Scribbling Again

Month: February, 2013

More responses to the Recognitions: Chapters V-VII

I’m thinking less and less of my documentations. Sorry for the overload but I thought it better to at least type them up rather than get overwhelmed with them later. If there is something worth noting in them then at least they’re here. I have two less formal things to note.

1. I’m drawn to the idea of what arts takes away from the individual in order to make it. I think this was what the mirror passages have hinted at in Otto’s stint in Latin America or on page 272 when Esme recounts her dream. That last passage led me to this thought. The quotation says

“[Wyatt was] leaping from one mirror to another which held you whenever you stopped to fix it in the paint, flesh drawn over the hard bones, fixing only something lost and curious to be found again, staring out four times from the paint, reflecting itself in age and emptiness, so curious to be rescued each time you stopped. That big mirror was almost behind you, you kept looking over your shoulder like you do, pursuing yourself there, and then it caught you, you were caught in the mirror. And I [Esme] could not help you out.”

I like the idea that one must give up something personal in order to create art or that it takes a chunk of the creator with it in the act of creation. Jonathan Franzen speaking at the Nation Book Fair in 2010 talks about how everyone has at least one book in them. That is to say that they have their own life to document and then can use that experience to craft a great book. But the people who write more than one book are the ones that have to change and reorder their lives and come up with more raw material than the average person. There’s also a quotation from the William Faulkner documentary that Biblioklept published 3-4 weeks ago that comments on this. One of Faulkner’s “servants” (totally not a slave) asks him what will happen when the words of William Faulkner overtake the image of him in terms of how he’s recognized. This tugs at that notion of the artist being defined by their work when in fact the art does initially stem from the artist. But of course this novel takes it one step further by suggesting that the art can actually consume you in a pernicious and perhaps even determinate way.

2. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how the text structures dialogue and thoughts in the same paragraph. Chapter III especially brought this up with Esther’s thoughts and excerpts from her novel popping up in paragraphs that also contained what she said. We could get off scot free from hard thinking and say that this just presents the modern era’s insistence on the total plasticity Wyatt disdains but I think there’s more. It’s also to further show this book cobbles together so many sources and is comprised of so many things. It’s a kind of forgery itself with quotations from philosophy the characters spout or quotations from books, poetry, etc. But it also might seek to erase the authorial voice. I thought a lot about Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion that the authorial voice can be deciphered in a work as opposed to characters or the book itself’s voice i.e. the third person narration is not necessarily the authorial voice. But I’m not sure that I’ve really hit the nail on the head here either.

Sorry for rambling. I hope this isn’t crap hidden by my vocabulary or my appeal to obscure references that not everyone else knows.


“It [a baby]will make everything different between us again, won’t it? for you? I mean for me, it will make us more like we used to be, won’t it?” (170)

“Maude took out a small round Battersea enamel box, with the words We Live in Hope on the cover, and took out a pill” (173)

Again we have things referencing times’ cruel system that seems so inescapable but we also get the “We Live in Hope” box which might cruelly house birth control (I doubt it). More importantly the quotation on the box reinforces the idea that I wrote about from last chapter about the present being our hope in triumphing against the past.

“-his name is Anselm. He gets all screwed up with religion” (182)

Just like St. Anselm with his ontological argument for God.

“-There was a woman in Brooklyn who used to do it, but I think the police got her. She charged two hundred dollars. And someone else said, -Is this the first one she’s ever had? You can’t let it go much longer than two months. – She might make something on the side, a third person said, -You get two dollars an ounce for mother’s milk these days.” (193)

I don’t think it’s any mistake that initially this sounds like they’re talking about prostitution but more directly there’s a comparison to art here. It’s as though art is a human secretion which ties back into that idea of how much of yourself is present in the work.

“Otto felt strange, holding her thin wrist: that Esme could give all and lose nothing, for the taker would find she had given nothing; plundering her, the plunderer would turn to find himself empty, and she still silently offering” (199)

Esme sounds like Esther in her way of using people and trapping them. However this woman seems to embody the danger of the clueless sarcastalites (sarcasm + socialites) in this chapter. They really want you to invest in them, really. They all act like they don’t care but all they do is advertise themselves and none of them pay attention because they’re too busy advertising themselves. They can’t converse with anyone about art because they’re interested in business the same way Recktall Brown is. This description of Esme sounds representative of all these empty hipsters. There’s also a possible tie in here with what it might take to create art. As we later find out she models for Wyatt and as a model she provides some connection to the art Wyatt creates. That suggests that art requires something of the creator that cannot be reclaimed.


“In Union Square, one of the [a pigeon] attacked a bird of rare beauty, tropically plumed, which looked lost and unused to spreading its wings beyond the breadth of a cage” (203)

Real subtle Gaddis. The “tropically plumed” bird could be Otto given his work in Latin America or this could be a general comment over people’s view on art in general and their inability to recognize it because of how foreign it is to them.

“The carpet ended halfway across the room in an indecision of color and design, its surface the flat and slightly ribbed lat of Aubusson because of the uneven texture of the floor. Its intricate design, beginning under the daybed where Otto sat, gave way to abstraction, threatening even worse where it came suddenly to an end, a sense of delirium in the hand of the painter who had painted it there” (209)

This links with the unfinished painting of Camila Wyatt had for so long. However, and I think the text (or Gaddis if you prefer) really wants us to notice that this unfinished quality is intended by the author. Sort of like the Romantic notion that one need only attempt a masterpiece rather than finish it. I get that nod from the “Anthology of Romantic Stories” (209) further down the page. While that books refers to romantic love rather than the Romantic movement the connotation still exists and works surprisingly well.

I like how there’s something manic or at least incredibly short lived in the carpet. I get that sense from the unfinished state and the use of the word delirium but it’s true that there’s something cheap and in no way great about the carpet. If the artist couldn’t finish it were they meant to? did they have to? or are they even bothering with the question of what makes great art?

Some intertextual recurrences:

1. The lavender in Esme’s apartment. I’m not sure if this is to imply that she lives in Esther’s old apartment.

2. “-I know, Esme said, smiling again,
-and he [Anselm] cut himself three times because he said the razor blade was dull” (210)

Just like Wyatt earlier. Sorry, I couldn’t find it but in chapter 3 you’ll remember when Wyatt cuts himself with his razor and Esther freaks out because there’s blood all over his face.

3. It was a letter, from an eye bank. Esme read it. -it’s scandal-ous, Stanley, she said. She laughed. -Do they want you to deposit your eyes?” (211)

Just like the mythology of Argus at the beginning of the chapter (202) who cannot focus on the heifer he’s supposed to be watching. I’m not sure how this motif might build though.

“-Mirrors dominate the people. They tell your face how to grow” (221)

Rather than just allowing you to blindly express yourself they provide reflection in both meanings of that word.


“Most artists have a great link of a man they trail around with them” (229)

This is a slight alteration of what someone else (Wyatt, I think) says about the art having the husk of a person tied to it.

“-It’s heartbreaking to watch, isn’t it. They are all so fearfully serious. But of course that’s just what makes it all possible. The authorities are so deadly serious that it never occurs to them to doubt, they cannot wait to get ahead of one another to point out verifications. The experts…” (229)

And that appears to reinforce much of what I’ve written before. One of the main ideas in the book is the possibility that everything one thinks and everything around them is wrong. So many people in this book are full of shit and they haven’t take the time to really think about what they’re doing and why they do it.

N.B. :

“most of what we call genius around us is simply warped talent” (229)

“when you’re doing work like he [Wyatt] is, you can lose contact with things, finally you don’t have a real sense of reality” (235)

“Brown was, for the moment, obscured by smoke himself” (237)

It seems like all the smoking, drinking, and drug use might add up to a motif of obscuration. Not just for Brown but most everyone who uses any of those substances.

“It’s the same sense…yes, this sense of a blue day in summer, do you understand? It’s too much, such a day, it’s too fully illuminated. It’s defeating that way, it doesn’t allow you to project this illumination yourself, this…selective illumination that’s necessary to paint…like this” (240)

It’s important to note how Wyatt changes here and his new habit of painting at night. As previously built up, night is an endless, mysterious, and monolithic force that cannot be broken down into categories the way daytime can. The logical organizing and breakdown that Wyatt developed only works in the day and the night was too frightening. But now he embraces it and I’m not entirely sure if this merely show a flipping of artistic ethics or some better acceptance of the mystical/mysterious and what we don’t understand about great art or artists. I think the rest of part I suggests the latter.

“-Earlier, you know, he [Brown] mentioned to me [Valentine] 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…recently he [Brown] started submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and then the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course” (243)

I like how this is also happening today. Of course now that I say that I can’t find a link. There was an article last summer about something like this where the readers get chunks of the book and then decide what they want more of. The company producing this pandering then obliges with any changes in focus and ideally (for the company) the book never ends. This also ties in with what Roger Ebert has said about video games not being art because of their interactivity and lack of an authorial vision that the reader/viewer/listener must endure. Sticking with that idea it’s pretty clear that business in the novel neuters the art to some degree.

“these reproductions, they have no right to try to spread one painting out like this. There’s only one of them, you know, only one. This…my painting…there’s only one, and these reproductions, these cheap fakes is what they are, being scattered everywhere, and they have no right to do that that. It cheapens the whole” (250)

I don’t think we should dismiss this as simple hypocrisy. It’s hypocritical, sure but it also imparts a fear of the analytical daylight. The notion of spreading out the painting might suggest applying an analytical framework to it rather than allowing one’s experience with it to be limited e.g. you go to an exhibit, see the piece for the first time, and spend 15 minutes with it. There’s power in that brevity as opposed to pouring over a reproduction and then seeing it in person just to say you’ve seen it or even to see its colors better or something like that. This insistence preserves some mystery, power and unanalyzable aspect in the work. One can’t simply develop a neat framework for understanding the piece if they only have very little time with it.

“Recktall Brown looked at his cigar. It had burned on the bias. -Look at this God-damned thing, he muttered. -This is the way they make cigars today. It’s the way they do everything today” (257)

An example of Inherent Vice. Also the obvious note that Brown supports forgery which is a kind of Inherent Vice in and of itself.

“The sea of noise poured in, striking the leather seats, penetrating the occupants with thrusts of chaos, sounds of the world battling with night, primordial ages before music was discovered on earth (261)

Yet another image of darkness being this mysterious and confusing place conflated here with chaos versus the world of our analytical systems and rigid understandings e.g. music which is structured.

N.B. Valentine: “-My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them.
Wyatt: -A fatal likeness then” (261)

“-After all, my dear fellow, you [Wyatt] are an artist, and nothing can happen to you. An artist does not exist, except as a vehicle for his work. If you live simply in a world of shapes and smells? You’re bound to become just that…
[Wyatt:] -Yes, I don’t live, I’m…I am lived” (262)

Which is interesting for an artist in a book to say. In “The Recognitions” Wyatt most certainly is a vehicle for the work just like Marcel in “In Search of Lost Time” is Proust’s way of shaping his identity into his art. He is lived or experienced by the reader.

N.B. I think it might be important to keep in mind what happens to Wyatt in Valentine’s fictional novel:
[Valentine:] “-I suppose you…well, lets say you eat your father, canonize your mother, and…You down” (262)

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this next quotation in the context of the novel but the italics mark it as important and it sounds especially pregnant. It’s probably just drawing attention to the unhappiness people like Wyatt inevitably end up with. After all there’s no end to achievement for geniuses looking to prove themselves. They’ll always be disappointed, always wanting more.

“What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it, you become its prey” (265)

And one last thing, promise. Esme’s lines of poetry on page 277 are the first seven lines of Rilke’s “First Elegy” in the “Duino Elegies.” This brings up the question of forgery yet again because she didn’t simply copy it but did she really come up with the exact wording just like that?

Thoughts on Chapters II-IV of The Recognitions

Some more comments and musings on Chapters II-IV.


“As she [Christine] exposed the side of her face, or a fall of cloth from her shoulder, he found there suggestion of the lines he [Wyatt] needed, forms which he knew but could not discover in the work without this allusion to completed reality before him” (67)

He still sounds trapped. Although I began thinking that the novel would be more about Wyatt’s changing views in the face of modernity when Brown showed up in chapter 3. The text says Wyatt knows nothing about surrealism further down this page and that draws attention to his lack of willingness to use himself as an object for his work. I find it interesting that this sense of fear over what one loves and spends their time on (as we read later on in chapter 3 with Otto talking about sailors) also surfaces in Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’m not just struck by the shared subject matter though. It’s the direct way both texts express that idea. It almost seems like Wallace is filling in the gaps in Otto or Wyatt’s minds with Hal Incandenza near the end of Infinite Jest. I can try and find the lines if either of you are interested but I’m not sure this is anything more than a glorified aside.

“could the cold differentiate?” (68)

Another example of the organizational system Wyatt uses to fight the monolithic weight of the past and its determinism.


“Esther had spent little time with women. She seemed to find in their problems only weak and distorted plagiarisms of the monstrous image of her own” (80)

Is not his voice like a hammer…?
-Mozart…she coughed.
Like a hammer that breaketh the stone” (80)

It also occurs to me to reference the quotation I began chapter two with and note that Wyatt might believe the world ordered in some way. This strikes me as very classical (and considering Wyatt’s strict thoughts about art’s creation, quality, etc. it makes sense [not to mention the books he reads, his upbringing, etc) rather than art imposing one’s psyche or system over occurrences and ordering them. Maybe that’s obvious but it only struck me now in reflection.

To directly address the two quotations above, these illustrate Wyatt’s vision of order as laid out at the end of chapter one. Anyway, just more imagery of things being broken into pieces which seems to be everywhere in this novel.

“Things were tacked on the walls there haphazard, an arm in dissection from a woodcut in the Fabrica of Vesalius, and another sixteenth-century illustration from the Surgery of Pare, a first-aid chart called ‘the wound man’; a photograph of an Italian cemetery flooded by the Po; a calendar good for every day from 1753 to 2059; a print of a drawing of the head of Christ by Melozzo da Forli; a ground plan of the Roman city of Leptis Magna; a mirror; and rolls of paper and canvases on stretchers leaning in the corners.” (83)

These items refer to some of the text’s main ideas but first an observation. This is one of three or four paragraphs I’ve found that describe objects in a character’s house that reflect the novel’s major ideas and while novelists do this regularly I think Gaddis does this as a way of further validating the Dutch masters Wyatt loves. The Dutch artists mentioned in the text (esp. Van Der Weyden and Bruegel) are best known for their genre painting and I think Gadd-daddy uses their technique of hinting at the text’s major ideas via everyday objects. Sure plenty of novelists do this but when we spend so much time with genre painters it’s a little too close to refute.

Anyway, the “arm in dissection from a woodcut” recalls Wyatt’s own medical treatment and his way of cutting and ordering everything to stay sane (again, it’s all about that part where the night freaks him out at the end of chapter one). The Surgery of Pare and first-aid chart recall those ideas as well but they might also mock our ability to understand or correctly understand reality. Wyatt’s doctors are inadequate in finding a cure or even a name for W.’s affliction and only some old errata that Gwyon stumbles across seems to save the day. Sure the page or so written about Wyatt’s healing suggests that the atavistic sacrifice of the monkey saves the kid, but does it really? Or is it all just in Gwyon’s ordered vision of the universe rather than reality? Did the doctors actually save Wyatt? For now I’ll believe the text but I think that question still sits. I’m unsure of the Italian cemetery’s weight but the calendar seems to hint that Wyatt thinks systems and understandings of reality don’t change (or if they do it’s practically negligible even after 400 years). The mirror hints at recursion, the Ouroboros (as do the rolls of paper with their circular curling), and that frightening piece of art Gwyon had in the parsonage that made viewers look at themselves critically. I love how the canvases and papers appear wounded as they lie on stretchers, another image questioning what’s capable in the present with the burden of the past behind you (at least I think given Wyatt’s thoughts thus far).

“They [Esther and Wyatt] seldom discussed painting, for like so many things upon which they might agree, they never managed to agree at the same moment; and as the conversations of the early months of their marriage went on, their ideas and opinions seemed to meet only in passing, each bound in an opposite direction, neither stopping to do more than honor the polite pause of recognition” (84)

Anything explicitly referring to the title trips my attention. However I’m not sure this passage gives us much other than a recognition or acknowledgement of the divide between Esther and Wyatt and perhaps between everyone. I think something important lurks in the detail that they could never “agree at the same moment” but other than some kind of infinite loneliness stretched throughout time that everyone inevitably has to push through I’ve got nothing.

Some quotes that I think might come in handy later:

“Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.” (89)

“with each copy of a copy the form degenerates…you do not invent shapes, you know them” (89)

“-Yes but, when I saw it, it [Picasso’s ”Night Fishing in Antibes’] was one of those moments of reality, of near-recognition of reality. I’d been…I’ve been worn out in this piece of work, and when I finished it I was free…When I saw it all of a sudden everything was freed into one recognition, really freed into reality that we never see…You don’t see it in paintings because most of the time you can’t see beyond a painting. Most paintings, the instant you see them they become familiar, and then it’s too late” (91-2)

This last quote in particular might tie nicely into the Dutch genre painting thesis e.g. Gaddis forces us to look at the quotidian in order to better understand the abstract meat of the novel. Maybe this aesthetic of making the everyday unfamiliar is what we should really be looking for in the novel. That ties in perfectly with the title.

“-that…one dilemma, proving one’s own existence, it…there’s no ruse people will disdain for it, and…or Descartes ‘retiring to prove his own existence’, his ‘cogito ergo sum,; why…no wonder he advanced masked” (96)

“when every solution becomes an evasion…it’s frightening, trying to stay awake” (96)

I’m most interested in the second quotation. Sure it represents a lot of the broken recording of themes I’ve mentioned earlier, but I’m not sure where “every solution becomes an evasion.” The only sense I make of that is Wyatt despairing at the formal style of art he adheres to. Every great piece of art intimately portrays the artist and connects with them in a deeply personal way but it’s still this physical thing that’s separated from you. I’m not sure how a creator evades with their art or work unless that ties in with Wyatt’s aesthetic for what makes a great work.

Another cheap shot at Ouroboros imagery: Wyatt describing his bridge design “do you see the way it seems to come out and meet itself” (96)

“his [Wyatt’s] childhood hand was apparent as the child father to the man” (98)

Yo, yo, yo Wordsworth. Also the inevitable comment that this book is itself a cobbling together of different sources and simply collects a number of unoriginal things to create itself.

“Tragedy was foresworn, in ritual denial of the ripe knowledge that we are drawing away from one another, that we share only one thing, share the fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God; love or money, tender equated in advertising and the world, where only money is currency, and under dead trees and brittle ornaments prehensile hands exchange forgeries of what the heart dare not surrender” (103)

I love this. This quote also goes back to my comment about Infinite Jest at the top of this message. Wallace expresses eerily similar ideas in IJ (and yes, I know that DFW loved this book but it’s still striking how well he got it). I thought this might answer my questions about every solution being an evasion i.e.perhaps this fear to reveal and surrender the self extends extends into the things we create for one another. Perhaps those creations could be one of the “forgeries” we exchange with one another.

“(For the first time in months) he put his arm around her; but his hand, reaching her shoulder, did not close upon it, only rested there. They swayed a little, standing in the doorway, still holding each other together in a way of holding each other back: they still waited, being moved over the surface of time like two swells upon the sea, one so close upon the other that neither can reach a peak and break, until both, unrealized, come in to shatter coincidentally upon the shore.” (109)

I wondered about all the parts in chapter one where people stand in doorways and I think this touches on that loneliness and isolation. The breaking and shattering imagery here is worth pointing out as well. I’m not sure if this is supposed to hint that the organizational breaking of everything by Wyatt’s thought process actually destroys plenty of things in the process. But then again I don’t think his analytical sensibilities destroy the relationship (although they do kinda sour things with other couples as evidenced on what I think is New Years Eve or Christmas Eve) but his lifestyle certainly does and I think the latter stems from the former.

“These were very enthusiastic descriptions, as though they were details from his own life” (110)

This short bit describing how the waiter talks about movies to Wyatt and Esther struck me as important in backing up Wyatt’s vision of life reflected in art or at least some kind of very intimate portrait of the self present in art.

“it’s the sense of privacy that most popular expressions of suffering don’t have, don’t dare have, that’s what makes it arrogant. That’s what sentimentalizing invades and corrupts, that’s what we’ve lost everywhere, especially here where they make every possible assault on your feelings and privacy. These things have their own patterns, suffering and violence, and that’s…the sense of violence within its own pattern, the pattern that belongs to violence like the bullfight, that’s why the bullfight is art, because it respects its own pattern…” (112)

Is there something simplistic or fatalistic about this? I can see the deeply ordered mind of Wyatt but I’m not sure if I actually believe things to be so neat (and I suspect that’s part of the point).

N.B. (and I’m sure you did because how could we miss this):

-“Yes, did you hear what that woman said?…I think it’s the artist is the only person who is really given the capability of being happy, maybe not all the time, but sometimes. Don’t you think so? Don’t you think so?…
-And what did you say?
He put down his empty glass. -I said, there are moments of exaltation.
-Completely consumed moments, when you’re working and lose all consciousness of yourself…Oh? she said…Do you call that happiness? Good God! (112)

I now realize that this directly talks about why someone like Wyatt would need to define his own existence (I’m referring back to the quotations from page 96) and worry about it. This also ties into the detail on page 141 where Mr. Brown talks about Wyatt’s restoring jobs and mentions “You couldn’t tell it [the work of art] had been touched. Even an expert couldn’t tell, without all the chemical tests and X-rays.” Wyatt attempts to erase himself in his work, perhaps even more so where he’s restoring someone else’s.

“Unprofaned the word Christ embarrassed him [Otto]” (127)

I tied this into another paragraph further up the page where Wyatt says great emotions are destroyed by becoming “interchangable.” That suggests an objectivity and I’m not sure Ott’s response is correct or not, but I think feeling something is better than just playing it off as not mattering. So Otto probably possesses some of the capability for greatness as defined by Wyatt.

“I’m never really sure who I am until night, he [Otto] added.” (129)

Which is kind of interesting if we start seeing Otto as associated with the monolithic darkness that makes Wyatt so uneasy. I’m not sure if I’m grasping for straws here but this quotation could point us in that direction. Or maybe I’m on the wrong track entirely.

N.B. – “Recktall Brown” (140) Oh boy, you’re funn-ee Gaddis! i.e. Rectal Brown. Also I imagine that detail near the end of their conversation about the cigar belonging in R.B.’s mouth could double as a turd and critique of his capitalist obsessions.

Wyatt: – People react. That’s all they do now, react, they’ve reacted until it’s the only thing they can do, and it’s…finally there’s no room for anyone to do anything but react.
RB: -And here you are sitting here with all the pieces. Can’t you react and still be smart?…Maybe you put the pieces together wrong

Two things. First the recursion. the infinite series of people reacting is practically a definition of infinity and lets me drum up my favorite dead horse (da da dun) the Ouroboros. Also I think there have been a number of nods to Aristotelian logic and actually this is the definition he gives to everything but God (I could be wrong). Aristotle calls God the Unmoved Mover (or prime mover, I think) to distinguish it from everything else in existence. Second we get a challenge to Wyatt’s arrangement of the world which I don’t think anyone has given us so far. And its from some guy who doesn’t know art and just knows what sells.

“This is mine, this is what I must do this is my work…then how can they see it in mine, this sense of inevitableness, that this is the way it must be. In the middle of all this how can I feel that…damn it, when you paint you don’t just paint, you don’t just put lines down where you want to, you have to know, you have to know that every line you put down couldn’t go any other place, couldn’t be any different” (144)

But is Wyatt coming unhinged from his principles? I wonder if the beginning “This is mine” should make us wonder if he’s sticking to his original aesthetic or warping it to fit with capitalism. But that’s kinda bullshit. I just like this quotation and think he’s right but being more than kinda whiney about it.


N.B. – Jesse Frank’s tattoos on page 155 captureWyatt’s (and Gaddis’) ideas that art becomes part of your identity whether you want it to or not. The danger hinted at in the book’s first sentence presented itself as well. Jesse can’t ever drop these pieces, these things outside of himself that now stain him. Jesse manipulating his body and the ink flowing along with him gives me the howling fantods.

“The most difficult challenge to the ideal [of Romantic love] is its transformation into reality, and few ideals survive.” (156)

Just like Wyatt never wanting to finish the portrait of Camilla. Perfection’s still possible but the viewer and, more importantly the artist don’t have to find out if that’s true.

I was prompted to go back to an earlier quotation that almost made it into my notes about heroism by this:

Otto: “-Well he’s [Gordon] the hero of the play.
Jesse: -The hero? He don’t sound like much of a hero.” (156)

Esther to Wyatt at the ‘Flamenco bar’ on New Years (or Christmas Eve):

“but just now, it was the whole man being arrogant, it was towering somehow, it was…it had all the wonderful things about it, that moment all the things that, I don’t know,…but all the things we were taught that a man can be…-Heroic, she said quietly” (111)

Violence trapped in its own framework is how Wyatt describes the arrogance on the next page. being a hero appears to center around the moments of private suffering and offering oneself to the viewer without self-pity (or at least without any more self-pity than what’s implied if you’re presenting a piece of art of your own suffering to an audience), only acceptance of the structure trapping you. So Wyatt would appear to think a hero would accept the trapping loop that dooms him/her and based on something Otto will say soon I think it’ll be much clearer.

N.B. – Page 159 offers us another genre painting like scene that refers back to some major ideas in the novel:

“The mirror had a frame which looked like brown wood, but it was metal painted to appear so”

Another fake.

“A fifty-year-old Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary the size of a suitcase standing on a rickety table in the telegraph office down in the port was eaten through by them [termites], hardly a while word remained”

Another comment on the impossibility of originality or, and more directly a comment on the difficulty of making art in the present. The tools don’t even exist for our heroes (if I can use that term without irony).

“It might as well have been a picture frame, by now it had enclosed his image so often that it would seem it could not accomodate anyone else”

Just like the vision of great art that Wyatt lays out at the bar with Flamenco music. Great art captures the individual and reflects that person intimately.

“The months of waiting were over, the months of non-entity, Saint Paul would have us redeem time; but if present and past are both present in time future, and that future contained in time past, there is no redemption but one” (160)

Two quick connections earlier that just tripped my memory typing this up. First this reminds me of how Esther is described as always wanting partners she can redeem. Second, this takes me back to RB telling Wyatt that buying art with money redeems money. The novel could be have an intense interest in redemption and what that means and what it means about our characters if they refuse or avoid it, but I think redemption’s presented as an abstraction of hope. I’m not sure if it’s empty or not yet, but the redemptions mentioned thus far all rely heavily on the future for their success and I wonder if they just aren’t going to pan out.

Anyway, lets focus on the rest of this passage. Next Otto appears to feels his pulse so I suppose only the present allows for redemption. This takes us back to recursion, Ouroboros, etc. and the notion of possible escape. Perhaps the present becoming the past which then dictates the future serves as the escape? Surely certain things cannot be erased though so I’m not entirely sure what to think of Otto here.

“It was difficult to believe that it [the cathedral] had ever been new, actually been built stone by stone under the surface of plaster…but in places the plaster had come away showing the walls built brick by brick (166)

“They [the beggars] were dressed in clothes which they had never seen new and each carried something worthless, a basket of dolls made of straw, bundles of papers, inedible confections” (165)

Two connections in these. One, here’s yet another example of originality waning in the world but the third worlders might be more privy to the pieces and thus never possess the illusion of originality. Two, the first two quotes here lay out what gives Wyatt such insight and paralysis. He breaks things apart and realizes each of their pieces allowing him a greater understanding of the whole. But this hyper awareness of seeing through things, like the churchgoers in this instance paralyzes him with fear because he has to think about what little he can add to the cathedral of canon.

Thoughts on the First Chapter of Gaddis’ The Recognitions

Here are some quotations and thoughts from Part I chapter I.

“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality” (3)

The first sentence ties in with the idea later in the chapter that understanding is linked with the ability to separate things into pieces as if we were breaking apart some monolithic reality. It also points the reader to the ideas of true and false appearances and suggests that something false becoming true is dangerous. There’s something safe about being able to drop the mask.

“his [Rev. Gwyon] eyes would glow one moment with intense interest in the matter at hand, and the next be staring far beyond temporal bounds. He had, by now, the look of a man who was waiting for something which had happened long before” (7)

I thought the “something” pointed toward an interaction with a spiritual or non-temporal world. Maybe a kind of pre-birth fascination. But in most western societies and Christianity wouldn’t that be the same place? Isn’t that still the realm of the dead?

“He [Rev. Gwyon] stood there unsteady in the cold, mumbling syllables which almost resolved into her [Camilla’s] name, as though he could recall, and summon back, a time before death entered the world, before accident, before magic, and before magic despaired, to become religion” (11-12)

“the rest mud: the sense of something lost” (12)

Perhaps this magical before is what he looks for on page 7. I can’t help but note the Ouroboros on the title page and how that image applies to Gaddis’ novel. This comes up more clearly later but there’s definitely a sense of the inescapable past in this novel and how everyone is doomed to repetition.

“In that undawned light the solid granite benches were commensurably sized and wrought to appear as the unburied caskets of children. Behind them the trees stood leafless, waiting for life but as yet coldly exposed in their differences, waiting formally arranged, like the moment of silence when one enters a party of people abruptly turned, holding their glasses at attention, a party of people all the wrong size. There, balanced upon pedestals, thrusting their own weight against the weight of time never yielded to nor beaten off but absorbed in the chipped vacancies, the weathering, the negligent unbending of white stone, waited figures of the unlaid past.” (13)

Definitely one of my favorite passages so far. But I also spent a little more time thinking about it. I think I get the first part. The commensurate caskets of children ties into the picture of rebellion and breaking with familial tradition Gaddis pens two paragraphs later, “that family gradually formed the repetitive pattern of a Greek fret, interrupted only once in two centuries by a nine-year-old boy who had taken a look at his prospects, tied a string round his neck with a brick to the other end, and jumped from a footbridge into two feet of water” (13). All these boys trying to break tradition end up doing so in a similar fashion and the text mocks that with the detail “commensurably sized.” The reader should doubt their breaking with tradition if they’ve simply become another addition to the familial pattern. If the novel wants us to critically think about genuine and artificial actions then here we see something that once communicated something turning into a rancid artifice, a piece of the system it seeks to dismantle. I had some difficulty with the last sentence. “Unlaid” means to twist a rope apart into separate strands so that plays into our later motif of separation as clarity. But I’m not sure exactly. If I had to guess this seems to illustrate the complete consumption of time and how it destroys one. You can’t get away you’re simply trapped and disintegrated. I’m not sure what to think about the “people all the wrong size”, maybe they’re some kind of outsiders (but I thought the rebellious kids were? But that might be the point)?

“The name [Gwyon’s] had the weight of generations behind it” (22)

More focus on determinism and connotations from the past defining the present and future.

N.B. – There are a lot of trees. I had no idea what to think of that but we’ve got the trees mentioned in that passage I talked about in length from page 13, “windows were darkened by outside trees” (25), “elk skulking by empty trees” (25), “[Aunt May] shrunk to her books and her Hawthorn Tree” (40), Gwyon is hidden “by the heavy green of the yew trees” (48), and others.

This might be helpful later: “Unlike the healthy child who devises ingenious tortures for small animals, Wyatt elaborated a domain where the agony of man took remarkable directions, and the underclothed Figure from the center of the Bosch table [Jesus] suffered a variety of undignified afflictions” (35)

“When modern devices fail, it is our nature to reach back among the curves of our fathers. If those fail, there were fathers before them. We can reach back for centuries. Gwyon appreciated the extended hands of his people less and less as the months passed ” (45)

“Hidden from people and the declining sun by the heavy green of the yew trees, Gwyon kept to his study. He was reaching back.” (48)

Emphasis mine but I imagine you already figured that out. Again there’s this sense of being caught in a system and having always to adhere or reinvoke the past to solve the present. Forcing on in time appears hopeless so far. the doctors idiotic treatment of Wyatt serves as the only example so far but it expresses a hopelessness in discovery. What saves Wyatt’s life? His father invoking an ancient ritual (49). Aunt May describes Lucifer’s sin as trying “to become original” (34). Gaddis even adds immediately after that “She [May] pronounced the word malignantly, shaping that word round the whole structure of damnation, repeating it” (34) which suggests the structure itself might be repeating (and given May’s beliefs in election she certainly would) which points us to something circular and immediately reminds me of the Ouroboros on the title page. If the text is about fakes and authenticity then this later segment in the chapter seems to exclaim that we need something new for dealing with the present. The text doesn’t say finding or creating that new thing is easy but it suggests that we need something else. Aunt May’s death points us in this direction, as well as the chapter’s epigraph. May might die from the shock of her tree dying but she lives a life hiding from new discovery of the world. She’s “surrounded by closed books” (40) with the exception of that natural history book that seems to dispute Darwin. She doesn’t have what it takes to fight against the present anymore. Wagner says in the epigraph that “it will be man-made.” I’m not sure of the original context but within Gaddis’ novel it would refer either to our ability to fight against the confines projected on us by the past or it’s a comment on Wyatt that I’m not sure I understand.

“Prolonged hours of wakefulness, when all he sought was sleep, might turn out to have been sleep when he waked: but most unsupportable was the sensational affair which went something like this: consciousness, it seemed, was a succession of separate particles, being carried along on the surface of the deep and steady unconscious flow of life, of time itself, and in fainting, the particles of consciousness simply stopped, and the rest flowed on, until they were restored: but this was the stoppage, the entire disappearance of that deeper flow which left the particles of consciousness suspended, piling up, ready any instant to shatter with nothing to support them. Still, at such times everything was in order, of shape and color to mass and distance, of minutes accomplishing hours by accumulation just as the clock itself stayed on the table where it was if only because it had been accumulating there for so long: that was the reassurance of weight. ” (51)

I think this will prove helpful in the future although I’m not entirely sure how. Most immediately it touches on the idea of being able to break things down and understand them versus being overpowered by some complete and monolithic force as further detailed on page 53. The last sentence strikes me as a reassurance of the cyclical fatalism exhibited earlier in the chapter. It seems Wyatt’s best explanation of order and existence is because it all adds up to itself or into some abstract notion that the object is a part of (I’m thinking esp. of the clock with my mention of some abstract notion by which I mean time [although I realize time exists so maybe that’s just bullshit writing on my part).

“Of [Wyatt’s art] these fragments of intricate work most were copies. Only those which were copies were finished.” (52)

More focus on recursion and the inability to create something new.

Here, after the throbbing flow of the night was broken by the first particles of light in the sky, he often pulled a blanket from the bed and crept to the window, to sit there unmoving for the full time it took until the sun itself rose, the unmeasured hours of darkness slowly shattered, rendered into a succession of particles passing separately, even as the landscape separated into tangible identities each appraising itself in a static withdrawal until everything stood out separate from the silent appraisals around it.” (53)

This emphasis on separation continues in the next paragraph and might go back to my initial thoughts about recursion and the Ouroboros and the system our characters appear trapped in. This might be a way out or at least a description or connotation of what we should identify as an escape as far descriptions and imagery appear in the text. Sunlight and breaking something into pieces both might suggest when an idea in the narrative provides a way outside the infinite recursion of existing with knowledge of the past.

N.B. The “horned hulk of the old moon” (53) ties well with the image of the bull on the next page. I’m not sure of the association if there is one.

“they say you don’t kill with the sword but with the cape” (54)

This adds something fatal and destructive to trickery (not that we couldn’t already figure that out). Perhaps this suggests that we put ourself in the loop of history by our knowledge.

“following the line of the nose, bringing it back round the broken circle of a Byzantine hoop of gold, while behind him his [Gwyon’s] hands opened and closed on nothing” (57)

Ominous. Perhaps highlighting the emptiness of Wyatt’s focus on abstraction a paragraph before when he defends not finishing his work. Wyatt says “There’s something about a . . . an unfinished piece of work, a . . . a thing like this where . . . do you see? Where perfection is still possible?” (57). Perhaps that ties into Gwyon’s unfinished sentences later on as he becomes older. Perhaps he’s trying so hard to see the possibility left in his left that could turn it into a kind of perfection or masterpiece.