Book Discussion: The Recognitions

Pages: 343-445

Well, it’s finally happened. Long in the making, of course, but now we can officially say that Wyatt, who, as we’ve noticed, long ago lost his name, has now basically lost his mind. And, we should note, a very poor drunk. He is one of those people for whom one drink of brandy means the entire bottle. And, well, one need only visit your local downtown library to see what becomes of mentally unstable drunks. I.e., they become either the homeless men surfing for porn on the free internet connection, or they become the librarian who logs them into the network.  We should, I think, along with the Use-Me Ladies, pray for poor Wyatt.

What did everybody think of the following passage?

Above, another blue day, (upstairs) the room papered with green-capped pink-faced dogs, and the button drawer, only apparations move to perfection, there! Pray the Lord to keep you from lying, there, O spectral stabat mater may I go out and play the violin outside to the town wearing its sinside inside and not a soul in sight. Church  bells inspissated the air, dropping it in sharp fragments. He sat down in his place at table, excused by the falling weights of the bells, and motionless when they had done. There, old vicary, congratulate my refuge, the saneside outside sheltering the insane inside: to present the static sane side outside to another outside saneside, to be esteemed for that outsane side while all the while the insaneside attacks your outsane side as though we weren’t both playing the same game, and gone down Summer Street (singing unchristian songs) the inane sinside, pocketing a cool million wearing the shoutside outside and the doubtside inside, the vileside inside and the violinside outside skipping dancing and foretelling things too come all ye faithful, of thine own give we back to thee. (p. 399)

I quote it in full for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I just really love it — so much so that I once quoted it in a paper I read, only so that I might have an occasion to read it out loud to an audience. Secondly, I find that it houses two recurring ideas I just want to mention in passing: perfection & motion. The latter, in particular, seems to play a crucial role throughout this week’s reading. Pardon the crude analysis, but just see here and here — by my count, we have at least twenty instances of the words “movement” & “motion” in one hundred pages alone. Is that enough to qualify as a very relevant idea, or is it just a rhetorical tic to which Gaddis succumbed? The paragraph just before the one quoted above would seem to suggest the former, and in the process re-introduces us to the idea of perfection, which of course doesn’t require a Google books search, because I dare say this obsession is on every page (in spirit if not in letter):

– The devil finds work for idle hands, here, without music, where reverberations of the human voice weary in recall with generations of fruitless exhaustion, denied the very possibility of music. A sharp unfriendly sound from the kitchen confirmed the silence and the vigilant conspiracy of inanimate things, watching for any break in the pattern. A movement broke it, his hand reaching forth to put his glass at his place at the table; and he stood in suspense sustaing the trust thrust upon his frame by the static details of dark woodwork, maintaining the inert vigil which belied music: music as ideal motion, a conceit in itself manifestly sinful, as the Serpent, gliding in the Garden, moved with unqualified motion, as the sound of a lute, struck here now, would move upon undulant planes never before explored, to be cornered and quickly killed by the ruthless angles of the room, proving that those planes had never existed, affirming, in sharp consentaneous silence, the illusion of motion, the sin of possibility, the devil-inspired absurdity of indetermination. (p. 398)

Now, remember, Wyatt is pretty intensely drunk and increasingly insane at this point, so we do need to be careful about trusting his every word here. He is, as we (and, it seems, Jane & Gwyon) learn in II.3, neither Christ nor Mithraen priest. But, in spite of the Town Carpenter’s own mis-identification,  Wyatt is a kind of hero. As such, his words, even when slurred and batty, are significant.

For his part, Wyatt is at least aware of the problems that adhere to his romantic gropings for the  “sharp consentaneous silence” that is truth. This is, he realizes, a dangerous game, but one does not so much quit playing as pretend (knowingly or not) one’s quit playing. E.g., the extinguishing of one’s affection for Novalis, only to replace him with the “rational mind” of Friedrich von Hardenberg, the ‘true’ flesh-and-blood name behind the pseudonym, Novalis (pp.379-80). This was, by the way, the brilliant thing about the early German Romantics especially. They may be assailed for their naivety and/or the danger they pose to others (see Valentine’s comparison of Wyatt to his boyhood friend Martin on page 383: “The ones who wake up late. You suddenly realize what is happening around you, the desperate attempts on all sides to reconcile the ideal with reality, you call it corruption and think it new. Some of us have always known it, the others never know. You and Martin are the ones who cause the trouble, waking suddenly, to be surprised. Stupidity is never surprised, neither is intelligence. They are complementary, and the whole conduct of human affairs depends on their co-operation. But the Martins appear, and cause mistrust . . .”), but the Romantics were all too aware of their problematic obsessions — they were, after all, the creators of a decidedly modern conception of irony that creatively resisted its Greek connotation as simple deception. (I will elaborate on this point at a later time, perhaps in a mid-week / non-reading post, because it is very important to how I understand the greater vision of The Recognitions.)

Everything, like Arnobius’ moon, is always in motion (p. 429). It is, then, not simply a matter of stopping motion. The sun sets, only to rise again — the gods may die, but they never go away completely. If this is so, if illusion and sin is borne of motion, the inability to stop, then Wyatt’s ‘sermon’ on pp. 384-85 starts to ring a little true, and is in fact a bit better than it at first sounds: “Go out among them and tell them that their nostalgia for places they  have never been is sex, the sweating Am-ha-aretz, and when they hear music, tell them it is their m other, tell Nicodemus, tell him there is no other way to be born again, and again and again and again of a thousand other mothers of others-to-be, tell him, my yetzer hara, tell them, tell them my evil heart, that they are hopeless, tell them what damnation is, and that they are damned, that wht they have been forging all this time never existed.”

* * * *

Next Week: What’s say we try for two chapters next week, which would take us up to II.6 (page 542)? Also … I think I mentioned this in one of the introductory posts, but have am unsure if I’ve done so since. These Friday posts, I’ve not “marked my territory” around them. If anybody finds themselves piqued by any week’s reading, let me know, and I would be more than happy to hand over the reins for a week.

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8 Responses to “Book Discussion: The Recognitions

  1. poserorprophet Says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Valentine’s bit about Martin. I thought that passage was quite good. I find Valentine to be one of the most interesting and — perhaps oddly enough — attractive characters in this novel.

    That said, as I’ve been thinking about discussing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gaddis wrote in such a way as to make commentary difficult. How does one comment on The Recognitions without simply becoming like one of the characters in the novel — without becoming an Anselm or a Max spouting off pretentious and desperate bullshit at this-or-that drunken gathering?

    For example, take the relationship between Otto and Esme. In an exchange that occurs just beyond the limit set for this week’s reading (p449), the following is stated:

    -I love you, Esme. I’ve kept telling you that. I love you.
    -No you don’t, Otto.
    -I do. I love you.
    -No you don’t, Otto. You don’t even know who I am… You had me all filled in before you met me, Otto. There was no room for me at all.

    Now this conversation and this relationship could easily be put into dialogue with Lacan’s notion of the objet petit a (at least that’s where my thoughts went) but what would be the purpose of doing that? How to do so without looking like Gaddis’ characters at their more odious or pathetic moments? It’s as though we are left quoting the passages we find most striking or simply spelling out what is occurring at this or that moment in the novel. I found this interesting.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Aw, now come now, If you don’t like my commentary, you should be far more direct than that! I kid … I hope.

    I think you’re on to something there. I do think there is, however, a potential distinction between those who talk about the novel and those depicted in the novel talking about novels, arts, and such. The characters in the novel, be it Wyatt, Valentine, Brown, or Otto, all seem to fall on a spectrum between “the pursuit of no bullshit” (the left pole), “the acceptance of bullshit” (the middle), & “the monetizing/idolizing of bullshit” (the right pole) — w/ certain characters moving rather fluidly along the spectrum as the book progresses. There is a reader, I would imagine, or perhaps I would just vainly hope, who might read a book such as The Recognitions and see the bullshit they & other sling as simply that, bullshit, and nothing else. That is to say, that it might be possible to sling bullshit without it being compared to “pearls of wisdom” or “truth,” without it falling into a dialectic from which it either emerges a victor or loser. Such a reader might be said to “accept bullshit,” perhaps like Valentine, but I would insist there is a difference, in that such an acceptance always eventually or tacitly swings toward one pole or another; whereas my potential reader is neither looking to turn the shit into gold or wipe the shit away to expose something more valuable than gold, but rather redeems the shit ‘as shit’. If she uncovers anything, this reader, perhaps it is just a few undigestable kernels (of corn, if nothing else).

    Also … I agree w/ you very much about Valentine. I’m always delighted when he is on the page. I think his erudite misanthropy is an attractive temptation for many people who might frequent this blog.

  3. poserorprophet Says:

    Talking about corn in the same paragraph as shit left a pretty picture in my mind. Anyway…

    To be clear, my remarks were not directed at your commentary — after all, it was reading your first couple of entries in this series that inspired me to read this book in the first place! I also agree with your potential distinction.

    On redeeming the shit ‘as shit’, I was struck by the recognition that I am very much enjoying reading a novel about social situations that I hate to be caught up in, in ‘real life’. Still, this might because of the really glorious moments that come crashing through at unexpected times (like Benny’s upcoming rampage at Esther’s Christmas party — which is probably my favourite sustained passage in the novel thus far). I have yet to encounter something that great when drinking fine wine with professors at some posh Italian restaurant or drinking import beers with hipsters in the rundown part of town. On the other hand, this might be because I’m an asshole in real life…

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Speaking of social situations, I was telling Adam the other day that I was struck by how appropriate it was for those who went home for the holidays that our official reading was the chapter where Wyatt returns home. It seems to me an excruciatingly accurate portrayal, albeit distorted by existential exaggeration — I should most people’s holidays don’t culminate screaming at a parent, “Am the one for whom Christ died?” Though, considering there is precious little on tv that time of year, I suppose it is possible. But, beyond that, you almost certainly have lots of ill-advised drinking; unintentionally cryptic conversations in which you realize later you’re talking about radically different things; people not recognizing you; you hardly recognizing others; sudden awakenings and realizations that it was a horrible mistake not staying where you now call home; inexplicable guilt for wrongs inadequately expressed; anger, directed as much inwardly as it is impotently at family; culminating in the retreat back to the civilization you still hate, but for decidedly different reasons.

    Or, as you say, maybe I’m just an asshole in real life, too.

  5. Errataagain Says:

    I am way behind in reading. But these comments sparked some thought related to my fascination with The Recognitions: art, painting, or what have you. In a book.

    As above, the novel seems to resist consumption (maybe digestion? defecation? I also am reluctant to defecate all over this blog after devouring hundreds of pages, though I haven’t let that stop me…) so too do works of art written in the novel. Some more than others. Maybe in real life as well.

    Is art the corn of capitalism? The corn of religion? I enjoy reading the how this plays out in the novel. How it can surprise you with what you find in the midst of the bs…

  6. errataagain Says:

    copy and paste… Freud writes in “Dreams in Folklore” (1958 [1911]): “How old this connection between excrement and Gold is can be seen from an observation by Jeremias: gold, according to ancient oriental mythology, is the excrement of hell” (p. 187).

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    I like it! This reminds me of the exchange in Gravity’s Rainbow between two people talking about the difference between Beethoven and Rossini: “With Rossini, the whole point is that lovers always get together, isolation is overcome, and like it or not that is the one great centripetal movement of the World. Through the machineries of greed, pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs. All the shit is transmuted to gold” (p. 440). The point here is, I should think, supposed to be a positive one; but, there is a certain perversity to it as well.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I intended to comment on this post, but felt I was unworthy to join in the sublimity of discussing the corn-shit connection.


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