The spectral mimicry of things said to the mind

A stunning bit of writing from William Gass, by way of his essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence” from his collection Life Sentences:

"The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman." The rhythm of the sentence not only propels the sentence forward, it helps to organize its significant units — its phrases and clauses. The reader is made, not merely to see the sentence, but to sound it, because it is now a small mouthful. These sounds are not those of ordinary speech, but the spectral mimicry of things said to the mind, heard only by the mind, in the arena of the mind — in the subvocal consciousness that exists during reading.

The saleman’s sentence seems quite sure of itself. It is direct; it is definite; it has no room for reservations. Yet without altering a word, its epistemological and ontological status can be radically altered. That is why I called these verbal instruments, transformative operators. For instances, we could lower the sentence’s degree of assurance. “[I thought that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman.” “[I guessed that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but Gertrude was of quite a different opinion].” Amphibolously: “[Harold said that if] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [he was a monkey’s uncle].” Or change tone and attitude: “[I certainly hoped] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [otherwise I’ve just now bought a cat’s brush to comb my beard].” “The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but what if he were also the exhibitionist who has been frightening the neighborhood?]” More radically, we can put it in another realm of Being. “[While seated before the fire in my dressing gown reading Descartes’s Meditations, I dreamed I heard a knocking. Then a cuckoo popped out of its clockhouse to announce that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman. [I realized, when I was awakened by my desire to answer his knocking, that I had been dreaming inside a dream not altogether mine.]”

Layers of reality, degrees of uncertainty, ranges of attitude, levels of society, depth of contextual connection, modulations of tone, the ramifications and complexities of concept, and, above all, the vocabulary of the denoted world, must be taken into account, managed, and made the best of.