Giving a speech years after the novel was published, William Gaddis recalled feeling momentary surprise, followed by understanding, when a reader of The Recognitions told him that she had found in the novel a defense of Catholicism. He had, after all, been much intrigued, even taken by, Catholic theology as he wrote, as any reader of the novel must realize. I paraphrase of course, but it is clear that to say that a defense of Catholicism lives in the novel is not to say that the novel is itself a defense of Catholicism; it is not. What’s more, the novel’s form—and the formal innovation of Gaddis, building on the polyphonous range of Dickens, Dostoevsky, and the modernist dissolution of a single vantage point, is at one with just how much he achieves—is a rebuke to the most intensely felt Catholicism, and spirituality, of his characters: Gaddis finds amazing, I suspect, their capacity for such a vision and set of beliefs, but his own choice of form is itself a statement that such a vision is inadequate to life (however adequate it is to God). Art that loves only God, and the perfection and eternal situation of God, cannot do justice, as a coherent work of art, to the swirling mass of humans in the world; Gaddis’ novel can only do so by not aspiring to perfection or eternity, and by embracing instead flaw, contingency, ephemera, and sense of time that is staccato, broken, always fleeting beyond the attention of the novelist. Against his novel, forming a triangle of opposition, and admiration, must be set the paintings of Wyatt and the music of Stanley, the latter two representing alternatives that Gaddis rejects. They would claim that they have found what must be the ground for the real; but Gaddis’ art reveals instead the real emerging, unexpectedly, often without being recognized, in the cascading doubts and poignant yearning for a ‘real’ that stands apart from time, that can provide a foundation to identity, to love, and to life—when no such is possible.
Stanley’s vision of artistic perfection, and of reality, is voiced at the Christmas Eve party that Esther has thrown on behalf of a prize-winning poet who unexpected turns up, to nobody’s particular excitement: “That’s what it is, a disease, you can’t live like we do without catching it. Because we get time given to us in fragments, that’s the only way we know it. Finally we can’t even conceive of a continuum of time. Every fragment exists by itself, and that’s why we live among palimpsests, because finally all the work should fit into one whole, an express an entire perfect action.” The unity of time and the unity of art are, for Stanley, one; but Gaddis accepts the fragments of time and the fragmentation of his materials, building that fragmentation into the form of his work itself, so it’s unity is the fragmentation of voices—the separations both between individual voices and within individuals as they voice themselves. It is by way of over-hearing, catching at, setting against, placing in a design that adjudicates without overtly discussing (the novelists art since Austen and Richardson—but taken to a greater extreme by Gaddis) that he can capture within that flux and fragmentation a sense of something that is, if not permanent or eternal, at least sufficiently stable to call “real,” to call a “self”,” and so can respond to Anselm’s impassioned objection (at the same party) to the critic: “You can’t argue that way, you can’t discuss absolutes in relative terms…You can’t, you can’t do that with absolutes, you either accept them or you tell them to take a flying fuck…” Gaddis does not need to argue that way because he discovers a space to express the yearning for absolutes in fragmentation, rather than—as happens to Stanley—discovering fragmentation in the faith in absolutes. A crucial passage describes the party as a whole, and in so describing the party, its unity of dissolution, describes also the effect of Gaddis’ impossible art:
The music had, by now, become a fixture in the room; it was as though it had combined with the smoke and the incongruous scents into a tangible presence, the slag of refinement rising over a furnace, where the alchemist waited with a lifetime’s patience, staring into his improbably complex of ingredients as dissimilar in nature as in proportion, commingling but refusing to fuse there under his hand, and as unaware of his hand as of their own purpose, so that some sank and others came in entirety to the surface, all that as though nothing had changed since the hand sifted the scoria of the Middle Ages for what all ages have sought, and found, as they find, that what they seek has been itself refined away, leaving only the cinders of necessity.
Wyatt is the alchemist in the novel, his medieval science an impossibility; but the description here can more positively be read as affirming Gaddis’ own art, the voices “refusing to fuse,” the materials their “their own purpose, so that some sank and others came in entirety to the surface,” a description of his own method in the party scene he assembles—and I do not think that he does seek what has been refined away, or at any rate finds something real in the tumbling scoria (rock) and cinders of his characters’ attempts at locating and approximating the authentic and real.
Otto, for instance, is never more himself than when he recognizes his own mis-spent feelings, speaking to Esther: “And this, this mess, ransacking this mess looking for your own feelings and trying to rescue them but it’s too late, you can’t even recognize them when they come to the surface because they’ve been spent everywhere and, vulgarized and exploited and wasted and spent wherever we could, they keep demanding and you keep paying and you can’t…and then all of a sudden somebody asks you to pay in gold and you can’t. Yes, you can’t, you haven’t got it, and you can’t.” But Esther’s response is itself a sane reminder that the notion that the world demands gold (something “real,” set against the counterfeit bills that he carries; the aim of the alchemist’s art) is itself a futile dream: “Where have you been asked to pay in gold?” Esther’s generosity, her care, and her own fragility even, provide, in their openness to others, their desire to attend to people as people, a counterpart to the idealism of, say, Stanley, whom Anselm (who is himself torn between religious love and human love, for Charles) accuses: “you go around accusing people of refusing to humble themselves and submit to the love of Christ and you’re the one, you’re the one who refuses love, you’re the one all the time who can’t face it, who can’t face loving, and being loved right here, right in this lousy world, this God-damned world where you are right now, right…” Most often, the necessity of earthly love is realized by the women in the novel, even if they are in turn broken by those they would love (the novel is very much centered on male characters, but they are responsible for damage to women that Gaddis does not wish to make seem heroic, necessary, or glamorously masculine—that is instead pathetic).
The superb Christmas party ends with a set-piece of people literally picking one another from the floor; it is not love, but it is dependency, but it sets into relief what is missing and necessary for so many, even if then novel cannot offer a positive vision of what that love might be—any more than any of its characters can do so; because none of its characters can do so.