Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)
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Untitled — Saul Steinberg

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Untitled, c. 1957-60 by Saul Steinberg (1914-1999). From The Labyrinth.

Still-Life with Self-Portrait — Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts

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Still-Life with Self-Portrait, 1663 by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts (c. 1630 – c. 1675)

Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)

Novel factory | A passage from (and a short riff on) William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

In Ch. VII of Part I of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, the erstwhile hero of the novel, Wyatt Gwyon—who has by this point disappeared into an anonymous he—meets Basil Valentine, a somewhat ambiguous and priestly art-world contact for Recktall Brown, the arch-capitalist Mephistophelean villain of the novel. Brown uses Valentine to arrange the forgeries that Gwyon executes. Here, Valentine and Wyatt discuss Brown, who has left the room. (Brown is the initial He; Valentine speaks first):

—He would absolutely have to have Alexander Pope in a box, to enjoy him. He is beyond anything I’ve ever come upon. Honestly, I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence. Basil Valentine rested his head back, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, and watching it rise there. —Earlier, you know, he mentioned to me the idea of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production, he said, and tailored to the public taste. But not so absurd, Basil Valentine said sitting forward suddenly.

—Yes, I … I know. I know.

—When I laughed . . . but it’s not so funny in his hands, you know. Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.

—Yes, good God, imagine if … submitting paintings to them, to a cross section? You’d better take out . . . This color . . . These lines, and . . . He drew his hand down over his face, —You can change a line without even touching it. No, he went on after a pause, and Valentine watched him closely, —nothing is funny in his hands. Everything becomes very . . . real.

Do you like the passage? I do.

I continue to enjoy re-reading Gaddis’s debut novel, aided in large part by an audiobook version read by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been reading The Recognitions with/against Letters of William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive, 2013), which I do not recommend doing (especially for first-time readers). Gaddis, paraphrasing his own novel, said that the artist was simply “the dregs of his [own] work,” and much of The Recognitions reads like Gaddis polishing the material from his own early life and travels and readings, and then forcing that material—the nuggets and the morsels (and, let us be honest, the occasional duds)—into an angry demanding sustained attack on the Modern condition. But the material is good ammunition in that oh-so self-conscious attack on Modernism—an attack that in many ways engenders postmodernism, or at least builds a bridge to it, or perhaps sunders links to Modernism—

—look, I have way too many stupid metaphors cooking here, forgive me: What I mean to say, in simpler terms, is that The Recognitions diagnoses the end of big-em Modernism, that it describes something yet-to-emerge, and that it also, significantly, performs that something yet-to-emerge. Gaddis’s letters show the frustrations of a young man trying to cook up adventures in a modern world: a world already explored, mapped, tagged, and written about by other folks. And not just written about im histories and novels, but also in cheap guide books and cheap glossy magazines. This is the world after the age of mechanical reproduction, the world in which Gaddis’s hero Wyatt strives to forge a legitimate forgery of a place for himself.

Gaddis’s novel’s emergent postmodernism—more fully realized in his follow-up, J R—also presciently points to the post-postmodernist storytelling world of late capitalism. Gaddis’s villain Recktall Brown is a brute, but this philistine is perceptive, and he understands the economy of middlebrow aesthetics. As erudite Valentine laments, “I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence.” Valentine should imagine harder. But this is America, where people frequently mistake wealth and the power to create wealth with creative intelligence.

Maybe I’m too hard here on Valentine, who eventually realizes that an appeal to the lowest common denominator is “not so absurd,” after he reflects on Recktall’s business idea “of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production…tailored to the public taste.” And we then learn that Recktall has already capitalized on his vision of masscult writing: “Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.”

Reading this, I mentally annotated: Ah, Netflix-that’s the novel factory of 2018. And not just Netflix—I mean, clearly, not just Netflix, that’s simply a signal example—but rather the idea of the data-driven artefact, the non-artefact, the copy of a copy of a copy, the narrative entirely derived from atomizing the masscult nostalgia artefacts of 20, 30, 40 years ago, retrofitting them, repackaging them, and selling them as the real thing. Wyatt’s final observation in the passage laments that Recktall Brown, and the emerging late capitalism he represents, is winning a kind of war on culture and imagination. And nothing is funny in this devil’s busy hands: “Everything becomes very . . . real.” Even the fakes. Even the copies. Especially the copies.

A scene from Sergei Parajanov’s film The Color of Pomegranates

An Enchanted Cellar with Animals — Cornelis Saftleven

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An Enchanted Cellar with Animals, c. 1655-70 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

 

Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)

Curse of the genuine article (William Gaddis’s The Recognitions)

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—Taste changes, he went on in an irritating monotone. —Most forgeries last only a few generations, because they’re so carefully done in the taste of the period, a forged Rembrandt, for instance, confirms everything that that period sees in Rembrandt. Taste and style change, and the forgery is painfully obvious, dated, because the new period has discovered Rembrandt all over again, and of course discovered him to be quite different. That is the curse that any genuine article must endure.

From The Recognitions by William Gaddis.

A Wonderful Day — Mu Pan

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A Wonderful Day, 2018 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)

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No situations (Barthelme)

But it is wrong to speak of “situations,” implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there — muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with the walnut and soft yellows. A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.

From “The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme.

Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)

Seven still frames from Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

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From Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013. Directed by Jim Jarmsuch with cinematography by Yorick Le Saux. Via Screenmusings.

Read the Biblioklept review of Only Lovers Left Alive.

Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)

Read “The Fortune-Teller,” a short story by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“The Fortune-Teller”

by

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated by Isaac Goldberg


Hamlet observes to Horatio that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. This was the selfsame explanation that was given by beautiful Rita to her lover, Camillo, on a certain Friday of November, 1869, when Camillo laughed at her for having gone, the previous evening, to consult a fortune-teller. The only difference is that she made her explanation in other words.

“Laugh, laugh. That’s just like you men; you don’t believe in anything. Well, let me tell you, I went there and she guessed the reason for my coming before I ever spoke a word. Scarcely had she begun to lay out the cards when she said to me: ‘The lady likes a certain person …’ I confessed that it was so, and then she continued to rearrange the cards in various combinations, finally telling me that I was afraid you would forget me, but that there were no grounds for my fear.”

“She was wrong!” interrupted Camillo with a laugh.

“Don’t say that, Camillo. If you only realized in what anguish I went there, all on account of you. You know. I’ve told you before. Don’t laugh at me; don’t poke fun at me….”

Camillo seized her hands and gazed into her eyes earnestly and long. He swore that he loved her ever so much, that her fears were childish; in any case, should she ever harbor a fear, the best fortune-teller to consult was he himself. Then he reproved her, saying that it was imprudent to visit such houses. Villela might learn of it, and then …

“Impossible! I was exceedingly careful when I entered the place.”

“Where is the house?”

“Near here. On Guarda-Velha Street. Nobody was passing by at the time. Rest easy. I’m not a fool.”

Camillo laughed again.

“Do you really believe in such things?” he asked. Continue reading “Read “The Fortune-Teller,” a short story by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis”

Detail from Saint Michael and the Devil — Raphael

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Saint Michael and the Devil (detail), c. 1503-04 by Raphael (1483-1520)

Inherent Vice 2: Inherent Boogaloo (William Gaddis’s The Recognitions)

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From page 234 of my copy of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. (See also and also and also).