December 20, 2008
The character of Aunt May has been fascinating and repelling me in equal measure. And yet most of all, there’s something familiar about her. Something nineteenth century, that smacks of workhouses and Dickensian spinsters, and something further back in the mists of literary time that screams evil stepmothers, witches and gorgons. Aunt May is a force of evil masquerading as a force of good, I thought at first. And then I remembered reading about the sacred, as the French cultural critic and anthropologist, Roger Caillois, describes it. Caillois was writing in the 50s, contemporary to Gaddis, although I doubt very much that their paths ever crossed. Caillois contended that the sacred must be understood as a force rather than a thing, and because of this, its nature is inevitably ambivalent; forces can be used for good or evil, and it is only once the force has crossed the boundary and manifested itself as an action that it becomes fixed in purpose. Now because the force of the sacred is inherently ambiguous in this way, the sacred is divided into the distinct and opposing polarities that produce the concepts of God and the Devil, or which, in other cultures, separate white from black magic. We can see both polarities belong to the realm of the sacred as the same degree of hypnotic fascination adheres to both, the same reaction of simultaneous reverence and fear.
Caillois made another distinction that can be applied to the force of the sacred whether it manifests itself as godly or devilish. That distinction is between what he calls the fascinans and the tremendum. The fascinans is the good bits, if you like, ecstasy and spiritual uplift, but also mercy, goodness, and love. The tremendum is the wrath of God, the harsh spirit of divine justice, and the rampant possessiveness of divine jealousy. Aunt May embodies the angry, judgemental, possessed, almost Satanic aspect of religious fervor. All her energies have been whipped up into an excessive rage that circles in a vortex of unloveability and lack of compassion. It always strikes me as odd that the Puritanical aspects of the church should exclude all that is beautiful, charming, merciful and just from their devotion. Purity itself is a beautiful concept (and one that Caillois discusses a lot as foundational to religion – the sacred being itself so pure that it becomes almost dangerous and only those qualified to do so may approach it). But Aunt May’s purity is one based on ugliness, harshness, joylessness, and anger. This might still be okay for Wyatt, if only the Reverend Gwyon could fulfill his part of the bargain and embody the fascinans of the sacred. He’s almost there – he’s mercy and kindness, he’s lost to an ecstatic contemplation of previous cultures (a bit like Caillois the anthropologist). But he is too weak, too unable to rise above his own boundaries to truly offer Wyatt the experience of religious misericord he needs to balance his Aunt’s excesses. As is so often the case, the soul of mercy fails the child because of its own fragility, leaving the force of rage unchecked.
So Wyatt’s childhood is lacking in balance, and therefore, in grace. But I could also see another possible distinction arising in that bizarre coupling of Aunt May and the Reverend Gwyon. If Aunt May represents the force of fundamentalism, the most extreme of all religious dogmas, then the Reverend Gwyon represents radical liberalism, the kind of boundary-less inclusiveness that ends up encompassing everything and meaning nothing. Gwyon cannot act, cannot adhere to an ethical framework, because he has too many competing frameworks intellectually jousting for his attention. So that when Wyatt’s life is in danger, all he can fall back on is a kind of superstitious paganism. That this paganism should seem to work is a part of the narrative I don’t know how to account for. Unless it is simply to undermine the entire religious dimension and to suggest that at basis we have nothing but one kind of magical thinking to pit against another. But in any case, if this is the parenting of Wyatt, the unequal balance between fascinans and tremendum, the confused legacy of fundamentalism and liberalism, then it’s not surprising if Wyatt is going to emerge as a child of postmodernism, that great hotchpotch of all thought systems, in which truth is plural, suspect and playful.
December 16, 2008
In light of all the discussion below about originality and creativity, I was struck by the passage (on p. 89 in the Penguin) where Wyatt quotes Herr Koppel, his art instructor in Munich:
That romantic disease, originality, all around us we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … 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. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart…
Up to this point, I’d been thinking about originality and creativity in religious terms because of Aunt May’s diatribe about how being creative is usurping God’s role. But Wyatt didn’t just get this lesson from Aunt May — he got it from Herr Koppel as well, who has entirely different reasons for critiquing creativity. Herr Koppel, it seems, is an anti-Romantic; he looks back to the pre-Romantic era where artists didn’t value originality (at least not in the same way) and instead focused on honing their craft, which was best done by copying the masters. You tried to internalize the best techniques that others had already mastered; you believed that there IS a set of techniques out there that constitutes the best techniques possible.
What Wyatt thinks of Herr Koppel’s view isn’t entirely clear; shortly before he quotes the passage I gave above, he says, “I felt like him, just for that instant, as though I were old Herr Koppel,” which leaves some room for distance or disagreement between the two. But it does make clear that Wyatt has heard the message that originality and creativity are dangerous and undesirable from two different people in entirely different contexts, and it offers another reason why Wyatt’s relationship to creativity is so vexed.
It also opens the possibility that Gaddis is critiquing or responding to Romanticism in some way, a thought that became clearer to me when I came across this passage (p. 95, Wyatt is speaking):
Listen, this guilt, this secrecy, he burst out, — it has nothing to do with this … this passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour … what is it? What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around? What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.
The artist doesn’t matter; only the work does — in saying this, he’s critiquing the Romantic cult of the artist as genius. The artist is really little but a conduit for the art itself — once the art exists, the artist doesn’t matter anymore. Just two paragraphs later, he says, “There’s only one thing, somehow, he commenced, faltering — that … one dilemma, proving one’s own existence ….” Not only does the artist not matter much, but apparently everyone has only a tenuous hold on their own existence.
This might help explain why so many things are unfinished in this novel, including sentences and conversations — there is very little that’s certain, very little to hold on to, no real reason to try to complete something and make it whole.
December 15, 2008
First, I hope you will all forgive that my posts lack specific examples. I type while breastfeeding and it is difficult to balance a baby, a laptop AND this tome.
Second, I have been thinking a lot about how nothing in this book is authentic. Wyatt, of course, makes first bridge designs and then paintings that are passed off as someone else’s. But there is also Otto with his sling, the man in the bar claiming to be Hemingway, and the drag queens. Is the man Hemingway? It doesn’t matter because he fills the role of Heminway-ness for those who see him, just as it doesn’t matter that Wyatt’s paintings aren’t real XXXs, as long as they fill the role of XXX-ness for those who view them.
But, if authenticity is irrelevant, why is Otto’s sling laughable? I think it may have to do with how earnest he is about the show he puts on. He takes himself seriously, and he wants to be credited with a certain value, while Wyatt cares nothing for credit and hides behind the images he creates.
December 12, 2008
I’ve had a bit of a chance to digest the first chapter and the thing that keeps me thinking is Aunt May’s tirade against Wyatt’s art. Her vehemence is haunting me. And then it came to me that while her view may be puritanical, there is a long tradition in textile art in which the weaver intentionally creates a flaw in the pattern in order to avoid mimicking God’s perfection. I found references to this in relation to Islam, Appalachian quilters, Navajo weavers, and a story that bases the tradition on Arachne and Athena’s weaving contest.
Later Wyatt doesn’t finish anything original, perhaps for fear of Aunt May’s admonition. Of course it could also be because, as with any art, the vision of the finished production never lives up to the actuality of it. But somehow I sense that is not the case.
What I am turning over is, since Wyatt does complete copies of already existing art, and he completes those copies to perfection, might that be his way of getting around the strictures of copying God? Wyatt can paint perfectly, but the original that he has painted is flawed, therefore no challenge to God.
Aside from Aunt May, Wyatt’s reading has also probably warped his brain and Gwyon hasn’t helped much either. The whole sacrifice of Heracles scene left me gasping. Poor Wyatt never had a chance to be “normal” in that house.
December 8, 2008
So after reading only 62 pages, what have I got a hold on? Right now I’m just getting used to Gaddis’ loquacious narrator, the aesthetic atmosphere of the book and trying to get a feel for the different characters.
The narrator is expansive and wry, and pronounced enough to feel like a character in addition to the others. With a different kind of book, I might be wary of this kind of highly-present narrator, but I’ve decided I like how Gaddis is using the narrator’s omnipotence (and sarcastic slant) to shape my appreciation of the story. I also think that with a book of this length, in which I presume I’m going to be asked to get to know a staggering number of characters and situations, I will enjoy the narrator’s stable presence.
Like most compelling narrators, this one takes an indulgent view of the novel’s subjects, treating them a bit like remarkable, yet still laughable, curiosities. Gwyon, Aunt May and finally Wyatt – unsmiling individuals all of them, sober and stern, more comfortable in solitude then in company. But somehow they’re all simmering with enough inner passion and their staid façades have just enough hairline cracks, to let the reader appreciate the narrator’s affectionate scorn. The narrator’s tolerant but critical position, delivered rather tongue-in-cheek, gives the book a lot of its humor. An example from when Aunt May dies:
Better to marry than to burn, but she had not been forced to that pusillanimous choice: gnarled, she stepped from one virginity to another without hesitation.
Or, here, when Wyatt gets sick:
Three years later, that partisan Deity whose most recent attention to the family had been Aunt May’s rescue from mortality, acted in Wyatt’s direction (though, as the boy and his father independently suspected, perhaps it was a different God altogether).
So far the book’s imagery and atmosphere sticks close to its overall theme, reminding me of the basement of an old church – dusty and dark and filled with mysteries and dark wooden objects. Reverend Gwyon’s house is described in this way, but this same aesthetic extends outside that quiet, shadow-filled residence…in Europe when Gwyon travels after his wife’s death, in the carriage barn where Wyatt goes as a child to confide in the Barbary Ape, in the short descriptions of the town.
I would say that already within the description is a sample of some of the novel’s tension – the severe, austere trappings of Gwyon’s Protestanism versus the sensual pleasures of academic learning and beautiful objects. Both Gwyon and Wyatt seem drawn to the elaborate, something strictly forbidden by their religion.
Finally, Gaddis has a particular way of moving through the story. Chapter One may be different in this respect because I sense it is setting up all the rest, but I was intrigued with the novel’s movement from scene to scene, from tangent back to main story, even from a moment of present dialogue to a scene several days later. It all appears to be done unapologetically, without firm transitions, yet if I look closely, there tends to be atleast a sentence of set-up in the preceding paragraph. I’m always interested in structure, so I’ll be keeping my eye on this as I get further into the novel.
December 8, 2008
I am thinking of Dorothy’s post, and I am wondering about Wyatt’s need, as an adult, to hide the fact that he is designing bridges or painting. He creates, but he can only do so behind the shield of someone else’s signature. The passage Dorothy points out sheds light on this tendency. I am eager to hear what others think.
December 6, 2008
I was struck by a passage in The Recognitions about art and religion (p. 34 in the Penguin edition). Can you imagine if you were a child and took your first drawing to your aunt with whom you live and who is doing most of the work to raise you, only to get this response?
Don’t you love your Lord Jesus, after all? … Then why do you try to take His place? Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him … Do you remember Lucifer? … Lucifer was the archangel who refused to serve Our Lord. To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order, and that is what Lucifer did. His name means Bringer of Light but he was not satisfied to bring the light of Our Lord to man. He tried to become original … original, to steal Our Lord’s authority, to command his own destiny, to bear his own light! That is why Satan is the Fallen Angel, for he rebelled when he tried to emulate Our Lord Jesus. And he won his own domain, didn’t he. Didn’t he! And his own light is the light of the fires of Hell! Is that what you want? Is that what you want? Is that what you want?
It’s astounding that poor Wyatt went on to draw anything at all ever again, but he did, burying his drawings in the back yard and feeling terrible guilt over it, doing it in spite of terror at his own damnation.
The religious argument is astounding as well (not to mention the level of the aunt’s fury) — that it’s sinful to try to be original and creative because that is the same thing as trying to take God’s place. It puts one on the same level as Lucifer and condemns one to hell. I have had many quarrels with the religion of my youth, but this, fortunately, wasn’t one of them; I was taught not that creativity is an attempt to take God’s place but that creativity is one of the ways that we are made in the image of God and by exercising our creativity, we are expressing our true natures and following in God’s footsteps, in a respectful, loving way, not a proud, ambitious way. How much nicer this idea is!
I’m very curious to see just how poor Wyatt, who will grow up to become an artist, is going to deal with this legacy of guilt about the very thing he will spend his life doing. Surely the words “Is that what you want?” must have been lurking in the back of his mind for years afterwards.
December 4, 2008
Now that I’m no longer teaching literature, one of the things I miss most is critical commentary, the exercise in which you are given a chunk of text and invited to make of it what you will. I used to love doing this and one of the opportunities provided by the new Gaddis blog is the time and space and the right kind of book for just such a reading. When the students used to groan and say they didn’t know where to begin, I used to suggest that they think about the text as if it were a person they had just met, and they were required to give an account of his or her character as it appeared to them. Reading the opening segment of The Recognitions, a passage of about 20 pages (far too long for your average critical commentary, but we’ll overlook that), I was struck by how much the narrative voice lends itself to just such a treatment.
You see, I had the overwhelming first impression of having stumbled upon one of those loquacious old soaks in a dimly-lit bar, someone who relentlessly colonises a corner of a pub and keeps up a running commentary. By rights he should have a hint of an Irish accent and look magnificently destroyed by the vagaries of life. I felt as it I’d arrived in that bar on an indeterminate day, at an indeterminate time, the kind of time when a gloomy drinking hole was the last place I ought to be, and before I knew it, I’d been suckered in to listening to some epic tale whose beginning was lost in the middle of last week. Plunged into some stream of verbiage that didn’t quite make sense until I’d listened to the first ten minutes, because the point of the story, its point of orientation, didn’t reveal itself until the first couple of paragraphs had passed. And by then of course, it was too late, I was listening.
My first reaction was initially one of panic at the thought of listening to a densely-wrought, alcohol-sodden monologue, and one that had little consideration for my ease and comfort. What, 900 pages of this? Cropping up through the swift-flowing current of narrative were the wrecking rocks of a hundred references, nothing more than a word here or there, but enough to break the smoothness and send ripples of reading consternation. It’s funny how you can know that a reference to something unwritten, unexplained and beyond the scope of the story has just passed by your eyes, even if you have no idea what it actually referred to. Eventually, a landscape started to form, one of a reverend who set out to sail to Spain and lost his wife en route, who encountered tremendous difficulties finding somewhere to have her buried, who stayed then in the small town where she finally lay, ill with grief, beset by cunning locals hoping for tangible charity, until he was well enough again to return to America. Yes, I could imagine such a story coming from an enigmatic and yet all-too-open stranger in a bar. The manner of the telling, at first confusing and abrasive, gently began to reveal its charms. The intellectual gloss of the text was more than skin-deep – was the narrator an academic who has crossed the ill-defined line between genius and madness? There are enough of those. Or a lapsed priest? The narrative is thickly studded with religious imagery, religious concerns, above and beyond those necessary for the biography of a man of the church. Or was he simply a poet, so deeply embedded in his flights of lyric fantasy that he had forgotten to come up for air and threatened to suffocate the reader with him, in the mortal coils of his creativity? Academic, priest, poet, none of these voices necessarily negates the other; indeed they interweave well together, all marginalized but piercingly insightful perspectives on the grubby and glorious human soul.
But just when you think things are getting too serious, there’s a lot of cunning here, too. A sly tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase that reveals an amused fascination for deceptions of all kinds. The fact that Reverend Gwyon’s wife dies from an appendicitis operation performed by a fraudster skipping the country and masquerading as a doctor is treated ambivalently, as tragi-comic. Religion is described as ‘sincere theatricals’, and the monastery where he stays is run by an order whose ‘sense of guilt was so great, and measures of atonement so stringent, that those who came through alive were a source of embarrassment to lax groups of religious who coddled themselves with occasional food and sleep.’ There’s also a delight in excess, in the wilder reaches of the human condition that only sit well in this kind of rampaging narrative, like ‘Fr. Eulalio, a thriving lunatic of eighty-six who was castigating himself for unchristian pride at having all the vowels in his name, and greatly revered for his continuous weeping, [who] went blind in an ecstasy of such howling proportions that his canonization was assured.’ But for all the linguistic profusion of these dramatic, entertaining, alarming digressions, it is interesting how often they reflect some quiet but significant pillar of the narrative, how often they reveal the foundation stones that the story otherwise leaps over in a frenzied dance. When the reverend walks through the streets of San Zwingli we are told that ‘he stopped to watch children’s games on the pavements, seeking there, as he sought in the cast of roofs, the delineations of stairs, passages, bedrooms, and kitchens left on walls still erect where the attached building had fallen, or the shadow of a chair-back on the repetitious tiling of a floor, indications of persistent pattern, and significant form.’ Likewise we can see in the games the text plays with us, in the crumbling ruins of an old-fashioned, sturdy, narrative frame, something persistent and significant, something that only arises out of patterns dimly sought that we can piece together only in careful contemplation.
And just occasionally, amongst the play and the parody and the downright confusing bits, there are moments of great beauty: ‘False dawn past, the sun prepared the sky for its appearance, and there, a shred of perfection abandoned unsuspecting at the earth’s rim, lay the curve of the old moon, before the blaze which would rise behind it to extinguish the cold quiet of its reign.’ It’s still a bit over the top, the academic, the priest and the poet all working a bit too hard, or maybe just having a bit too much fun, but there is grandeur in the cracks and crevices of this narrative, a promise of something greater than the sum of its fragmented parts. It was enough that, closing the door on the smoky depths of the pub, as I closed the cover on this doorstep of a book, I was grateful for the quiet and the cool, still air, whilst knowing I would be drawn back to that manic monologue again.
December 2, 2008
I am an entire 26 pages into Gaddis’s 950-page novel, and I thought I’d let you know how it’s going so far. So far, so good. I can tell it will be a slow read, but that’s okay — slow reading seems to be the thing these days anyway. The story (as much of it as I’ve gleaned) is interesting, and while the writing can be dense — or maybe I should say that it can shift registers in a way that’s mildly disorienting — it’s enjoyable and entertaining.
I’m especially intrigued by how saturated in religious themes the book is. You have the Reverend Gwyon who travels with his wife Camilla from America to Europe and poor Camilla dies on the way, leaving very strictly Protestant American relatives outraged that Gwyon is not bringing her body home. Instead, he comes back with Catholic relics and icons (and also a Barbary ape) after having Camilla buried in a ceremony that would have shocked the relatives more than they could have handled, if they had known about it. Gaddis’s description of these Christians is delicious:
Anything pleasurable could be counted upon to be, if not categorically evil, then worse, a waste of time. Sentimental virtues had long been rooted out of their systems. They did not regard the poor as necessarily God’s friends. Poor in spirit was quite another thing. Hard work was the expression of gratitude He wanted, and, as things are arranged, money might be expected to acrue as incidental testimonial.
Yes, that’s one form of American protestantism, all right. As I understand it, the story is really about Reverend Gwyon’s son Wyatt, who at the age of four is already “finding the Christian system suspect.” I’m curious to find out how he will respond to these religious roots.
I’m very grateful to Litlove for posting about the annotations to the novel. Already I have made use of them and found out useful information like the fact that Gaddis doesn’t know how he would pronounce the name “Gwyon”; when asked, he said he doesn’t know because he had never said the name out loud (I find that hard to believe — surely he had to be saying it in his head all the time?). The annotator says that the name should probably “be pronounced as one syllable, like ‘Gwynne,’ its modern form.” I was relieved to hear that advice because a two-syllable “Gwy-on” doesn’t work very well.
But more seriously, the site has wonderful notes on all the references and also a plot synopsis that I’m sure will come in handy. As a matter of fact, I feel a little ambivalent about using the plot synopsis regularly. On the one hand, I’d prefer just to deal with the text directly and not depend on something like a plot summary to help me through any rough spots (the annotations are another matter — they are just footnotes in a different form). On the other hand, I’m sure a plot synopsis will come in handy somewhere down the road when I’ve forgotten characters and events from earlier in the novel. I think I will give up on the idea of having some kind of pure encounter with the text and gratefully use all the help I can get.
December 1, 2008
I’m only just starting to read and felt I needed some background information. A few links to share with you for Gaddis-related goodness:
First of all the complete annotations to the text can be found here. This is a fabulous resource and I think I’m going to use it a lot. It must have been someone’s lifetime work to put it together.
This is one of the best obituaries/retrospectives on Gaddis’s work. It also has a lot of useful links at the bottom.
And this is one of the rare interviews that Gaddis ever gave. It’s not very long, but it’s quite interesting.
The Recognitions strikes me as the kind of book that it is useful to be prepared for!