William Gass painted on by Philip Guston, 1969.

THE BELIEVER: I read an interview you did in 1979 in which you made a compelling comment about the split between literature and philosophy. You said: “For example, Rilke, I suppose my favorite writer really, and in the best sense a profound writer, is full of shit. I mean, his ideas are nonsensical. As philosophical notions I have no respect for them at all, but as poetic notions they are absolutely beautiful.”

WILLIAM GASS: Well, that’s similar to my experience with Plotinus or sacred texts—you may not share the worship side or belief side. I remember the first time I was visiting Florence, in the monastery buildings where the Fra Angelicos are on the monks’ cells. And looking at these paintings, which are so incredible, and knowing that you recognize that the painter who painted these was, unlike many of the painters, totally devout. Totally presenting a religious matter in the most serious possible way. And I’m not, so I’m freed in a way also from the subject matter. And what I see is painting—and, my golly, you know? I miss the power of the two together; there’s no doubt about that. It must be overwhelming for someone who can get both of them—and many people have, in one sort of blow.

As a teacher, it’s a great help to be teaching philosophical systems you don’t believe. You can actually do a better job of presenting them if you leave your beliefs at the door. I particularly dislike the ideas of St. Paul, [yet] I think he’s incredibly wonderful. I mean, what he had to do, and how he did it, it’s just amazing. So it’s like looking at something and seeing a view of the world you don’t share—but what a view. I think it’s a very healthy attitude, actually. It would certainly prevent people from tearing down other people’s religious icons. [Laughs] First: Is the dictator’s statue any good before you pull it down? [Laughs]

Read the full interview with William Gass (November 2005).

image via Columbia University Press