More responses to the Recognitions: Chapters V-VII

by Nick

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?