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?

Gaddis's Library of Babel

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbound joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure.”
- J.L. Borges, The Library of Babel

Gaddis's The Recognitions seems to be a vast repository of literary allusions and the best of modernist influence. But it ain't necessarily so, says Mr. Gaddis and Steven Moore. I recently picked up a copy of Steven Moore's “William Gaddis,” his 1989 collection of criticism. The introductory chapter reviews Gaddis's literary influences and discusses the perception that, as Moore quotes Cynthia Ozick, “Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything.”

But allusion is just that and can't be mistaken for erudition. That is not to say that Gaddis was not well-read, but that his books were well researched and he wears his erudition on his sleeve, at least in The Recognitions (to be clear, I think Gaddis is brilliant, which shows in his writing, writing that needs not allusiveness to prove itself).

For example, all of the religious references in the book can be traced, according to Moore, to “a half dozen rather mundane sources.” But Moore says that by the time Gaddis wrote J.R. more than two decades later, “he became his own man and 'influences' all but disappear into the vast machinery of his work.

It seems impossible to really know what influences an author when writing; looking at the 73 pages of footnotes to T.S. Eliot's (23 page) poem, The Waste Land, you notice an awful lot of conjecture based upon possible references pieced together with a combination of criticism and biography. Following the biographical path, Moore cites Gaddis's Harvard education, where Dryden, Chaucer and Elizabethan drama were part of the regimen, which Gaddis was ”glad of.“ And logically, Moore uses Gaddis's own statements and paper trail to develop a sense of his influences. The most important of those is Dostoyevski and the 19th century Russians:

”Gaddis's love for nineteenth century Russian literature in general crops up in his novels, his letters, and in his few lectures, where references are made to the major works of Dostoyevski, Tolstoy (especially the plays), Gogol, Turgenev, Gorky, Goncharov, and Chekhov. Gaddis shares with these authors not only their metaphysical concerns and often bizarre sense of humor, but their nationalistic impulses as well.“
Moore also quotes Edward Wasiolek as saying that Gaddis pursues ”perhaps the most distinctive trait of Russian fiction, to trace out the extreme, but logically possible, reaches of human characteristic.“ I agree, except that, in my opinion, the ”reaches of human characteristic“ are at different extremes for 19th century Russians and the 20th century Americans that Gaddis wrote about.

Another major influence was T.S. Eliot. I mentioned in an earlier post that Gaddis had at one point intended to incorporate every line from Four Quartets into the novel. While there are many lines peppered throughout, the entire poem is not there as far as I understand - I gave up on my efforts to spot them after a while. Also in an earlier post, I quoted from Four Quartets, a passage that I thought was particularly apt. But Moore says that another poem is really at the heart of this novel: ”The Recognitions can be read as an epic sermon with The Waste Land as its text.“ I've gone back and re-read these since beginning the book, and may, if I can come up with anything interesting to say, comment on them later.

Without going into specifics, Moore cites as ”relevant,“ Sade's Justine, Goethe's Faust, Rilke's Duino Elegies, Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, Broch's Sleepwalkers, Hesse's Steppenwolf, Silone's And he Hid Himself, some Ibsen, and Dante. Moore also quotes Gaddis as admitting ”that when he first read Kafka in his early twenties he was so stunned by what Kafka could do that he 'sat down and wrote some very bad Kafka, though I thought of it as good Kafka then'.“ Being stunned by Kafka is a sentiment that I am sure many writers share, myself included, and I recall Gabriel Garcia Marquez making a similar statement.

On the English front, relevant writers include C. Brontë, Conrad, Forster, Waugh, Shakespeare, Langland, Kipling, T.E. Lawrence (as an aside, I tried to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, being a fan of Lawrence of Arabia, but found it dull. I always feel like I'm missing something when I don't like something as important as that), Huxley, Graves, and more.

Among the Americans, Moore cite's Gaddis's Bard College (where he taught for a short while) reading list, including Dreiser, Bellamy, Sinclair, Miller's Death of a Salesman, Salinger and even Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Also, Hawthorne, Melville, ”some“ Emerson, Thoreau's Waldon, West, Cummings (especially 1 x 1), Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and naturally Hemingway.

[I would go into more detail, but this is feeling much too like an eighth grader's book report and I know I'm capable of something in the ninth to tenth grade level.]

The names above sound like a good reading list for someone who wants to be a writer, perhaps only missing Stendhal, Proust (who Gaddis claims to have only read about 50 pages), the King James Bible, and...Joyce.

Gaddis & Joyce

In 1923, T.S. Eliot said of James Joyce's Ulysses, ”a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.“ No one knew the latter part of that statement better than William Gaddis, who joked that one academic essay went into so much ”minute detail“ on The Recognitions debt to Ulysses that ”I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses.“

Gaddis, in a letter that Moore reprints to Joyce scholar, Grace Eckley, catalogs fairly precisely what he did (the Molly chapter of Ulysses, Exiles and some of Dubliners) and did not read of Joyce's and goes on to say after listing some other authors he did read, ”why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespeare, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.“

I confess thinking myself that there must be a Joyce influence in here, and I find it amazing that someone of Gaddis's writerly disposition would have not read Joyce, and even more stunning that he didn't like Joyce's writing (Gaddis claims to not have finished Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man). T.S. Eliot was influenced, by his own admission, by Joyce and I often find that I feel compelled to read those who influenced those who are influencing me; that's the literary conversation into which I, like the kid who desperately wants to eat at the adult's table, can't resist trying to insinuate myself.

Jack Green says in his vociferous response to Gaddis's critics, Fire the Bastards!:

”ulysses & the recognitions are very “20thcentury” & have a number of technical resemblances: both are long & closely organized; sharp contrast between humorous & nonhumorous passages; lots of blasphemy; modeling/parodies on classics & extensive crossreferences (ulysses having much more of former, recognitions of latter); “timegrowth” in rereading; many nonfictional references (miscalled “erudition”) to give desired tones to the fiction; passion for other books; importance of ideas of major characters (dedalus, wyatt); delight in carrying humorous situations to extremes; restraint as basic technique of style but the worlds of the 2 books arent alike, nor are the characters the 2 have little resemblance in the essential ie artistic sense.“
At least acknowledging the similarities, Green's beef on this point is the critics' use of Joyce as an easy way out of thinking critically about the book. Indeed, it is too easy, considering that Moore gives us someone else to hang on to here. Ronald Firbank. Who? Described as a writer of ”high camp comedy of manners and part fairy tail,“Firbank, an English writer who died in 1926, seems to wax and wane in popularity. The Center for Book Culture (Dalkey Archive Press) has some of his books as well a few quotes and biographical details.

Moore claims Firbank, whose popularity was rising around the time Gaddis wrote The Recognitions, may have been a source for ”elliptical dialogue - especially for effects usually achieved only in traditional exposition - and perhaps to have campy fun at Catholicism's expense.“

Just like Joyce's influence from the then out-of-print Dujardin, not all of the books in Gaddis's ”Library of Babel“ are part of the Western Canon that we all take for granted.