Thoughts on the First Chapter of Gaddis’ The Recognitions

by Nick

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.