William H. Gas’ “The Doomed in Their Sinking” is an essay that explores the topics of death and artistic creation. Key to the rhetoric of the essay is Gas’s ability to establish a dialectical tension within the points he makes, and to present this tension in the form of a fluid, and poetic prose. In particular, the essay aims to explore a series of contradictions and to show how each is related to the other, culminating in the suggestion that while writing itself is a form of a suicide, it is also the only thing which enables writers to live. The key rhetorical strategy of the essay is to manifest the contradiction that Gas presents writers as individuals who are simultaneously drowned and saved. It is possible to demonstrate this by paying attention to key moments within it.
Gas’s descriptions of family relationships are crucial to his overall rhetoric within the essay. By using family as a focus in his essay, he is able to present something which is both deeply personal to him, and to which every reader will able to relate. The contradiction between universal and particular contained within this is made clear in the opening paragraphs of the essay as Gas begins with a consideration of various kinds of suicide, and does so by drawing attention to famous literary individuals who have taken their life, including Virginia Wolf, and Hart Crane. In each of these cases, the individual is shown to have possessed their own death in a particular way and to have grasped it through the act of suicide. He then contrasts this with the death of his own mother, in does so by introducing a seemingly counter-intuitive contradiction. He notes that even the most slow form of execution is less cruel than a long natural death as the latter “inflicts your dying on those you are blaming for it better than burning or blowing up—during an exquisitely extended stretch—since the same substance which poisons you, preserves, you both have and eat, enjoy and suffer your revenges together” (Gas, 1991, 373). Gas describes a situation in which death induces resentment amongst members of a family. This again presents something which is deeply personal him and which could potentially be experienced by each one of his readers.
Later in the essay the same contradictory relation is projected onto the structure of writing itself, as an activity which both condemns artists to misery and equally well enables them to live. Gas notes both Rilke and Sylvia Plath as examples of people who can be said to have a such a relationship to their art. He writes “Plath’s last poems, considered in this way, are announcements and warnings; they are promises; and their very excellence was a threat to the existence of their author” (Gas, 382). Throughout this closing description, Plath is presented as figure who, like the dying relative, is bound to the relations people who are killing her and who, in retrospect has been announcing her own fate long before she has actually taken her life. The act of writing and the fact of being doomed to taker her own life as presented as being simultaneously in tension with one another and as being co-determining aspects of what it means to be a writer. In this way, the end of the essay recalls its opening, in which the love for one’s family is seen as coterminous with the resentment that comes about through their slow death and the burden that results from this. In this way, writing is shown to be similar to life in general, in that each sustains and poisons simultaneously.
In conclusion, therefore, the style of argumentation that Gas employs in his essay involves the repeated positing of contradiction and manifesting the fact that while the positions that constitute this contradiction may seem to be opposites, they are in fact mutually constitutive.
- Gas, William H. “The Doomed in Their Sinking.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates & Robert Atwan. New York: Mariner, 1991.