Unswerving Punctualites of Chance:
The Aporetics of Dialogue in William Gaddis
Gregory Comnes
Presented at the colloquium
"Reading William Gaddis/Lire William Gaddis"
organized by Laboratoire Orleans-Tours de Litterature Americaine (LOLitaA)
and held at the University of Orleans, March 24-25 2000
Consider the content of William Gaddis's novels: writings that present in almost every conceivable manner the chaotic, entropic, mean-spirited, corrupt, venal, and hapless condition of contemporaneity, succinctly described by Gaddis in his latest work Torschlusspanik ("the fear of being left on the shelf) as "what all my work's about the collapse of everything."1 This collapse, Gaddis shows, is the result of the breakdown of any indexical relationship between sign and symbol in art, commerce, politics and law--in sum the disembodiment of culture. Consider as well the job Gaddis assigns the reader of his works. In an interview given as part of The New York State Writers Institute in 1990, Gaddis declared

"What writing is all about is what happens on the page between the reader and the page. . . .What I want is a collaboration, really, with the reader on the page where the reader is also making an effort, is putting something of himself into it in the way of understanding, in the way of helping him to construct the fiction I am giving him."2

Given the conditions placed on both the page and the reader, any discussion regarding the ethics, aesthetics, or poetics of reading William Gaddis as charged by this colloquium must first consider the more fundamental epistemological issue: what if any possibility for coherent meaning might be immanent the debris of his work, and how is the reader to understand his or her role in the construction, the re embodiment of that meaning?

My previous work on Gaddis explored both the image of collapsed textual structures and the means of their redemption as the mining of "fragments" of quotations, according to the poetics of Walter Benjamin.3 In remarkably similar fashion both Gaddis and Benjamin's vision embrace cultural collapse, specifically exploring how systems of value are manipulated to consolidate an alienating power under the guise of the "myth of freedom," which tries to hide and conceal our alienation from us. Underlying the illusion of free exchange of ideas is a semiotic system manipulated by structures of power that petrify our words before we speak them, and thus foster the thoughtless consumption of products, faiths,and laws that inhibit free expression.

In response to this condition both Gaddis and Benjamin also require readers to be collaborators, in effect transferring invention theory from the writer's fiction to the reader's critical understanding. As a result the reader "performs" the text, engaging in strategies of subversive and dialogic breakdown and creative assembly of collages of ‘fragmented' quotations with which to counter, at least provisionally, the disembodied status of meaning by fabricating new indexical relations between symbol and referent: "to read," as Benjamin put it, "what was never written."4 In this sense Gaddis's concept of collaborative reading fulfills Benjamin's role of the storyteller, whose goal is to awaken the storyteller in readers and provoke them into the action of listening and creating new stories to subvert the myth of freedom.

Using this approach I argued Gaddis presents readers with an ethics of indeterminacy: Culturally the world is informed by "the unswerving punctuality of chance,"The one phrase that appears in each of his five major works.5 Our charge is to find a way to engage the fragments scattered throughout his work, to "live deliberately" "without absolutes" in the face of such randomness; to accept that the default setting of existence is inherently "agape," and that if we are to embrace "dilige et quod vis fac," "live it through," it is the collaborative activity alone that provides the means to transform, both diacritically and existentially, "agape into Agape ."

In making this case I argued that like Benjamin, Gaddis was presenting an ocularcentric poetics: the belief that changing how we see is instrumental in changing the world. Our charge as collaborative readers is to make visible what others could not envision, to present a counter vision to the hegemony of what Foucault calls Panopticism: the system of administrative institutions and disciplinary practices organized by the conjunction of advanced technologies and instrumental rationality.

Seeking redemption amidst fragments is not without dangers, however.

Benjamin warns that the tendency to methodize collaborative reading falsifies the understanding of the fragmentary as a guiding principle, a point Gaddis makes in the epigraph to A Frolic Of His Own , a quotation from Thoreau to Emerson: "What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey."

Gaddis's latest work, Torschlusspanik, calls into question the very possibility for assembling and sustaining such a counter vision. In this work, a play for German radio that in different form was meant to serve as the first chapter of the forthcoming Agapē Agape , disembodiment is extended from forms of culture to language itself, the disembodiment of thinking described in Torschlusspanik as "Binary thought."(2) Embracing the same idea of "player piano" language first discussed in terms of Jack Gibbs's unfinished ms in J R , by Torschlusspanik Gaddis has apparently ceded the total domination of technology. As machines replaced manual labor in the 19th century, so machine language has replaced the critical labor of thought in the 20th century. Binary thought does not work to conceal alienation; it celebrates alienation by flaunting the irrelevance of critical thought and intention.With the emergence of binary thought, the mastercode of alienation is disclosed in all of its ideological, symbolic, logocentric, and semiotic textual forms. And what is disclosed? That we have moved from Heidegger's house past Derrida's prison house to language as the crack-house of being: the linguistic high is short and quality low but who cares? It's cheap and there's another high around the corner. Moore 's law (Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel who proclaimed that processor speeds would double every 18 months) dominates; speed is the only intrinsic good. The consequences of this domination are chilling for those who advocate subversive response. With Torschlusspanik the text-centered sign is supplanted by the image centered icon, the dominance of the visible such that technology and packaging have eliminated the idiosyncratic story. The technology of the player piano, the forerunner of the computer and all that it implies, serves as the cause and adequate symbol of the failure of collaborative counter vision. The disembodied thought which gave rise to this player piano language has achieved a supervision that sees and effectively controls opposition to it, in Gaddis's recurring phrase "eliminating failure as the precondition for success" by eliminating that which can fail, take risks, and collaborate--eliminating not only the provisional story, but the story teller as well.

In a letter to me in 1996 Gaddis quoted the following passage from Thomas Bernhard's The Lime Works :

Words ruin one's thoughts, paper makes them ridiculous, and even while one is still glad to get something down on paper, one's memory manages to lose hold of even this ruined and ridiculous something. Paper can turn an enormity into a triviality, an absurdity. If you look at it this way, then whatever appears in the world, by way of the spiritual world so to speak, is always a ruined thing, a ridiculous thing, which means that everything in this world is ridiculous and ruined. Words were made to demean thought, he would even go so far as to state that words exist in order to abolish thought. . . .

Gaddis followed this quotation with the line, "You may see where I have found my Cicero for all future engagements."6 In his next engagement, Torschlusspanik, Gaddis dramatizes Bernhard's point about language in the same manner he treated art, capitalism, religion, and the law in his previous works: what was intended to celebrate and expand life becomes instead a vehicle for fraud, deceit, and the abuse of power. This work, which contains for the first time direct references to Benjamin, nevertheless is framed by scenes from Bernhard's novel The Loser , aptly appropriated to certify how in the face of this latest incarnation of the "unswerving punctuality of chance," (36) an ethics of counter vision cannot overcome aporia , the "swamp of ambiguity paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, anarchy the clock without the clock maker" (1).

Certainly one reason Gaddis employed the term aporia , which he had previously used in his 1995 essay in Yale Review Old Foes With New Faces and his piece on the occasion of Dostoevsky's 175th birthday for DeutschelandRadio in November of 1996, is to emphasize the failure of collaborative critical dialogue to offset binary thought.7,8 If in the Socratic dialogue aporia is the moment one realizes that one does not know and which signals the beginning of concerted searching for the truth, in the world of binary thought Gaddis uses aporia to dramatize what Benjamin in his Theses insists: that the aesthetic object must be read and apprehended in terms of the historical context which conditioned it. In this world of binary thought, Gaddis shows, Thrasymachus is not a strawman for the promotion of Socratic Reason but a force of culture where "justice" IS "in the interest of the stronger," where Agape has become agape. And if Gaddis acknowledged in his Albany interview the parallel of his idea of the collaborative reader to Barthes' The Death of The Author , his fleeting reference in the same interview to Paul DeMan also suggests a connection with that critic's negative concept of aporia :: the impossibility of the text's language saying anything or taking any position that it does not itself undermine.9

But if aporia marks the failure of the critical counter vision of language to offset the piano player language of binary thought, it also points to the need for the reader to shift perspectives and consider Gaddis's language from a different point of view.

In his Paris Review interview Gaddis states: "in this case [ J R ] it was my hope. . .That having made some effort they would not read too agonizedly, slowly and carefully, trying to figure who is talking and so forth/It was the flow that I wanted, for the readers to read and be swept along, to participate. And enjoy it. And occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way." The interviewer goes on to say that the readers may miss a lot, but Gaddis responds: "This is a risk I take, but isn't that what life is, After all? Missing something that's right before you?10

What I am proposing here is that if Gaddis the satirist has become increasingly Juvenalian in his satire, the bleakness of his vision is also heuristic, a reminder that if the reader tries too hard to see a way language can offset the disembodied supervision of binary thought, he may forget the question at the end of J R : "Hey? You Listening?"; forget, that is, that sound, the visceral, what William Gass once described as the "musicality of Gaddis's language," has as much epistemic significance as the visual as a way to reembody language.

In Gaddis's work any consideration of the role sound and its entailments play begins with music. Consider his description of the bass E-flat that opens The Rhinegold in J R: "No not asking them [the audience] make them feel that E-flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty six bars until the idea that everything happening underwater is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on." (111)

Of course the transformative power of music itself is limited: even the composer Bast must pare down his initial extravagant desire to write an opera to a piece for an unaccompanied cello, while the novel offsets the Keatsian negative capability of Wagner with everything from the prescient binary noise of Al and the Gravestone's "Plunk Plunka" to the confusion of the musical cleft with the dollar sign, reminders of the omnipresent threat the noise of a machine language culture represents.

Later in the same novel, however, Gaddis points to a more fundamental issue: how the sound of language shapes consciousness.

In the scene where the character Rhoda is struggling to read Jack Gibb's ms, the following exchange occurs:

"--What don't like it?

--No I mean I don't get it, like I mean I don't even understand it.

--God damned problem not read to be written aloud you read it then start here read it, here "(604).

Rhoda goes on to read the title as "agape agape"; she cannot make the diacritical move to Agape because she reads it as written, not experienced as sound. She subordinates sound to sense, and in so doing renders the expression a nonsensical redundancy. As Gibbs goes on to sound out the letters for her, so Gaddis reminds readers they must sound out language: not limit language to that which is "written out loud," but speak it and listen to what they speak.

The significance of "not read to be written aloud" becomes more clear when compared to Derrida's seminal critical expression différance/différence . The aberrant spelling of the French word différence makes Derrida's point about the production of differences and the endlessly deferred meaning of a signifying system. Since the difference between the two can be written but not heard, Derrida privileges writing over speech such that the foundational binary structures of logocentrism are put into the play of undecidability.

Derrida focuses on teasing out undecidability with aporia as an end game.

Gaddis's point, rather, is that in the world of binary thought aporia is a given, the default setting into which even the most ingenious theoretical counter visions irrelevantly disappear.The play in the expression Agapē Agape is not merely visual but visceral--the diacritical difference must be sounded out and heard to differentiate love from vacuity.

By focusing on the visceral nature of language, Gaddis provides a way to challenge the core metaphor of "knowing is seeing" which, devolving into binary thought, defines and limits the inference patterns of vision centered epistemology. Binary thought constrains us to think in ways only it can understand: one looks into a text as a disembodied object to see it clearly and discern relationships and create an operational model of nature. What results is an ideology of instant communicability with a premium placed on clarity: the efficiency of formulations and the quick retrieval of information to construct the perfect vision of the world.

As a counter to this Gaddis emphasizes talk: not how language depicts things but rather how language occurs in the world. Astute readers of Gaddis have noted how the presence of dialogue in his works creates a climate where listening and speaking are virtually impossible to isolate from one another analytically in a way that could identify them as separate experiences of a subject. The dialogic nature of the texts remind us that language is not translatable into language of attack, penetration, dismantling, or mastery. Readers must situate themselves inside the text, listening as much as reading.

Acknowledging the significance of sound in Gaddis's dialogues reinforces how knowing becomes a function of experience rather than insight. Further, the impact of sound as pun opposes the grammar and logic designed to get the upper hand, to bring language under its control. In Gaddis language is not simply a matter of analytical scrutiny, not a text made up of statements or coded messages. Sounding out language involves the tactile, kinesthetic, and gestural attributions that assume a credibility denied them under ocularcentric accounts. Words are more than polysemic; they're heterosemic; the reminder that it is just as much a property of language to sound and vibrate, to hover and tremble, as it is for what is spoken to carry meaning.

To Bernhard's Orphic Lament that "words ruin one's thoughts" Gaddis adds a Hermetic component to the texts--the tricks and puns of language that speak in riddles. Truth is not a product; rather it exists in the work as the activity of listening and speaking. The move here is away from clarity to the resonance of language. This emphasis on resonance promotes the understanding of the otherness of language, its uncontainability. The epistemic focus shifts from spectator to performer, the goal not to engage in exegesis but "to go" with Gaddis's textual "flow," to keep the conversation moving. One gives up the posture of interrogating the text; instead one lives through it.

The visceral nature of Gaddis's language reminds the reader that listening is not a spectator sport--the uncontainability of language within conventional expressive claims to sensibility creates a cognitive flexibility that allows a limited but crucial freedom. Within the epistemolgical domain of aporia Gaddis's readers can engage in an ethical aporetics of dialogue. (In aporetics the aporia is unraveled into its strands. While the problem remains insoluble, the unraveling proves useful insofar as admitting the limits of translation can trigger a sense of self-discovery in the reader).

In a 1998 letter Gaddis commented that "I do enjoy a bit of malice," and in reading Gaddis this way I am casting him as Hermes the trickster, fulfilling the role Gaddis has described of the author as a "confidence man working for the reader's willing suspension of disbelief," one who promotes a wandering whereby readers engage in aesthetic soundings of the texts.11 Consider, for example, the intertextual pun involving the aforementioned Bass E-flat in J R and the character Basie in A Frolic Of His Own , a pun that reflects the primacy of sound on several levels.It is not simply coincidence that this character stands alone in the novel as one who embodies the transformative Bass E-flat power necessary to embrace Gaddis's frequently acknowledged ethical position: "this courage to live without absolutes, which is really, nothing more than growing up, the courage to accept a relative universe and even one verging upon chance" ( Frolic 37)

In A Frolic Of His Own , Madhar Pai tells Oscar that "--He's a free spirit! That's our friend Basie isn't it? Freed himself from those illusions of absolutes? Takes the name Basie because he likes the swing of it even if it was someone else's with more claim as to its essence" (377-78)

In my discussion of A Frolic Of His Own, I made the point that in the face of the unswerving punctuality of legal language, Basie's ultimate success in arguing Oscar's suit was a function of his ability, like his musical jazz namesake Count Basie, to improvise.12 In jazz, improvisation is at once spontaneous and organized, a moment of both inspiration and a reflection of historical musical context where the swing beat is the key and emphasis is placed on the offb eats of the 4/4 measure. Extending this idea to the text means the reader must be willing to improvise, to hear the offbeats in the language, the transformative Bass-E flat of language that permits the reader, like Basie, to become one who is free to live without absolutes.

I think it is no accident that Gaddis's last two works have been radio presentations: explaining how the visceral nature of Gaddis's language results in forced undertranslation cannot begin to capture of experience of hearing it.

Certainly this is the case with Torschlusspanik, where Gaddis goes beyond the unmediated textual dialogue of J R to create a forty-three page monologue, removing any means of the reader distancing himself from the page. The text's demand for a radical form of collaboration by design "takes one's breath away" so that one will stop seeing into the text as object and instead listen, and be touched by its power.

Gaddis has always presented as extreme the plight of the artist (and by extension the reader) who seeks to establish meaning in a world without absolutes, explained in A Frolic Of His Own as "driven by despair to embrace ‘the unswerving punctuality of chance'(cit omit) sinking us deeper in the twilight of confusion from whence we shall now emerge et canem et lupem as it were" (37). But if twilight is not clarity, neither is it total darkness.The unresolved conflict between exegesis and enigma does admit a kind of failure, but then failure has always been a prerequisite for true success in Gaddis's work. By using sound, the visceral component of language, to intermingle the same domains binary thought conceives of as logically discrete, failure readmits the presence of the artist who otherwise falls prey to Torschlusspanik, "the fear of being left on the shelf" in the player piano world. Instead the artist/reader emerges between the dog and the wolf, leaving the twilight of this last work with "the flicker ‘where nothing is important save a small group of minds, ever the same, which pass on the torch.' " (43)--that, and in the visceral delight of reading William Gaddis with the impulse to "be swept along, to participate. And enjoy it. And occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way."


The charge to the colloquium also raised the question of how understanding a poetics of reading William Gaddis might extend to a more generalized poetics for reading contemporary texts.

For one thing, the notion that the visceral has epistemic significance recalls the issues raised by that "other" Enlightenment project, Aesthetics. When Baumgarten coined the expression in 1735 he described Aesthetics as another way of knowing based on sensory experience coupled with feeling, in contrast to knowing based on rational "insight" that has since devolved into binary thought. With the linguistic turn in criticism, the epistemic notions of the aesthetic were shunted aside in favor of anti-aesthetic and anaesthetic issues, what Tom Wolfe derisively described as the aesthetic being reduced to "illustrations" for the critical text.

Emphasizing language as material replaces the detached knowing of theory ( theoria etymologically means "to look, to be a theater spectator") with intersubjective participation, sound's transitory nature and spatial vagueness requiring an openness that frees one from the obsessive and limiting characterization of speech as logocentric in order to raise more important issues such as how to distinguish signal from noise in communication. As Jacques Attali points out in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, sound is not just a means for understanding our place in life but a means of defining that place.13 Noise presents a violence to life, but noise cannot be eliminated. Rather than see noise as an obstacle, one instead seeks the condition of stochastic resonance , the point where allowing a certain degree of noise enhances one's ability to discern the message- living without absolutes.

Including the visceral in accounts of meaning also would allow a shift in Critical Poetics: moving from one steeped in the binary model of semiology to one that is irreducibly triadic and intersubjective.

A historical antecedent to Gaddis's interest in both dialogue and Agape is the work of C.S. Pierce, whose third element of the sign relation "dynamic mediation"("abduction" is the third term in his logic, "Agapism" the third term in his metaphysics) extends the issues of linguistic competency past what became both Saussere's dyadic model and Derrida's Grammatological reaction.14 Umberto Eco draws on many of Pierce's insights in his book The Open Work , while In Music And Discourse:Toward A Semiology of Music Jean-Jacques Nattiez embraces Pierce's notion in his analysis of semiology, one that is also fruitful in considering Gaddis's visceral writing technique.15,16 Nattiez makes the point that the slipperiness and sheer multiplicity of sound-generated meanings defy the binary kind of systematizing. Language is not simply an assemblage of sign structures but also constituted by the procedures that engender it and to which it gives rise: interpretation and perception. Like Pierce, Nattiez argues for a triadic semiology consisting of the dialectical oscillation among three dimensions of language. For Nattiez signs are linked via an infinite and dynamically complex interpretant whose invariably multiple and necessarily partial linkages certify the basic semiological fact of referring as intersubjective.



1. In 1997/98 I was privileged to aid William Gaddis in tracking down some sources for his last project, " Agapē Agape."In September of 1998 Gaddis sent myself and my wife, Judith Chambers, a forty-three page ms entitled Torschlusspanik . In his accompanying letter Gaddis wrote: "this is as you will see a sort of complete in itself, ie with a beginning, middle & end, & it is now cast as the opening of the book." [ Agapē Agape] According to Gaddis's son and executer Matthew, a slightly different version of this ms was presented in German as the radioplay "Torschlusspanik" on DeutschelandRadio in May of 1999. All subsequent references to Torschlusspanik are to the printed ms.

2. Quoted from Gaddis's reading At the New York State Writer's Institute, State University of New York ( Albany ), April 4, 1990 . The Institute's archives, accessible to scholars, contain four separate events in which Gaddis had participated: the above mentioned reading, the November 1993 New York State Author and Poet Awards Ceremony at which Gaddis was presented with the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers, a December 1993 "book show" interview conducted by Institute co-founder Tom Smith, and an April 1994 Institute seminar. Copies of the tapes and partial transcripts were graciously provided by fellow Gaddis scholar Christopher J. Knight.

3. Gregory Comnes, The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis (Gainesville, Florida: UP of Florida, 1994), pp 9-10 and 43-45.

4. See Michael W. Jennings , Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987), pp 178-82.

5. The expression "the unswerving punctuality of chance" appears on page 9 of The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt, 1955, paperback edition with corrections, (New York: Penguin, 1993); page 486 of J R (New York: Knopf, 1975); paperback edition with corrections (New York: Knopf, 1993); page 223 of Carpenter's Gothic (New York: Viking, 1985), paperback edition with corrections (New York: Viking, 1986); page 292 of A Frolic Of His Own (New York: Posidon, 1994): and page 37 of the uncorrected ms of Torschlusspanik . All subsequent references are to these texts.

6. Letter to me dated September 12, 1996 .

7. "Old Foes With New Faces," Yale Review 83.4 (October 1995), 1-16. The term aporia appears on page 4.

8. Tribute to Dostoevsky, presented on DeutschlandRadio , November 11, 1996 . I have a copy of the English version Gaddis sent to be translated; the term aporia appears two and one half pages into the three page piece.

9. In his April 4, 1990 New York State Writers Institute Reading Gaddis states: "But I'm still. . .The idea of authorial absence has come up in a rather. . . .I won't try to get into this, except to mention. . .This world of, Barthes and Paul de Man and so forth." Gaddis then refers to ideas found in Barthes' "The Death of the Author," in Image--Music--Text , trans Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 145. DeMan frequently employs the term aporia to assert an asymmetry between text and world. See for example Resistance To Theory ( Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1986.

10. Zoltan Abadi-Nagy, "The Art of Fiction CI: William Gaddis," Paris Review 105 (Winter 1987):80.

11. Letter to me dated June 12, 1998 . In his April 4, 1990 reading Gaddis states: "The idea of the confidence man has a great appeal for writers because there is something of the con man in the writer, I think; he's trying--what, what does the confidence man do?--he is working for this willing suspension of disbelief."

12. Gregory Comnes, "The Law of the Excluded Muddle: The Ethics of Improvisation in a William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own ," Critique 39, No. 4 (Summer 1998):353-366.

13. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music , trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985).

14. A good overview of Peirce's theory can be found in M. Fisch, Pierce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986).

15. Umberto Eco, The Open Work , trans. Anna Canogni (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989).

16. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Toward A Semiology of Music , trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990).

© 1998, Gregory Comnes

index || introductory & general || site search || Gaddis news
The Recognitions || J R || Carpenter's Gothic || A Frolic of his Own || Agapē Agape

All contents © 2000-2005 by the Gaddis Annotations site and the original authors, contributors, publishers, and publications.