Book Discussion: The Recognitions

It’s been a very long time coming, but now that we’re more or less in the homestretch, starting this week we’ll get back on a schedule for reading The Recognitions.

Today’s post comes to us from our own “poseur prophet” (not sure if he wants me to put his real name or not). He obviously has a personal connection to a large chunk of this reading, so I was very pleased he agreed to explain why. He is doing God’s work with some Canadian anarchists today, so I’m posting this for him. Take it away, Mr. Prophet.

Pages 542-646

by: Poseur Prophet

In my opinion, this chapter is the climax of the novel. It marks a significant turning point in terms of the plot development – things will not be the same from this point on and, for many, there is not much else that can happen apart from what does happen. Benny foreshadows this more than once: first with his mention of an idea regarding “stark human drama” and a fellow doing something from a church steeple (573), then when Mr. Feddle mentions Tolstoy’s play to him, and again when Benny states that “[t]his only happens once… You make one show, and when it’s finished you throw it out” (607). So, here, at Esther’s Christmas party, we have everybody gathered together one last time, and the madness, at least as it relates to the living, reaches something of a climax in more than one petite mort. This is the show and, in the remaining three hundred pages of the novel, Gaddis will do the throwing out.

The thing that I enjoyed most about this chapter was the way in which Gaddis captures the utter insignificance of words and moments we try to invest with meaning. Here we see desperation, the pretention and, above all, the futility and impotence of it all. So, Esther surveys the room:

Tenants whom she had not met stood like fixed dwellers in her life, never to be dispossessed: they had been borne to her as they were in their permanent blue suits and brown suits and black dresses and eyeglasses, permanently standing and turning, talking to and about one another, nourished and propagated by their own sounds and the maneuvering of cigarettes, leaving the act of life outmoded, a necessity of the past, a compulsion of ignorance (572).

Or again:

No longer the garden, but, as Benny said, cut flowers posing dead, without past or future, in as great a variety of jealous identities assembled as the tenants of an expensive florist’s window, lacking the careless grandeur of indigenous plants, arranged instead in that slightly frantic symmetry which dazed passers-by call artistic, and move on, never hazarding the senses to violation by wire and the treachery of paper petals (610).

Now, it would be easy to brush this all aside as a criticism of a certain culture that was (and is) blossoming in New York, but I think this should be avoided. The reason this chapter resonated so deeply with me is that it appears to function as a devastating unmasking of most (if not all) of the ways in which we try to come together with others in order to engage in something (or anything) meaningful. In my own life, I have had the opportunity to move in many different social circles – from drinking French wine with ivy-league professors, to drinking cheap beer with transgendered low-track sex workers, to drinking coffee with militant anarchists, and so on – but, at the end of the day, all of these interactions, all the talk and pseudo-action, can be described in exactly the same way as Esther’s party. This, I suppose, is also why it is more bearable to read about these gatherings, instead of continuing to attend them. As one party-goer states: “I really prefer books. No matter how bad a book is, it’s unique, but people are all so ordinary” (571). Because, at the end of the day, isn’t this effort to invest words and moments with meaning, and all the time we put into the masquerade, just a part of the (losing?) struggle we fight in order to reassure ourselves that we possess meaning, that we matter, that we are significant – that we are anything but ordinary?

In light of this, I believe that Benny – who used to be real but “isn’t real any more” (579) – is the shining star of the party. His moment in the spotlight is my favourite sustained passage in the novel. Of course, Benny isn’t the only person who isn’t real anymore, as Esther says to Wyatt: “I watched you turn into no one right here in front of me” and Wyatt, not denying this, seeks expiation because a moral action is “the only way we can know ourselves to be real… the only way to know others are real” (590-91). Yet sighting this (now surreal?) Wyatt seems to create a transformation in Benny – as though Benny becomes real for a moment and is able to recognize what is going on. Gaddis suggests this when he describes Benny shortly before Benny’s exchange with the critic: “Benny’s face was fleshy. Moreover, though it was not puffy, it seemed to be flesh recently acquired” (600; compare this to the description of the carefully fortified face of the critic on the subsequent page). What follow from this is a fantastic rant about life, labour, and all the ways in which we try to separate who we are (i.e. somebody significant) from what we do in order to make money and survive (i.e. insignificant or shameful things). I would love to quote it in full, but it spans about six glorious pages. Still, he comes pretty close to summing it all up when he asks earlier of Wyatt: “Is he doing what he wanted to do now? Or like me, is he doing what he can do, what he has to do…” (596). Esther also comes close to summing things up, first in her words to Wyatt:

There are things like joy in this world, there are, there are wonderful things, and there is goodness and kindness, and you shrug your shoulders. And I used to think that was fun, that you understood things so well when you did that, but finally that’s all you can do, isn’t it. Isn’t it (590).

And again in her words to Otto:

Because you’ve done the same thing, you’ve spent all your time too, you’ve put all your energy up against things that weren’t there, but you put them there yourself just to have something to fight… So you wouldn’t have to fight the real things… And now you say you’re tired? At your age, because you’ve been trying to make negative things do the work of positive ones… (621).

Anselm also comes close to this when he concludes that art, religion and philosophy all function as “refuges from being alive” (633). Of course, the point I wish to emphasize is that all of this stands out to me because it seems to so accurately reflect the ways in which people actually are living their lives. This is why I have focused upon this particular part of the chapter, and why I haven’t brought up a good many other moments of interest (which I trust others will raise). Goddamn, if this chapter doesn’t sum up most everybody I’ve ever encountered… including myself, of course. So, I will give the last quotation to Benny:

What’s tragedy to you is an anecdote to everybody else. We’re comic. We’re all comics. We live in a comic time. And the worse it gets the more comic we are… We’re comic because there isn’t anything else that… that has to… anything else that has to be (640).

So what do we do? We shrug our shoulders, fight our artificial fights, strike a pose, find what shelters we can, and laugh at everything but the tragedy of the loss of the real lives we think we may have had the potential to possess.

* * * *

Next Week: pp. 647-720 (end of Part II)

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4 Responses to “Book Discussion: The Recognitions

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m still behind — much moreso than I should be, after sitting next to an evangelical Christian on the train to Chicago — but I do have a general observation that I’ve shared with Brad a couple times: every single thing in the book is so rigorously artificial that it goes beyond heavy-handedness onto an entirely new plane. But the other side of that is that once this pattern is established, things appear to be artificial simply by virtue of being in the book — such as the zoo animals, who are obviously biologically real animals, yet their setting renders them somehow fake.

  2. poserorprophet Says:

    Hey Brad,

    Thanks for posting this (I just got released a few hours ago… so much for ‘God’s work’). Sorry that this post ended up being a little more rushed than I would have liked.

    Oh, and I don’t mind you using my real name. Cheers,


  3. ben Says:

    Esther and Otto’s exchange furnishes my favorite passage in the novel.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Dan, I really like your comments about Benny. It resonates with a sense that I’ve had while reading the book that while (as Adam notes) everything is artificial, there are flashes of “authenticity,” in often unexpected forms and places. These typically occur mostly via Otto, I suppose, as in the moment that Ben cites, as well as his (Otto’s) relationship with his “father.” Such moments are never pure, if this is even possible, but their artificiality is somehow different than the rest.

    Re: the exchange Ben mentions. I thoroughly enjoyed the parallels between this exchange & Esther’s earlier conversation with Wyatt — much of it verbatim. Otto’s “confession” seems somewhat in line with Wyatt’s rumination: “I don’t know but I think . . . if we go on we’re finally forced to do the right thing, but . . . and how can I say, now, where, or with whom . . . or what it will be.”

    The uncertainty at the core of authenticity is unsettling, and perhaps everybody else, like the surrounding environment, had “evolved” into something else, for the sake of survival. In this vein, I absolutely loved the evolutionary language that Gaddis springs on us near the end of the chapter, along w/ the chapter’s opening quote from Darwin. I esp. liked this bit, and have spent the better part of the week thinking about it:

    And they passed under the eyes of the Paleozoic poet, glittering open from features whose prehistoric simplicity was faintly shadowed with apprehension at the sight of the opportune mutations going on around him, denying, by their very existence, the finality of his old-world wisdom, and suggesting, as they took to the air manipulating the baubles so helplessly evolved with a pretense of having designed with themselves, that perhaps, for all his belligerent cooperation with environment, that environment itself was changing, and not only he, but the entire species upon which he depended while living, and rescue from anonymity, perpetuation afterward, was to become part of the sodden floor, and the mat, and finally only traces on the crust itself.” (emphasis mine)

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