T.S. Eliot’s claim that Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it might be misunderstood as disguised disparagement or understood, against the intentions of the critic, as damning praise; it might also be taken as a stupid statement. I think it might suppose an alignment of mind and work, so that Eliot really is referring to the quality of the author’s mind as we find it in the novels; and I think that, despite the oddly suggestive metaphor, it might be understood as a helpful description of James’ desire to place characters against one another and within a world, and to confine the scope of his attention to theirs; what ideas the novels have result from the formal design and the characters themselves. The ideas–about America, about Europe, about innocence and experience, deception and reality, domination and submission, empire and resistance–are not, that is, eminences jutting from the surface of the narration. James’ strength is a control of how and where he attends; his strength depends on an awareness, and our awareness of, the limits of his attention.
Likewise William Gaddis’ in The Recognitions, though the limits are quite other than those found in James. With a dedication and intensity greater than any novelist I’ve read, Gaddis is determined in this, his first novel, to limit his narration to what can be seen and to what is heard, to looking and listening to what might be classified as the “outward appearances” of the world he constructs. He is not such a purist that he denies all sense of what characters expect and intend; but that is the limit of what might be thought of as the characters’ “inner lives,” which he has no interest in opposing to “outward appearances,” any more than he would have any interest in revealing the through what we might account and discount as “superficial.” To looking and listening, a third category might be added, though it too is accessible from a detached vantage point: we are occasionally given accounts–reports really–of a character’s past, and possibly projected future. But these seem akin to the reports that would be filed by an investigative reporter or private investigator rather than from the eyes, words, or mind of a character.
It is, in other words, an example of the realist novel taken to a new extreme–written after Modernism, but not accepting some of the Modernist premises: not worrying at all over whether a novelist can gain a purchase on a first-person vantage point, not heroizing, as Lawrence heroized Eliot, the 19th-century precursors who glimpse or dig into the substratum of the “self.” I do not think Gaddis would have rejected the power of those novelists, but I suspect that he would have despaired over their ambition in part because of the twentieth-century world it fostered in America and Europe: a world chattering increasingly about the inner life, about feelings, where people gain distinction, status, and power through their expression and affirmation and presentation of what lies “within.”
That world is exposed in the novel in one of its greatest inventions: party-scenes of swirling dialogues, momentary glimpses and glimpses of where characters are glimpsing, which collide, collect, gather momentum, cross paths, derail, arrive and depart all simultaneously. Gaddis’ parties are the successors to Joyce’s pubs and Proust’s salons (Gaddis has some wonderful bar scenes too). In those scenes, people jostle for status and distinction in the jangling currency of dreams, hopes, insights, judgments, affirmations of sincerity and authenticity, wit, and culture.
The heroes of the novel, as far as there are any, are the characters who fail most abjectly in such scenes: Wyatt, Stanley, and, though he is not a hero, but a grotesque fool (in the tradition of Shakespeare–or what a friend of mine refers to as a novel’s “pharmakon”), Anselm. But they are not “rewarded” with passages or prose evoking what they feel, think, or want anymore than other characters.
It is difficult to call them heroes in the novel since it is so deeply full of despair—to call the heroes would suggest that they have a way out, which they do not.
Everyone in the novel is a counterfeiter, and forger (the word appears at least once; a conscious re-working of the finale of Joyce’s Portrait; and by the novel’s end Wyatt has taken the name of Stephen–martyr but also Daedalus in the name); but not everyone is a fraud. The frauds in Gaddis’ inferno are the ones who make their “selves” into the productions of artifice; Otto occupies an uneasy place in the novel, not a fraud, but wanting to be one; too touched, though, by Wyatt to succumb entirely. He is accused constantly of plagiarism by publishers who parrot one another without having read his manuscript–and he does steal what he hears, putting it on the page as dialogue–but his failure is contrasted with the success of his nemesis Max, whose blatant plagiarizing of Rilke, not as a recovery of the original, but as an expression of his own profundity, is shrugged off. The language and construction of the inner life, the justification that something emanates from or amplifies from it, is what distinguishes the frauds from the counterfeiters.
Those who counterfeit are attempting really to recover something beyond themselves–a perfection of the past. They are damned too by the illusion that it ever existed, or by the illusion of a humanity that can stand so perfectly aloof from the compromises and dirt of the world. The counterfeiters in the novel live in disguise, or live without any sense of “self,” so that they are willing, tragically at times, to abandon those around them, to forsake all human connections. They suffer the derangements of asceticism. What is more, they, despite their efforts at removing themselves from the world’s impurities, are coopted by those who live for profit, for crass adornment, for exchange.
What sets the counterfeiters clearly apart is their devotion to appearances: to getting the look of a fake 15th-century Flemish painting right, the sound of a piece of baroque music, or even, the least savory, but also, as the novel progresses, most increasingly pitiable, example, the accuracy of lines on counterfeit currency. Their idealism takes the form of commitment to creation of what can be looked at and heard, and that possesses, in its recognizable immediacy, not depths, not inner meaning, but a quasi-metaphysical, ideal, perfect presence (Value, God, whatever). What they seek to recover is external; a perduring, transcendent surface.
I would add into this category the Reverend Gwyon (Wyatt’s father), whose recovery of the pagan roots of religion is not aiming–none of the religious discourse in the novel is–at a recuperation of true dogma or root meanings, but of a mosaic of facts, dates, names, as if they could form an edifice.
Gaddis, in his commitments to looking and hearing, to following almost only the eyes and ears of his characters, and of his own narrator, would number himself among that class; he too forges, and he too risks a damning isolation and solitude.
What sort of novelist is he? What sort of novel does he want his to be? Two suggestions:
One, his frequent and hilarious digs at the popular mid-century treatise, How to Win Friends and Influence People, offers what we might view as the sort of book he does not want to write–one that will help people gain status or help people learn better how to work a system.
Two, his disparaging of the novelist who, towards the end of the book, visits a Spanish monastery hoping to come into contact with the authentic monkish life. About him, Gaddis is scathing:
As his writings showed, he found his duty to his fellow man in proselytizing for those virtues which bound his fellow man’s better selves together, favoring none over another among the systems of worship he saw round him, honoring all, advancing in the name of some amorphous, and high reasonable, Good, in the true eclectic tradition of his country, a confederate of virtue wherever he found it, and a go-between for the postures it assumed, explaining, not man to himself, but men to each other…All of which meant that he reached his fellow man in large numbers, as his serene face (on the dust jacket), and his royalties, showed.
Even here Gaddis follows his externalizing principle: “as his writings showed.” And what follows takes the form of a reader’s report. But this perspective, or style, does break with much of the novel, and that in itself is suggestive that we ought to take notice. “Not man to himself, but men to each other.”
Though Gaddis works against conventions of free-indirect discourse—stream of consciousness—the novelist of the inner life—he does not work against the idea of the “self.” And his novel might be seen as an indictment of what is made of, what befalls, the “self” in his world; how the “self” breaks or is betrayed.
The potential and tragedy of “self” is felt most keenly, most poignantly and confusedly, in the records left behind by two women in the novel: Esme and Agnes. Both are institutionalized after suicide accounts; both are adept at captivating the attention of others, at suggesting riches within their minds and hearts, and both are made helpless, adrift. Esme functions as the perfect artist’s model, capable of absorbing the words and knowledge of others, aspiring to write poetry herself, living from moment to moment as one who exists as an object of others’ desire must. Agnes is a publisher, an expert party-goer, in mourning for a dead brother, having lost her faith in God. Stanley intervenes, trying to “save” both, each time succumbing to the failure of ascetic idealism that would first rescue the world by rejecting it, and then reject it through an attempted act of salvation.
Before they are institutionalized, Esme and Agnes leave behind letters–Esme’s in the third person, her self-alienation and self-possession simultaneous; her letter is addressed to “You”–to Wyatt–whose paintings have brought her into herself, strangely, by bringing her away from it; Agnes’ is addressed to a dentist whom she has accused, via the police, of abuse–it is the product of several attempts at an apology, but it has exceeded its initial intentions. In both letters, there is an element of the ridiculous–in Esme’s more–but it is a ridiculous correspondent to their helplessness, of their helplessness itself; both are difficult to make much sense of, but Agnes’ less so. Hers is centrally about what it means to be recognized–about the self as dependent on recognition.
It is from her character, it is not free of platitudes or traces of her reading and her milieu, but I suspect Gaddis was attuned to much of what she writes, that his writing his novel might come from a similar sense of bewilderment, estrangement, and awe, not least when she writes about everyone else:
Have you ever thought about this, that right now this instant every one of them is somewhere being real?
But few are recognized as real by others; and few (maybe none) recognize themselves as real, or else few recognize their real selves; the novel despairs and wonders with Agnes because of it, and suggests, as she does not, that we attend, not to surfaces (since we then suppose depths), but to what can be looked at and listened to. Something real is there.