Thoughts on Chapters II-IV of The Recognitions

by Nick

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.