One Big Final Post for Gaddis

by Nick

I took a lot of time getting through The Recognitions and while I would normally reprimand myself for taking so long I don’t feel bad about it this time. The Recognitions is a huge and difficult novel that’s often described as obtuse and Joyce-like but parts of it seduced me as “Ulysses” never could. I’m not crazy about all of it. There are three or four venom-filled party scenes totaling about 300 pages that serve the purpose of mocking pseudo intellectuals. But other segments like the first chapter, or the first 250 pages for that matter, impress the hell out of me and forgive some of the drawn out takedowns. Surprisingly the novel wasn’t nearly as obtuse as expected. The thematic elements starkly present themselves in dialogue and Gaddis depicts the novel’s events clearly up until the final chapters. I expected the opposite and thought it interesting that Gaddis repeats the novel’s main ideas ad nauseam with explicit discussions between characters about the nature of art, what it takes to create, and what serious artists do in the face of commercial culture and society’s apathy toward the arts. The Recognitions itself is a response to these questions. The reading toughens when the reader only gets dialogue during a few moments near the end which left me confused and uncaring about what actually occurred. Also the vehement and contemptuous gaze Gaddis casts on so many people and things wore thin in a number of spots. The novel extends a fair amount of empathy at times too (Otto) but the party scenes almost solely revolve around maiming shallow or deceitful pseudo intellectuals or artists trying to impress everyone else. Many of Gaddis’s targets deserve at least some mockery but the tirades failed to entertain after 600 pages. For example Wyatt’s doppelganger Otto does a lot of dumb things throughout the novel and deserves a fair bit of abuse, but the novel still allowed me to take him seriously as a person and artist.

Stanley’s composition resembles The Recognitions in its utilization of antiquity in order to break tradition and overcome the ouroboros. More importantly, Stanley successfully creates an abstract masterpiece. I’ll say that again. Despite all the palimpsests, and distractions of sex and insanity, Stanley finishes his imagined piece. Wyatt doesn’t even accomplish this with the portrait of his mother. Why Stanley? Is it because he didn’t mire in study and self-consciousness? He didn’t lose himself to the fear of whether or not he stacked up with every composer everywhere at every time? Or were they both on the same trajectory but Wyatt stopped? An opposition lurks in what they both do at the end of the novel with Wyatt restoring the old and Stanley’s composition destroying it. It appears that Stanley’s ignorance allowed him to break through the fear and self-consciousness an artist normally experiences. Not that Stanley’s uneducated but he certainly doesn’t obsess over and question why and how he should create as Wyatt does. Note that Stanley dies because he doesn’t understand the priest’s Italian warning. Ignorance allows Stanley to destroy the cathedral and defeat the ouroboros-like cycle of fear and weakness in the face of antiquity’s masters. The dangers of obsession over book learning also drive Gwyon insane earlier in the novel. His encyclopedic knowledge is incredible but its desire to understand everything relates ultimately gets Gwyon sent to an asylum. Here the same strange ritual of crucifixion Gwyon used to keep Wyatt alive as a child ends him. All of this energizes me. This book with so many references, so much knowledge and writing capability behind it ultimately concedes that the more one knows the harder everyday life, relating to others, and creating something yourself becomes.

The Recognitions struck me as more uneven than the other huge novels I’ve tackled (Infinite Jest, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666). Only 2666 bored and excited me in different spots while Gaddis kept me rapt only to bore the tears out of me in other parts. This made me consider the level of commitment and love required not just to get through a work but also how best to approach a work so that when it comes to analysis and thinking and reading over parts again and again the reader enjoys it. The Recognitions made me realize that that relationship requires a kind of love and commitment akin to a human relationship or even marriage. I realize this book in particular with its huge sentences, modernist flourishes, and bitterness puts most people away from the idea of love but for me that was all I could think about as I made myself continue past exhaustion and spite. Some guilt even made its way into the mix when I read a section I thoroughly enjoyed. To condense all of this: the reader either commits or doesn’t commit. If you really want an analytical experience then a kind of faith and love and hope must be extended to the work. Plenty of people will never read or finish this book but if you’re interested I highly recommend you dive in.

N.B. Dalkey Archive Press has let The Recognitions go out of print so I’m not sure who will be printing more copies in the future. I sure hope it doesn’t become harder to find a copy.