Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Lines of Organization

In a recent post, Bud writes about the bewildering array of literary allusions and influences compiled into Gaddis's The Recognitions. I can verify that Gaddis's book is every bit as complex and Bud indicates, and most definitely gives the impression that "Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything" (as quoted by Bud from Cynthia Ozick). I can also understand how the book's immense complexity makes it possible to find detailed allusions to books Gaddis never read (i.e. Ulysses).

So, perhaps it is a bit of a Sisyphean (or pointless . . .) task to try and find some themes around which we can cluster Gaddis's hurricane. Neverthesless, I'll start with one, which strikes me as central to any reading of The Recognitions. Page 373 features dialog discussing the historical book, Recognitions:

The Recognitions? No, it's Clement of Rome. Mostly talk, talk, talk. The young
man's deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul, he goes to Egypt to
find the magicians and learn their secrets. It's been referred to as the first
Christian novel. What? Yes, it's really the beginning of the whole Faust legend.
. . . My, your friend is writing for a rather small audience, isn't he?

Wow. The Recognitions is rarely as obviously self-referential as this. Just like the "young man" in the quote, Wyatt, our "young man," undertakes a trip (to France) to learn secrets (of art). Further, Gaddis's The Recognitions is, like the historical Recognitions discussed in the quote, a Faustian story: Recktall Brown is our devil and Wyatt is the Faustian character who is seduced and corrupted by the potential to do what he could not without the devil's help.

What's interesting are the differences: The original Faust featured a devil, Gaddis's an art dealer. The Devil gave Faust magical powers; Recktall Brown gives Wyatt the ability to forge art.

Most interesting, however, is the quote "the young man's deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul." In Faust, the young man's "concern for immortality" is that he has given up his eternal soul, that he will no longer have a place in Heaven. In The Recognitions, the "concern for immortality" is Wyatt's fear that he will amount to nothing as an artist, will have no fame, no recognition, will be forgotten.

Getting back to the hurricane of references that Bud so elegantly described, I believe that much of them cluster around these twin ideas of immortality. The Recognitions is heavy on references to the modern material culture and to ancient, even obscure, Christian religion. It seems that these illusions are in service to developing the two ideas of how our soul can be immortal--the ancient one (Heaven) and the modern one (fame).

And Gaddis, perhaps, thought he was on to something big with The Recognitions. He calls Recognitions the "first Christian novel," which only leaves us to wonder if Gaddis, seeing The Recognitions as analagous to Recognitions in many ways, considered his work the first postmodern novel?


Blogger DerikB said...

Somewhere (damn my memory) someone (perhaps Gaddis, perhaps a critic) refers to T.Recs, in analogy with Clement's Rec as the first, as the last Christian novel.

Great post Scott.

The self-referential character in the passage you quote is later named "Willie".

I wonder if Wyatt is really concerned that he will be forgotten and have no fame. I don't think he really sees himself in relation to others, rather he is concerned about himself without much regard to how others view him, else why wouldn't he try to show his paintings or... well really do anything that might give him fame. I think he is more concerned about his own soul and gets caught up in this other business (fame, etc.), turned away from a better path.

January 25, 2005 at 5:14 PM  
Blogger genevieve said...

Yep, smells very Christian to me - I don't usually find this kind of thing so accessible, I'm one of those lapsed Catholics that the Annotations site mentions, I think. I love that "very small audience" comment, hehe.

January 25, 2005 at 7:43 PM  
Blogger genevieve said...

Sorry, that is "rather small audience" and it is a quote, not a comment. Whoops.

January 25, 2005 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Scott Esposito said...


Yeah, Wyatt does seem ignorant of the fame aspect, but I have to think that he longs after something w.r.t. art. It's clearly not the money, so if not fame, then perhaps he wants to feel like he makes an impact on the art world (even if unacknowledged?).

Regardless, it seems that some people in T.R. are after fame and try to find it through art.

And, yes, the "for a small audience" part is pretty funny, eh?

January 25, 2005 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger genevieve said...

Travelling by the gut again, I think the whole alchemy/art/religion thing has a lot to do with what Wyatt is looking for. Have a look at p.690 after Recktall takes his dive, Basil V. says:
- yes, I remember your little talk, your insane upside-down apology for these pictures, every figure and every object with its own presence, its own consciousness because it was being looked at by God! [ more of some value, up to this]...A profound mistrust in God, and they need every idea out where they can see it, where they can get their hands on it.

I'll have a better look at this in a few days time. But the whole passage is a biting indictment of the chop-logic the religious mind can sometimes use when approaching other systems of thought, such as aesthetics. Wyatt is confused, to my mind, because he has never been taught how to think clearly.

January 26, 2005 at 7:20 PM  
Blogger genevieve said...

As Derik has noted in commenting on a previous post, the Reverend hides his grog in the middle of his volume of St. John of the Cross - he rather sensibly prefers a stupor to this agonising state of mind. He also abdicates from parental responsibilities while Wyatt is growing up, treating him as he treats everybody, as receptacles for his ideas in progress.
The problem with deep spiritual travail is that you are essentially wrestling with an unknowable entity who you are assured cares for you, but will not answer you when you are suffering spiritual aridity. If you are not assertive or pragmatic or amoral enough to find your own way out of this ( i.e. hiding some grog in a difficult book! starting your own religion, which is much the same thing, or putting religion at a distance from your feelings ), you deteriorate and go mad, like Wyatt does. Methinks the dude cares too much.

January 30, 2005 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger DerikB said...

"...cares too much."

Wyatt does seem rather sensitive. But perhaps that where the great art comes from, from really caring about it. Putting in the time and effort and thought that only comes when you really care.

January 31, 2005 at 9:44 PM  

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