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William H. Gass. Tests of Time.

William H. Gass. Tests of Time. Knopf, 2002. 319 pp. $25.00.

This fifth collection of Gass's essays covers several timely issues at the intersection of writing and politics. Among them are canon formation, moral influence, the impulses behind censorship, and the possibilities of protest. Also in this volume are a number of topical sermons that condemn the persecutions of Salman Rushdie, Assia Djebar, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Tahar Djaout. Despite the politically charged subject matter of these essays, Gass repeatedly challenges efforts to pin down a definite relation between literature and politics: "it may be useful to remember that coins and paper have sides but value and language haven't." Typical of his essayistic style, all of these pieces reveal his dedication to particulars and his distrust of theories and systems. He has little interest, for example, in literary critics' attempts to define the laws of canon formation. At the same time, essays like "The Test of Time" and "The Shears of the Censor" make daring efforts to go beyond the truism that aesthetic judgments are always contingent. In the collection's central piece--a very long "litany" on writers and politics--Gass provides an exhaustively detailed, rhapsodically organized, yet continuously fascinating catalog of the uneasy, indeterminate, contradictory relations between writing and power. Ultimately, the point of this catalog is that "there isn't a single important point of view which has not been beautifully praised. There is scarcely an important truth which hasn't been brilliantly traduced." Out of context, this might sound like uncommitted political relativism or cultural conservatism hiding behind aesthetic disinterestedness. But Gass's meditations on the nature of literary creation reveal a highly complex--and subtly instructive--awareness of writing's capacity for social use and abuse, and his topical sermons put the lie to the fear that such a complex awareness cripples political and ethical judgment.
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Author:Hove, Thomas
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:302
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