Book Discussion — The Recognitions

Reading: pp. 281-342

Time prevents me from expanding too much on my thoughts about this week’s reading. Hopefully, though, the ensuing conversation will give me occasion to do so later tonight and over the weekend.

First things first: The writing on pages 281-93 just blew me away. Even if you’re not a part of the discussion group, you should do yourself a favor and read those pages alone. In fact, if I have time today I’m going to scan and upload them. Just some ridiculously good moments there.

An example:

Over and under the ground he hurried toward the place where he lived. No fragment of time nor space anywhere was wasted, every instant and every cubic centimeter crowded crushing outward upon the next with the concentrated activity of a continent spending itself upon a rock island, made a world to itself where no present existed. Each minute and each cubic inch was hurled against that which would follow, measured in terms of it, dictating a future as inevitable as the past, coined upon eight million counterfeits who moved with the plumbing weight of lead coated with the frenzied hope of quicksilver, protecting at every pass the cherished falsity of their milled edges against the threat of hardness in their neighbors as they were rung together, fallen from the Hand they feared but could no longer name, upon the pitiless table stretching all about them, tumbling there in all the desperate variety of which counterfeit is capable, from the perfect alloy recast under weight to the thudding heaviness of lead, and the thinly coated brittle terror of glass. (pp. 282-83)

Good God, that’s breathtakingly good.

Coming back again and again in this chapter, it seems to me, is the ambivalent status of originality. We see this in the opening section, where Otto’s father goes through the banalities of his later-afternoon/early-evening routine. He is enveloped by the city in such a way as to become absolutely anonymous, even (as we see later in the chapter) to his own son). The city itself has a certain cadence that drowns out any expression of individuality. Even the act of suicide is expected to follow a prearranged script—hence the disappointment of the onlookers when they realize the man on the ledge isn’t going to follow through on the arrangement. Mr. Pivner’s reflections on “progress,” as reflected in the sciences, economics, and journalism, are especially appropriate here as well.

Originality,  however, isn’t merely some ideal state. It isn’t an unequivocal Good to which one aspires. As we see in Esme and Stanley, and certainly in Wyatt (though I think he is a more difficult case, because at this stage he still wants to claim his originality, which is rather problematic), there is a certain price to be paid for originality. Arguably, the alienation felt by one who strives for originality is even more acute than that of Mr. Pivner, for whom originality is of the cliched self-help variety, wherein “success” entails your individuality looking identical to those surrounding you. Originality entails a certain ambivalent fracturing of time and self, does it not?  For “you” are always striving “now” to somehow move past “the now” that constitutes “you”. It’s enough to reach for the needle (Esme) or bend one’s knee (Stanley), finding momentary solace in the repetition.

I will cut my reflections short here, in hopes that they are vague enough to elicit conversation.  And, to be honest, because my boss is hovering close behind me, wondering why my Excel spreadsheet looks curiously like a blog post.

* * * *

Practical Matters

I’m not sure how we should handle the next couple of weeks, as Friday falls on a alcohol soaked holiday on consecutive weeks.  I’m not traveling this year, so I’ll have time to write something, I’m sure.  But I’d be more inclined to do so if I knew anybody was actually going to read the post and participate in the discussion.  Should I just do open threads for two weeks, or re-schedule the posting day?  What say you?  Also, how about we shoot for page 486 by the end of the year, which would put us right around the halfway point?

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5 Responses to “Book Discussion — The Recognitions

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The passage you mention really is amazing — scanning and posting it here would sufficiently justify the existence of this blog.

    (I keep being behind and only catching up on Friday — hopefully by this afternoon I’ll have more to say. I will note that I’m surprised how much we’re getting of Esme as the “followed” character. It seems like a lot of authors would stick much more to the male characters, letting her be a mystery to Otto, etc.)

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    The scanner at work is being dominated by end-of-quarter madness, so I will have to wait until Monday on getting that uploaded. Unless somebody else gets to it before I do.

    You’re right about Esme. It would be very disappointing, indeed, if Agnes Deigh was the primary female character. Though the comparison of her breasts to a telephone was pretty funny.

  3. poserorprophet Says:

    Well, after following this discussion over the last few weeks, I’ve decided to join in. I’m only into the second chapter, but I hope to be caught up with y’all in the next few weeks. Initially I was put off by comments that (if I recall correctly) compared Gaddis to Pynchon and Joyce (Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses being the two novels I hate more than any others… although Moby-Dick is a close third) but I’m very glad that I’ve started into The Recognitions. It is fabulous.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I finished the section yesterday afternoon as planned, and as Brad remarks, basically all the characters are in play — I found it especially interesting that Otto met with Recktall Brown, and he repeated the same line that Esther had used (“with his talent and your ambition, I’d have quite a man”). Yet another example of him hitting us over the head with things. I was going to try to set up some kind of chiasmus thing between Otto and Wyatt, but my mind isn’t working well enough yet this morning. I also wonder if, given that apparently early reviewers often found the book “pretensious,” Otto’s presence in the book is meant to inoculate against that impression. Or to show he’s aware of it?

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    Poser, I’m glad you’ve begun reading. One definitely doesn’t need to like either Pynchon or Joyce to appreciate Gaddis. I understand the points of comparison, I suppose. But, he is a very different author than either. (The only major comparison w/ Pynchon, as I think about it, is the playfulness with names. — and the size of his novels.)

    I think Adam must’ve got so into his reading that he went on into II.2. But that’s no bother. If you want, you could do your chiasmus as a post.

    And, yes, I cannot imagine Gaddis was not aware of the potential pretentiousness of his novel. Throughout, you find subtle (and not-so-subtle allusions) to his writing of it, and most of the time they point in this direction. E.g., Otto’s play, which sounds “vaguely familiar” = Gaddis’ cribbing of and parody Eliot, et al; or even Stanley’s musical composition, though I won’t spoil how that turns out for him.)

    It is interesting, though, that the initial reception of the book basically follows the lines Gaddis seemed to anticipate — though, I should add, he was quite disappointed by this anticipation coming to pass in reality. Which goes to show that sometimes being proven correct is not always the best thing that could happen.


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