

Marc Chénetier

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  • 1 Michel Costantini, "Le primitif d'un art nouveau", in Cézanne ou la peinture en jeu, Limoges: crit (...)

Le geste de Cézanne signe la victoire
de la syntaxe sur la morphologie.1

1By way of introduction, let me just say that William Wilson is alive and well and 56 years old and lives in Manhattan and teaches English at Queens College; that his Ph. D. from Yale was on Chaucer; that he is also an art critic and that his interest in philosophy is a long-standing one. His stories were published in 1977 by Ecco Press; he is the author of a novel, Birthplace: moving into nearness, put out in 1982 by North Point Press, and of numerous essays on art, language and epistemology. End of introduction.

2In a perfectly inconspicuous manner, and by means that are far more convincing in their rigor and economy than lyrical claims of the demise of Modernism and the advent of its dubious successor, Wilson seems to me to be, with Joseph McElroy and William Gaddis, one of the most forceful analysts of the epistemological shift that inaugurates what, for better or worse, has provisionally been called "post-modernism" In particular, Wilson entertains very interesting ideas on the function and status of the short story which I thought it would be useful to share with you in the context of our reflexion on generic hybrids.

3Like several stories in his collection Why I don't write like Franz Kafka, the ninth, "Métier" - which was, incidentally, along with two others, translated into French and appeared in Le Nouveau Commerce - takes the form of a dialogue; in this particular case: the interview of an author very much like Wilson by some up-and-coming critic who tends to ask all the wrong questions; the persona of the author comes up with new answers that might in their turn prompt or trigger the right questions were the critic not so hopelessly traditional in his or her literary approaches. Half way through the interview, the author, to the amazement of the interviewer, concludes a long remark on mimesis with the words: "That's why I don't write like Franz Kafka". Asked to elaborate, he eventually suggests a set of reasons for which he may no longer write like the Prague master. They have to be reconstructed but could be summed up as follows.

  • 2 Kafka was a doctor of law, was he not...
  • 3 After World War I, similarly, Fitzgerald will be the witness of a generation coming back to find " (...)

4There is, to begin with, no sense of unity any longer; "wholeness, unity, totality are no longer possible for consciousness", the protagonist contends; "mastery itself is the illusion" If the artist has no real mastery of his subject, neither does his subject have authority over him. Where Michelangelo misreads the halo of Moses as horns, Freud and Joyce repeatedly contradict themselves and each other in their interpretation of Michelangelo's statue. In 1914, Franz Kafka reads the first chapter of The Trial to Max Brod, Freud's essay on the Moses of Michelangelo comes out and Joyce begins Ulysses. The image of the judge and the idea of the Law looms large in all three works2. To Wilson, the year marks the origin of humanity's "farewell to Moses": all three men simultaneously discover that "Moses should no longer make a difference"3. The idea of a central authority, metaphorical or not, is subjected to radical questioning and thrown out of balance. Joyce, Freud and Kafka, three of the pillars of Modernism, "disown" Moses, in Wilson's words. Modernism is largely born out of that rejection.

5Its most visible and famous representatives temporarily replace what it rejects, as we know, with the arch-metaphor of Art as absolute reference, hypostasizing their own rule and power as metaphysical lodestar. "They will be the source of their own law. They do not succeed to Moses. They do not accept their inheritance." Freud uses his authorship to make Michelangelo's rising Moses sit down. By the same token, Wilson - as far as he represents a time that follows Modernism - moves away from its naive vision of Art as ultimate mode of transcendence, and "inherit [s], not what they inherited, but their abrogation of their inheritance. I cannot", he concludes, "disown them as they disowned Moses". But he is necessarily through with modes of writing that still aimed at reflecting or conveying the sense of some infinite unity. Using the figure of Kafka as a symbol of doomed endeavors, the narrator of "Métier" concludes that, in terms of representation and truth, even the referent of language has no longer authority, and that language is on its own. Whatever authority it can maintain, it will have to derive from its own capacity to make truth.

6One of the conclusions that Wilson draws, aesthetically, from such conflicting "readings" of Michelangelo's statue by Joyce, Kafka and Freud, is that one must move away from all modes of expression that lend themselves to untrammeled interpretative activity. Wilson largely proposes to shift literary attention from a language of unsuspecting representation to one that shuns imagery and shirks metaphorical effects; in effect, such language always retains its "foreign" or artificial nature, and thereby, paradoxically, fosters knowledge through its capacity to explore the "uninterpretably alien". The reason why Wilson emphasizes the near-mathematical dimensions of language, plays syntax over lexicon and, within the latter, the strictly denotative over the metaphorical, is that all manipulations of language and discourse, should they intervene by means of ironical distanciation or metaphorical displacement, require in the best of cases that one rely heavily on hermeneutics, reopening in the process the possibility for a plurality of "meanings" and claims to truth. With interpretation, then, returns either the idea that truth can be reached by stemming the stream of linguistic dissemination toward some ultimate and indisputable logos, or the idea that authority always - be it for pragmatic reasons - determines receivable acceptions of a given proposition, regardless of its internal cogency. In both cases, and as long as language does not remain profoundly aware of its arbitrary nature and of its utter dependence on criteria of decidability, one moves away from the "uninterpretably alien" which constitutes in all texts the only accessible new field of knowledge instead of reducing, as most representational texts will, the unknown to the known or the relatively known. At the same time, as we shall see, enough "opacity" must be maintained to prevent abusive congealments of discourse into universal truths.

  • 4 "Wilson's Métier", Antaeus 19, Autumn 1975.
  • 5 Antaeus 19, Autumn 1975, pp. 13 ff.
  • 6 Wilson - a Chaucer scholar by training - knows that it is, after all, by founding their work on wr (...)

7What is out there, Wilson believes, the words of no lexicon can be trusted to say. Their protean nature is one to which he was early attuned as a child, when he was addicted to the writing of definitions that could satisfy him more than those of dictionaries. Joseph McElroy writes penetratingly that "one meaning of Wilson's stories is definition - the setting of [...] limits in the compilation of some dictionary of experience"4. The impossibility to write a definition impervious to interpretative moves ultimately motivated Wilson's attempts at sentence, then essay and fiction, - writing. To this day he sees his short stories as "fictional definitions" - a title he originally gave four of them in a periodical5 - and the titles in the collection at hand leave little room for doubt in that regard: "Love, marriage, men, women, motherhood, fatherhood, desire, America, métier, history, anthropology, interim and conveyance" constitute the list. Each narrative is an attempt at zeroing in upon the core concepts underlying these words, in particular situations, outside of which there can be no general definition. There is no sentence, Wilson knows, that cannot be modified in extremis by a negation. Shifts in enunciation, syntactic structures and viewpoints always triumph over lexicon-based semantics6. Words, Saussure showed, have difference as the kingpin of their meaning. Wilson's efforts will therefore tend to concentrate on the dynamics and pragmatics of language, in the footsteps of the Circle of Vienna and its prestigious descendants, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, O. W. Quine or Donald Davidson.

  • 7 One involves a letter sent by Ramanujan to G (odfrey). H (arold). Hardy, the Cambridge professor o (...)

8For all of them, there is a purity in numbers and mathematics that language can only hope to-and must-emulate but never reach. However, mathematics operate as a language, encoding views of the real in ways that are just as apt to convey emotion and feeling should this language, as any other language, be shared. They can mediate an experience which they do not represent but only symbolize. To that extent, the words for numbers are in a class distinct from that of words for things but can be very close to words that stand for feelings, as Wilson suggests through an anecdote involving Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy I have no time to relate here7.

  • 8 Whitehead compares Ramanujan with (Evariste) Galois (1811-1832), another mathematician who prematu (...)

9Indeed, Wilson could be said to produce "science fiction" if one reads under "science" the process and results of knowledge, with which his fiction deals; his thinking lies in effect extremely close to the work accomplished by linguistic pragmatists, theoreticians of mathematics and logical empiricists and his intellectual disposition attracts him to the philosophers I mentioned. Whitehead actually appears in "Métier" to claim that, in a certain perspective, a number is indeed the name of a feeling8.

  • 9 I have retained the term rather than that of "logical empiricism" overwhelmingly used after 1935 f (...)
  • 10 Not to mention ontology, should one really pay attention to consequences. Alain Badiou just did wh (...)

10Thus do we move away from the merely psychological (one of the ultimate refuges of "depth" for Modernist aesthetics) to the logical, away from metaphysics towards empiricism, towards the analytical away from the metaphorical. In all cases, the foundations of Modernist practice are being eroded. This is "why William S. Wilson doesn't write like Franz Kafka". The heritage of logical positivism9 and analytical philosophy must profoundly affect an art based on language and the relations it is reputed to entertain with the real10.

11Reading Wilson's stories in an altogether different sort of reading experience. All of them have to do, in one way or another, with the notion of "operation": natural, sensorial, surgical, linguistic, intellectual... These operations are of course often simultaneous: the linguistic operation will be dramatized in tales of surgery, transplant, ingraft, dismemberment, fertilization and so on. But the notional keeps the upper hand. Whence a certain feeling of abstraction that may frustrate or dissatisfy ordinary readerly expectations. As Joseph McElroy has explained,

  • 11 "Wilson's Métier", op. cit.

there remains an old faith that intellect and feeling are opposed categories. With this notion there goes - even further back than the 'absolute truth' Chekhov said he aimed at - the idea that in fiction the authentic resistance of life can be recreated only in some absence of overt abstraction. Abstract is bad; concrete is good. And insofar as we admit some explicit superintendence or immanence or laminate congruence of shape or equation or abstract pattern into the experience of a story, that force or presence must be assimilated to the point of dissolution. Wilson opposes that faith11.

12He does, even though he never fails to criticize the merely abstract by means of the sensuous and let his voice be severely attacked from the outside, as in "Conveyance: 'The story I would not want Bill Wilson to read'" which closes the volume. But an important preoccupation in his writing is that one cannot let metaphorized objects get away with a monopoly on meaning. The starkness of most stories aims at warding off excessive interpretative urges that would feed on the evocative powers of connotation, displacement and metaphor, forgetful of conceptual rigor. Wilson's stories are indeed "against interpretation" in ways that move radically beyond the implications of Susan Sontag's essay. His stories, it can be culled and collated from the texts, celebrate "moments when appearances and experience successfully survive the interpretations that would annihilate them". Their purpose is not to describe, render, represent or imitate but to relive in language and logics the nature of the events told about.

  • 12 In the words of Michael Polanyi. in "What is a painting?, quoted by Wilson in "Cézanne's Rapport",(...)

13Style, language, discourse, call it what you will in this case, do reflect experience. But by their very nature, not by what they supposedly "convey" The style in which the stories require to be read is the style in which experience is to be read, I taught myself to write in order to find the boundaries of my beliefs - to learn to read how I read existence Wilson is thus convinced12 that "art does not inform us about its subject, but makes us live in it, as its maker first lived in it".

14Discussing the problems posed by realist aesthetics in the fiction-making process, Wilson appears even more provocative; implicitly emphasizing the notion of process to which I shall, Mac Arthur-like, return in a minute, he declares: "My thoughts are windows, but please focus on the glass, not on the landscape that might be seen through the window", thus deliberately opting for one of the possibilities delineated by James in The Art of Fiction. But with a new turn of the screw, of course, one that resists the appeal of a simultaneous play on transparence and reflection that brings to mind Magritte, Nabokov or Delvaux, an appeal which the interviewer of "Métier" naturally feels the minute he is asked to please stay away from sheer mimetic views. In effect, the surreal appears, in Wilson's terms, as a sheer diversion from the real, one where referential illusion is not vanquished but merely displaced:

You cannot look away from the fireplace to the window and see the flames reflected in the glass superimposed on the snowcovered trees outside and say, Oh the burning bush. I ask you to resist the temptation to see through my words, to look past what I am saying. Each story is written in a foreign language, and the meaning of the story is in learning how to read it.

  • 13 The summary, made on the basis of expressions found in various texts of Wilson, is Joseph McElroy' (...)

15To that extent, the divorce of language and the world is total if one thinks in terms of "natural" representation and mimetic referentiality. Concordance, correspondence and coherence, logics in extremis can be the only - and very narrow - path towards some provisional truth. The stories will thus at best hope to be "a continuum of charged discontinuities"13. Whence his ironical rejection of the critic's intervention in "Métier": "You seem to think that you have something to say about my writing that the writing doesn't say, and I am eager to discover what it could be". Perhaps you will use your skills as a Master of Arts in Literature to teach me what I have been trying to learn about myself by writing. I have quoted Polanyi's words to explain my writing: "It is a systematic course in teaching myself to hold my own beliefs". So much, my dear friends, for our own paltry activity; and three cheers for this most magnificent definition of a text that, in the profoundest sense, matters.

  • 14 As Bertram Morris, has shown in "The Art Process and the Aesthetic Fact in Whitehead's Philosophy" (...)
  • 15 "Appreciation, like the sympathetic vibration of a string, involves an immensely lower degree of c (...)

16Process, in other words, is all. Wilson borrows this conviction from Whitehead and his "process philosophy": in Bergson's terms, a philosophy that finds more of reality in becoming than in that which becomes. Wilson's semantic relativism must find comfort in Whitehead's concept of "concrescence" which involves temporalism, pluralism and the absolutizing of becoming. Since Cratylus we know that a philosophy of pure becoming is incompatible with the validity of language. The nomothete, you will recall, is drunk. As Bergson put it, closer to us, natural language was made to handle the static and cannot grasp the dynamic. All the same, process philosophy being an aesthetic philosophy14, Wilson relies upon it for his fictional purposes. The intrinsic order in experience, according to Whitehead, is aesthetic. Process signifies continuity, with both change and permanence. Whitehead's doctrine views actual entities as "a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming" and, in Modes of Thought, he denounces "pseudoatomism", a criticism which is emphasized by what he calls "the fallacy of the perfect dictionary". Wilson, permanently dissatisfied with definitions and fascinated by etymology naturally adheres to this view. But he uses techniques that keep reminding us that the process is the same in principle for both appreciation and creation15. Based on the manifestation of processes, art is thus described as the ground for some sort of "provisional realism" that bears no relation whatsoever with the realisms and naturalisms now holding sway over what is known as fiction. This repudiation of static mimicry, coupled with his consciousness that Kafka and his two sidekicks with misleading; names of joy, "Freud" and "Joyce", have done away with the last possibility to believe in any ultimate unity, make him answer in the most eloquent fashion possible the obvious question posed by the interviewer on mimesis:

"Then, what do the stories mirror?

-Nothing. They are neither mirrors held up to nature, nor mirrors moving along a roadway, nor mirrors that reflect an infinite unity and then when smashed continue in each smallest fragment to reflect the same infinite unity. They are like shards of glass in a glazier's bin, the scraps that fall when a sheet of glass is cut to specifications. That's why I don't write like Franz Kafka."

17How, then, does William S. Wilson write? Somewhere betw een Cézanne's art and Whitehead's thought could be an answer, as he selects and borrows his key principles and operational metaphors from both men.

  • 16 Conversions, it may be, that account, in their dynamic transforming of the field, for the innumera (...)

18First and foremost among them is probably the notion of field as it allows for convenient semantic overlaps: from semantic fields to the Galois field in algebra and in the theory of sets, to magnetic fields and fields of tension wherein energy circulates and shapes what it circulates upon, "field" is as close to a perfect metaphor for linguistic and fictional operations as possible. Add to this that thematic fields and fields of activity are parts of the vernacular and one begins to see that it allows for all sorts of conversions16. The overlaps are thematized in "Motherhood" where we learn that field is also

a principle of biological development. Before morphogenetic regeneration, field was either a metaphor from magnetism with no satisfactory operational definition, illustrated by photographs of iron filings, or field was a concept used by mathematical physicists to get rid of infinities which they could not tolerate in their equations. Now field can be defined operationally and is a concept that a child could understand.

  • 17 Its partial nature balances the question of Modernism's dubious "whole" and rids it of questions o (...)

19It is fairly clear here that "field" is a convenient way to think of the real after the "farewell to Moses"17. In the world of matter as in the world of signs. Thus, in "Motherhood", the invitation is rather strong to read a text about dermatological operations as a metafictional speculation on the potential "face lifts"of fictional activity: Wilson uses the notion of field, cut off from infinities and unity presided over by some transcendent authority to question the Aristotelian vision of narrative as necessarily teleological; discussing Dreisch's views on morphogenetic regeneration, Wilson writes:

Deterministic theories collapsed when it was shown that a cell could develop along any one of many paths. The morphogenetic field is the total of such paths. The landscape in which the cell grows determines the path that it takes [...] The cell lives in a field of crisscrossed opportunities, and its development is guided by the opportunities open to it.

20Is there any better way to formulate the generative nature of fiction over and above its narrative and representational predeterminations?

  • 18 Wilson adds with relish: "The word seems always to have contained a potentiality for meanings late (...)

21The generative leads me to the second and most important active principle of Wilson's writing: We've just seen with "fields" that Wilson is tempted to rely more on "operational" than on static definitions. Catching the semantic essence of words, in other words, can only be done "in the act". All of his stories stage an operation of some kind, dramatize a situation in which meaning is going to be activated in ways that may make its analysis less futile, its nature somewhat less elusive, for its duration. The mathematical and logical operation of "Love" takes place in three parts; "Marriage" is a matter of surgical grafting; "Men" proposes the dismantling of a man by "elective surgery" in order to isolate functions; "Women" develops verbatim an epigram by Toby Spiselman that reads "An operation in mathematics is anything that leaves a scar"; it links up with stray remarks here and there according to which "pain is information", "aging is a form of misinformation", or others still that trace "desire" back to its various stages in biological evolution. Another potential cause for Wilson's fascination with the word "energy" may indeed lie in the fact that "for Aristotle, thinking is an energeia [... which] means activity or actualization or operation"18. Activities linked with energy are thereby found to be conveniently described by the word "operation", as in the quotation by Simone Weil that opens "Desire":

La grande douleur de l'homme, qui commence dès l'enfance et se poursuit jusqu'à la mort, c'est que regarder et manger sont deux opérations différentes. La béatitude éternelle est un état où regarder, c'est manger.

22There is no surprise in finding soon after a reference to Wallace Stevens who, in The Necessary Angel, speaks of "the operative force within us".

  • 19 Cf. Antaeus 54, Spring 85, pp. 154-63: "Cézanne's Rapport".

23If field and operation are notions borrowed from the philosophy of science, the following two principles Wilson owes to, or recognizes in, the work of Cézanne19. When his mother, artist May Wilson, told him about Cézanne in his youth, Wilson writes, in an essay on the French painter,

the key word was planes [...] Twenty-five years later, and a little more causally, plane remains the axiomatic metaphor of my thinking about art. [...] relations among planes [...] I see Cézanne constructing a'stable open system'of planes in complex relations, like something kindled that continues in operation.

24In case one should distinguish between the nature of painting and that of writing, Wilson insists explicitly that "Cézanne's adjustments of emotional perspectives" which are the gist of his pictorial revolution, "are visible in his letters". When the two lovers launch into the logical discussion that constitutes "Love", they keep facing the question of the relevance of their feelings to the language that expresses it and the larger question that could be related to Godel's theorem on incompleteness: "The question whether or not love has meaning can't be decided in the language we've been using because the meaning of that language is outside the language itself". On the operating table, the protagonist of "the man who ends his story" intends to use as his only anaesthetic his "attention focusing on death as it enters a plane among other observables", while the five "rehearsals" of his dream of dismemberment interfere as would planes of shapes and colors. Lamenting, in "Métier", that his moral experience should of necessity be inferior to that of the scientist, he explains that this is due to the fact that, thanks to the nature of the language they use, they can "conceal themselves from themselves"; and "their belief has brought into observable existence a plane which is beyond the ken of most of us". In all places, thought, feeling, fantasy, action and their linguistic means are made to gírate in mutual spatial, semantic or narrative relations. The "voluble helix of desire" reminds one of one of Robert Coover's most daring fiction, "The Leper' s Helix" in the "Sentient Lens" triad of Pricksongs & Descants. Which of course brings about the necessary notion of what Wilson, borrowing from the French and from Cézanne in particular, rather than call relation would call "rapport".

25Probably because rapport merges the physical and the emotional in a way that points to a constant preoccupation in Wilson's thought. In the story "America" (p. 57), he writes:

Psychological motivation is the desire to change relations between two points, and so psychology is the study of equations with two unbound variables [...] The energies measured in physics are the motives felt in life, so that you can close the distance between motive and motion by constructing a physics of the emotions.

26His cue for the evaluation of such "interrelations" he takes simultaneously from Poincaré, according to whom, mathematicians study not objects but the relations among objects, and from two other painters; Braque: "I don't paint things, but their relations", and Matisse: "I don't paint things but the differences between things". As Cézanne sums it up, "Le tout est de mettre le plus de rapport possible". Rapport, Wilson knows, is correctly translated affinity or interrelation, but rapport is the word.

By rapport Cézanne means an interrelation or affinity that can be trusted, he means an emotional perspective that adjusts and readjusts planes into harmonies with each other, he does not mean any feeling of melting into, swallowing up, or being absorbed emotionally.

  • 20 My own views on the subject naturally becoming a report on his report on that rapport... I suppose

27For all these reasons, Cézanne's work shapes Wilson's own conception of writing: "His visual sensations are a report on his rapport with the world"20. Wilson's own texts also are. In the notion of rapport that follows from Wilson's limited concessions to metaphor when opting for field, operation and plane, lies yet another justification of his departure from and vituperation of realist aesthetics:

When the parts of the painting are in rapport, the painting is in rapport with nature, not by copying nature but, as Cézanne said again and again, by being a harmony parallel with nature. [...] The way parts of a work of art act on each other is how the parts of an event should act on each other [...] the lesson is that the significant events in life are those which are structured with rapport.

28Which doesn't mean these relations should be observed or established on the sheer face value of the words that describe them. This is the reason why the spoof on Lévi-Strauss is so powerful in the story "Anthropology: what is lost in rotation", where the manipulation of mere words as if they were bona fide phenomena is denounced as an illegitimate sort of operation: a "rotation" that doesn't have the rigor of its mathematical counterpart of that should not claim to have more direct relevance to the world of things than their mathematical counterparts.

  • 21 In a catalogue on Ray Johnson's work consisting mostly of articles by William S. Wilson.

29Rather abstraction than fallacious representations seems to be the motto. At any rate, we know there is no sillier label than "abstract painting" which designates painting that embodies and makes concrete what can otherwise not be seized or grasped. In the end, "all art represents reality, there is no nonrepresentational art. It just depends on what the artist thinks is real, and on what he can prove to be real." For Wilson, the answer, here, for any writer, is obviously "language". Just as, commenting the works of painter Ray Johnson, he insists that "what is meaningful is not so much the content as the parallels and intersections of the style"21, he complains about - and tries in all his work to amend - the fact that

  • 22 These remarks appear in a review W. S. Wilson wrote of R. M. Berry's superb collection of stories:(...)
  • 23 Again, here, one thinks of Alain Badiou's contention that the subject may be a mere "instance de l (...)

literature has not often done justice to the passion for form in mathematics, physics or music... Moments when forms reverse into feelings or feelings are seen to follow forms.... The energy22 [...] is in the intersections of abstract forms with concrete facts and flesh and feeling23.

30All things considered, then "openness" and "movement" seem to be key words in Wilson's artistic lexicon. Language cannot seize any part of reality statically; meaning is quintessentially a dynamic notion; arrest means semantic entropy. By the same token, narrativity doesn't have to be teleological. Ironically bewailing the staunch opposition of "entelechists" to his work, Wilson insists on the permanent and necessary openness of narrative Incoming, reduces the proportional importance of the diegetic in short story writing. His views of representation make him profoundly doubt the validity of literary mimesis; he demonstrates time and again in his stories than even the notion and reality of nature and "natural" feelings is mediated by linguistic operations. Reading "my heart is in your hands" brings one kind of tear to the eye of the romantic reader; entirely another when he realizes that the cardiac patient is addressing his surgeon. Such is one of the local effects of Wilson's debunking of metaphorical language. Metaphors are misleading and Wilson, reminding us of the constructed nature of all opinions and beliefs invites rereading of Whitehead or Rudolf Bultmann on the function of metaphors in religious thought.

  • 24 Wilson will confess to reading Updike in The New Yorker, once in a while, in order to know "who an (...)

31This, however, doesn't mean the stories as wholes cannot be read as allegories. Everything is a question of "plane", of "field" and of "rapport". Talking of the naturalists and entelechists he detests, the narrator of "interim" declares: "Allegories to us was naturalism to them"24. His aesthetic ideal is quite clearly linked with an existential wish, and one could well nigh sum up "the way William Wilson writes" by his own depiction of Cézanne at work

He wanted to join the world as it is, visually, without consolations or sentiments, without myths or metaphors, but he knew that to join it is to change it. He tried to paint without illusions or unearned inferences.

32Which poses, in the last instance, the question of the differences that remain between sheer essays and fiction. The abstract nature of his texts, the foregrounding in them of artifice in choice of theme and form (ranging from philosophical aside to Socratic dialogue and didactical allegory) naturally prompts the question: why fiction, then?

33Wilson's answers to that are in perfect keeping with his critique of the metaphorical fallacy and his distrust of linguistic shelters.

  • 25 Personal letter (12/13/87).

Why [write] fiction [and not essay]? Because the language pulls toward false (and consoling) generalizations and universale that must be purged, and fiction can be idiosyncratic and opaque, or no more than translucent, with the contingencies of the available language fully visible, while essays tend to the condition of Latin as transparent and universal (hence I quote fero ferre tuli latus in Birthplace for patchwork, cognate with metaphor). I am interested in what failures prove as when I fail to purge myth and essence25.

34One is reminded here of the provocative, but essential remark of "Métier": "I write fiction to prove falsehoods, which a scientist cannot do." Reacting to another of my interrogations, he wrote:

  • 26 Other letter, same date.
  • 27 Idem.

You asked'why fiction'and as I wrote a short essay on Alberto Moravia I saw that my meanings are in my sentence structure and syntax and that I don't in an essay have the courage of my dippy sentences which I want to be incapable of selling anything, especially an idea26.
Not essay because in an essay the beginning is an introduction not for its own sake, so it is used, and use flattens implications, as one if focused past champagne on a purpose doesn't taste it (it might as well be flat). Essay puts a burden on the end to be a conclusion and tempts toward universals. Then in our beginning is our end and in our end is our beginning: too much redundancy, not enough wildness: information. But I write essays: essayistic fiction and fictive essays27.

  • 28 The same day on the third rushed postcard for december 13,1987.

35Summing it up more epigrammatically28, he added: "With fiction, there are no footnotes." Joseph McElroy came up with another dynamic definition of Wilson's work with which I could leave you: "His stories are haunted essays which seem to say a story should be as well-written as an essay, thought through as thoroughly as it is thought up." But I'd rather let Wilson's text have the last word. In "Interim", the protagonist's wife tells him: "You are a twist in the universe, Allen, by which it curls back to see its assumptions." Wilson lets the text go even further and defines his own protagonist in a way which I could place at the top of a list of provisional definitions of fiction: "He was always fictional. By fictional I mean twisted to fit an assumption".


1 Michel Costantini, "Le primitif d'un art nouveau", in Cézanne ou la peinture en jeu, Limoges: criterion, 1982.

2 Kafka was a doctor of law, was he not...

3 After World War I, similarly, Fitzgerald will be the witness of a generation coming back to find "all gods dead"

4 "Wilson's Métier", Antaeus 19, Autumn 1975.

5 Antaeus 19, Autumn 1975, pp. 13 ff.

6 Wilson - a Chaucer scholar by training - knows that it is, after all, by founding their work on wrong-headed readings of Chaucer, that some "cliometrists", unaware of numerical habits in the Middle Ages, were able to throw a very strange light indeed on medieval history...

7 One involves a letter sent by Ramanujan to G (odfrey). H (arold). Hardy, the Cambridge professor of pure mathematics who worked most of his life on prime numbers. This surprising Indian mathematical genius (1887-1920) who had received no training, amazed the world by his intuitive work on the theory of numbers. His and Hardy's correspondence had begun in 1913, just before he went to Cambridge on a scholarship; in this letter Ramanujan writes "I am now about 23 years of age" when he was actually 25. He didn't thereby "underestimate his age" but "gave the number closest to his age that is a prime number, and was the name of the feeling he had about himself. Hardy would understand that he had only himself and was alone among twentys, twentyones, twenty-twos, twenty-fours, twenty-fives, and was looking for someone with properties similar to his own. Most of us have lost the delicacy of feeling that would enable us to recognize the difference between feeling twenty-three and divisible only by twenty-three or one, and feeling twenty-four, and divisible by two, four, six, eight and twelve" (66). Or, to use an example that is not Wilson's, think of Hardy's reaction when someone told him he had ridden flight 1764, "a very boring number"; to which Hardy retorted it was a delightful number, a friendly one, one that was both a square and the sum of two squares.

8 Whitehead compares Ramanujan with (Evariste) Galois (1811-1832), another mathematician who prematurely disappeared even though he was "a friend of the first hundred integers"; he also complains that he "cannot claims'intimate friendship'beyond one, two, three, four, and five."

9 I have retained the term rather than that of "logical empiricism" overwhelmingly used after 1935 for its being probably more evocative to the French reader.

10 Not to mention ontology, should one really pay attention to consequences. Alain Badiou just did who, in L'être et l'événement (Seuil: 1988), proposes that mathematics may have been the only discipline ever to tell us anything solid about being. His vision of the subject as an instance of the event (instance de l'événement) is also to be brought closer to radical pragmatic views.

11 "Wilson's Métier", op. cit.

12 In the words of Michael Polanyi. in "What is a painting?, quoted by Wilson in "Cézanne's Rapport", Antaeus 54, Spring 1985, p. 161.

13 The summary, made on the basis of expressions found in various texts of Wilson, is Joseph McElroy's.

14 As Bertram Morris, has shown in "The Art Process and the Aesthetic Fact in Whitehead's Philosophy", in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. by Paul Schilpp, Northwestern University Press: 1941, pp. 461-86.

15 "Appreciation, like the sympathetic vibration of a string, involves an immensely lower degree of creativity, yet it signifies a participation in the creative advance." (Idem).

16 Conversions, it may be, that account, in their dynamic transforming of the field, for the innumerable acceptions of the word "energy" which Wilson, obsessed with its being unencompassable by dictionary definitions, seeks illustrations of everywhere from the writings of Plato to those of Doris Lessing (see note 2).

17 Its partial nature balances the question of Modernism's dubious "whole" and rids it of questions of finality and origin.

18 Wilson adds with relish: "The word seems always to have contained a potentiality for meanings later encapsulated in it."

19 Cf. Antaeus 54, Spring 85, pp. 154-63: "Cézanne's Rapport".

20 My own views on the subject naturally becoming a report on his report on that rapport... I suppose.

21 In a catalogue on Ray Johnson's work consisting mostly of articles by William S. Wilson.

22 These remarks appear in a review W. S. Wilson wrote of R. M. Berry's superb collection of stories: Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart ("Parabolas of Love", New York Times Book Review, June 2,1985).

23 Again, here, one thinks of Alain Badiou's contention that the subject may be a mere "instance de l'événement". Op. cit.

24 Wilson will confess to reading Updike in The New Yorker, once in a while, in order to know "who and where the enemy is, and what he is doing."

25 Personal letter (12/13/87).

26 Other letter, same date.

27 Idem.

28 The same day on the third rushed postcard for december 13,1987.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1990

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