Monday, November 15, 2004

Part I Chapter I, p. 3-62

(Though I'm going first, I don't want people to take my attempt here as a model for future discussion. I'm a rather haphazard thinker, so I tend to throw things out as I come upon them or as they occur to me. I didn't want to spend too much time on summary, as I think the Annotations do a fine job with that. Mostly I just want to point out things that interested me, that seem important, or amusing, etc.

Since I've read the book before and have read a good bit of the critical apparatus, I'm going to end up pointing out things that might not be relevant until later in the book. Repetitions that I am noticing, clues to future happenings and such. I hope that is okay for everything. I'd rather not work under the "spoiler" stricture, but I'll also try to refrain from being too explicit about future plot.

As for how the actual discussion will go, I guess we figure that out as we go along.)


Sometime after WWI, Reverend Gwyon (a protestant/calvinist)'s wife, Camilla, dies on a trip to Spain aboard ship. Frank Sinisterra, a counterfeiter who disguised himself as ship's surgeon, is forced to operate on Camilla when she is struck with appendicitis and causes her death. In Spain, Gwyon has his wife's body interned in a walled space with a Catholic burial. After some time in Europe in a less than lucid state, Gwyon returns to his parish where his sister, Aunt May, and his son, Wyatt, await him.

May is strict in her religious observance and dismayed both by Wyatt's lack of religiosity (it is planned he will follow the family tradition and become a reverend) and Gwyon's straying from orthodoxy in his study of other religions, mythology, etc. Wyatt begins to draw and paint, mostly copying works (such as the table his father brought back from Italy, Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins), and leaving original works uncompleted (such as a portrait of his mother).

Wyatt gets sick and after much time the doctor's send him home, unable to help. Desperate to help his son, Gwyon uses a ritual found in one of his book to put the sickness into a scape goat, in this case Heracles the Barbary ape he brought back from his trip.

Wyatt gets better, goes off to seminary, but eventually runs off to Germany to pursue his art. (His father discovers this only after receiving a letter from that other country.)

Gwyon continues his reading and his sermons are ever more wrapped in the varieties of religions and myths in the world (he states that Mithraism failed because it was too good).


I consider this chapter a bit of a prologue. The chapter sets up our main character (Wyatt), his background, and some of the main themes of the novel. Not for the first time we see a number of years pass over the course of a few pages.

Right from the start we have the idea of a masquerade, disguise, dissimulation, all quite important to the novel. In a masquerade there is the opportunity for getting behind the disguise, a recognition of what is hidden.

On the first page Wyatt is obliquely referred to: "Aunt May was his father's sister..." (3, emphasis mine) but not specifically named (or really mentioned again) until page 18. This type of appearance will be rather typical of Wyatt in later parts of the book.

Early in we are also introduced to two preoccupations: forgery and art. Sinisterra in his forgery of bank notes used "Rembrandt's formula for the wax ground on his copper plate" (5).

A dark humour is evident often in this chapter (and throughout). A favorite of mine being the ship insured against all but "acts of god" and then "God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted" (4).

Gaddis's interest in religion and myth is prominent throughout the chapter (I love Fr. Eulalio who had "unchristian pride" for having all five vowels in his name), as well as his rather negative view of the religiose and the church. Much of the humor is reserved for religion and the religious.

I noticed a number of references to "chance" (pages 3 ("had finally given chance the field necessary to its operation"), 5 ("Chance had played against him"), and 9 ("unswerving punctuality of chance") for starters).

Camilla is often referenced in connection to goddesses, white, and the moon (obvious connections to Graves' "The White Goddess"), such as at the bottom of page 14 into 15 ("remontant goddess"). At the bottom of page 11, Gwyon is "wakened suddenly by the hand of his wife," he goes to the window, and then "There was the moon, reaching a still arm behind him to the bed where he had lain." This gets echoed in Wyatt's vision of his mother and the etheral unfinished painting.

A use of the word "recognitions" that is also quite amusing. Regarding the "Town Carpenter" Wyatt's grandfather (Camilla's father): "It was in the Depot Tavern that he received condolences, accepted funerary offers of drink, and, when these recognitions were exhausted, he sank into the habit of talking familliarly about persons and places unknown to his cronies, so that several of them suspected him of reading." (22)

The idea of the scape goat comes up a few times, most notably with the sacrifice of the ape Heracles, but Gwyon also mentions it in relation to Christianity ("The great satisfaction of seeing someone else punished for a deed of which we know ourselves capable." (24))

"To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order..." (34)

Wyatt: "There's something about a. . . an unfinished piece of work, a . . . a thing like this where . . . do you see? Where perfection is still possible? Because it's there, it's there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it." (57)

A few things with future recurrence in the novel: the crossed-eyed girl in the white stockings, the story about the sky as a sea and the anchor stuck on a tombstone, and the Bosch table.


Blogger Scott Esposito said...

I'll add on a couple themes I see emerging:

--pg. 33 -- Aunt May regards creativity as immoral, as trying to do what God does: "Among provinces where He retained sway was that of creativity; and mortal creative work was definitely one of His damnedest things."

--pg. 50 -- This seems to be a recurring idea in "TR," something about the imperfection of human society that Gaddis returnes to again and again.

Just before casting Wyatt's illness onto Heracles, Gwyon agonizes over what he is about to do. He steels himself with these words: "In this world God must serve the Devil."

November 15, 2004 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger DerikB said...

For what it's worth, my drink of choice: gin and tonic, preferably Hendrick's.

November 15, 2004 at 2:21 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think, Derik, that the reference you find to Wyatt on page 3 is not in fact to Wyatt. I think the "his" in "Aunt May was his father's sister..." refers to Gwyon (he appears to be the antecedent anyway). After that it goes on about Aunt May, "a barren steadfast woman, Calvinistically faithful to the man who had been Reverend Gwyon before him". Aunt May is Gwyon's aunt, Wyatt's great-aunt. A minor point, perhaps, but it does establish the idea that Wyatt was meant to follow the path taken not only by his father, but grandfather, etc, as well.

November 16, 2004 at 1:52 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Although maybe not. I was looking for another quote and came across the line that tells us that Aunt May was 63 when she died, which I'd forgotten, and which, given Gwyon's age, makes it more likely she was his sister. And that she was faithful, then, to their father. Moving right along. Nothing to see here.

November 16, 2004 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger gwenda said...

Wait a minute -- nobody said we had to do math to understand this book. No fair.

Resisting urge to make gather ye rosebuds while ye _____ joke.

November 16, 2004 at 10:11 PM  
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October 25, 2005 at 7:25 PM  
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October 25, 2005 at 7:33 PM  
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November 3, 2005 at 9:54 AM  

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