Something from “Cartesian Sonata”

February 16, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

what follows is an excerpt from

“Cartesian Sonata”

by William H. Gass

published by Dalkey Archive Press



“How much bitten skin does a man collect in his life? Let’s see. Suppose the lips were chapped one day in five, an estimate conservative enough, and on that day five flakes were commonly taken in, their normal size a thirty-second of an inch, paced off roughly; that would be approximately eleven and four-tenths square inches of skin annually. If an average life dragged on for sixty years, discounting babyhood, since the practice isn’t customary at that age, the amount would come to six hundred and eighty-four square inches, of four and seven-tenths square feet, enough to carpet the average entryway. Of course that didn’ count all the other kinds of skin that might have been bitten off from god knows where. Then fingernails were a covering too. The difficulty there lay in estimating the rate of chew and amount of skin or nail swallowed on average, as opposed to the amount blown, shaken, or spat away.”



You can read more about the book and William Gass himself by visiting Dalkey Archive Press.

Or you can read the first chapter here, where there is also a link to a book review.

if you have any interest, I discovered this interview with Gass on The Believer website.  (I was especially taken by this part, and in some way it seems to speak to the passage above):

“So there’s that part of it. But the world of conceptualized ideas is quite wonderful, even when it’s—like Aristotle’s Physics—an outmoded book. The physics is not true. But the reasoning is dazzling. You can learn so much from a book like that about the way a mind might work and should work. I remember reading it for the first time, and it was just extraordinary. When Aristotle is wrong because science has outstripped him, he is so sane given what he has in front of him to work with, that you think, Well. You leave somebody like Plato, whose mind is breathtaking, and you go to Aristotle, who has a very completely different kind of thing, and hasn’t got the style or the panache. And yet, oh, boy, some of the performances are devastatingly wonderful. Same thing with someone like Kant, or Spinoza. And of course one of my favorites, Hobbes. He writes some of the best prose ever. And it isn’t that when one’s appreciating this, you’re just throwing out the aim that they were trying to achieve—to get at the truth. The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey.

“One of my favorites is Plotinus, and, you know, I think he’s nuts. [Both laugh] But it’s always gorgeous, and the language is just spectacular. And the same is true of the Tractatus [Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein]. The German is exquisite. So what you’re dealing with is a certain quality of mind. I think it is important to realize when you’re studying philosophy that what you’re getting is not simply that they got it right. What they got right was the going after it and showing you how it works, and imagining this and that. Usually, doing what Emerson suggested: capturing the world as it might seem from one point of view. That tells you a whole lot about that point of view.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: