“With high regard, though seldom played”

Chris Via reviews William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

William Gaddis, The Recognitions.
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Aside from Moby-Dick (1851), there is no comparable antecedent for The Recognitions in American literature. Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Robert Coover all came later. In part, this timing explains the novel’s critical fate at the time of its publication — forerunners are often only appreciated in hindsight. But if it is astounding to think that this book came before so many authors associated with postmodern maximalism, it is just as astounding to consider that it was also Gaddis’ début, preceding his own J R (1975) by twenty years. In Barth’s first novel, The Floating Opera (1956), the opening chapter is aptly and playfully entitled “Tuning my piano” — yet in The Recognitions, to amplify Barth’s metaphor, Gaddis’ sixty-page opening chapter not only tunes the piano but readies an entire orchestra on a Wagnerian scale. It would be a challenge to dismiss the book after this gripping, relentlessly literary sequence that so skillfully sets the stage for all to come.

Like J R, the kernel of the plot centers on an enigmatic figure who is given the least amount of stage presence: in this case, Wyatt Gwyon. Modeled on Faust, Wyatt strikes a bargain with the Mephistophelian Recktall Brown to make money forging the art of the fifteenth-century Flemish masters he loves. But, also like J R, the plot develops endless complexities via the heavy population of characters and interconnected subplots. The action opens with the death of three-year-old Wyatt’s mother, Camilla, at the hands of a forger named Frank Sinisterra (who will appear throughout the book in a Dickensian mode of coincidence). Wyatt’s paternal Aunt May raises him under the full force of her Puritanical Christianity, residing with him in the New England parsonage where his father, the Reverend Gwyon, slips deeper and deeper into studies of the sun-worshipping cult of Mithraism, a major competitor of early Christianity. Wyatt tries and fails to follow the divinity studies of his paternal line and turns instead to art, studying in Germany under the tutelage of Herr Koppel. After refusing to accept a critic’s offer of good reviews of his work in exchange for part of the sales, Wyatt abandons the world of commercial art, makes a pact with the forger Brown and his associate Basil Valentine (who assures the marketing of the “discovered” masterworks), and turns his skills to deceptive ends in a Horatio Street apartment in New York City. Although devoted to the purity of technique and materials (he demands country eggs for his handmade tempera, for example), his criminal arrangement does not provide him with the transcendence he craves, or satisfy the need for redemption that nags him. These experiences will be found, eventually, within the cloistered stone walls of the same monastery in Spain where his father convalesced after Camilla’s death thirty years earlier.

As with a reading of J R, it requires considerable constraint to overlook or omit all of the clever linkages Gaddis brings to his story. It should be noted, then, that in Steven Moore’s Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the synopsis alone runs no less than eighteen pages in an effort at covering all the necessary bases. That said, what follows is a sample of references, implicit and explicit, to illustrate the breadth of Gaddis’ allusiveness and the ways in which it gives meaning to the novel.

The significance of Wyatt’s age, thirty-three, has its ties to the midlife journey of Dante’s pilgrim and Christ’s death. From the title of the book and the first chapter’s epigraph, the Clementine Recognitions and Goethe’s Faust are the novel’s foremost sources — in other words, Christianity and paganism, and especially the second part of Goethe’s Faust and Gaddis’ other principal sources: Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (1948), and William John Phythian-Adams’ Mithraism (1915). Gaddis quipped in his Paris Review interview that just as the Clementine Recognitions has been called the first Christian novel, his was going to be the last. And, he added, “I wanted [The Recognitions] to be a large comical novel in the great tradition”—important to specify, since the comedy can be hidden from view by the seriousness of the book’s themes and the density of its allusiveness, and is more aligned with late twentieth-century black humour than, say, Cervantes’ comic sallies. The Recognitions, then, is a comedy of errors, with incessant miscommunications, mistaken identities, forgeries, and excesses, but its comedy is tempered by its quest to take on the largest questions in the humanities: What is genuine? How do we make sense of the chaos around us? How do we live ethically in a world akin to Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’? And what, after all, is worth doing?

Late in the book, Esther, Wyatt’s estranged wife, accuses her former short-term amour Otto Pivner of the same error as Wyatt: “you’ve put all your energy up against things that weren’t there”. This fear of squandering one’s only lifetime is echoed in J R across a cast of artists (Gibbs, Eigen, Bast, et al.), but for Wyatt and one of his many counterparts, Stanley, the “things that weren’t there” are, in part, a framework for art that now belongs to the distant past. Wyatt paints in the mode of old Flemish masters, with their church and court patrons and religious subject matter, and Stanley writes a requiem mass for the organ (dedicated, significantly, to his dead mother). David Koenig recognises the misplaced nostalgia of these men as “the Faustian spectacle of enormous artistic talent that could find no inspiration worthy of its powers”. And it is the sinister Basil Valentine who ridicules this Golden Age syndrome in Wyatt: “And your precious van Eyck, do you think he didn’t live up to his neck in a loud vulgar court? In a world where everything was done for the same reasons everything’s done now? for vanity and avarice and lust?” Perhaps due to Aunt May’s insistence that producing original art is tantamount to “steal[ing] Our Lord’s authority”, Wyatt formulates the idea that the plight for originality (typically in form) bespeaks a lack of actual skill in the artist. Forgery, therefore, becomes more real than the production of original art. Later, too, a counterfeit twenty will be heralded as “[a] real work of art” (emphasis mine), but the seed of this view lies in Wyatt’s development as a young artist: “Every week or so he would begin something original. It would last for a few days, but before any lines of completion had been drawn he abandoned it.”

In one of the most explosive turning points in the novel, Wyatt attempts to extricate himself from the counterfeiting operations of Recktall Brown and Basil Valentine (he has been keeping scraps of the forged artwork for this purpose) with ghastly results. Now he has lost the embodiments — though not the haunting influences — of mother, father, caregiver, wife, and patron. This situation forces (or perhaps frees) him to become a “true” artist, to produce “genuine” art, and eventually to overcome the rigorous scientific scrutiny of counterfeit art, which he sees as more artistically laudable than the mass-marketed “original” art all around him. Within the dark corridors of the monastery, the distinguished novelist Ludy will witness Wyatt (at this point boasting no less than four names: Wyatt, Stephan, Esteban, Stephen) scraping away at revered original works of art and chanting, “I have passed all the scientific tests”. At the close of this apotheosis, Wyatt echoes Thoreau’s imperative to live deliberately. But his transcendentalism is checked, however, by Basil Valentine (now called “the Cold Man”) and his idea that “a sanctuary of power…protects beautiful things”.

Many readers have interpreted Gaddis’ début as merely profane, sacrilegious, and nihilistic — as well as self-indulgent. In The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis (1994), however, Gregory Comnes derives Gaddis’ ethics within a system that rejects both the absolutism of organised religion and the relativism of the postmodern worldview while still insisting on virtues within an epistemological boundary. Indeed, the onslaught of acerbic religious and social satire can prove an impasse to a more conscientious interpretation of The Recognitions, but, as Steven Moore eloquently states in his authoritative book William Gaddis (1989):

The Recognitions is not a repudiation of education and culture, of course, but an attack on its misuse by those who come and go speaking of… matters with little or no understanding, counterfeiters of the intellect who drop names and botch quotations in their desperate attempts to win friends and influence people.

The misunderstanding of the novel parallels the misinterpreted anti-capitalist pronouncements of the Gaddis behind J R. Socially, religiously, and economically, Gaddis seeks to expose the abuses of the masses blindly following one another to clear space for thinking about how to proceed.

In addition to controlled, sustained erudition and keen allusive wit, Gaddis is simply a good writer, his books a joy to those who want the most of a reading experience. In The Recognitions, his descriptions of natural elements perfectly commingle, in symbol and in mood, with his story: “Clouds blew over the town, shreds of dirty gray, threatening, like evil assembled in a hurry, disdained by the moon they could not obliterate”. A sharp aphorism is always at the ready: “My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them”. Puns and jokes flavour the goings-on of rapacious socialites: “The one about the lady from the First Unitarian Church of Kennebunkport, M.E. who orders monogrammed napkins for a church luncheon and… Oh, I’ve spoiled it”; and “Do you know this new word, Caprew…? It’s made up of the first two letters of Catholic, Protestant, and…” (ellipses in original). Moreover, memorable one-sentence details are employed to set up character motifs — “That fever had passed; but for the rest of his life it never left his eyes” — and the soap opera of love in its various permutations (Wyatt-Esther-Ellery-Otto, Wyatt-Esme-Chaby-Stanley) is handled with all the sensitivity of the best novelists. Plus, Gaddis’ prose, at its best, reaches poetic heights:

In the muddy plaza open beneath the wide porch of the monastery church, whose gothic façade and unfurnished rose window overlooked it, the village fountain spouted, and women with stone and copper jugs came to fill them. Their voice rose on hard sounds whose delicate edges went quickly to pieces and the words were lost, recovered and composed in that gentle mitigation, —Adiós… and gone on the soft monotonous confirmation until it was repeated, and every minute repeated, —dios… an expression of sound so much a part of that harsh chill and gray tranquility that only lacking would it have been remarkable.

The Recognitions requires active reading, not the reading Mr. Pivner exhibits with the morning paper: “Nothing escaped [his] eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart”. Potential readers may mistakenly surmise that a prerequisite knowledge of Faust, Eliot, Dante, the Bible, and Mithraism, among other topics, is required to get beyond the surface level, but the intertextuality of The Recognitions is often explicit and richly contextualised rather than condescendingly obfuscated. What is required is attention to detail. The colour of a piece of clothing or a vocal flourish that appears on one page will be the link to a twist hundreds of pages later. Characters may talk at length before being identified (sometimes by name, sometimes by pre-established motif). A stray piece of news and subtle confusion of coffins and parcel contents lead to two of the most breathtaking symbolic ironies of the novel. This level of intricacy nods to the busyness of a Bosch triptych — it’s all there, but one must observe carefully, dismissing nothing as superfluous. What can appear as filler is in a Gaddis novel always important. Or, as Gregory Comnes puts it, “everything in the novel is plot”.

Readers today should not shy from Gaddis as his early detractors sometimes did, lacking the patience to engage with the book, for, as John Beer says in chiding them, “the conclusion that Gaddis is merely showing off reveals more about the intellectual insecurities of critics than about The Recognitions”. Rather, those intrigued by this overlooked master of American letters — the progenitor of the exuberant American maximalism that stretches from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) — should pick up both The Recognitions and J R, feel the heft of them, and plunge in. Thankfully, these two novels refuse temporal constraints, with aesthetics as fresh and content as relevant today as they were for the most attentive readers of their original milieu. The composer Stanley’s words perfectly reflect Gaddis’ successful ambition with The Recognitions: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work…”