Glass and Dirt: ‘The Tunnel’ in Twelve Antitheses

By David Auerbach

Unity / Contradiction

The most insidious problem facing a reader of The Tunnel is that the novel refuses to settle down into being one thing. The entire plan of The Tunnel feels at war with itself, setting Midwestern minutiae against European atrocity without persistent rationale. If there are, as Gass wrote in “A Temple of Texts,” two poles of American novels—”the conscience-haunted and puritanically repressed novel of “bad” manners, represented by Nathaniel Hawthorne and culminating in James, and the wild and woolly frontier baroque [of Melville and Faulkner],” The Tunnel evidently tries to inhabit both simultaneously while reveling in the incongruities.

Ted Morrissey has analyzed how The Tunnel differs from a text like Finnegans Wake in its construction; where Joyce set various schemata against one another in a multitudinous but coherent whole, The Tunnel’s confusions exist at the level of its very conception, refusing to offer a single clear vantage. We know what kind of a novel Finnegans Wake is, even if huge chunks of it evade our grasp. Finnegans Wake piles incompatible conceptual schemas on top of a reasonably coherent world historical view. The Tunnel piles incompatible concepts of itself on top of each other, making it quite difficult to grasp what lies underneath. The Tunnel says, “I will throw the whole wretched world at you, large and small, so that you must live with all of it past what you can organize.”

Architecture / Heap

“It is hard to write incoherence because there are rigid laws of chance, even if we have a chance universe,” said William Gass (link to interview by Jim Neighbors, 2002).

The Tunnel at first encounter gives off the impression of total disorganization: Gass wished at least in potential for it to be published not as a bound book but as a “pile of pages” (link to “Designing The Tunnel” by WHG) and on rereading it I could not help imagining it having taken a form like that of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a collection of separate, unnumbered signatures thrown into a coffin-shaped box. Johnson’s ironic epigraph, taken from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, could apply just as well to The Tunnel:

It is a history-book, Sir, (which may possibly recommend it to the world) of what passes in a man’s own mind.

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.” So quotes David Jones from the historian Nennius at the beginning of The Anathemata. From its heap of pages to its heaps of dirt, The Tunnel begs to be perceived as an unregulated indulgence to which the law of entropy has already been applied many times over, reducing its incessant contrasts to a homogenized stew of logorrhea. “It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it,” Jones continues, suspecting that his work may be simultaneously too archaic and too wide-ranging to cohere.

The textural surface of the novel … takes great pains to disguise the degree of organization.

The Tunnel takes up Jones’s challenge, neither careening through myth and history like Jones nor collapsing into total solipsism like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (a significant antecedent for The Tunnel in its apparent shapelessness and interiority).  Gass carefully organizes the novel into twelve roughly equal sections, each offering portals and vantages on the others. The textural surface of the novel, however, takes great pains to disguise the degree of organization. Pauline Kael said of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, “It took three months of editing to make this film seem unedited,” and no small amount of the 25 years Gass spent on The Tunnel must have been invested in making the novel seem disorganized, when it is just as much an immaculate construction.

Sublime / Vulgar

From the first pages, the book’s style maddeningly oscillates between the lyrical and the vulgar, the closely observed and the glib, the offensive and occasionally the gentle. No one mode dominates, and the transitions often appear designed to be as jarring as possible, though this tendency does settle down toward the novel’s end. Yet the overall timbre is so dissonant that the novel aspires to make it impossible for one to quote a lyrical or bucolic passage without also including a puerile limerick or ugly bigotry. (One can, of course, but I do believe it goes against the book’s aspiration.)

The Romantics, beloved by Gass and Kohler both, aspired to isolate the beautiful and the sublime and go beyond preserving it to recreating it, even rebirthing it. “I had begun life with the poet’s outlook, in the celebrational mode” (638), Kohler says near the very end of The Tunnel. He is a failure as a poet:

all I enjoyed was the shallow self-absorption of youth: I saw nothing but myself seeing, heard nothing but myself breathing, found nothing but the discarded wrapper of my own conceit, felt nothing genuine except concealment. (637)

For Kohler, at least, the Romantic pose was a falsehood. Must it necessarily be? The wild swerves between puerility and haughtiness (the sublime is never quite reached) show that for Kohler’s soul, the poetic impulse was perverted into a kaleidoscope of ugly emotions. I am not at all certain that the novel gives a direct answer to whether it can ever not be, whether there is a pure aesthetic impulse that can unite with life without doing violence to it, whether the light the Romantic lamp shines can ever avoid polluting, whether what can be seen through a mirror is not hopelessly occluded by the vision of the seer.

Glass / Dirt

The glass of the window, the dirt of the tunnel: the two materials constituting the two major symbols of The Tunnel. Here, at least, is a duality that achieves some resolution, though, as typical for The Tunnel, it is one neither reached nor trumpeted. The clues to a possible resolution hide in the background, poking through at random intervals, such as this one:

“Time cannot do to ordinary things what we timelessly do to one another,” I announce, although in a careful whisper, repeating the first sentence of my masterpiece; and the sound is soaked up as if I spoke to a world of sand. (147)

The Tunnel exudes unseemly juxtapositions, self-effacements, and prominent anomalies.

Mineral sand is a component of dirt, and sand figures quietly in two other major motifs of The Tunnel: it forms the particles slipping down the hourglass indicating how one’s time has run out, and when burnt in a furnace, it turns into the glass for windows. So out of the opposition of the tunnel’s dirt and window’s glass comes the unifying substrate of sand. What is the conceptual sand of The Tunnel? I would hazard that it is the binary opposition or the contradiction itself. The Tunnel exudes unseemly juxtapositions, self-effacements, and prominent anomalies. They tend to take the form of strict binaries; unlike Charles Sanders Peirce and James Joyce, who favored triangular structures over oppositions, Gass plays primarily with dualities. Deconstructing dualities was a tremendous fad in the decades in which The Tunnel gestated, but Gass takes a step back and does not so much tear them apart as let them vibrate and tremble, to the point where they can collapse Kohler’s tunnel (in the tenth chapter) and force him further downward.

History / Poetry

The best description for the sort of novel The Tunnel is could be “palimpsest history,” a term coined by Christine Brooke-Rose in reference to the vast, often-fantastic metahistorical novels of the Latin American Boom, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth.

But the novel’s task, unlike that of history, is to stretch our intellectual, spiritual and imaginative horizons to breaking point. Because palimpsest histories do precisely that, mingling realism with the supernatural and history with spiritual and philosophical reinterpretation, they could be said to float half-way between the sacred books of our various heritages, which survive on the strength of the faiths they have created (and here I include Homer, who also survived on the absolute faith of the Renaissance in the validity of classical culture), and the endless exegesis and commentaries these sacred books create, which do not usually survive one another, each supplanting its predecessor according to the Zeitgeist, in much the same way as do the translations of Homer or the Russian classics. (Christine Brooke-Rose, “Palimpsest History”)

But The Tunnel is a palimpsest history of a nation whose imagination has been exhausted. European history is swamped by American history, but the “American history” at work is that of the small, diminished Midwest, shrunk to the size of a single man’s mind, a mind filled with a lot of history, a lot of poetry, a lot of vulgarity, and a lot of hate. But, as The Tunnel reminds us, it is all second-hand. The romantic imperative that originates around the time of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria culminates in Rilke’s poetry, that which inspired both Gass and Kohler, insists that secondhand knowledge, when aesthetically set down as poetry or even as prose, can paradoxically become a kind of firsthand history, the heap of what passes in a man’s own mind.

Brooke-Rose criticized American postmodern novels for their inability to get very far beyond personal experience. The Tunnel plays with that limitation, making it a metaphysical limitation not of individual writers but of the entire American culture, particularly Midwestern culture.

Truth / Lie

Kohler is, at best, unreliable. The Tunnel is stingy with dates and chronology, offering only a couple fixed dates around which to pinpoint his life. On January 29, 1938, “the elevator took my mother to the floor reserved for the crazy ladies” (84), but by November Kohler is apparently in Germany to take part in Kristallnacht. Gass’s structural description bluntly states, “The narrator is wholly unreliable … he can’t be trusted.” Any reader will try to get Kohler’s statements to cohere—whether into a truth or lie, we will never know. And what consequently will stand out are factual and textural anomalies.

Because there is no ultimate authority to answer them, the “truth” of Kohler’s words remains evasive.

Factual anomalies are rarer than one might imagine; Kohler’s timeline hangs together in rough form, despite some striking slippages such as Kohler saying “I was only fifteen” (627) at the time of his mother’s institutionalization, when the 1938 date puts him at 20 at least. It is the textural anomalies to which we should look, particularly the unexpected intrusion of the grotesque, as when Kohler all but states that his wife Martha, out of spite, named their younger son Adolf:

She gave the kid the name of my obsession. She named him after me. (371)

For all the domestic horrors and married miseries which Kohler has chronicled, such a comically cruel move of parenting remains outside of Martha and Kohler’s capacities. Heide Ziegler directly questioned Gass on this point:

The text implies that Kohler’s wife named his first kid Adolf out of spite. Now the reader is welcome to consider the likelihood of this. Clearly Kohler doesn’t want to think about him. So he doesn’t. He is a person who shoves everybody into a realm of the lifeless. (Ziegler 17)

If, as Gass implies, Kohler is fabricating this incident, readers must wonder where and why he is fabricating through the book. Because there is no ultimate authority to answer them, the “truth” of Kohler’s words remains evasive, but not wholly unreachable. But that truth lies less in the facts of Kohler’s life and more in the depicted totality of his thoughts.

If Gass, who like Kohler says he “writes to indict the world,” wishes to make good on his stated aim, he cannot do so without at the fundamental level communicating some truth. The Tunnel on every page demands that awareness of doubt and deceit inform a reader’s search for whatever that truth might be.

In / Out

One can tunnel into or out of a place. Kohler is digging a gradually shrinking tunnel into the dirt, which takes him out of his house. (He crosses under the edge of the house in the “Mad Meg” section.) The title page schematic of the tunnel (see image) is a temporally exploded-view of the tunnel. Each of the twelve chapters corresponds to one of the inch markings on the ruler (not included in the printed version of Gass’s schematic), but the first four segments present different views on the same space–the furnace in which the tunnel originates–so it is not until the fifth chapter, when Kohler invokes his German mentor Mad Meg who constituted the core of his “escape” from the Midwest, that temporal movement becomes (horizontal) spatial movement. As Kohler burrows into the tunnel, the novel moves out of stasis. Yet by the time of the final four chapters, the forward progression (of both the tunnel and the narrative) is arrested first by a collapse and then through a descending, tightening passageway, as the tunnel out of the house has been a tunnel into the earth, into hell. (As the epigraph from Diogenes Laertius tells us, “The descent to hell is the same from every place.”)

With the symbolic and literal burying of his text, [Kohler] becomes the model of Wittgenstein’s impossible solipsist.

Gass stressed that the novel itself is a tunnel, and to the extent that there is a linear macrostructure, the novel’s sections divide into three parts of the excavation:

Chapters 1-4: Downward drop behind the furnace (temporally exploded, spatially static)

Chapters 5-8: Horizontal forward motion (penis-shaped, spatially and historically progressive)

Chapters 9-12: Arrested motion and descent (spatially obstructed, temporally warped)

The first set orients around “in,” the second orients around “out,” and the third annihilates the distinction. These, in turn, map closely to the dying Magus Tabor’s three stages of history (271):

  1. “A chancre … a sore, the source of the event.”
  2. “Then that sore or irritation would break out everywhere. Quibbles, quarrels, strikes, riots.”
  3. “Then the disturbance which had been on the surface would sink inside the situation, and the nation would begin to come apart from within.”

By the end of the novel, the reference points of what constitutes “in” or “out” have all but dissolved. Kohler has come apart from within. Inside and out no longer have meaning when the unity is dissolved, when he is “buried in my box of being” (591).

As was stressed with Kohler’s obsession with windows, which side is “in” and which is “out” is frequently indeterminate. With the symbolic and literal burying of his text, he becomes the model of Wittgenstein’s impossible solipsist, unable to identify themselves because there is no surrounding against which they can be distinguished.

Midwest / Germany

Just as Midwestern boy Kohler is seduced and corrupted by his German mentor Magus Tabor, only to reproduce a comically pathetic version of his master’s teachings in a Midwestern university, the book flipflops between European high modernist tropes and more realistic/historical/quotidian moments which undermine, trivialize, and ridicule them. In the invaluable interview with Heide Ziegler, Gass said,

The book is basically about the Midwest. It is basically about life in the United States, about states of disunity in soul and mind. Nothing else is treated in detail. (Ziegler 15)

Gass is not wrong, but his answer is also incomplete, for the shadow of history and of the Holocaust in particular weighs on every page, and the texture and weight of the Midwestern material arises in large part from the constant counterpoint with the conflagration of European history in the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century.

The problem with the Midwest, which it appears Gass faced after writing his early work, is that once the issue of religion has been set aside, what remains is banal in a distinctly un-Arendtian way. Little in Gass’s depictions of the region contradicts fellow Midwesterner John Sladek’s assessment:

What’s wrong with the Midwest is not flatness or greyness but people. It was just as flat when it was a home for the Sioux, a pasture for their buffalo. It did not become boring until a peculiar breed of genocidal people took over. Their lives were flat and rectilinear, as the straight and narrow path to the heaven they believed in. Accordingly they cut the Great Plains into squares, setting rectilinear boundaries for states, counties, farms and fields. (John Sladek, link to “Four Reasons for Reading Thomas M. Disch”)

Gass’s own description of fascism evokes this Midwest far more than it does Hitler’s Germany:

Fascism is a tyranny which enshrines the values of the lower middle class, even though the lower middle class doesn’t get to rule. It just gets to feel satisfied that the world is well-run. It likes symbols of authority and it likes to dress up. It likes patriotic parades. It believes in “family values,” that is, the woman in the kitchen, the kids in kindergarten, and dad in the driver’s seat. It likes to abolish day-to-day history by being excessively neat and tidy. It hates anything alien, strange, new. It bows to, if it does not worship, authority. It is permanently resentful of its lower-middle-class position. (Ziegler 18)

That abolishment of history hints at one of the central aporias of the novel: that of the history of the United States (not Germany), and particularly the fate of the indigenous peoples. Kohler ridicules his colleague Culp’s patronizing worship of Native Americans, and while Kohler mentions them frequently, it is always in passing. Rather late in the novel, he is momentarily stunned by a photo of three Native Americans in his parlor:

Three Indians in full rattledress are looking stiffly at one another. Their eyes, I notice for the first time, are incredibly calm, or is it astonishingly empty? Yes, there—there is the rattle. One Indian is also holding a very small drum. As if he had forgotten he had a hand. Suddenly I think of another picture, another wall, then of Lou, and it shakes what used to be my soul to what used to be its roots. When this you see, dismember me. Here we have a meaningless moment no doubt, memorialized by the camera, and now placed in this small unvisited museyroom where time lies in a stagnancy of nothing to report, and a snot-green film blown from the nose of James Joyce has hankied about its holy gloom. (451)

Coming in the most concertedly banal section of the novel, “Around the House,” with its long descriptions of urination and coffee grinds, Kohler hints at the analogy: that the kitsch photo’s presence is akin to Germans having a photo of Jews in their parlor, if the Germans had been able to forget the genocide to the point where it became boringly domesticated. It is the nearly unspoken parallel of the novel.

Atrocity / Domesticity

At the most extreme, the Germany/Midwest contrast becomes the counterpoint of the European Holocaust and the American domesticity. It’s the emotional and ‘factual’ counterpoint that makes the book so damnably difficult to come to terms with, and which provoked its strongest reactions. The very idea of using the Holocaust as a metaphor for a joyless marriage (or vice versa) was enough to alienate some readers altogether. Gass’s stylistic pingponging between vulgarity and lyricism serves this greater counterpoint, but ultimately, none of the juxtapositions would hold the weight that they do without the subject matter of the Holocaust (and other weighty macrohistorical events) on the one hand and Kohler’s stiflingly microscopic personal and professional life on the other. 

Kohler spotlights this contrast in his long analysis of the “quarrel” as the basis of all historical conflict (pp. 180-214), which functions as a miniature of the book itself, hauling in all sorts of historical baggage only to alight ultimately on a vicious childhood scene during which Kohler’s alcoholic mother temporarily lost her and her husband’s wedding rings. Kohler’s “argument,” to the extent the section contains one, does not succeed. The section achieves instead the mere fact of the coexistence of these different strata of human experience, and the contradictions which arise even today every time a single Tweet is elevated to hold the entire weight of a historical atrocity.

Teacher / Pupil

But for the students he seduces, Kohler thinks little of his pupils, yet he is still in thrall to one particular teacher: Magus Tabor, nicknamed Mad Meg, a phantasmal performer whose lectures Kohler still recalls with awe. Gass claims to have based Tabor at least partly on 19th century nationalist and proto-fascist Heinrich von Treitschke, but it is impossible not to hear Martin Heidegger in his theatrical prestidigitations, rejecting reason for romance and virtue for Volk, in his declaration that “the dream of all men [is] to re-create Time” (272).

Tabor proclaims a fascist fantasy deployed out of petty resentment toward the slights accumulated over a lifetime.

Kohler chronicles the grim end of Tabor’s life, ultimately naming him the “spiritual founder” of Kohler’s imagined Party of Disappointed People, but the nature of Tabor’s despair, his wish for Kohler to “hide the hollow where his words were” (266), is not quite spelled out, save for the evident humiliations of the process of death. But it lies somewhere in the mock-triumphal lecture Tabor delivers in alternation with the chronicle of death, an intellectual Horst Wessel song, demanding the invasion and razing of subordinate histories and narratives by a Master Language and a Master Culture:

Conquest via history is the only kind with any permanence. But we must, to succeed, believe in ourselves, believe we are magnets, centers, sources. Then all shall be drawn to us. Why? How can we do this? We can do this because we have a dream round our head like a halo, a crown.

Could any history of Western Europe, written in Romanian, become a classic? The dying states, the Spains, can they produce it? or the little and the lost—Albanias or Belgiums?—the chronic losers—Polands—can they call up the necessary visions? Nor can the parasites of war, the Swiss or Swedes, who always feed in safety (for they’ve no gumption in them, no divinity), lift their weight up the steps toward empire. To undertake such a task, let alone succeed in it, requires in the historian a sense for the inevitably destiny of his people and the importance, in furthering their aims, of dominating, assimilating, altering everything, of replacing the customs of the nations to be conquered with the folkways and traditions, the laws and literature, the confident future of your own. Enlist yourselves in this army. Give up small loves and local loyalties for this; sign your fortunes over to it, never waver; in the face of every enemy persist; and then I promise you, young gentlemen, that the future—the future shall speak only German!


came the reply, the shout—the students standing in their chairs. (272)

Whence the disappointment? Kohler, by his own admission, falls for Tabor’s vision hook, line, and sinker. He brings it back to America, where the reality shown him by Tabor’s pathetic death becomes increasingly difficult to evade: Tabor’s line of thought is bullshit, a pompous manifestation of the sort that Fritz Stern expertly dissected in The Politics of Cultural Despair. Tabor proclaims a fascist fantasy deployed out of petty resentment toward the slights accumulated over a lifetime, riding piggyback on the violence of a thuggish regime.

As he dies and sees the joke of the “permanence” to which he earlier referred, Tabor has a glimpse of his own bullshit when he lays out his three stages of history, which lead not to triumph but dissipation. Kohler, in his half-reticence to buy entirely into the Nazi line, evinces a bit more perspective than Tabor–and yet it is Tabor who is the teacher and the inspiration. What did Kohler learn from him? To subjugate active thought to fascist passions. And he struggles with this “learning” throughout the novel. Not coincidentally, it is his colleague Herschel, the most milquetoast and least demagogic of his colleagues, who ultimately challenges Kohler the most (in his unprepossessing way) in the likewise most unprepossessing chapter, “Around the House,” whose voice is strong enough that Kohler must invoke his decadent, monstrous paramour Susu as a counterweight against him: “Come to my rescue, Susu, slender singer whom I loved” (482).

Passive / Active

Before the text properly starts, The Tunnel presents us with “The Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions.” They are indisputably sigils of the “fascism of the heart.” They are emotions Kohler inhabits at great length over the course of the novel. For all the heterogeneity and incongruity of The Tunnel, the one homogeneous texture, however it may vary in style or content, is the incessant parade of these passive attitudes. The book is a veritable catalogue of them. The active is notable by its absence. Excavation is about as active as he gets.

In the Ziegler interview, Gass says:

In the soul, fascism is the domination of passive emotions over active ones. I mean passive emotions in Spinoza’s sense. That’s why I began the book with the banners representing these feelings. My book is another book about human bondage. Political fascism is physically brutal. The fascism of the heart is a corrupt state of feeling, a realm of impotent resentment. In political fascism, the petty is perfected, the small boy struts his stuff, the bully has the run of the yard. In the fascism of the heart we hear the music of the aggrieved, the peevish, the spiteful—the concert of the coward. (Ziegler 19)

Those passive emotions are those “passions” which Spinoza called confused and inadequate, those which have not been sufficiently acted upon by the mind to lay claim to being active.

The actions of the Mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone. (Spinoza, Ethics III/P3 [tr. Curley])

Passive emotions are reactive, confused, inadequate, ill-considered, and above all ignorant. They constitute the affective basis of his imagined Party of Disappointed People, a formulation so simultaneously trivial and general it can absorb any resentment or atrocity one puts into it, whether a sexless marriage or the Holocaust—and the Party doesn’t especially differentiate between them. That, in turn, is what leads from the slippage from disappointment to atrocity, and Kohler half-intentionally condemns himself for that slippage in himself, if not in actuality then at least in potentiality—though acts like killing his wife’s cat show how easily the urge to atrocity could tip over into reality. A slippery slope of fascism, or a continuum? Better to call it a tunnel.

Guilt / Innocence

This opposition, part of the title of Kohler’s supposed magnum opus Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, is not in fact treated in The Tunnel; it is conspicuous rather by its absence. After the fascist passions have had their way and the Party of Disappointed People has absorbed us all, there is no innocence left, and to adjudge degrees of guilt is, though far from irrelevant, at a minimum deceptive. Gass, in his essay “How German Are We?”, quotes R. P. Blackmur on Sinclair Lewis: “There is a history of terror in the bowels of every nation only awaiting the moment’s impetus to be articulated and made general.” In the depths of every nation, and of every individual.

David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the MIT Technology ReviewThe NationNew Scientist, The Daily Beast, n+1, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.