My initial reaction to The Recognitions, on my second reading of the novel, was captured in the post I wrote recently, on the instinctive horror I felt towards the novel’s central vision of the profound brokenness of humanity, and the implied need for a God if finitude is to be redeemed by art. The horror was balanced against the deep enjoyment of the comically grotesque world that Gaddis brings forth, and the awe at a novel that is nothing less than a world. Now I see also that there are other ways, and probably better ways, of making sense of what Gaddis refers to as the novel’s “message,” but which I think are closer to the novel’s set of axioms, arranged with awful symmetry.
In The Recognitions, Art is a guarantor of reality, but for art to be a guarantor of the real, it needs to be underwritten by God (underwritten, or overseen); but Art is also what underwrites God, redeeming the promise of Faith, that God is real and is “the real.” Against this, Art is a guarantor of the real, but for art to be a guarantor of the real, it needs to be unwritten by cash; but Art is also what underwrites cash, redeeming the promise of capitalism, that cash value is real and is “the real.” The novel is about the techniques and interrogations of the self as it is strung up between the three options: the self as a cash nexus, open to the world as a commodity, or the self as an artist, closed to much of the world for the sake of Art, or else the self as an ascetic, severed from the world for the sake of God.
Accepting such an account, the novel can be placed squarely in line with other great American novels, the subject of which is, more often than not, how “the real” happens, a process or event, in American society—not, that is, how a real “this” or real “that” (real “gentleman” for instance) comes about, but how, when, where the category of the real appears and disappears. That means neither a metaphysical acceptance that we live in a world of appearances or that the world is fundamentally not-real, an illusion founded on nothingness or being, nor the idea (closer I think to what Marius Bewley describes) that appearances mask reality. Instead, the novels I have in mind present a world in which “the real” is not always active, even if often desired, sometimes suspected, and at other times disguised, and in which the emergence or transformation of “the real,” for better or worse, is the basic plot of the novel itself.
In The Recognitions, “the real” is presented as a myth—an overdetermination of Art, an article of Faith, or else the ultimate fetish of commodity capitalism. Basil Valentine says to Wyatt: “You remind me of a boy I was in school with…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.” But Valentine shows himself to have compromised already, equating “reality” with Recktall Brown’s money-making scheme. More broadly, the novel does not adhere to Valentine’s position, but instead suggests a world in which “the real” is an ideal, sliced and torn in three directions, and with two different equations to describe their relationships. Their relation can better be described by Gresham’s law, to which Wyatt refers. Wikipedia illuminates sufficiently: “a monetary principle stating that “bad money drives out good”. For example, if there are two forms of commodity money in circulation, which are accepted by law as having similar face value, the more valuable commodity will gradually disappear from circulation.” In The Recognitions it is not value per se, but versions of “the real” that compete, with the more valuable version threatening to disappear. Hence Wyatt to Valentine: “Tell them, as the composer predicted, there’s nothing left but knowledge and evidence, and art’s become a sort of tailbone surviving in us from that good prehensile tail we held on with then.” In the somewhat glib formulations I’ve proposed, Art is the middle term, the dependent upon and underwriting “the real” of the Monetary and “the real” of Religious alike. Neither, that is, can endure without “Art,” whatever exactly that means, but taken here as distinct, if not independent, from either. Where “Art” differs from Religion and Cash is that it understands its originality to lie in copying or forging the real (the perfect forgery is Wyatt’s perfect art; the forgery of the Flemish masters a more complete expunging of self, though in fact a symptom of the self-amputation Wyatt has performed) against Religion, which, pace Gaddis’ reading and evident from Wyatt’s father’s sermons, which disguises itself as a presentation of the Real, and against Cash, which claims instead to construct the real without responsibility, which endlessly defers its final measure (Gaddis is not yearning for the Gold Standard’s return when Wyatt praises Gold as in, again, his drunken tirade to Valentine: “Christ! Listen, O my sweet gold! Why were we born so beautiful? That’s why we’re here, an alchemist and a priest”), which declaims “the real” wherever it accumulates, without regard for what it accumulates upon or within. The casualties are all of those whose selves must be founded on one of the three pillars, with few able, as Wyatt is, to dedicate themselves to Art, and with the cost of that dedication a wounding and mangling of the self that is Wyatt’s.
Such I take to be the bare scheme at the center of, or scaffolding the edifice of, the novel, within which Gaddis finds comedy as well as pathos in the lives spinning unevenly, coming into jarring, glancing contact (all of the excellent party scenes), each self barely able to sustain itself in the motion that propels it. I return now to that word “enjoy,” prominent in Gaddis’ letter of 1972 in which he wished that, whatever the “message” of the novel, however weighty its erudition, he wished more people would enjoy it. Enjoyment seems a high order when confronted with the novel so stringent in its satire and condemnation…but then enjoyment is what Gaddis provides again and again, in the vividly drawn characterizations, the perfect pitch of voices, the sprawl of lives badly lived, shoddily deceptive, and empty. He finds comedy in the energy required to live an empty cauterized existence—in this he is like Dickens—within the tragic circumstances of the world, and that comedy is greater for at times yielding to, and containing within itself, pathos.
The fun Gaddis has is manifest, for instance, in his own inclusion in the novel, when we overhear Basil Valentine on the phone, speaking of a Willie who is Gaddis: “But you can tell your friend Willie that salvation is hardly the practical study it was then. What? … Why, simply because in the Middle Ages they were convinced that they had souls to save. Yes, The what? The Recognitions? No, it’s Clement of Rome. Mostly, talk, talk, talk. The young man’s deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul, he goes to Egypt to find the magicians and learn their secrets. It’s been referred to as the first Christian novel. What? Yes, it’s really the beginning of the whole Faust legend. But one can hardly…eh? My, your friend is writing for a rather small audience, isn’t he?”
But there is also hope and there are glimpses of a way out of the oppressive alternatives of “the real,” which Gaddis lets appear, raggedy traces of something that cannot, given the circumstances of the world of the novel, more fully congeal or instantiate itself. On the one hand, there is love; on the other, there is a prospect of naturalism within the religion, which is not the human within the divine, so much as it is an alternative source of opposition to humanity, within which we already dwell. Wyatt, hero of the novel as he is, is afforded glimpses of both, though there are other characters who do also. At the end of the second section, in the long conversation with Wyatt, Basil Valentine flaunts: “Would you be surprised, if I told you about myself, as much about myself as I know about you? Why I know that I hate them, where you wish you could love them.” The “them” are the people in crowds, the strangers passing on the streets. Wyatt’s dedication to art as he understands it has shut him off from the realization of such love, but it emanates from his, as it were, physical presence in the novel, as it does from that of other characters, Agnes Deigh and probably Stanley. The “love” is not love for God, Money, or the perfection of Art, though all three are necessarily implicated in all of those; instead it is the love of one person for another—the basic sense of “recognition” of oneself by another that is itself identity and selfhood (the sort of recognition that Otto and his father fail to have). As for the naturalism, scraps of it are detected where the narrator seems to absorb the pagan spiritualism of Wyatt’s father, the Reverend Gwyon, perhaps giving us access to Wyatt’s conscious: “Their death pursuing its descent, the Piute Indians followed the sun to that hole where it crawled in at the end of the earth, creeping constricted to earth’s center, there to sleep out the night, and to waken and creep on to the eastern portal. The sun emerges, eating the stars its children as it rises, its only nourishment; and those on earth at the dawn see only its brilliant belly distended with stars.” And Wyatt, to Valentine, earlier in the section, referring to Clovis’ conversion to Christianity: “He gave up the sun for that. Mithra, the sun god, and Clovis threw him over. Why, even the Stoics believed the sun was animated and intelligent, and Clovis throws him over eight hundred years later, just like that.” Gaddis was, he has repeatedly said, and everyone heard, reading Frazer’s Golden Bough, and religions were seeming, to him, a recycled heap; he may also have had Pound’s Cantos in his mind (“Down down went Tammuz” is a myth Gaddis and Pound share. But I detect something closer to Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” too: an escape from myth by a reawakening of the world that myth grew out of, and overtook, and effectively hid.
I am not half-way through the novel on this re-read, and my memory is not confident in saying whether this last hunch will be borne out. Likely it will need revision.