Re-reading William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, I come closer to understanding what Empson meant when he bucked against the post-Eliot neo-Christian revival. It is an overwhelmingly great novel, immersive and seductive in its vision of the world, but that vision is ultimately harrowing and poisonous–it is a vision deeply informed by abiding Christian preoccupations, whether or not Gaddis is Christian himself. In a letter to Jeanne G. Howes in 1972, Gaddis explained:
Regarding any ‘message,’ perhaps that art abides and the artist is its tool and victim but despite that it is the only enterprise worth embracing in the attempt to justify life; that art executed without love is bad (false) art but such love is not easy to come by. There was a corollary there too with God (perfection, gold) and the driving impossibility of grasping it because of our finite condition but that attempt being all we have to justify this finite condition (page 689 at the top I suppose is the key to the book if there is such). And in taking it down just now to look for this reference I read a few pages and must confess I found them quite entertaining. I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so called ‘erudition,’ to simply enjoy it.
The relevant line on the top of 689 comes, as Gaddis makes clear elsewhere, when Wyatt, the protagonist, says “thank god there is gold”: he is glad to have the ideal of perfection to aspire after in his forged masterpieces.
The Recognitions is about the cost of assuming oneself to be a self in the world that is not of one’s making, but to which one can respond with admiration and wonder, or not. It’s scheme is fairly simple: the strong opposition is between Wyatt’s radical and zealous idealism in art, as the ultimate human recognition of God’s creation, and the force of commercial consumption and “reality” represented by Recktall Brown, according to which money is the only assurance of what exists. The opposition is Manichean, but Wyatt’s goodness is terrible, and effects an amputation of self that is required as he loses himself in the re-presentation of the world as it exists beyond him, not on his own terms (originality would be false, an act of self-love), but as a counterfeiter. Gaddis has said that T.S. Eliot was a strong influence on him when he wrote the novel, and perhaps this is his strong interpretation of the impersonality of art. It depends less on a faith in God than a faith in creation that is not dependent on humanity, though the tradition of religious art proves, in its submission to a creation that is not human, the object of Wyatt’s submission. The opposition is not Manichean, that is, because it is not between divine good and satanic evil, but between two radically opposed human attitudes towards “what is” or towards “what-is-given” us, where that extends to both the world we see and the past that has seen before us, where Wyatt is the puritan ascetic (drawn to Catholic art, but not to the Catholic ritual or liturgy) and where Recktall is the American capitalist, the heir to Mr. Verver in The Golden Bowl, to Gatsby, to a whole slew of others. Between them, or beneath them, stretched out not on a single axis, but along radials of distortions of love and self-regard, of blasphemy and ego, of helpless attempts at finding discipline and at helpless rejections of discipline, are the other characters of the novel, including Otto, Esther, Fuller, and Esme, all casualties of the battle between the two sides, which are not, on that account, equally guilty—they are casualties not of the opposition between Wyatt and Recktall, but of their inevitable, necessary compromise and cooperation. Their being casualties lies in their flawed capacities to love others and themselves and to see others, themselves, and the world as they are—but they are mundanely, humanly absurd and lost, isolated and perverted (as in “warped”), all as a consequence of being forced into the compromise without embracing or understanding either extreme. They are subject to the compromise and their sense of themselves as selves, as subjects, is comprised to the point of breaking in turn, their residual energies devoted to reconstituting their personhood in weak imitation of what it might have otherwise been. What they can do least of all is love another; they cannot admit one another to their lives.
Valentine’s speech at the bottom of page 689 decryis what he takes to be (incorrectly I think) Wyatt’s sentimental fantasy that the Flemish masters were not forced to compromise with sullying wealth and power, and casping aspersion on the bogus notion of a medieval faith in a God that bestows selfhood by attending to, recognizing, creation in all of its particularity. Valentine’s skepticism—his cynicism too—is warranted in response to the inflated claims made on behalf of both medieval Christianity and art, but Wyatt’s vision is not so simple. For Wyatt, “God” does not need to mean the God of Dogma; it is instead a vantage point that permits the recognition of selfhood, possessed, if discerned aright, in each instant and particle of being. Similarly, the “originality” that Wyatt decries is the “originality” overprized and overpraised by his contemporaries. He embraces the former term and rejects the latter on his own terms, for his own reasons.
It is my second time reading the novel—and this time the enjoyment is greater—as is the sense of its humor and delight in the world it summons and presents. Gaddis speaks of not only the message of the novel but also the standard to which it must adhere, and it adheres to that standard in its style and form: its persistent attention to the physical, emotional, psychological realities of its characters and their circumstances, and most of all to their voices. In presenting voices, bodies, beings, and minds of characters as he does, not to mention the voices, bodies, and minds of the places of the novel, Gaddis aspires to draw out what Hopkins called, in his appreciation of God’s creation, inscape. But for Gaddis, it is itself a recognition of the being of humans that issues in finitude and inescapable fragility at once.
Reading The Recognitions, brokenness seems to be the fate of selfhood, and only the absolute, God, can provide a means of imagining what it would not to be broken–though in so imagining God, at least in 1950s America, only another brokenness is found. It is a devastating vision that I cannot accept, and yet I think it does inhere in theology; the novel does for asceticism what Empson says Milton does for God, showing how fundamentally bad it is.
But the novel succeeds because it brings into incomparable focus much that is true about human fragility and about the desire for absolutes and the broken sense of self that is not the same as being fundamentally broken. A friend of mine suggests that the true heart of the novel comes in an exchange between Fuller (Recktall Brown’s slave) and Wyatt:
–Yes, sar, Fuller said, looking relieved.–It seem an impractical measure, to lock up the whole world.
–Yes, but…you lock it out. You can lock it out.
–Can you, sar? Fuller looked up at the face suddenly turned upon him.–Seem like such a measure serve no good purpose, sar. Then the mahn lose everything he suppose to keep, and keep everything he suppose to lose. Fuller stood still, a conscious stolidity, as though to offset the movement before him, the shoes stepping heedlessly upon the roses.–It seem a very general inclination to contemplate God as an old mahn until the mahn become old himself, he said to the moving figure.
Fuller, arguing against locking out the world, offers another way out of the bind: not to look towards the Absolute of God, but to look to others, and to allow others to look at you. I do not think Gaddis was writing Catholic propaganda, but do not know that he recognized the dominance of the voices of Absolutism against the humanist vision of fulfillment implicitly running against it in the novel.