Book Discussion: The Recognitions

Pages pp. 824-956

Given that Gaddis seemingly could not bring himself to finish writing the The Recognitions, punctuating it in the end with a fifty-page epilogue that culminates with Stanley’s dream-church crashing down on him while he finally plays his epic Mass on their ancient pipe organ. It is an easy parallel to identify, that between Stanley and Gaddis, alike overwhelmed by their interminable works of art. Indeed, for Adam, this parallel might be one of the only ways, and even then, probably not adequately enough, to justify the tedious amount of time Gaddis pours into telling Stanley’s story. Surely, or at least I should hope, there is more to him than a token jab at religious piety; not least because of his place amongst the men in Esme’s life, each of whom she comes to despise, albeit one [Wyatt] in that deep sort of way that only speaks of a certain kind of love. A masculine Triumvirate that leads to her “marriage” to Christ, as a nun. (Incidentally … Gaddis is pretty vicious to his female characters, isn’t he?)

In my previous post, I noted the significance of movement. As we saw there, it seems as though if you do not move, you are consumed. It matters little to where you are moving; only that it is away from where your past and your present. This emphasis on movement continues into this final section of the book. Consider Stanley aboard his steamer headed to Italy:

[T]he whole severe enclosure of angles driven by vibrations, in motion with no direction, it was more than as though they had never left it, as though they could never leave it, and had never been anywhere else. Stanley looked at his wrist watch, as though knowing what time it was might confirm something” (p. 839).

I love this passage for what it says about the relationship of time & movement. The measurement of time on a watch & the vibrations of a moving vessel here betray a forboding sense that we cannot escape the consummation that awaits us. That, indeed, in a sense it is as though we never left it, and are just biding our time, seeking momentary consolations in outward signs of change (of scenary, of season, of ports of entry & departure, etc.).

It is, then, no doubt fitting that Stanley’s adventure, and we should add our own reading (and writing about) The Recognitions, concludes with the lines: “The walls quivered, still he did not hesitate. Everything moved, and even falling, soared in atonement” (p. 956). This may well be as close to a happy ending as we’re going to get out of Gaddis. The culmination that awaits us, which we never entirely left, needn’t be a source merely of madness. (Although, given the examples of Wyatt, Otto & Stanley), it may very well require a step through madness in order to get there.) To submit to the end that one has never quite left may not necessarily lead to a classical “happy ending” — see Gaddis’ paean to suicide in the Epilogue, complete with the brilliant line, “Any city that calls itself modern anticipates all her children’s needs, even to erecting something high for them to jump from” (p. 946) — as it does an “atonement” of one’s actions, be they noble or criminal, those of a sinner or saint, that set us (along with our respective endings) in motion to start with. This atonement is a departure from the more traditional idea that “the slate is wiped clean,” where the bad is rendered good, the wrong made right, etc. Quite the oppposite, in fact: “If you’re going to make loaded dice, you have to make them perfect first. You can’t just load ordinary dice, they have to be perfectly true, to start with” (p. 871). Here, our falseness, our pride, indeed, our sinfulness, is made true, “atoned,” in and as its very sinfulness. Hence Stanley’s resolve in the face of this new vibration, and his disregard of time (i.e., his lack of hesitation).

It can perhaps be said that Stanley (maybe even Otto, though he seems a much more oblique, difficult case to resolve) is a graphic depiction of the atonement that Wyatt dramatically and climactically articulates in his final appearance. Let me quote it in full, for effect:

Look back, if once you’re started in living, you’re born into sin, then? And how do you atone? By locking yourself up in remorse for what you might have done? Or by living it through. By locking yourself up in remorse with what you know you have done? Or by going back and living it through. By locking yourself up with your work, until it becomes a gessoed surface, all prepared, clean and smooth as ivory? Or by living it through. If it was sin from the start, and possible all the time, to know it’s possible and avoid it? Or by living it through. I used to wonder how Christ could really have been tempted, if He was sinless, and rejected the first, and the second, and the third temptation, how was He tempted? . . . how did He know what it was, with it there from the start, and possible all the time, to go on knowing it’s possible and pretend to avoid it? Or . . . or to have lived it through, and live it through, and deliberately go on living it through.

This atonement is a recognition of what one has done. It is not, however, a reversal or undoing of what has been done. One can avoid the effects of one’s sin no more than one can their cause (i.e., for Wyatt, original sin). Like movement, one cannot help but keep doing it unto the very end. Indeed, also like movement, it is precisely the desire for authenticity, the stasis of a life lived without sin, that one is consumed by a madness that knows no end. Sin is atoned, then, one is made, in effect, sinless, not through the cessation or avoidance of sin, but by owning up to what one has done, what one is, and deliberately living out its consequences. It is, as it were, actively knowing one’s end. Which is to say, it is recognizing the “end” that one has never quite left, the inevitability and accumulation of effects, be they those of our own creation or those created for us through the actions of others — though in reality, finally, they are only ours individually. Instead of resisting and/or overcoming this end/sin, i.e., “pretend[ing] to avoid it,” atonement resides in recognizing one’s role in actively creating what was, paradoxically (?), always there; and in this recognition, borne of one’s falseness, one’s sin, one is no longer a slave to one’s end, but rather, through one’s falseness and sin, a participant in creating/counterfeiting what this end, good or bad, salvation or damnation, might yet become.

Concluding thought

This post went longer than I anticipated, so I’ll keep this short. I hope the handful of you who used these posts as an excuse to read The Recognitions got something out of the book, if not my meandering, often very belated posts. I would encourage everybody, whether they read this book or not, and indeed whether they liked it or not, to give Gaddis’ other books a chance — esp. J. R. I find The Recognitions to be a lot more raw in this reading. Its imperfections were more glaring, and yet they did not get in the way of my enjoyment. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more because I was this time more sensitive to those instances where Gaddis’ ambition was maybe a disservice to the novel as a whole. J. R. is almost certainly a better novel, but little gives me more joy than the experience of reading The Recognitions.  There is something raw and aggressive about the latter that still speaks to me, and I hope does for some time still.  Readers of the novel, what did you think?

Also . . . . I know the reading group aspect of this discussion kind of folded pretty quickly. Much of this had to do with my own ambition. Choosing a 900+ page novel was probably not the greatest decision, in terms of eliciting an immediate audience. Who knew? For those of you who stuck around like you did, and who even finished the novel, thanks for your patience and own personal resolve. That said, I’d be interested trying this again, with a book that more of us can realistically commit to reading (and, yes, posting about) in a timely fashion.  Any takers? Anybody make it this far in the post?

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6 Responses to “Book Discussion: The Recognitions

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    For me, the best part about the reading group was that it forced you to write these posts — hopefully we can collect them in some way.

    I did wind up finishing the novel, though I was seriously considering giving up less than 100 pages from the end because I was so tired of Stanley. The ending was somewhat redemptive for me, though — confirming my intuition that for Gaddis, the only “authenticity” is self-destruction.

    Just looking at unread books on my shelf: How about Kleinzeit?

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    You also take Wyatt/Stephen’s declaration at the monastery to be non-redemptive? or a kind of self-destruction?

  3. Basil Says:

    I really liked this book. It’s sort of weirdly done, because you have this hyper-intelligent prose accompanying some very average people in average situations– at parties, on the street, having the everyday humdrum conversations that at least one party wishes were so much more (or thinks so, at least).

    So, next week: Infinite Jest?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sadly, Brad, I don’t really remember that part.

  5. Clayton Crockett Says:

    Brad, thanks for doing this, it’s really amazing. I haven’t read The Recognitions and I can’t imagine when I’d have time to, and I read about half of JR before I got too bogged down and gave up but he’s an incredibly fascinating author.

    I was just on an MA Thesis committee in English that discussed Gaddis from the standpoint of the two decades he spent in the PR industry between these novels. It was really interesting and well done.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    That sounds like it could definitely be an interesting MA thesis. Always nice when a good idea like that is not wasted by being done poorly.

    I love “big books” — physically big — but I know all too well the danger that comes with reading them. Namely, the danger that they will suck up an inordinate amount of time, and even then you may not finish the damned thing. Nothing worse than investing weeks in a 900+ page novel, make it halfway through, have life intervene and force you to set aside for a few weeks, and then upon your return (if you ever choose to do so) not remember what is going on, getting frustrated, and giving up. (This seemed the back-story for many a reader of Infinite Jest last summer.) This nearly happened to me w/ J.R. as well, but I found that I actually remembered the characters much better than my memory normally allows. If not for that, who knows what would’ve happened.


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