Monday, December 27, 2004

“...that streak of cacodaemonic extravagance sundering the very dome of heaven.” Thoughts on Part II, Ch. I

These are just some of my thoughts on part II, chapter I. I posted this on my site, but I think these comments are relevant enough to post here as well. I apologize for the redundancy.


Coming from St. Marks Bookstore a few days before x-mas, I'm on the uptown 6 subway, a local, sitting on the edge of my seat (because my backpack is too heavy with books to carry it anywhere but on my back) and delicately balancing a cup of coffee from Mud in one hand, a willfully uncooperative umbrella in the other, and between my thumb and forearm I'm balancing my stocky copy of The Recognitions.

Despite this precarious situation and being overdressed for the warm, rainy and muggy (in the subway) day, I'm able to read until I'm stopped by astonishment by the following passage, which in my view is a literary hole-in-one:

This is Stanley thinking [321-22]:

“He shuddered at Esme, seduced by an apprehension in a world real enough to her: appalled one day when an airplane moving with the speed of sound had disemboweled the heaven above them and eviscerated its fragments in nausea from their bodies walking below. Alone, he might have thought nothing of it, but shut it out as he did all the frenzied traffic of the world. But her terror shook him; and she was right. And if on the other hand, they'd met that early Jesuit Father Anchieta in the street on a sunny day, sheltered under the parasol of birds he summoned to hover over him and keep pace, she would have appreciated such resourcefulness without profane curiosity, probably not have repeated what she'd seen to a soul. But the airplane! Had she met Saint Peter of Alcantara, Saint Peter Nolasco, Saint Peter Gonzalez, walking, as they did, upon the waves of the sea, why, there was more reason in those excursions than that streak of cacodaemonic extravagance sundering the very dome of heaven.”

Not only is it beautiful for its imagery and damning (sorry FSF) of Stanley's frame of mind, but it says a lot about Esme's power over Stanley (and perhaps men in general) too.

Arriving at Grand Central Terminal (where the S train will take me to Times Square to the 2 train uptown) I pass Fulan Gong pamphleteers, Colombian flute players, and a group of Hubbardites selling faith-based stress relief. It hits me how little things have changed since Gaddis so stingingly portrayed New York City.


In the next major passage with Valentine and Wyatt [332 - 39], Valentine makes an interesting comment “...he murmured as he might have talking to himself. - The simplicity ... it's the way I would paint ...” [334], which reflects in some ways my own feeling about this novel. That is, If I could write (and think) like W.G. this is the novel that I would write.

That idea brings me to...

Rake's comments on Borges' Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote (I didn't want to say anything until I went back and read it again).

I think it's an interesting parallel. It is not so much the question of authenticity, which has been a focus of many GDC discussions, but the question of creation and originality. Both Menard and Wyatt seek to recreate the works of past masters not so much through creation but through being the one that did the original. Valentine suggests this when he arrives at Wyatt's door and mentions Rouge Cloître, the “convent that took van der Goes in.” Tellingly though, Wyatt seems to be unaware of this, perhaps indicating that those details are not necessary (where I believe, Menard would be). Both Menard, whose work would appear to be trifling compared to the task of writing the Quixote, and Wyatt are not very accomplished as artists on their own.

I think the originality question comes up elsewhere too. One instance is when Fuller mimics Valentine's hand movements [346 & 352]. But more significantly, Otto's manuscript is authentic, but Max (who stole passages from Rilke) and others think the manuscript is plagierized because Otto writes down what everyone around him says. So when they read the manuscript they see something familiar without quite recognizing it because it's their own words. Otto's manuscript is therefore authentic, but not original.

Incidentally, there are no Borges books in Gaddis' library.


After running into the word recognition so many times, I began to wonder how many instances there were. Fortunately, the annotations are thorough enough, and they tell us there are 81 "recognitions" in the book. I think that it's presence in context of art and personal relationships shows the book's layers of meaning, or perhaps it's meaning, whatever that really is, as it applies in these different contexts of authenticity originality the falsehood of societal (and religious) norms, etc. Okay, I'm groping with that a bit, as you can see.


Now that I am well into the novel, I've been browsing around some of the web-based exegesis of T. Recs. Here are a couple things of interest (these have been mentioned earlier on the GDC site, but are worth repeating:

I think the roman à clef aspect of the novel is little more than a gossipy distraction, but it can be fun, nonetheless. A story on Sheri Martinelli (Esme in the novel) reprinted on the Gaddis annotations site is pretty interesting because she seems to have been an enchanting fly-on-the-wall in the '40s Greenwhich Village set. Written by the author of The Recognitions's Annotation, the article has some interesting things to say about Sheri/Esme in context of the novel as well:
“Gretchen to Wyatt’s Faust, Esme has been sent to him by the novel’s Mephistopheles, Recktall Brown. A promiscuous manic-depressive schizophrenic junkie, she nevertheless models as the Virgin Mary in Wyatt’s religious forgeries (”No needle marks on your Annunciation’s arm, now,“ Brown reminds him [259]). Although Esme is associated with a wide variety of other female figures of salvation in addition to Mary and Faust’s Gretchen, Dante’s Beatrice, Saint Rose of Lima, the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Flying Dutchman’s Senta, Peer Gynt’s Solveig (like other modernist masterpieces, The Recognitions is thickly allusive to other texts), she is elsewhere associated with succubae and sirens, and when Wyatt deigns to think of her at all, it is unfortunately in her role as temptress. ”
Fire the Bastards,” by Jack Green is a short book, now available entirely on the web, that criticizes the many negative and indifferent reviews that kept T. Recs from achieving success early on. Some of the early reviews compared Gaddis to Joyce, or in the way that Green phrases it, they insinuated plagiarism. Countering that charge, he says that Gaddis had not read very much (40 pp.) of Ulysses before he wrote The Recognitions. I thought of Joyce too when I began reading T. Recs. and thought that Joyce must have been an influence on Gaddis. There are two copies of Ulysses on the list of Gaddis' library, but that doesn't necessarily indicate that he read them before writing his first novel, even though the editions he had were from '34 and '42. It seems to me (casually) that Green was in a bit of frenzy here, overblowing some reviewers statements.

In my eyes, the comparison to Joyce is positive as it seems to me that Gaddis brought Joyce's techniques into the mainstream; nearly.

I'm still looking for a cheap used copy of the book of critical essays on Gaddis, so for now, I guess I will have to try and think for myself.


Blogger DerikB said...

Great post, Bud.

One thing that constantly amuses me in T.Recs (is that abbreviation supposed to remind me of T. Rex?) is the various references to saints and religious figures (a parasol of birds flying over Anchieta's head!). They are an unusual and highly imaginative/fantastical side to religious that is pretty much neglected in contemporary times (as far as I am aware).

If there are any particular essays on Gaddis or T.Recs that you want, I can probably send along copies or scans (I have amassed a pretty large collection).

December 28, 2004 at 8:50 AM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

I think CAAF started the T. Recs, but I've been using it a lot.

The religious aspect of the novel is I think what would be most interesting to read about in essays. That is often the territory where no one agrees.

December 29, 2004 at 12:16 AM  

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