Tests of Time: Essays, by William Gass. New York: Knopf. 319 pages. $25. BUY NOW

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IYet Gass (who teaches philosophy, not literature) doesn't mistake the particular for the real: A description of a dewdrop exists at several removes from the dewdrop. "When I replace the fact (which I can never see, which is a construction) with my perception, and my perception with a series of words . . . two series of transformations will have intersected: that of Nature becoming Experience, and that of the thought-sounded sentence sliding down an arm into its written form." Aha: Then Gass is a neoromantic, taking Coleridge's proposition that "in our life alone does Nature live" one more step: In art alone does experience survive? Sure, except when you remember his antiromantic disdain for the ostentatiously primal. "Let them take pride in being Scots, or Samoans," he writes, "and memorize epics in meters beaten by oars upon ocean waters. Let them grow up stupid, Fred thought; it cuts the competition."

Of course this is a persona talking to itself, but Gass talks just the same way in his own voice: "Dope and dumbness keep the competition down. Let them love Elvis." He argues that we shouldn't confuse "an egalitarianism which is politically desirable with a cultural equality which is cowardly, damaging, and reprehensible." And he takes dead aim at types like you (presumably) and me (most definitely) who pride themselves on their connoisseurship of, you know, like, whatever. "Although there may be a few persons capable of enjoying honky-tonk and high mass, pork rinds and puff pastry, celli concerti and retch rock, and therefore be in a position to pronounce upon the quality of each of these endeavors . . . it should be clear that a life of idiocy and a life of civility are rarely joined, and that we have probably stretched our standard beyond its useful limit." Except for the iffy syntax (there may be persons capable of . . . and therefore be), this is the channeled voice of Nabokov.

Ah. So then Gass belongs to the fussy old high-culture mandarinate? Well, in that case he should try, as he puts it, "not to swear so fucking much"; he must be the most potty-mouthed elitist since Ezra Pound. Much of Gass's studied impropriety, like Pound's, runs to the excremental ("The ideal cultural product . . . contains no substance of any substantial kindóso that after you have eaten it, for days you will shit only air"), though once in a while he'll throw a dutiful fuck into his prose. Doesn't he see that his own diction is the stylistic equivalent of pork rinds and puff pastry? Doesn't he see that such juxtapositions were what old-school modernismóthe only rubric that really comes close to fitting himówas all about? Well, of course he sees. Language, Gass writes, "can absorb every stink-footed invader and turn them, in time, into model citizens." He hardly needs to add that if this were to happen to his language, he'd invent new obscenities. Gass's omnidirectional provocations finally, fortunately, read more like performance than polemic: This is a mind too capacious, too complicated, too mercurialótoo modernóto enlist for long in any cause but self-celebration and self-contradiction. "If you want to be made a fool of," he writes, "take sides, and then let the side take you. . . . Coins and paper have sides but value and language haven't; there are no sides to a stew, either, only surfaces, ingredients, and flavors."

David Gates's most recent book is the story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World (Knopf, 1999).

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