Friday, November 19, 2004

Weekend Reading

Going into our second week of the Gaddis-travaganza, I'd like to point everyone to a moldy but still great classic, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." This essay was originally written in 1935 by Walter Benjamin, and can now be found in the collection Illuminations. You can also find many of the same ideas, and a modern twist, in the opening essay of John Berger's Ways of Seeing.

So what is this all about and why should you, as a reader of TR, care? First off, TR is all about art and originality, and reproducing great works of art. Now in Gaddis's (and our) time, people could have reproductions of great works of art for a fraction of the price, yet the original was what everyone wanted. Why? Why pay millions for the original if you could just have a copy on the cheap? I'll quote John Berger for the answer:

The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducable.

Note the use of religiosity. In effect, Berger is saying that if anyone could have a reproduction of Van Gogh's work, then there's on need to own the original. In order to keep the original from losing its specialness, people established this cult of the original, this religious fervor. Not only that, but this new creation supplanted the mysterious seductive capacity that paintings originally carried when there were no reproductions.

Berger also says the ability to reproduce paintings has consequences for what they mean:
In the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable: that is to say it becomes information of a sort.

In other words, paintings can be put into advertisements and used to indicate how tasty a cigarette is. Just like any other sign, paintings can be strewn around and used as language. This could not be done when there was only one copy of each work, and this too has had consequences for the way art is seen and interpreted.

Now, since our protagonist, good old Wyatt, is an artist who we know will make forgeries, and who struggles with the concepts of the value of art (monetary and otherwise) and art's menaing, I hasten to guess that Gaddis read Benjamin and incorporated some of his thoughts into TR.

These two quotes from Berger are good starting points, and they get across the general thrust of what he and Benjamin are talking about, but you should go back to the source and have a read for yourself. I promise you will see TR in a new light.


Blogger Richard said...

Interesting. I'll have to take a look at the Benjamin.

By the way, leafing through Fire the Bastards!, I came across the name "John Berger" as one of the reviewers who gave TR such poor reviews. First I thought it unfortunate that Berger was one of them, since, from what little I know (which is to say, very little) I thought him better than that. Then I wondered if it was even the same John Berger; I didn't think he was that old. Well, turns out he was born in 1926, according to my copy of G, his excellent, Booker-winning novel. So it could well have been him. And the Berger review appeared in The Nation, which I think makes it even more likely it was him...

November 19, 2004 at 6:41 PM  
Blogger Tito said...


This part:

"In order to keep the original from losing its specialness, people established this cult of the original, this religious fervor."

brings to mind the passage regarding 'Homoiousian, or Homoousian' with a little help from the annotations:

"9.30] Homoiousian, or Homoousian, that was the question [...] hung on a dipthong: Gaddis glosses this well enough; the substance under question, of course, is God/Jesus. (The sentence structure echoes Hamlet's famous dilemma.) In its article on Athanasius the Great, EB warns: "The popular idea that the controversy between Catholics and Arians was simply 'over a dipthong' ignores the complexity of the problem and the variety of shades of opinion" (2:598). "Heteroousian" (9.35) means of opposite substance, ie., that Jesus was not divine at all"

The desire/obsession for perfection that Wyatt possess seem related to the "cult of the original" your bring up. And how it may extended in the, creator/created relationships in the book?
* Revend Gwyon & Wyatt
* Wyatt and his art
* The original artwork / Wyatt's reproductions

Are they the same "stuff"? ...begotten, not made?... does it matter?

November 19, 2004 at 6:59 PM  
Blogger DerikB said...

Scott, you're guess about Gaddis reading Benjamin is on, though I'm not sure it predated his writing the Recognitions (when had "The Work of Art..." first been translated?), he did reference it specifically and explicitly in his posthumous novel "Agape Agape".

November 20, 2004 at 3:33 PM  
Blogger boccaforte said...


Late to the punch, as always. I'm reading "Agape Agape" now, and just read through the narrator's highly entertaining treatment of Benjamin's essay.

Also reading, in spurts, "The Rush for Second Place." Does anyone know if there's an active online community for Gaddis readers, not specific to one work? I hate to barge in on this conversation with comments relating to other books.

November 25, 2004 at 2:41 PM  

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