Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of…recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it…
I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become. JR in fact is a realistic novel–so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Two tremendous novels. And the author maneuvering his car out of a dark and cramped driveway, the last time I saw him, with four or five friends and acquaintances calling out instructions as the car backed onto the country road, headlights shining on our waved good nights.
Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The GoldenNotebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:
[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]
The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. DailyTelegraph.
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.
The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:
30th March2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.
This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this?
Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.
I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:
The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:
Friday June 18, 1999
Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..
I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).
Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine):
We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.
His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.
If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.
I think I did a similar post two years ago. I teach, I gotta go back to school, the fall, the kids, blah, blah, blah. Anyway. I’ll try to get one proper book review out per week. I’ve got seven or eight really choice looking promo copies and galleys stacked up here, including new trade paperback editions of Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Per Petterson’s To Siberia. Vintage also has a really cool original by Patrick Alexander coming out in September; it’s called Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time and its subtitle, A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past pretty much sums it up. I’ve read the first 100 pages and it’s really great, and let’s face it, unless some kinda windfall happens where I can just read books all day, I’m never gonna get around to Proust, so, yeah, this’ll have to do. Proper reviews forthcoming, blah, blah, blah. (Even though William Gaddis’s The Recognitionsain’t gettin’ no shorter).
While I’m doing lazy reviews, let me just say that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds is a glorious bastard of a mixed-up masterpiece. Christoph Waltz steals the show as SS Col. Hans Landa, but the real star, as usual, is Tarantino’s sense of cinema (whatever that means; c’mon, I was upfront, this is lazy reviewing). Plenty of folks have kinda sorta hated on (or outright hated on) this film, but I loved it. A revenge film about cinema posing as a Western faking as a WWII flick. Great stuff.
The last time I did one of these hacky “Back To School” posts, I brought up William Gibsonfor some reason–which gives me a good transition to this excellent steampunk photoset. While Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine (with co-author Bruce Sterling) is often cited as a progenitor of steampunk, many of the images in the set correspond to ideas Gibson put forth in his “Bridge Trilogy” — he envisioned a future of “organic” computers that some of these folks have gone out and made. I’d like one. Jeez, this is really bad writing, but, hey, back to school right. Like that Deftone’s song (yeah, I know the Deftones aren’t cool or hip or whatever, and I’ve never heard one of their albums, but M2 used to play that video all the time when I was in college 10 years ago and I thought it was pretty great).Cheers.
I just love this passage from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Mocking “hipsterism” has been around forever (or at least 50 years):
And by now they were at the door of the Viareggio, a small Italian bar of nepotistic honesty before it was discovered by exotics. Neighborhood folk still came, in small vanquished numbers and mostly in the afternoon, before the two small dining rooms and the bar were taken over by the educated classes, an ill-dressed, underfed, overdrunken group of squatters with minds so highly developed that they were excused from good manners, tastes so refined in one direction that they were excused for having none in any other, emotions so cultivated that the only aberration was normality, all afloat here on sodden pools of depravity calculated only to manifest the pricelessness of what they were throwing away, the three sexes in two colors, a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size.
In William Gaddis‘s massive first novel, The Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon forges paintings by master artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. To be more accurate, Wyatt creates new paintings that perfectly replicate not just the style of the old masters, but also the spirit. After aging the pictures, he forges the artist’s signature, and at that point, the painting is no longer an original by Wyatt, but a “new” old original by a long-dead genius. The paintings of the particular artists that Wyatt counterfeits are instructive in understanding, or at least in hoping to understand how The Recognitions works. The paintings of Bosch, Memling, or Dierick Bouts function as highly-allusive tableaux, semiotic constructions that wed religion and mythology to art, genius, and a certain spectacular horror, and, as such, resist any hope of a complete and thorough analysis. Can you imagine, for example, trying to catalog and explain all of the discrete images in Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights? And then, after creating such a catalog, explaining the intricate relationships between the different parts? You couldn’t, and Gaddis’s novel is the same way. I’ve finished the first of the novel’s three parts, 277 of 956 pages, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Gaddis has structured the novel as a triptych. The first part, like Bosch’s painting, The Seven Deadly Sins, is comprised of seven sections.
Early in The Recognitions, teenage Wyatt copies The Seven Deadly Sins–his father owns the original, a painted table top he purchased in Europe. Wyatt replaces the original with his own and gets away with this strange crime–no small feat considering the genius of his father, the Rev. Gwyon, a New England priest who, after the death of his wife at sea, comes to reject the austere puritanism of his order and embrace (much to the consternation of his dwindling congregation) a pluralistic religious world view. In one of many stunning passages centering on Gwyon and religion, the congregation is “stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl.” This series of substitutions enacts a chain of recognitions, and, in a sense, compartmentalizes much of the thematic material of the novel: What is it to be a hero, a redeemer, a savior? What is originality, and how does one recognize it? Who originates whom? What does it mean to create? How is art separate from religion? Clearly, these are not simple questions, and The Recognitions is not a simple book.
In order to pose (and perhaps offer varying answers to) these questions, Gaddis employs daring, richly detailed prose, larded with esoteric (and not so esoteric) references to mythology, religion, art, music, and literature. Like the discrete sections of Bosch’s Sins, each of the chapters of the first section of The Recognitions has its own distinct idiom, comportment, and rhythm; yet, even as Gaddis’s approaches seem discontinuous from chapter to chapter, these coalesce to a larger picture.
The first chapter is the best first chapter of any book I can remember reading in recent years. It tells the story of Gwyon looking for solace in the Catholic monasteries of Spain after his wife’s death at sea under the clumsy hands of a fugitive counterfeiter posing as a doctor (already, the book posits the inherent dangers of forgery, even as it complicates those dangers by asking who isn’t in some sense a phony). There’s a beautiful line Gaddis treads in the first chapter, between pain, despair, and melancholy and caustic humor, as Gwyon slowly realizes the false limits of his religion. The chapter continues to tell the story of young Wyatt, growing up under the stern care of his puritanical Aunt May, whose religious attitude is confounded by the increasingly erratic behavior of Wyatt’s often-absent father. While deathly ill, Wyatt teaches himself to paint by copying masterworks. He also attempts an original, a painting of his dead mother, but he cannot bear to finish it because, as he tells his father, “There’s something about . . . an unfinished piece of work . . . Where perfection is still possible. Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.” This problem of originality, of Platonic perfection guides much of the novel’s critique on Modernism.
Wyatt studies but ultimately rejects the ministry, opting instead to become an artist. The second chapter finds him in Paris, attempting to sell his original work. The chapter is a bravura shift into the sounds, sights, and consciousness of another world, another distinct mythology–ex-patriot Paris, Hemingway’s Paris, Woolf’s Paris. Gaddis shows a heavy debt to James Joyce‘s innovations in Ulysses here (and throughout the book, of course), although it would be a mistake to reduce the novel to a mere aping of that great work. Rather, The Recognitions seems to continue that High Modernist project, and, arguably, connect it to the (post)modern work of Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. (In it’s heavy erudition, numerous allusions, and complex voices, the novel readily recalls both W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño as far as I’m concerned). By the third chapter we find Wyatt married, quite unhappily, producing hack work, copies he lets his boss put his name on. The chapter is painful and often ugly, as we see his marriage disintegrate. In this chapter he meets Recktall Brown, the Mephistophelean business man who will arrange Wyatt’s future career as a counterfeiter of original paintings. As the chapter ends, Wyatt is no longer referred to by his name, a device that continues throughout the rest of part one (and perhaps the whole book). It’s as if he’s lost something intrinsic, some core originality in exchange for the ability to “become” the artist he is emulating. Wyatt now disintegrates into the background of the narrative, and is exchanged for a young Harvard grad named Otto. Otto follows Wyatt around like a puppy, writing down whatever he says, absorbing whatever he can from him, and eventually sleeping with his wife. Otto is the worst kind of poseur; he travels to Central America to finish his play only to lend the mediocre (at best) work some authenticity, or at least buzz. He fakes an injury and cultivates a wild appearance he hopes will give him artistic mystique among the Bohemian Greenwich Villagers he hopes to impress. In the fifth chapter, at an art-party, Otto, and the reader, learn quickly that no one cares about his play–everyone’s busy making their own original art. Gaddis’s evocation of a Village party in the late forties/early fifties here is wonderful, fly-on-the-wall stuff. His rhetoric captures the buzzing musicality of a raucous house party, and even if his mockery of the assembled artists, critics, and wannabes is savage, it’s also loving. Gaddis has an astute ear for the mid-twentieth century, where gossip infiltrates debate on aesthetics, and commercials punctuate classical scores on the radio.
Wyatt (unnamed) returns for the seventh (and longest) chapter of part one. He’s been very successful at his work, although he seems not to care at all for the money he’s making. Instead, he seems obsessed with channeling these ancient masters, for only in this pre-modern world is originality possible. Of course, the levels of irony are confounding here: Wyatt’s only access to originality is to pretend to be another person. The originality of the paintings he creates is subject to the condition that they be not original to him (their creator) but to another. While this attack on Modernity–namely, that originality is impossible–is severe, it’s also worth noting that Gaddis’s writing enacts originality, even as it cobbles together disparate sources. This is what makes the novel such an addictive pleasure to read. While I cannot make any final claims about a novel before finishing it, I will go out on another limb and suggest that those who already own this novel and have not yet made a crack at it for fear of its massive size and allusive structure should go ahead and take it up: it’s dark, erudite, sad, and very, very funny. It’s also not that hard to read, and if the allusions get too dense, there’s always Steven Moore‘s fantastic resource, A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, now available in its entirety online. Have at it. More when I finish Part II.
About the same time I was finishing up James Wood’s How Fiction Works, I was also beginning William Gaddis‘s massive tome The Recognitions. So far the book is fantastic–I’m about 180 pages in–but it’s (very, very) long and there’s a big stack of upcoming releases here that needs to be digested for review, so who knows if I’ll finish it anytime soon. Anyway, I thought this notation from William H. Gass‘s brilliant introduction does a fantastic job of speaking to both the limits of literary criticisms (like Wood’s) as well as underscoring the value of reading–and rereading:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation–indeed, any explanation–would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its design–useful as sometimes such helps are–nevertheless seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. “Okay, I get it,” we say, dusting our hands, “and that takes care of that.” “At least I understand Kafka” is a foolish and conceited remark.