Saturday, October 29, 2011

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

The End, Part One:

William Gaddis’ Pre-Postness

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

If you’re a reader who enjoys parsing and categorizing literature’s complex strands of influence and development, you’ve probably puzzled over the definitions of Modernism and Postmodernism and have tried to make sense of how the former led to (or became, or ascended to, or degenerated into) the latter. Most readers will agree that James Joyce’s Ulysses is the standard for Modernism, and many will agree that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow embodies Postmodernism in a great number of its facets, but what writers and sensibilities link these two representative works? Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Djuna Barnes all play a part in developing the Modernist aesthetic, but all of these writers surround or follow Joyce in one way or another and don’t suggest much of a bridge toward the second half of the century. After the Second World War (in striking contrast to after the First), many of the most influential writers—Saul Bellow, John Updike, and John Cheever, for instance—seemed to have retreated to the more conventional approaches of the nineteenth-century novel. Exceptions such as Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and John Hawkes are shimmering examples of writers not hemmed in by this arrière-garde aesthetic, but none of them could in any way be considered Postmodern—or even leading toward it. Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov were also uncategorizable mavericks, and their textual games definitely had a huge influence on what could be done on the written page, but the writer who almost directly seems to link the avant-garde “isms” of Joyce’s Modernism to Pynchon’s Postmodernism is William Gaddis, the solitary standard-bearer of great art in all of its multifaceted registers.

In 1955, at the Jesus-like age of thirty-three, William Gaddis published his debut novel, The Recognitions, a monumental lexicon work that went largely unread but that deeply influenced every writer with the fortitude to wade through its 1,000 pages. It’s been said of the rock band the Velvet Underground that when they were still together as a group only a few hundred people ever bought their records but that every one of them went on to form a band, and a similar thing could be said about readers of The Recognitions. In the 1990s, as the editor of a newspaper’s Books Page, I had the opportunity to interview many of our era’s most interesting writers, and almost all of the most brilliant and innovative of them—most notably Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace (R.I.P.), and Rikki Ducornet—cited The Recognitions as an enormous influence. Each of these writers went into rapturous and unmitigated praise for Gaddis, and Ducornet specifically said that reading The Recognitions made her realize that there wasn’t anything that you couldn’t do in fiction.

Set in almost precisely the time of its publication, The Recognitions contains all of the themes, concerns, and techniques missing from the writing of nearly all of Gaddis’ post-War contemporaries. The novel’s main character, Wyatt Gwyon, is a painter of extraordinary talent, and his ascent/descent into the world of art charts a nearly Dantean journey through the heavens, purgatories, and hells of both modern art and modern life. Wyatt Gwyon and William Gaddis each have enormous palettes that contain thousands of years of artistic influence, and both face a world with very little interest in or capacity to understand their simultaneously modern and ancient approaches. Wyatt builds an aesthetic and a technique all his own, and he seems to have a chance at making a place for himself in the New York art world, but just before his debut showing a crucial critic visits him and demands payment for a positive review. With the critic’s praise Wyatt will almost certainly become the star that he deserves to be, but his artistic integrity is so insulted that he simply can’t participate in such a scheme, and as a consequence the critic pans his work and puts an end to his viability as a working artist. This plunges Wyatt into the first level of an artistic relativity that could be viewed alternatively as heaven, hell, or purgatory. In one sense he’s damned, and in another he’s totally free and pure, and in another he’s in a period of indefinite waiting. The wait eventually ends when he receives an even more sinister visitor. This time it’s a businessman who’s aware of Wyatt’s uncanny talent—and of his poor prospects—and he proposes that Wyatt paint forgeries of lost or never-before-seen or even fabled Flemish masterpieces that will command fortunes on the post-War art market. With a swirling combination of fascination, resignation, cynicism, and disgust, Wyatt makes a kind of why-the-hell-not assent—an agreement that’s both a pact with the devil and a fuck-you to the devils of the modern art world—and begins his next step into the world of endless artistic relativity.

As Wyatt invents and executes works in the perfect style of Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes and the Master of Flémalle, the novel explores the farthest limits of originality, authority, falsehood, and utter blasphemy. Surrounding Wyatt is an astonishing portrait gallery of fakes, usurpers, pretenders, and even a few originals. With Wyatt as a kind of W.G.-double for Gaddis himself, the novel abounds in endless other doubles for Wyatt and for so many of the mirror-layers of people around him. The most fascinating are Stanley, the brilliant composer who’s endlessly weaving together a score that serves as a double for The Recognitions itself—a work that, like The Recognitions, would have been liturgical in an earlier age but that in modern times has no such foundational structure to attach itself to or to encompass it—and, functioning as a much more comic double, Otto, the self-styled writer who sutures together a hilariously idiotic play, The Vanity of Time, that’s nothing more than a series of intellectual-sounding quotes that he overhears people trot out at parties, mostly comprising selected sound-bites of the classic literature that he’s never heard or even heard of. When people read Otto’s play they all say that it seems incredibly familiar, but nobody can say exactly why. Both Stanley and Otto are sincere searchers in their own ways, however, and Gaddis allows us to feel as much empathy with the struggling composer as with the struggling poseur.

The central panel of Hugo van der Goes’
Portinari Altarpiece, 1475
Gaddis is far from a sympathetic writer, though, and many of his portraits are grotesque caricatures designed to humiliate and to lampoon. Nevertheless, these portraits strike us with deep recognition, as they are intended to do, and we as readers are forced to face our own many-layered skins of facade and pretence and to search for something original and true underneath. One of the major themes of the novel is the near-impossibility of originality—especially for a writer floating in the wake of James Joyce—but somehow Gaddis manages to create something resonantly original in this novel of echoing derivatives. Despite its endless pessimism, The Recognitions—like Gravity’s Rainbow—manages to be a thoroughly positive and triumphant creation amid all its horror and gloom. And the similarities between Gaddis and Pynchon (and Joyce) don’t end there. Many readers have seen how Gravity’s Rainbow is a kind of heir to Ulysses’ encyclopedic linguistic and artistic range, and a study of the two novels’ arcs shows that each follows a 3/4 trajectory of a full circle (eighteen hours of a day in Ulysses, and nine months of a year in Gravity’s Rainbow), and a study of The Recognitions will show how its own motley arc dovetails with many aspects of Ulysses to influence Pynchon’s rainbow. Both Ulysses and The Recognitions immerse themselves in ordinary life and combine low and high culture into a radical mix of fluctuating levels of meaning, juxtaposing popular songs and advertisements with the most elevated artistic influences. Gaddis delves more deliberately into the absurdities of modern life than does Joyce—and with much more distaste—and because The Recognitions’ protagonist’s rarefied talent is forced to search for a home at street level (in contrast to Ulysses’ protagonist, Leopold Bloom, whose humane and humble viewpoint is almost strictly street level), Gaddis’ kaleidoscope of the ancient and the modern shows us the sicknesses of contemporary life in a way that still makes a deep distinction between high and low, admitting no true relativity. Like Dante, who encompasses all of what he considers to be the worst and the best in humanity within his Comedy and stratifies it all with harsh judgments while allowing us to be highly entertained at each step, Gaddis’ supreme artistry keeps us constantly enthralled and amused as The Recognitions weaves its way through what its author considers to be either spiritually worthy or hilariously degenerate. Taking this mixture of high and low to its farthest extreme, however, Gravity’s Rainbow simply goes all the way into cultural and artistic relativity. Pynchon can be just as moralistic and harsh as Gaddis, especially when he’s dealing with degenerate Nazis and degenerate Americans who have much more in common than anyone would like to believe, but Pynchon’s artistic approach gives Tin Pan Alley tunes and comic books and Hollywood actors the same significance as William Shakespeare. 

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, 1500,
attributed to Hieronymus Bosch
Despite their philosophical differences, The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow follow similar arcs of devolution as their protagonists dis-integrate into a spreading and particularizing descent, the widening scopes taking ever more into their seemingly picaresque and absurd but highly controlled rainbow journeys, and while Gravity’s Rainbow’s wholehearted embrace of all influence is part of what makes it a quintessentially Postmodern novel (although it can definitely be argued that Joyce already did this and has never been surpassed), The Recognitions is most certainly post-something. Its clear relationship to Ulysses definitely makes it post-Joyce, and in some ways its relationship to the thousands of years of seemingly forgotten high art make it post-everything. It’s a novel that thrusts us into the modern world while desperately looking back at all that’s been mutated or perverted or simply lost to the contemporary mind. But Gaddis and his novel are as contemporary as the emptinesses they parody, and even though his novel’s novel combinations of notes seem to doom it and its author to the same imploding self-interment as Stanley and his completed musical score, their existence and influence have been embraced by a still living and still evolving literary culture and have been kept from serving as merely a cultural swan song. The Recognitions is at once a stand-alone masterpiece and a prophetic document of literary and cultural postness, but in retrospect its pre-posthumous stance seems as premature (and perhaps as preposterous) as it is prescient, and it’s important to remember that it was only the first of Gaddis’ many novels, showing us that even the end has a continuation.

—David Wiley