Wednesday, November 10, 2004

To the top of 5

After a few bottles of Pilsner Urquell leftover from NaDrWriNi, at the behest of our generous host (who kindly offered an invite), I've excavated my 1993 Penguin edition of The Recognitions from the postmodernist perch on my bookpile and dug in again to the mammoth novel that first enchanted me at 25. What immediately strikes me is the grand degree of contradictions on the first page alone.

I'm going to take this a few pages at a time. And if my esteemed peers would like to run with the ball, then we should be in solid shape before Nov. 15.

Loosely translated using my lousy pidgin German skills, the opening Faust passage reads: "What gives it?" "Humans are made."

Indeed, it is with this that we are given our first depiction of humanity, and what a dupicitous affair it is! We are introduced to Reverend Gwyon, who is remembering his recently departed wife Camilla at a Spanish funeral. Camilla, barely discernible even as a stiff, was fond of masquerades, but those that, in Gaddis's inimitable phrase, "of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality." It is the "presumes" part which sticks. From the very first sentence, Gaddis is suggesting that the presumption aspect (which shares a commonality with the Dale Carnegie books referenced later on) is more odious than the pretending itself. A half century before the Central Park West socialites and the grand pretenders that inhabit nearly every social niche from Peoria to the White House, Gaddis promises a fierce battle that involves sticking a dull knife into the backs of America's worst betrayers.

What's interesting is that Gwyon has to actually step outside of the United States to mourn, or to feel. But even on the open waters, the American obsession with duplicity remains. The ship that takes him to Spain is the Purdue Victory, as if a Midwestern college football team's weekend win was the only palpable symbol that Gwyon (or any of us) could relate to within America. The ship itself leaves the Boston harbor, a port intertwined with America's roots. The ship is insured against "acts of God," which suggests a duplicitious association with religion, later to be revealed by the ship's surgeon. The surgeon is dressed in artificial garb, and this sartorial sham contributes (in part) to his incorrect diagnosis. The surgeon himself is forced to shave (or clean up) when confronted with Camilla's actual pain, and it's worth noting that Gaddis has the surgeon caught in a quandary of crosses, thus tying his indolence and dual identity into religion.

The cruel upshot seems to be: You can't go home again, but your national identity will follow you by way of its hideous influence. It's a grim and hilarious question that's certainly pertinent today.

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