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Partie III. Images figurées, lecteurs exposés …

Willie & Babs, Phil & Bob: “et moi, et moi, et moi…" (On Reading Pornography)

Stéphane Vanderhaeghe


Partant d’une définition large de la pornographie en littérature, et s’appuyant sur la relation ambiguë qui unit Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife de William Gass, et sa réponse parodique « On Mrs. Willie Masters » de Robert Coover, cet article vise à interroger la façon dont ces textes à l’esthétique pornographique court-circuitent les voies usuelles de l’accès au sens. Si dans les deux cas l’accent est mis sur la performance textuelle, le lecteur/critique se voit en quelque sorte couper l’herbe sous le pied, et ne peut que constater de façon performative et se rendre à l’évidence que ce sont ses propres obsessions critiques que rejouent les textes en les surexposant à la lumière d’une écriture vouée à la simulation.

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How can a commentary not be a persecution of what is commented upon? Doesn’t it bring forth the proof (from the sole fact that the reader speaks up) that in formulating his or her request, he or she supposes that he or she knows it or at least supposes it to be knowable, and that this request ceases to be a marvel to which writing makes itself accessible? Is the request then no more than a prescription provided with a content, a sense, to which the work is held, as a hostage is held for the observance of a promise?

Jean-François Lyotard

1I knew Willie Masters’ missus before becoming acquainted with the gentleman himself,” Phil Gelvin claims at the beginning of “On Mrs. Willie Masters,” a short text by Robert Coover published in a festschrift issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction entirely devoted to the work of William H. Gass; and you too, somehow — this, willy-nilly, being your version of what Coover writes of William Gass, a master in his own right whose fictional avatar is none other than this “Willie Masters of the all-mastering willy” whom Gelvin, the narrator in Coover’s story, looks up to after having strangely fallen off Gass’s page onto Coover’s — you too “knew” Gass’s novella before actually reading it. Or have you “actually” read it? you wonder. For, insofar as Gass’s text constantly challenges its readers with the accumulation and simultaneous interruptions of its diverse and diverging storylines, it seems that “reading” as such, as you, for one, are all too aware, is at stake when the text thus exposes itself over and over again, laying and stripping everything bare, overexposing its own artifice and the fictional process that gives life to (its) language.

2Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, published by Gass in 1968 — one year, you recall, before sixty-nine, année érotique to coin a phrase — is one of those texts whose reputation is barely escapable. But as always in such cases, its reputation failed to give you the correct impression, and even less so, perhaps, when the latest version of the text that has managed to reach you, despite this wall that divides you like that which grew between Pyramus and Thisbe on account of the quarrel of their families, is already the stuff of reminiscence, “a fabled memory” as Gelvin would have it, a remainder, pure recall of the initial, colorful performance, now, give or take a few library stacks, lost forever.

3Talking, then, of misconceptions: on the one hand, a whole issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Gass; on the other, a short text, a mere curiosity, a critical assignment (so you thought) tackled by Gass’s friend and fellow writer, Robert Coover. This, at least, is what its title, “On Mrs. Willie Masters,” tended to suggest. But what did you expect, “On Mrs. Willie Masters”? Even complying with the conventions of the genre, giving precedence, in its epigraph, to Mrs. Willie Masters herself, placing her, that is, on top, the better to supervise, no doubt, Gelvin’s own performance: “Timing is the essence of the comic. In fact, time itself is comic, nothing funnier. Ha. God. I can barely continue.” And so, from the very start, here you are, lured somehow into this comedy that the act of reading has inevitably become when dealing with such texts as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife or its counterpart by Coover; Babs’ words still float in the corner of your reading eye, turning themselves into an insidious question tinged with Beckettian echos: need you continue? (can’t… must… will…) But if so, how? Barely?

4Your attempts at beating around the bush are futile; that, at least, you know. Whatever your options were at the start, there seems to be no other alternative left but to expose yourself and venture to say that, not only did you not “know” Gass’s text before “actually reading it” — that is, if you really have, for, like Gelvin at the end of “On Mrs. Willie Masters,” you’re not sure any more — but the very possibility of ever “knowing” it, be it even vicariously through Coover’s, or should you say Gelvin’s?, rewriting of it, is challenged from the outset. For, in a way, neither text is what it appears to be; or, wrong again, no doubt, each is exactly what it appears to be. For did Babs Masters in Gass’s text not warn you? She’s only a string of noises, after all — nothing more really — an arrangement, a column of air moving up and down, a queer growth like a gall on a tree, a mimic of movement in silent readers maybe, a brief beating of wings and cooing of a peaceful kind, an empty swing still warm for young bloomers… ummm… imagine the imagination imagining, indeed… In deed.

5And so, ummm, yes, undoubtedly, lured somehow by the text’s reputation and distracted by the photographs of a naked Babs Masters (supposedly) interspersed between fragments of texts whose only purpose is to lure you still further on, you’ve been had from start to finish as Gass’s text proclaims at some point. For Gelvin comments, thus inadvertently calling into question the very nature and critical necessity of his own text, a hindrance of sorts: “I knew Willie Masters’ missus before becoming acquainted with the gentleman himself, knew her, that is, in the Biblical sense, which is the only way any of us knew her or can know her, and as I am knowing her now.” (10)

  • 1  But the whiteness of the page is, in fact (isn’t it?), already biased toward the conventional idea (...)

6Given that Babs Masters, the character William Gass imagined imagining, is that lady language chose to make her playhouse of, to write about Gass’s text, you realize, is to write — the logic of this is indubitable — on Mrs. Willie Masters herself (hop onstage, as it were), and this in turn, as Gelvin aka Coover aka yours truly purports to do, is, willy-nilly, to accept to make of the text a full-fledged body in its own right and take into account its very materiality — be it only that of the orthographic signs that compose it, the sounds they make, the visual effects they have or produce as Gass’s titillating use of diverse fonts would seem to suggest — and ultimately to see no difference whatsoever between black letters printed on a white page1 and the black-and-white photographs of a pair of buttocks or of blown-up boobs. For are these much more in the end than just a few drops of ink spilled on a special kind of paper?

  • 2  Pornography is here used in a broad sense, independently and regardless of its various shades of m (...)
  • 3  See Dominique Maingueneau, 10-1.

7What is it, you wonder, that accounts for a text’s pornographic dimension2 or, to put it as Gass does, what makes a text “blue”? Is textual or literary pornography a mere question of mimesis? Does the text, in other words, have to describe or, perhaps more to the point, simulate sexual intercourse to fall into this category? This would probably be the most conventional, convenient way of defining pornography. But if at first sight pornography could easily be said to have no secrets to reveal (what you see is what you get), providing it with a definition is, to say the least, problematic, if only because, as pornography attaches itself essentially to what is taboo, the boundaries separating what is licit, illicit, or merely tolerated, subjected as they are to time and place, keep shifting about.3 Further, “[t]he fashion in which most critics construe the nature of prose literature, no less than their view of the nature of pornography, inevitably puts pornography in an adverse relation to literature.” (Sontag 39) Yet it only takes one mere look at Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife to see — and see only, not even or yet understand — that Gass’s only concern in this piece, as indeed in any other text of his, is essentially aesthetic or “purely” literary.

8But for all that, pornography remains a radical form of transgression — and this fact may account for the frequent affinities of literature and, more generally, art as such, with the “pornographic” in a loose sense — and, yes, there is something essentially “pornographic” in both Gass’s and Coover’s texts; however, the “taboo” they break, as does literary pornography more generally, has nothing to do with social conventions or appropriate rules of public and/or private conduct; rather, once it has penetrated the literary text (that is, if, as porno‑graphy, it doesn’t emanate from it), pornography, in its literary treatment, exposes its transgressions purely in terms of language as the very stuff literature is made of. For, as Babs Masters herself reminds her inattentive reader at the end of her show: “These words are all I am.”

9In the course of On Being Blue, his “philosophical inquiry,” William Gass is led to distinguish between the use, the mention and the utterance of words:

When, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless, I enjoin a small offensive fellow to “fuck a duck,” I don’t mean he should. Nothing of the sort is in my mind. In a way I’ve used the words, yet I’ve quite ignored their content, and in that sense I’ve not employed them at all, they’ve only appeared. I haven’t even exercised the form. The command was not a command. “Go fly a kite” only looks like “shut the door.” (47)

10To some extent, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is merely expounding on this view, which is at the very heart of the heart of William Gass’s aesthetics, when he claims in Fiction and the Figures of Life, for instance, that “there are no events but words in fiction. Words mean things. Thus we use them every day: make love, buy bread, and blow up bridges. But the use of language in fiction only mimics its use in life.” (30) In an almost Platonic sense then, the language of fiction appears as a simulacrum that the language of pornography, as an extremely coded genre in its conventional or commercial application, merely mirrors. For although all too “real,” pornography in itself already is a simulation, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (1) Pornography can be seen as just such a model, simulating as it does a reality or “hyperreality” that does not exist per se and probably never has (for who would doubt that sex, as depicted in conventional pornography, is a caricature, not to say a form of self-parody?). It’s in that sense that (the literary treatment of) pornography, the text’s plunge into matters, whether moral, political, aesthetic, etc., of sexuality, only helps turn fiction into a fiction of itself or, as it were, a perfected simulacrum, this time in the Deleuzian sense of the word; a simulacrum that, as pure “restful surface,” abolishes all distance and thus all distinction between the “real” and its “representation.”

  • 4  Roland Barthes 1986, 148.

11To put it in Gass’s terminology, words in fiction only appear on the page, mere simulators of simulation, are not “used” but simply “uttered” and as a consequence, in a similar way to what happens with a phrase like “fuck a duck,” they do not refer to or portray or mimic any outside reality but, rather, performatively make up an autonomous fictional world. If, then, as Gass writes in On Being Blue, one way among others “by which sex gains an entrance into literature” is via “the use of sexual words of various sorts” (10), such sexual words, ultimately, only point to, and overexpose, their own linguistic nature, in a reversal of how concrete detail in realistic fiction indexes “the category of ‘the real’ (and not its contingent contents),”4 as Barthes puts it. What seems to take place in the pornographic text is somehow not unlike, although probably more radical and altogether the reverse of, what Roland Barthes called the “reality effect.” Such terms as “fuck,” “cunt,” “cock,” “dick,” to quote but a few — and, contrary to Coover in his own handling of pornography in works such as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre or “You Must Remember This,” Gass makes restricted use of them — such words then only “appear” in the text, taking on a purely visual, sensual presence in order to proclaim as forcefully as possible: “we are pure words, pure sounds.” Language is thus turned inside out, fictionalized, as it were, offering itself in its pure materiality and malleability as it exposes its empty referential contents, and, ummm… yes, as Gass writes in On Being Blue:

[s]uch are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech… ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, imagined, and mindful Sublime. (57-58)

12And as the reader suddenly indulges in “the risk of senselessness,” meaning as such is short-circuited in favor of the sensuous, what Barthes termed significance (“la signifiance”), defining it, in The Pleasure of the Text, as “meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced.” (61)

13Despite his reluctance at times — “But are these words really all that I am? Am I only, as she would say, a string of noises?” (22) — Phil Gelvin’s enterprise in Coover’s piece, consists in substituting one type of textual knowledge for another, as it has finally dawned upon him, so many years after his first appearance in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, that the Biblical knowledge he is experiencing is “the only way any of us knew her or can know her, and as I am knowing her now.” (10) Through the use of the first person plural, Gelvin, a shoe salesman by trade in both Gass’s and Coover’s texts — incidentally, Gelvin keeps on plying his trade in Gass’s Cartesian Sonata — is no longer just a metaphor for the reader, but rather turns into a representative reader, standing up for you, inviting you, so to speak, to step into his shoes. His “knowledge” of the text, of the body of the text, is not just proxy for yours, but can be yours, too, albeit performatively (am knowing her now), at the precise moment of your reading: reading the text, you will not “attain” knowledge so much as experience it — in the very act, that is — before it eludes your grasp altogether, finally to be confined to a remembered past (knew her) that the critical exercise may try to revive, “knowing” full well that it can’t.

14What then is at stake is not only the way you read texts — the pornographic handling of sex may be just a pretext — but also, probably more to the point, the way you, would-be critic, account for your reading, write about it, thus inevitably yielding to some form of transitivity from the outset undercut by the texts’ performativity, helplessly placing yourself at a distance from the texts, a critical distance, to take your cue from beyond them, after, that is, they, as events or performances, have taken place and exhausted, or deflated themselves: hence, of course, the problematic question of “timing” raised by Babs Masters, for she clearly perceives, as Gelvin, facing the same predicament as the poor derided critic, will later remember, that “timing is the essence of the comic. In fact, time itself is comic, nothing funnier. Ha. God. I can barely continue.” But continue you must, all the while sensing that your critical account has been turned into pure comedy. The status of “On Mrs. Willie Masters” thus remains uncertain insofar as it somehow transgresses the supposedly well-defined frontier separating fiction from criticism, writing from reading (just as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife itself transgresses the frontier between fiction and essay-writing, for instance). Both as an avatar of the reader and as Coover’s persona — Coover obviously plays here with the resonance of the name “Willie” to engage Gass in a fictional conversation, quoting at length from his essays, in much the same way he had addressed Cervantes in Pricksongs & Descants — Phil Gelvin reconciles reading and writing in his own text, lucky-pierre style, equally gratifying both. As a fictional character, Gelvin eventually dissolves into his own language to realize that he has ultimately no more substance than the words used to materialize him: “I succumb. Phil Gelvin, peerless shoe salesman, is no more. An echoey airiness displaces me…” (23) Gelvin has been forced to recognize that, just like Babs Masters, he himself is an arrangement, a column of air moving up and down; his text, then, is his body that you in turn are asked to find your way, and melt, into… For as Barthes intuited in The Pleasure of the Text, texts of bliss, as Gass’s and Coover’s are, are “outside pleasure, outside criticism […]: you cannot speak ‘on’ such [texts], you can only speak ‘in’ [them], in [their] fashion, enter into a desperate plagiarism, hysterically affirm the void of bliss […].” (22)

15And in order to do so, of course you have to make the text, any text for that matter, fully yours. What’s in a name but letters, eh? and everyone owns them. Like Gelvin, you too should “st[eal] freely and without remorse, (e.g.) naked pl[ay] the fool.” (22) But isn’t it, somehow, what you’re doing now? exposing yourself, naked playing the fool, trying to find cracks in those texts (all the while philling up, trying to, those in yours) despite Babs Masters’ avowal that there aren’t any as all contact — the merest contact, any contact — is impossible, logically impossible (“there’s not even a crack between us,” she says), though she has been invited to kiss many an ass through such a barrier. Or maybe that is all there is, that is all there ever was — cracks — cracks everywhere in the text, as Gelvin clearly perceives (and so should you): “I delude myself, her openness is her very essence” (19). Which leaves you with a hitherto unanswered question: how does one enter an open text? Open, that is, in the sense that pornography can be said to be, insofar as it discloses and makes you see everything, all the while assuring you that this everything is all there is to see. Funny, as Gelvin says:

She’s free and easy, there for the asking, spread out on her beat-up black leather sofa like an open book on its bindings, and yet it’s hard in the end to say just where you’ve been after you’ve been there. How can I put it? It’s like seeing yourself doing it, and then remembering only your own seeing, not the doing.

It’s a fucking mystery is what it is. (17)

16Your gaze, just like his, is thus turned back upon itself, and what pornography somehow manages to do is to mirror and expose your own reading of it, casting you, of course, in the role of the voyeur, but a voyeur/readersomehow viewing/reading himself endlessly reading/viewing… Like Gelvin’s, your reading is thus cancelled by the text as soon as you reflect on your own revolving; it’s as though, Babs says — thus immediately “unsaying” on one (mirroring) page the very words she is pronouncing on the adjacent (mirrored) one:

17What both Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Coover’s “On Mrs. Willie Masters” are doing with the help of pornography — and in this respect, Coover’s text provides the reader with a mirror image of Gass’s text (being told, this time, from Babs Masters’ lover, Phil Gelvin’s viewpoint), just as Gass’s text provided its readers with a mirror image of their activity or, rather, in-activity, upon the text — is to reinsert the reader into the text, giving him or her a visibility, an obscene, no doubt, puzzling visibility in the text, all the while working towards his or her dissolution in language, that is in the language of fiction and imagination. Both texts then playfully deconstruct reading and, in Coover’s instance, even criticism; Gelvin — his “poetical quill, as you might say, in hand, her transcendental inkpot in full if fleeting view” (11) — is indeed all too aware of his own hermeneutics: “I could examine the very texture of her flesh […], espy in her shaking and squatting and twisting the subtlest of amphibolous meanings, could decipher her little grunts and wheezes and read her hands’ scribble down the trembling volumes of her hams and thighs” (11); this will eventually lead him to liken his fucking Babs Masters to writing an essay (and vice versa): “needing all my attention focused on the essay at hand” (13). And as the texts, then,deconstruct reading, they playfully lament the non-existence (in Babs Masters’ case) or celebrate the possibility (in Coover’s appreciation of her performance) of new forms of reading and new ways of writing about literary texts.

And it is, [Gelvin] now perceive[s], for all the awesome mystery of it, a game, at least for her it is, a performance still, or cause for one, a staged routine for exercising all her moves and, within the constraints of her chosen posture, for trying on new ones, as though ever searching for novel ways to express herself, the dance itself old hat, as she might say, only the dancing of it new. (19)

18It is certainly new for Gelvin. Certainly, for you too, it is. And what’s at stake in the course of such dancing, in which both Babs and Phil, Willie and Bob — and “me, myself, and I,” you wish to add — all have a part to play, is, as suggested by the use of the adjective novel in a somewhat ambiguous posture, nothing less than the future of fiction itself, that is, this ever-renewed, flitting present of sexual intercourse (I am knowing her now).

19That’s it, then. Or almost: just one last step to take, now that Phil and you — but, you realize, “Phil Gelvin, c’est moi…” — are being claimed back by imagination, about to disappear once more, buried in a line from an old joke. Babs insists: “How’bout it, Philly baby?” she pleads, startling you, recalling you, as she had previously done in Gass’s text, to reality: you have fallen into art—return to life. Yes, how ’bout it, then? you wonder. How ’bout getting off the page and falling back — “Where do I find myself? Where in hell?” Gelvin asks himself (11) — into what you call life, on the other side of the novel. But now that the text has entrapped you completely, you understand, with Gass in Fiction and the Figures of Life, that “on the other side of the novel lies the void. […] The same surrounds every other work of art: empty space and silence.” (49) Is it, then, that you have fallen haplessly into that unfathomable enigma which both pervades and contains you, Babs’ spell spelling you, spelling all? Have you fallen so deeply into art, then, so far down into language and imagination, that you’ve been turned into a sweet nothing? “Because,” Gelvin says, quoting Willie Masters quoting you quoting William Gass in Fiction and the Figures of Life, “a consciousness electrified by beauty—is that not the aim and emblem and the ending of all finely made love?” (33) And what other “ending” could there be, after all’s been said and done, but dissolution? For, whether from Babs Masters’ perspective in Gass’s text, defined from beginning to end by boredom — “Boredom is not far from bliss: it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure,” Roland Barthes wrote in The Pleasure of the Text (25-6) — or whether from Gelvin’s opposite ecstatic angle in Coover’s rewriting, what you’re granted access to in the end in these two texts entirely devoted to the pleasures of language, is precisely what Barthes called textual bliss (la jouissance du texte), which he defined as “that immense subjective loss” (59) — that moment, that is, when it does not matter who you are anymore — “I’ve laid claim to being Mike, Sam, Charles, Bill, Phil and Wally all in one,” says Gelvin (22) — as you too are pure language, dissolved and disseminated through somebody else’s imagination. “Are you afraid?” Gass asks his reader in Fiction and the Figures of Life (49), while Babs Masters impatiently implores Gelvin, implores you, finally, to let go: “How ’bout getting off, now?” (23)

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Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language (1986). Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

–––––. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation (1994). Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Coover, Robert. “On Mrs. Willie Masters,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 24, n° 3, Fall 2004, 10-23.

Gass, William. Fiction and the Figures of Life (1971). Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000.

–––––. On Being Blue : A Philosophical Enquiry (1976). Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2007.

–––––. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968). Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

Maingueneau, Dominique. La Littérature pornographique. Paris : Armand Colin (Coll. 128), 2007.

Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967), in Styles of Radical Will (1969). New York: Picador, 2002, 35-73.

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1  But the whiteness of the page is, in fact (isn’t it?), already biased toward the conventional idea of a conventional reading: pushing the experiment and the sensuality of the text to its extreme, the first edition of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was divided into four different sections printed on blue, olive, red and white pages whose texture and weight also varied throughout the book. The latest edition is unfortunately printed on white, albeit glossy, paper, which, to your utmost dismay, clearly suggests that the performance Babs Masters is staging for your attention is but a late rerun, a delayed encore.

2  Pornography is here used in a broad sense, independently and regardless of its various shades of meaning and the moral values usually attached to it.

3  See Dominique Maingueneau, 10-1.

4  Roland Barthes 1986, 148.

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Stéphane Vanderhaeghe, « Willie & Babs, Phil & Bob: “et moi, et moi, et moi…" (On Reading Pornography) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 17 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 07 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphane Vanderhaeghe

Université Paris 8
Stéphane Vanderhaeghe est maître de conférences à l’Université Paris 8-Vincennes Saint-Denis, où il enseigne la littérature américaine et la traduction ; sa recherche porte sur la fiction américaine contemporaine. Auteur de plusieurs articles sur l’œuvre de Rovert Coover, Shelley Jackson, ou Ben Marcus, il a récemment dirigé un numéro de la Review of Contemporary Fiction consacré à Robert Coover, et son ouvrage Robert Coover & the Generosity of the Page est paru aux éditions Dalkey Archive Press en 2013.
Stéphane Vanderhaeghe is Associate Professor at the University Paris 8-Vincennes Saint-Denis where he teaches American literature and translation; his research focuses on contemporary American fiction. The writer of several articles on the works of Robert Coover, Shelley Jackson and Ben Marcus, he recently edited an issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction dedicated to Robert Coover, and his book Robert Coover & the Generosity of the Page has just been published by Dalkey Archive Press (2013).

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