Philosophy in fiction

Can a person avoid guilt by opting out?

Piano (photo credit: Wikicommons)
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
‘If Paul Pry were to open him like a tin,” Joseph Skizzen – the protagonist of William Gass’s long-awaited novel – confesses to himself, referring to a mythical figure who pries into people’s lives, “the tin would be empty, not even oily, it would have a tinny sheen, and light would fly from it as a fly flies from disappointment.... Not a single self or sardine.”
Well, not quite. Joseph owns up – to himself – to a checkered past. In 1938, anticipating that Nazis would take over his homeland, his father, pretending to be Jewish, left Graz, Austria. Rudi Skizzen remained in London as Yankel Fixel and then Raymond Scofield, before disappearing without a trace.
His wife and children reclaimed their identities – such as they were – and relocated to the United States.
In Middle C , Gass – an 88-year-old emeritus professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction – uses Joseph to reflect on human identity, creating an extraordinar y work that, like life itself, is dark, disturbing, inexplicable, infuriating, fascinating and funny.
The novel is often abstract and, well, philosophical. Moving back and forth in time, Gass describes the young Joey Skizzen’s take on his triumphs and tribulations at Augsburg College, his later perceptions as Joseph – an associate professor of music at Whittlebauer College, a Lutheran institution in Ohio – and some aborted sexual encounters.
Despite a brief discussion of World War II and a single reference to Vietnam, the novel provides neither political nor social context. It is often impossible to tell what decade Skizzen is in.
Skizzen spends much of his life rearranging the sentence he wants to pronounce on humanity: “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might sur vive.” He also assembles an “atrocity collection,” consisting mostly of treatises on holocausts, pogroms, exterminations and racial cleansings, and articles and photographs from newspapers and magazines, which he collects in folders and pins onto his attic walls.
Like many of us, he asks what the deities, God, Jehovah and Allah, were doing when their minions were massacring so many men, women and children.
He believes that “the slaughter of reason is as regular as that of cows at an abattoir.” He relishes bad news and savors proof that his pessimism is justified.
More interesting, though, is Skizzen’s obsessive need – inherited, he thinks, from his father – to pass through life “reasonably clean of complicity in human affairs.” When the day of reckoning comes, he wants to tell his accusers – “and accused he would be” – that when others were destroying cities, debasing principles, fattening on lies, “squeezing life from all life like water from a sponge, I was not there. So see me now!Untarnished as a tea ser vice!I’ve done nothing brave, but nothing squalid, nothing farsighted but nothing blind, nothing to make me proud but never have I had to be ashamed.”
Still, Gass is too good a moral philosopher to let Skizzen off that easily.
Joey and Joseph, it turns out, should be ashamed of themselves. The boy and the man are serial liars. Despite his knowledge of composers Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, the professor has reason to fear that he will lose his position, his standing and his income – and to fear, too, that his moral purity has been so sullied that his great project, the condemnation of mankind, will be derided as a simpleton’s idiosyncrasy, or worse, a fraud to cover a multitude of sins.
In the end, he may or may not have decided that “a man should change his coat” if compelled to do so, and only to conduct his business, “not for his family or for his friends to whom he is fastened by feeling.” He may or may not have stopped tr ying to square the circle by pretending to be the kind of middle C man who could “disappear because he is so like ever ybody else as not to count,” when he was “not such a one.”
Most of all, even if Joseph has learned that it takes a lot of digging in the dirt to keep one’s hands clean, he may or may not be willing or able to act on that knowledge.
The shock of recognition (and selfknowledge) wears off of Joseph Skizzen.
In short order, he is relieved of his relief, convinced that silence is the best strategy, and ready to return to his atrocity collection and his “more virtuous days.”Middle CBy William H. GassAlfred A. Knopf.464 pp. $28.95
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.