chapters iv & v of williams’ the great american novel: “the word is the thing”


That’s all very fine about le mot juste but first the word must be free. — But is there not some other way? It must come about gradually. Why go down into hell when —

Because words are not men, they have no adjustments that need to be made. They are words. They can not be anything but free or bound. Go about it any way you chose.

The word is the thing. If it is smeared with colors from right and left what can it amount to?

I’d hate to have to live up there, she said with a frown. It was the soul that spoke. In her words could be read the whole of democracy, the entire life of the planet. It fell by chance on his ear but he was ready, he was alert.

And the little dusty car: There drawn up at the gutter was a great truck painted green and red. Close to it passed the little runabout while conscious desire surged in its breast. Yes there he was the great powerful mechanism, all in his new paint against the gutter while she rolled by and saw — The Polish woman in the clinic, yellow hair slicked back. Neck, arms, breast, waist, hips, etc. This is THE thing — The small mechanism went swiftly by the great truck with fluttering heart in the hope, the secret hope that perhaps, somehow he would notice — HE, the great truck in his massiveness and paint, that somehow he would come to her. Oh I wouldn’t like to live up there!

FOG HOLDSUP LINERS say the head lines. It is a blackness, a choking smother of dirty water in suspension. — You should have been here this morning. You could look out and see nothing but a sea of cloud below us. Right at our feet the fog began and stretched off as far as the eye could perceive.

Up out of the trees with a whirr started the sparrows. With a loud clatter the grouse got up at his feet. The ground was full of mushrooms. Everything, no matter what it is must be re-valuated.

The red grass will soon open into feathers.

Peter Broom, yes sah, my grandfather sah, the greatest man in Prince George County. He had three hundred children.

So many things, so many things: heat.

What then are you trying to say in THIS chapter? And what of your quest of THE word? What of A.N.T. ant?

Why someone has offended Wells. He has retorted with NEO-ACADEMICIAN: And: No new form of the novel required. Lack of substance always takes the form of novelty mongering. Empire must be saved! Saved for the proletariat.

On the side of the great machine it read: Standard Motor Gasoline, in capital letters. A great green tank was built upon the red chassis, FULL of gas. The little car looked and her heart leaped with shy wonder.

Save the words. Save the words from themselves. They are like children. Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Save them while they’re still young. Words must not be allowed to say, to do — Geld them. They are not REALLY words they are geldings. Save the words. Yes, I repeat SAVE THE WORDS. When Voronoff would have had words to transplant, interstitial words — he said save the words.

And what has anything Wells says to do with serious writing. FIRST let the words be free. The words are men, therefore they are not men. They cannot, must not, will not be mustered of the people, by the people, for the people. They are words. They will have their way.

Puh, puh, puh, puh! said the little car going up hill. But the great green and red truck said nothing but continued to discharge its gasoline into a tank buried in the ground near the gutter.

And the fog had coalesced into rain. Rain to soak the firewood the boys had left beside their old fire, like good scouts, for those to come after and the great car continued to discharge.


What then is a novel? Un novello, pretty, pretty Baby. It is a thing of fixed form. It is pure English. Yes, she is of Massachusetts stock. Her great grandfather was thrown out of the Quaker church for joining the Continental army. Hates the English. Her life is a novel — almost too sensational.

The story of Miss Li — so well told.

Qu’avez-vous vu? Or they that write much and see little. Not much use to us.

Speak of old Sun Bow pacing his mesa instead of Felipe Segundo in the barren halls of El Escorial — or asleep in his hard bed at one corner of the griddle.

My mother would have a little Negro boy come with a brush and sit at her feet and brush her legs by the hour.

Expressionism is to express skilfully the seething reactions of the contemporary European consciousness. Cornucopia. In at the small end and — blui! Kandinsky.

But it’s a fine thing. It is THE thing for the moment — in Europe. The same sort of thing, reversed, in America has a water attachment to be released with a button. That is art. Everyone agrees that that is art. Just as one uses a handkerchief.

It is the apotheosis of relief. Dadaism in one of its prettiest modes: rien, rien, rien. — But wait a bit. Maybe Dadaism is not so weak as one might imagine. — One takes it for

granted almost without a thought that expressionism is the release of SOMETHING. Now then Aemilius, what is European consciousness composed of? — Tell me in one word. — Rien, rien, rien! It is at least very complicated. Oh very.

You damned jackass. What do you know about Europe? Yes, what in Christ’s name do you know? Your mouth is a sewer, a cloaca.

Complicated consciousness quite aside from a possible re-valuation. It has no value for ME. It is all very interesting and God knows we have enough to learn. The swarming European consciousness. But there it is much simpler — No good to us.

Swarming European consciousness: Kreisler and Ysaye were the only ones with any value. They had a few pennies over and above expenses. They swarm here now for something to eat. But the funniest are the ones from Russia; each excoriates the playing of the other and calls the other a Sheeny. Wow!

Really you are too naive. They are merely reacting to the American atmosphere — It is their work that counts. And besides a virtuoso is not really creative in any serious sense. Would a great artist, say Kandinsky —? In any case it all seems to preoccupy you so, and in a book about America, really —

Take their work. I resent it all. I hate every symphony, every opera as much as a Negro should hate Il Trovatore. Not perhaps hate it in a purely aesthetic sense but from under. It is an impertinence. Where in God’s name is our Alexander to cut, cut, cut, through this knot.

Europe is nothing to us. Simply nothing. Their music is death to us. We are starving — not dying — not dying mind you — but lean-bellied for words. God I would like to see some man, some one of the singers step out in the midst of some one of Aida’s songs and scream like a puma.

But you poor fellow, you use such inept figures. Aida has been dead artistically in Munich for fifty years.

Wagner then — Strauss. It is no difference to me. Tear it all apart. Start with one note. One word. Chant it over and over forty different ways.

But it would be stupid —

It would, if it were what I mean — it would be accurate. It would articulate with something. It would signify relief. Release I mean. It would be the beginning.

Do not imagine I do not see the necessity of learning from Europe — or China but we will learn what we will, and never what they would teach us. America is a mass of pulp, a jelly, a sensitive plate ready to take whatever print you want to put on it — We have no art, no manners, no intellect — we have nothing. We water at the eyes at our own stupidity. We have only mass movement like a sea. But we are not a sea —

Europe we must — We have no words. Every word we get must be broken off from the European mass. Every word we get placed over again by some delicate hand. Piece by piece we must loosen what we want. What we will have. Will they let it go? Hugh.

I touch the words and they baffle me. I turn them over in my mind and look at them but they mean little that is clean. They are plastered with muck out of the cities. —

We must imitate the motivation and shun the result. We are very few to your many -But what is all this but waste energy.

No it is not. It is as near as I can come for the present to the word. What good to talk to me of Santayana and your later critics. I brush them aside. They do not apply. They do not reach me any more than a baby’s hand reaches the moon. I am far under them. I am less, far less if you will. I am a beginner. I am an American. A United Stateser. Yes it’s ugly, there is no word to say it better. I do not believe in ugliness. I do not want to call myself a United Stateser but what in — but what else am I? Ugliness is a horror to me but it is less abhorrent than to be like you even in the most remote, the most minute particular. For the moment I hate you, I hate your orchestras, your libraries, your sciences, your yearly salons, your finely tuned intelligences of all sorts. My intelligence is as finely tuned as yours but it lives in hell, it is doomed to eternal — perhaps eternal — shiftings after what? Oh to hell with Masters and the rest of them. To hell with everything I have myself ever written.

Here’s a man wants me to revise, to put in order. My God what I amdoing means just the opposite from that. There is no revision, there can be no revision —

Down came the rain with a crash. For five days it had been pending. With a loud splash it seemed to strike the earth as if it were body meeting body. The poplar leaves swirled and swirled. The gutters were wedged with water.

Oh you fool you are thicker than rain drops.

Give me to Musorgski. I am tired. Take me to the opera tonight and let me see Nijinsky dance his Till Eulenspiegel for I am tired to death with looking for sense among American poets. Igor will retrieve my courage. I could sit and listen in his lap for ever. Were not the American Indians Mongols? Or they must have been. Why could they not have been Chinese? Why could not the early Emperors have discovered America? Tell me, wet streets, what we are coming to, we in this country? Are we doomed? Must we be another Europe or another Japan with our coats copied from China, another bastard country in a world of bastards? Is this our doom or will we ever amount to anything?

Drown me in pictures like Marsden, make me a radical artist in the conventional sense. Give me the intelligence of a Wells. God, Ford is so far beyond him that what Wells says really sounds sensible.

Must it be a civilization of fatigued spirits? Then give me Ford. My God it is too disgusting.

Great men of America! O very great men of America please lend me a penny so I won’t have to go to the opera.

Why not capitalize Barnum —?

Bravo, bravo mon vieux! A noble apostrophe to your country but don’t you realize that it is not a matter of country but the time — The time.

For God’s sake Charlie bring a lemon pie.

So they lay in the little brook and let the cold water run up their bare bellies.


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