Saturday, March 19, 2005

Leaving the labyrinth

Apologies for those five reprints in the comments to the last post! and thanks, Bud, for agreeing to twin up on farewell postings, thanks for your more carefully constructed piece which actually considers the text! I've taken the cheap way out and ride here on the backs of others...I found a terrific if tangential article about the connection between Gaddis and Thoreau while browsing in the university databases lately – I am waiting to be disconnected from these when the census date for paying for the semester comes and goes, as I’m not studying this semester.
I really liked this one from the New England Review - the author, J. M. Tyree, muses over the connection via an exchange Thoreau had with Emerson about family and creative work, and draws a long if tantalising bow over the fact that Thoreau, like Gaddis, was miserable in the city when he worked there, though probably for different reasons.

"...There may be another biographical dimension to Gaddis's connection with Thoreau. It is a curious and lesser-known fact that Thoreau spent a dismal period in New York, tutoring in Staten Island and attempting to sell his writing to city magazines during 1843. Thoreau quickly recoiled from an urban scene he did not wish to understand. In a June 8 letter to Emerson, he remarked:

'I don't like the city better, the more I see it, but worse. I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It will be something to hate,-that's the advantage it will be to me-, and even the best people in it are a part of it and talk coolly about it.'

During the twenty-year hiatus between the publication of his first and second novels, Gaddis chose to remain in New York, manacled to jobs in corporate PR, working on campaigns for IBM and Pfizer, among other companies. How much he detested that world is obvious from the autobiographical character Eigen in JR, the author of a cult classic very much like The Recognitions.
As it had done for Thoreau, New York gave Gaddis "something to hate," and, like Thoreau, Gaddis was determined to use that hate to his advantage. JR, among other things, is perhaps the most devastating assessment of the shabbiness and slapdash cons of corporate America ever written.

One is tempted to say: it is as if an author with some of the temperament of Thoreau had decided to stay in the desperate city and document the things he hated, rather than withdrawing into the woods to speak of what he loved. Any such analogy is bound to be inadequate, but the idea does give direction to Gaddis's enduring interest in Thoreau, despite his super-saturation in an urban milieu. In a sense, Thoreau was trying to convince his fellow citizens to abandon their fruitless searches for transitory happiness and instead invest their time in a more authentic "economy."

Gaddis stayed on in the city and remained mostly content to describe the foolishness of those same fruitless searches, rather than trying to save people from themselves. Thus Gaddis became a comic novelist, a satirist at heart, rather than the saint, prophet, or ascetic that is made of Thoreau in the woods. He was modern, perhaps, because he disbelieved in an idealized bucolic withdrawal from the fragmentation of urban life. Authenticity-the impossible notion of remaining "inviolable," as one character in JR puts it-might be out of reach. The horror of the new had to be faced head-on, the abyss laughed at, or into.

I was interested too in this article by Christopher Knight, who seems to have written a bit on art and Gaddis, and who comments on Wyatt’s problems with abstract art before discussing recognition as an unfashionable theory for art criticism:

"...Of course, to speak this way--about a "recognition" that affords a glimpse of "the real essence of the thing"--is, in today's climate, to invite a quarrel, if not outright dismissal. One sails in safer critical waters if one takes note of the desire and then shows how misguided it is, how there is no escaping the labyrinth of the simulacrum.

For postmodern critics of Gaddis's The Recognitions, this has been easy enough, because Wyatt, turning his back on his own painting, pursues a desire for the real in the empire of the false--the forger's studio--a point that the novel's Basil Valentine makes with some pungency:
"--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! Do you know what it was? What it really was? that everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted its vanity on His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today" (690).

Still, if we stop here, with the satisfaction that necessity--so at the heart of Wyatt's purposes--finds itself trumped not only by the seduction of the false but by contingency itself, we make, I believe, a mistake. This is not to deny that in forging Flemish master-works Wyatt puts himself not much nearer the heart of necessity than those contemporaries who deny its reality. But it is to say that the artist who really demands watching here is not Wyatt, however talented, but Gaddis himself. And what we find is an artist enthralled by the notion of necessity, by the notion that this, rather than that, is what he must do. This conviction is not changed by the readily available instances of artists who seem to work without such a notion.

In After the End of Art, Danto is fond of pointing out these instances, as if they constituted a proof of necessity's demise. Gaddis, by contrast, seems to offer another sort of instance, not only of the artist who should "like to think of it all, what's eventually completed and what isn't, in terms of Samuel Butler's books 'coming to him wanting to be written,' but also of the artist who, even as he acknowledges the place which the failed artist has in his fiction, cautions readers not to confuse the purposes of the novels with "their own appetite for destruction."

So I leave this labyrinth of a book, with its serpentine coils turning on each other, content to revisit at another date, and curious as to why Gaddis found it necessary to attempt to force the modernist novel to carry these unfashionable concerns right through to Wyatt’s eventual decision to ‘live deliberately’ ( Thoreau again). And of course to finish the novel in a demonic cacophony of the voices which plague us throughout, and evidently plagued him as he lived and worked among them. The answer lies, I think, in his conscious emulation of Eliot – Knight goes on to discuss how Eliot and Pound had greater confidence, however, in what they were doing, than what we see in Gaddis’ first novel:

“…the suggestion is that the contemporary artist's response to the real is dramatically unlike that of the earlier modernists who, in the words of Frank Kermode, sought "to produce encyclopedias for the fallen modern world," sought "to get a world into a book, not a world or a book like Dante's, to be bound up in one volume of exactly one hundred cantos, but a world of heresies and exile, as seen by a privileged and tormented minority and got into books of strange fragmentary shapes, dreams of an order hardly to be apprehended."

The confidence of a Pound or an Eliot has, it would seem, left us, and our experience of things is more reflective of Geoffrey Hartman's contention that "the growth of historical consciousness, its multiplying of disparate models all of which press their claim, amounts to a peculiarly modern burden," to the point that we feel ourselves "surrounded by abstract potentialities, imperatives that cannot all be heeded, options exhausting the power of choice."

The sense that our choices now overwhelm us--to the point that whatever necessity any one imperative (religious, political, aesthetic, and so on) might entail soon gets lost in the wider world's shuffle--has, for Danto, become something like an abiding faith: "everything is possible, nothing is historically mandated: one thing is, so to say, as good as another. And that in my view is the objective condition for post-historical art" …”

With this in mind I'll leave the very last word to Mr. G,
“ He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”(956)

Knight, C.J. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.
CLIO, Fall 1997, 27:1, p129.
Tyree, J.M. Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph. New England Review: Middlebury. 2004, 25:4, pp.148-162.

Friday, March 18, 2005

In Gaddis We Trust

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he characterized as “poetic faith” and has since come to mean the way we give our selves over to a play, book or film despite merely sitting in front of a stage or screen or reading mere words on a page.

But “poetic faith” seems to capture for me the way I felt when following William Gaddis through 956 pages of “The Recognitions” as nearly the entire slew of characters shows up in Rome or others in Paris, other characters who are linked by incidents thirty years in the past meet coincidentally as do several others who are intimately linked through one-degree of separation of another character, like Esme and Basil Valentine or Fuller and Otto, and so on, and so on.

I say poetic because I loved Gaddis's writing, both the realistic and figurative. I can't think of another writer that does dialogue better than Mr. Gaddis, flitting from one character to another without ever losing us (okay maybe sometimes losing us) by capturing dialect and character traits that serve as signals to always let us know who is doing the talking. He also managed to create images of scenes that would capture them perfectly, such as this at Brown's party:

“Like undersea flora, figures stood weaving, rooted to the floor, here and there one drifting as though caught in a cold current...”

This is not only a good simile for a party, but the words “cold current” and “drifting” are perfect metaphors for the entire scene and really for the book as a whole. Indeed, the party scenes drew out, like the final scene in the film “La Dolce Vita,” the emptiness of the book's population. The mutual complicity that the characters shared in their debased lives served as a fitting backdrop for the Wyatt story line and grounded his quest with purpose.

[spoiler alert!] When we see Wyatt eating bread that, soon after, we find was made in part with the ashes of his father, we know that this is the inevitable conclusion of the Oedipal story that Gass talks about in the introduction. The absurdity of the coincidence would never have worked if it weren't for some of the shallow characters doing the same thing out of sheer simplicity and the dumb luck of how they, the ashes, got there in the first place, simultaneously fulfilling Wyatt's destiny and shining a light on why he had to be the one.

If I had any real complaint about “T. Recs.” it would be that at times I felt like I was reading “The Onion” (a satirical newspaper). That is not entirely a bad thing, but Gaddis's satire works better at a higher plane than:

“...the quiz program, where a Mr. Crotcher had just answered a question concerning a fable with an ant for its hero, and won a completely furnished house in a popular suburban community called Arsole Acres.”

But when Maud bathes her newly adopted(?) baby while washing dishes...

“ - The most popular hostess of the week...! she said in a faint tone as she washed, first a dish, then a tiny foot, then a cup.... The eyes did not move from her. The baby's head was not conical nor, looking at it, did one have that impression; but immediately upon looking away such an image formed in the mind, and no amount of looking back, of studying it from strategic angles, served to temper the placid image which remained. When most of the dishes were done she had reached the neck, and suddenly she applied both thumbs at the base of the baby's head. - It should go in more here, she whispered, then applied the heel of a hand there, and finally stepped back and turned away from the fixed gaze as breaking fetters. She left the baby there in the sink with what dishes remained and went into the living room...”

With that, Gaddis's satire is at its stinging best, particularly since I have known of stories in real life (like a middle-class woman locking herself and her five year old in the bathroom while she overdoses on heroin) that tell me that what he is saying is not so foolish and that every bit of cynicism he must have felt while writing this book is just as valid, if not more so, today than it was then.

The world Gaddis created is ours, a look in the mirror, certainly, the way a good comedian can be so funny because they make fun of some little quirk that we identify with because we thought that idiosyncrasy was ours alone. I even said in an earlier post that I had the feeling while reading “The Recognitions” that if I could write as well as Gaddis, this would be the book I would write; a recognition if you will, and that, it seems, is the point in the title. The multi-layered theme of forgery appears to be primer-coating or structure for the book rather than its purpose.

So we forgive Mr. Gaddis for stretching our “willing suspension of disbeleif” as we near the end of the damn(!) book and the last third folds itself, if not neatly, then wholly over its early chapters and we are surprised and shocked and left wanting to understand, looking for meaning the way Stanley and others haplessly do.

We can also forgive Mr. Gaddis because he includes himself in his cynicism, poking fun at his long book. One character, alluding to the very novel we hold in our hands, says:

“- Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike, -I'm up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven't even made fifty pages yet.”

Even Mr. Gaddis recognized his book for what it was, a densely packed wild tale that only the faithful will give themselves over too. And, like a basketball game that is so close it seems you only need to watch its final seconds, “The Recognitions” is perfectly encapsulated in its final three paragraphs; yet it would not be nearly as fun without the journey of getting there.