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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

William Gaddis 3: It really doesn't mean anything


Fears of mechanization were all the rage, the word “technocracy” was making the rounds. When he wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1935, the calamitous Walter Benjamin was but one of the prophets of doom who saw technology encroaching on the psyche and the arts. Mechanization’s reverse was authenticity, an aesthetic cornerstone of the modernist temple. By 1955 Gaddis was inside moseying around its many rooms.
 

Consider this speech by Otto to Esther: “I mean I get used to myself at night, it takes that long sometimes. The first thing in the morning I feel sort of undefined, but by midnight you've done all the things you have to do, I mean all the things like meeting people and, you know, and paying bills, and by night those things are done because by then there's nothing you can do about them if they aren't done, so there you are alone and you have the things that matter, after the whole day you can sort of take everything that's happened and go over it alone. I mean I'm never really sure who I am until night, he added.” This is one of the many moments of existential malaise that afflicts the characters. It often goes unstated that The Recognitions movingly portrays loneliness. A well-read reader in 1955 should at least have thought of Sartre’s “Bad Faith” section in Being and Nothingness, in which he discusses the café waiter as a symbol of modern man’s need to wear masks, play roles and eschew his authenticity to conform:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavour to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight "fixed at ten paces"). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.

Sartre was another thinker deeply worried about man’s proclivity to becoming an automaton. For him one symptom is the individual losing his individuality as he becomes indistinct from his profession. This happens to Wyatt, at times it looks like he’s becoming a painting: “This God damn world of shapes and smells you say you live in, you'll turn into one of them”, Brown warns him:

   Recktall Brown came round the chairs, and their paths converged. He raised his arm, and it came to rest. —I can feel your bones right through your shoulder. Don't you eat anything?

   —Your reassurance strengthens me, for I have sensed I felt them there myself. But no one has confirmed me in some time.

This is a strange thing to say of a person, even more of oneself: objects, say pictures, are “confirmed”, especially when their authenticity is in doubt and requires evaluation; but a counterfeit can only be ascertained in relation to an original. Goods are counterfeit if a corporation that owns the rights to a brand being counterfeited says they are; but there is no original for people but their own self. The difference is that whereas counterfeit goods do not damage the integrity of the original (counterfeits and originals are often manufactured in the same factories by the same workers), inauthenticity in a person pollutes the original itself – the pollution in fact stems from it.

Confirming authenticity in the case of pictures involves several steps, one of them being “provenance”, establishing the ownership and sale of a picture across time through documentation, which I learned while writing my novel is a process much enjoyed by forgers because recent receipts of sale are easier to fake than ancient paintings. For more on this fascinating I I recommend Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo’s Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, it’s filled with worrying details of how vulnerable institutions are to fake provenance.

But a painting has also been confirmed after science has been through with it. When Wyatt is hiding under a fake alias in a Spanish monastery where he works as an art restorer, he claims three times, “I have passed all the scientific tests”. This is an ambiguous sentence, to me anyway, because it can mean two things: a painting passes all tests either because science doesn’t accuse incongruences and so it’s considered authentic; or because it’s such a good fake it fools science and so it’s considered authentic.

For another instance of parallel structures, Gaddis has Brown commend Wyatt for restoring a Dutch painting: “You couldn't tell it had been touched. Even an expert couldn't tell, without all the chemical tests and X-rays, an expert told me that himself.” On reread, an earlier scene with a young Wyatt bedridden with a mysterious fever acquires a whole new meaning:

Wyatt was taken with a fever which burned him down to seventy-nine pounds. In this refined state he was exhibited to medical students in the amphitheater of a highly endowed hospital. They found it a very interesting case, and said so. In fact they said very little else. Physicians, technicians, and internes X-rayed the boy from every possible angle, injected his arms with a new disease they believed they could cure, took blood by the bottleful from one arm to investigate, and poured the blood of six other people into the other. They collected about his bed and pounded him, tapped his chest, thrust with furious hands for his liver, pumped his stomach with a lead-weighted tube, kneaded his groin, palped his spleen, and recorded the defiant beats of his heart with electric machinery.

To add another level of complexity, the idea of passing all tests also echoes Wyatt’s return to Mount Lamentation to see his father, who’s fully embraced Mithraism. Gwyon wants him to become “Mithra’s priest” too and although Wyatt at first shows inclination to finally follow in his footsteps (Aunt May wanted him to be a priest), he’s scared by the ordeals ahead of him. “You cannot be his priest without passing through all the disciplines”, says Gwyon. “I have passed through all the grades, of course, to be the Pater Patrum.” With this in mind, Wyatt’s thrice repeated line becomes deeply ambiguous to me: is he translating to painterly lingo his father’s language? Is he becoming a priest of painting in the sense the modernist artists behaved like a clergy devoted to art? That doesn’t seem to be the case since in fact he has apparently given up copying and restoring art in favor of living a life with Pastora and their daughter. Whether Wyatt has finally achieved authenticity or not is up for grabs, although he paraphrases Thoreau at the end when he says, “Now at last, to live deliberately”. To me at least art making doesn’t loom in his horizon anymore.

Let’s not forget that Gaddis’ views are not Wyatt’s. Wyatt’s fundamentalist Calvinist upbringing plays a role in his complicated relation with art. The Calvinists being iconoclasts, Aunt May makes him grow up with a complex about making new illustrations. Although at first he shows her a drawing of a robin, hence a copy of nature, her ban on art doesn’t stop at recreating reality, but at adding new things to the world; at best he can copy illustrations. A Catholic wouldn’t have her scruples about competing with God, at least I can’t help thinking that the Catholic Stanley is the artist in the novel with the fewest mental hang-ups regarding art, patiently completing his music, even if it kills him once he plays it.

Sartre’s waiter also echoes a recurring theme in The Recognitions: selling out. The fear of inauthenticity was a burdensome legacy modernism bequeathed to us, they saw its danger latent in the artist’s temptation to compromise with philistine taste. This fear probably started with the Romantics, the first to erect a barrier against the sold-out culture of bourgeois philistinism. According to Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, it wasn’t until Romanticism that the effects of the Gutenberg press started taking its toll on writers’ anxiety about originality; he argued that until then it hadn’t been easy to keep available a set of texts that created a historical conscience. That’s certainly true, but the Romantics were also fighting against a spiritual withdrawal. Neoclassicism, in wake of the Enlightened scientism that shook religious belief, caused a drought for the imagination. Poetry during the 18th century wasn’t just pressured to conform to classical ideals of beauty, it was pressured to imitate science. In Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, Ong says that, as the forefathers of the scientific method brought down the humanist education that kept poetry connected to the imagery of myth and religion, “we find ranking high among its last major productions such things as the five-thousand-line poem by the Jesuit scientist Boscovich entitled The Eclipse of the Sun and Moon, which explained Newtonian physics, or the three-thousand-line paraphrase of Newton’s Opticks by Paolo Lucini.” It doesn’t sound very appetizing. At the same time there was a growing class culled from the bourgeoisie, the “reading public”, whose safe, conventional taste mirrored in science’s subjugation of aesthetic criteria to virtues of clarity, order, commonsense and truthfulness made them easy victims of a new, mediocre genre called “novel” that told “stories” to while away the time. The Romantics were the first to feel acutely the intrusion of scientism on the psychic realm of art; but since they had no way of returning to tradition because it had been disenchanted and discredited by science, they could only make art out of something science couldn’t invade: their selves. Tradition, which for someone like T. S. Eliot was the totality of artists’ contribution to an art form, is a poor secular replacement of technical tradition within a sensibility attuned to a religious worldview shared by Christian artists up to the 18th century. When Fra Angelico painted an Annunciation or a Madonna, it mattered less to him that he had behind him a handful of masters than that he had the techniques to best render biblical episodes whose underlying truth he believed in and wanted to communicate to other believers; Michelangelo believed in the figures of his ceiling, even the pagan myths had a role as coded forerunners of Christianity. But the scientific outlook destroyed the link between that tradition and truth, it rendered them into fictions, and so, to quote Basil Willey, the “new poet must therefore either make poetry out of the direct dealings of his mind and heart with the visible universe, or he must fabricate a genuine new mythology of his own (not necessarily rejecting all old material in so doing).” If tradition had been proven to be fiction, why should a poet inauthentically pretend it retained the same power it did during the age of faith? In a meaningless universe that had vanquished the myths that gave it meaning, why should an artist be beholden to another artist from a century ago if they were equally lumps of flesh doing art for no purpose? For a poet feeling so alone, “if poetry were still to be made, it must be made by the sheer unaided power of the individual poet.” Hence their confidence in the unlimited powers of the godlike artist instead of the Enlightened bourgeois primacy of neoclassicism, which was precisely the height of inauthenticity since it preached imitation of themes the intellectual climate made it impossible to believe in anymore. But although paraphrases of science and slavish imitations didn’t cease, we now remember from that era not Lucini and Boscovich but Coleridge and Wordsworth, who looked inward, and William Blake, who’d rather create his own system to being enslaved by another man's. All artists are still romantics, even the modernists, even Gaddis, or else he would have written a conventional novel instead of adopting techniques from his contemporaries. Eliot saw that the role of the individual in tradition’s continuum was not to seek its pristine form but to be aware of it as a whole so that he could leave a stamp on it: “Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” An earnest traditionalist who just churns out replicas is akin to a zombie, a consciousness not fully awake.

Basil Willey, in The Seventeenth Century Background, showed that art, until science rendered it useless, for Christians was one of many equally valid ways of explaining the world, when that meant divine revelation. Although science is the best method we know of explaining how the world works, it can only provide so accurate predictions by denying it any intrinsic meaning; more, emboldened by its early successes, it soon gave way to a religion called scientism that decrees that only science possesses the tools to explain anything, and that it can explain everything, even art. This presumption has taken many guises: evolutionary psychology had a shot at it but didn’t hit anything but shadows on the wall; nowadays we’re taking pictures of brain activity when people stare at a painting or read a verse. That instinct we all possess to feel embarrassed for others is usually activated in me when I’m subjected to neuroscientists explaining the beautiful, because it doesn’t take long to realize that they’re just spouting subjective tastes disguised as facts. Years ago I read V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain, an excellent tour of the brain; but when he got to the chapter of why we find some things beautiful but not others the author goes off the rails like a train carrying dynamite crashing against a vast museum containing all of “ugly” modern art to erase it in one purifying bonfire. Look, I wouldn’t give a damn if all of Rothko turned to ash confetti, but keep your hands off Pollock!

A while ago the believer in big numbers Franco Moretti thought that crunching millions of words’ worth of classics would reveal something new about them. Moretti is one in a long line of literary critics who thinks he's found the key to turn literary criticism into a proper exact science. In 2014, he stated in Distant Reading, “We know how to read texts. Now let’s learn how to not read them.” But only three years later he admitted that “Our results are not as good as what I had hoped for 10 or 15 years ago. We have not yet created a revolution in knowledge.” An article in The New York Times did try to make it look like “modest-seeming results — like the finding that from 1785 to 1900 the language of the British novel steadily shifted away from words relating to moral judgment to words associated with concrete description — unsettle established ideas of literary history.”, but even though it’s useful to have statistical data about this phenomenon, it only backs up the rise of the impersonal novel discussed in Part 1 and whose development was noted at every turn by Flaubet, Zola in “The Experimental Novel”, James, Chekhov, Lubbock, Magny, Castellet, Sartre, Ian Watt, the Roland Barthes of Writing Degree Zero, and Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, namely that since the 18th century the novel has tried to behave like a neutral scientific observer, hence it’s jettisoned subjective intrusion and commentary in favor of direct, objective, external, yes concrete description. For Christ’s sake, Clara Reeve’s was talking about that shift in The Progress of the Romance (1785)!

This reductionist bias is mocked by Wyatt when he has a conversation with Ludy, a middlebrow American novelist in Spain in search of a religious experience to report to readers back home:

   That's what they say about Leonardo now. Doctors say it, eye doctors. You'd be surprised. That's the secret of her enigmatic smile.

   —What? Whose?

   —The Mona Lisa, the Mona Lisa . . . whose! he muttered impatiently, without looking up. —Science explains it to us now. The man who painted her picture couldn't see what he was doing. She didn't really have an enigmatic smile, that woman. But he couldn't see what he was doing. Leonardo had eye trouble.

Wyatt is scornful of the view that creativity is reducible to material explanations: “With science you take things apart and then we all understand them, then we can all do them. Get things nice and separated. Then you can be reasonable. Leonardo just needed glasses. That's the enigma.” But this was how positivism was explaining art in the 19th century: Hyppolite Taine came up with the famous three factors that explain a work of art: race, milieu and moment/time. If you shored up all the facts about the artist regarding these factors, then his psychology, his intentions, his moral view no longer held any secrets. Such forays into the natural world had led John Keats to complain that Newton had “Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism”, but not even art was safe. Art appreciation went from focusing on the experience of the work itself, which is subjective and hard to keep under science’s control, to focusing on external baubles that can fake a bit of concretude: after all, diaries, private letters do exist and can be analyzed like stones and flowers. Another positivist, Ernest Renan, got ahead of Moretti when he claimed in L’Aveninr de la Science (1848), “Literary history is destined to replace to a large extent the direct reading of the works of the human spirit.” (“L’histoire littéraire est destinée à remplacer en grande partie la lecture directe des œuvres de l’esprit humain.”) Renan found this quite an exhilarating prospect. In part, this is why modernist fiction hides the author behind a hermetic screen, it seeks to keep critics busy not with a fleeting ghostly presence but with symbols, patterns, allusions.

Science, however, can only explain what a thing materially is, it can’t explain what it's for. To reduce the Mona Lisa smile to Leonardo myopia says nothing of what countless interpreters have seen in it, why it exerts intellectual and emotional effect on us, why we find it beautiful, nor does it satisfy our need for it to have a deeper meaning. Ultimately it can’t even prove that Leonardo needed glasses, that’s just a working hypothesis. What it does is try to become an intermediary between us and art, to stop us from having direct contact with the work, to make us see it from a pinched materialistic perspective. As such, science can be said to turn people inauthentic, since they trust their gizmos more than their own experience. They grow used to thinking only science can provide the right answers, but the right answer often amounts to trivial nonsense.

Science, once upon a method to deliver us from superstition, has enslaved the mind too. A bunch of American tourists are visiting Spain. Instead of enjoying the experience, taking chances, adapting to their surroundings, the strangeness around them scares them into soliciting from science a spurious control over the unknown:

   Have you looked at the bread? I don't mean tasted it, but just look at it. It's practically turning red.

   —My husband would know what it is, said the woman with the ring, examining a piece of the bread. She broke it, and the fine gray texture crumbled. —My husband's in food chemistry. He studied toxicology at Yale. Her husband took the bread from her and examined it with a pocket magnifying glass. —He's with the Necrostyle people, she said, —you must know their products? Then she nudged her husband, and whispered that maybe he was being impolite, —because they're very sensitive, these people. Even if they're monks.

   —Micrococcus prodigiosus, he pronounced, snapping the glass closed and looking up with his cheery smile, —It forms sometimes on stale food kept in a dry place. Looks like blood, doesn't it. —He's giving you a funny look, the woman with the ring said to her husband. And when at a sign from the figure at the head of the table, the bread was taken unobtrusively away, she whispered, —Oh dear, I wonder if we hurt his feelings…

Instead of tasting the bread, which the locals eat without consequences, scientific jargon (“Micrococcus prodigiosus”) soothes them like the Latin mass ritual Medieval peasants didn’t understand, and they’re convinced they’ve mastered the unknown because bread like the Mona Lisa has been broken down into its components. Such tourists are not looking for an authentic experience, they don’t crave immersion in a foreign culture or an adventure, but to sit in judgement on a culture they remain superior to.

Science doesn’t just seek to reveal art’s secrets, technology even dispenses with the skill learning that ensures its survival and vitality. Although technology is frequently spoken of as an extension of man, the truth is that it poses a threat to the full development of his potential. Hence Gaddis’ comical fury over the player piano, an excuse for lazy people not to bother to actually learn to play the piano. In the early 20th century it was evident that science had not made knowledge the province of ordinary man. In a 1918 lecture called “Science as Vocation”, Max Weber claimed that people were mistaken in thinking it had helped us understand more about the world. What it had done was create a class of people, scientists, who do know more, and “laymen” (notice the religious undertone), who because specialization was monopolized by the new priestly class were exempted from knowing anything:

“Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may 'count' on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools. When we spend money today I bet that even if there are colleagues of political economy here in the hall, almost every one of them will hold a different answer in readiness to the question: How does it happen that one can buy something for money ‐‐ sometimes more and sometimes less? The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit.”

As a rationalist, Weber wasn’t complaining, just stating an inevitable consequence: “The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives”, he said. “It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.  This above all is what intellectualization means.”

The Romantics, besides the first to realize that the world was heading toward intellectualization, were the first to do something about it. Whatever the solution, assuming there was even one, or was necessary, art was going to play a crucial role in it. Wyatt’s German teacher, Herr Koppel, calls “originality” the “romantic disease”, but originality for the early Romantics was a way of being authentic, not unlike how for existentialist characters behaving erratically is sign of their natural freedom, since they’re free even from psychological coherence. Actually, the Romantics and the modernists weren’t that different, they equally believed that behind the modern world’s crummy façade of meaninglessness there was an authentic palace that man had been evicted from. “The world must be romanticized”, preached on Novalis in 1798. “So its original meaning will again be found.” Whatever this was was real for him, and even if he admitted the “process is still wholly unknown”, his upbeat, naïve, proto-hippie, happy-go-lucky, New-Agey guess to bringing it about that involved “investing the commonplace with a lofty significance, the ordinary with a mysterious aspect, the familiar with the prestige of the unfamiliar, the finite with the semblance of infinity”, which incidentally is very good writing advice.

But a century later the belief that poetry could halt intellectualization had given way to more desperate shock tactics. Jean Moréas, for instance, thought that the masses in the meantime had become soulless robots, the final step on the triumph of technology over life. Perhaps it would be pedagogical to rub that on their false faces. With that in mind, here’s why it’s not inaccurate to see The Recognitions as a reply to his ideal Symbolist novel:

The conception of the symbolic novel is polymorphous: sometimes a single person moves in a social ethos deformed by his own hallucinations, his temperament; in this deformation there lies the sole reality. Beings with a mechanical gesture, with shadowy silhouettes, flicker around this unique character; they are mere excuses for sensation and conjecture. He himself is a tragic mask, or a buffoon, but an embodiment of humanity, however, that though perfect is rational. – Sometimes crowds, superficially affected by the gathering of representations surrounding them, drive themselves, through alternating conflict and stagnation, towards acts which remain incomplete. At times, their will as individuals is manifested; they attract each other, mass together, become generalized for a purpose which, achieved or lost, disperses them to their primitive elements. – Sometimes evocations of mythical phantasms, from ancient Demogorgon to Belial, from the Cabiri to the Necromancers, appear in ostentatious fashion on Caliban’s rocky isle, or in Titania’s woods, to the Mixolydian modes of barbitons and octachords. 

“A single person moves in a social ethos deformed by his own hallucinations”: that sounds a lot like Gwyon, whose sanity is slipping as he trains for Mithraism; like Wyatt, whose mind is slipping as he upholds Art in a society that has no value for it; like Stanley, whose faith is so pure he almost looks abnormal in such a degraded milieu of nihilists, cynics, cheats, careerists, and hedonists.

“Beings with a mechanical gesture, with shadowy silhouettes, flicker around this unique character”: Wyatt, the protagonist, is the only one with a backstory; the other characters show up from nowhere, enter his life, often touch it only tangentially, many do remain shadowy silhouettes. “He himself is a tragic mask, or a buffoon, but an embodiment of humanity”: this describes Wyatt, Stanley and even Otto, especially when they hide under aliases. “Sometimes crowds, superficially affected by the gathering of representations surrounding them, drive themselves, through alternating conflict and stagnation, towards acts which remain incomplete.” Characters often interact in crowded parties, stagnant save for chitchat, and nothing ever seems to resolve itself, not even speech, which is filled with holes.

“At times, their will as individuals is manifested; they attract each other, mass together, become generalized for a purpose which, achieved or lost, disperses them to their primitive elements.” This motley of characters often forms groups and breaks up in several configurations throughout the novel: Sinisterra meets Otto; then meets Wyatt; Esme models for Wyatt and is courted by Otto; she also knows Chaby; Esther cheats Wyatt with Otto and later dumps him for Ellery. “Sometimes evocations of mythical phantasms, from ancient Demogorgon to Belial, from the Cabiri to the Necromancers, appear in ostentatious fashion on Caliban’s rocky isle, or in Titania’s woods, to the Mixolydian modes of barbitons and octachords.” Tidbits of mythical and Christian erudition saturate the novel; not to mention it’s patterned after an actual myth, Faust. (Speaking of symbolist novels, one day someone needs to compare Against Nature's Des Esseinte’s vast erudition with The Recognitions.) Plus it can be read as an allegory of inner alchemy. Wyatt has at home The Secret of the Golden Flower, an 8th-century Chinese book about neidan, inner alchemy, teachings of self-improvement. It gained traction in Europe when it was translated from Chinese into German by Richard Wilhelm, a friend of Carl Jung, who was deeply interested in the allegory of alchemy as an inward journey and not as the commonly known pseudoscience that attempted to turn base metals into gold. As Otto tries to explain to Esther, after one of his talks with Wyatt that as usual goes over his head: “Yes but, I mean today we were talking about alchemy, and the mysteries that, about the redemption of matter, and that it wasn't just making gold, trying to make real gold, but that matter… Matter, he said matter was a luxury, was our great luxury, and that matter, I mean redemption…” Gaddis was really ahead of the curve because this view of alchemy was recent at the time. According to Mike A. Zuber in his Spiritual Alchemy: From Jacob Boehme to Mary Anne Atwood, it wasn’t until the mid-19th-century that alchemy as a way of self-improvement started gaining currency in esoteric circles. Mary Anne Atwood was a pioneer, as was Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who tried to give it a “moral interpretation” in which the philosopher's stone actually stood for truth, goodness, moral perfection. From here on thinkers like Mircea Eliade and Jung started treating it as a spiritual quest.

Besides Moréas, we can trace the idea of a doll-like man spewing recorded gibberish back to Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900):

1. Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or doing, as a result of inelasticity or momentum, is, as we are aware, one of the main sources of the comic. Thus, absentmindedness is essentially laughable, and so we laugh at anything rigid, ready-made, mechanical in gesture, attitude and even facial expression. Do we find this kind of rigidity in language also? No doubt we do, since language contains ready-made formulas and stereotyped phrases. The man who always expressed himself in such terms would invariably be comic. But if an isolated phrase is to be comic in itself, when once separated from the person who utters it, it must be something more than ready-made, it must bear within itself some sign which tells us, beyond the possibility of doubt, that it was uttered automatically. This can only happen when the phrase embodies some evident absurdity, either a palpable error or a contradiction in terms. Hence the following general rule: A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS FITTED INTO A WELL-ESTABLISHED PHRASE-FORM.

For an example of speech as a stiffened soundbite, consider Herschel. Herschel has to attend parties where people talk a lot about painting, so not to feel excluded he devises performative strategies to sound intelligent without saying anything perceptive. “When Arny arrived, with a full quart by the throat, Herschel was already revealing his latest arcanum: —Chavenet. It really doesn't mean anything, but it's familiar to everybody if you say it quickly. They mention a painter's style, you nod and say, Rather… chavenet, or, He's rather derivative of, Chavenet wouldn't you say?” As this shibboleth takes on life of its own, “Chavenet turned out to be the man who had first proved that the eye which forms the image could not possibly have worked until after it was complete.” But Herschel is responsible for another similar ploy:Up four flights of stairs, Herschel instructed Adeline. —They all talk about painting. Now remember, no matter what anyone says, you just comment on the solids in Uccello. You can say you don't like them, or say they're divine. Can you remember that? The solids in Oochello, can you say that?” Pages later: “From a conversation on the excellent abstract composition in isolated fragments of Constable, rose Adeline's voice, —like the solids in Oochello…” Soon this meaningless expression is being repeated by others: “—Max seems to have a good sense of spatial values, said a youth on their right, weaving aside to allow Esme to pass, —but his solids can't compare, say, with the solids in Uccello. And where is abstract without solids, I ask you?”

Gaddis was born in 1922, a year with pedigree. Besides Ulysses and more importantly to him The Wasteland, it was also the year the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin came up with the concept of “noosphere”, a planetary consciousness that would connect nervous and technological systems into one super-system that would reconnect mankind with God. This idea found a huge fan in the Catholic convert Marshall McLuhan, whose work is filled with Chardin’s mysticism. Chardin, curiously, died in 1955. McLuhan believed that new digital media could be used to reconnect people with God. In his doctor’s thesis, The Classical Trivium (1943), he showed how according to patristic exegesis God had given man two ways of reconstruction his message: the Gospels and Creation. The grammaticus canvased creation and conglobed it into a whole since everything divine spark was ingrained in everything, everything was a letter from His message. Chardin was also an advocate of panpsychism, the theory that everything, even inert matter, is imbued with consciousness, remarkably an idea that’s making a comeback from actual scientists. Chardin, like so many thinkers with a metaphysical inclination, had a problem with Darwinism since it poses a tremendous challenge to an idealistic view of the world. Some thinkers did try to find alternatives to Darwinism, like Bergson in Creative Evolution, but facts never back them up. Chardin tried another approach: instead of negating Darwinism, he just rendered it useless henceforth; humans would continue to evolve, but not biologically, they weren’t going to grow faster, taller, stronger, our mechanical extensions obviate that need; the next step in evolution is spiritual. For McLuhan, the interconnected world of the media would be an update and a replacement of patristic exegesis, we’d all join in a single organism: we’d abandon crude materiality and become more and more spiritual. Imagine if he had lived long enough to see the internet. The ultimate hope is that such spiritual revolution would result in living more authentic lives. But things didn’t pan out as he hoped, if anything the internet has only fostered inauthenticity.

What I like about the noosphere is that it’s also a tentative narrative model for The Recognitions, a world of connections, magical symmetries and patterns, affinities and analogies, which is more or less how the Medieval grammatici saw God’s handiwork. I have no idea whether Gaddis was even remotely aware of any of this, I’m just trying to place him in a continuum of ideas. It’s even unclear whether Gaddis had religious faith, I don’t think so, but it’s undeniable that he was deeply interested in modernism’s spiritual side that aggregated so many Christian poets, mystics, magicians, idealistic philosophers. As far as I can see Eliot was his gateway into this weird and wondrous world. Many modernists wanted to reenchant the world after science had shaken belief; they weren’t necessarily believers in organized religion, but they felt that a spiritual dimension was missing from modern life that impoverished man and made him vulnerable to the forces of demagogy, advertising, kitsch, commodification, selling out. Fear of kitsch was at an all-time high when Gaddis was writing the novel, Theodor W. Adorno had recently coined “the culture industry”, the mass production of kitsch to keep the middle class sated with simulacra of art. One character has a wristwatch with Mickey Mouse on it, and it’s a kind of Mickey Mouse time they live in, an eternal present without meaning, just mindless fun. “In a world where everything is for sale, where value is price and price is value, where feelings are bartered, and the sentimental fake no longer distinguished from the genuine article, the artist becomes a modernist, and culture escapes to a garret, high above the market place”, wrote Roger Scruton in Modern Culture. When Wyatt, destined to become a priest, instead chooses to follow art he is following in the footsteps of his ancestors, not the Gwyon lineage, but those artists who turned to art as if it were a calling.

For the Romantic, when the Enlightenment bourgeoisie imposed the values of commerce and prosperity it left the world awash in crassness, greed, amorality. Romanticism sought refuge in nostalgia for bygone days; Realism, an offspring of the Enlightenment, reported its effects, blamed capitalism and tried to overtake it; Modernism, instead of retreating into a nostalgic Middle Ages or joining a political party, fought back with elitist hostility, shut off art from the profane masses, built a bulwark safe from cheapness and fakeness. Modernist art is so hermetic because it seeks to keep the profane outside, it expects lifelong commitment, it expects scholars who’ll interpret them like theological commentators deciphering a sacred text. In principle, the reward of so much difficulty is reconnecting with that enriching spiritual sensation that once belonged to faith and now is scarce and scorned. Scruton wrote perceptively about this: “Acutely conscious of the death of God, Wagner proposed man as his own redeemer and art as the transfiguring rite of passage to a higher world.” For him modernist texts encoded the values that passed away when Enlightenment and bourgeoisie destroyed faith, unleashing meaninglessness, making people incomplete, incapable of being uplifted and lifted to their spiritual potential. Again on Wagner: “He therefore tried to create a new musical public, one that would not merely see the point of the heroic ideal, but also adopt it. This attempt was already doomed when Wagner first conceived it, and his sacerdotal presumptions have never ceased to alienate those who feel threatened by his message.”

One reason why even art had devalued and needed rescuing was its democratization eased by mechanical reproduction. The printing press had been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 19th that “the press” became associated with journalism because finally there was lots of it. From the mid-1860s onward complaints by writers about journalism grow into an avalanche; I didn’t understand why Flaubert, Baudelaire, Kraus hated it so much until I started browsing 19th-century periodicals, and it’s quite a lesson in literary history. I can hardly imagine the psychological trauma it must have been for people who grew up thinking being a poet was being part of a sacred tribe of immortals like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Camões, Milton, Blake, suddenly finding crappy jingles and sentimental quatrains everywhere, phalanxes of fifth-rate poems, thousands of them every year, the pinnacle of Literature doubly devalued by talentless hacks and by the measly cents a newspaper cost. It was at best a sobering experience to make them rethink their vocation, because tradition had assured that the poet was inspired by gods and muses, which the Romantics turned into genius, but it turns out that all they really needed was a bit of technical know-how and a good Dictionary of Rhymes. My experience reading those poems is that they were counterfeits, “poetry” passing off as poetry to sate a middle class that wished to cultivate the arts as status signal.

But when it comes to finding culprits for art’s cheapening and kitsch’s hegemony, Gaddis reserves his prodigious indignation to roasting advertising, or as McLuhan called it, the “Folklore of Industrial Man”. Advertising corrodes and corrupts in the pursuit of dollars, the will to sell debases and mocks values, meaning, tradition, high art, religion:

—Hi, gang! Your friend Lazarus the Laughing Leper brings you radio's newest kiddies' program, The Lives of the Saints, sponsored by Necrostyle. Before we hear from your friend Lazarus, just let me ask you a question. Does Mummy have trouble sleeping? If she does, and ha ha what Mummy doesn't, ask her if she knows about Necrostyle, the wafer-shaped sleeping pill. Remember the story Laughing Lazarus told you last week, kids? About the saint who didn't sleep for the last eight years of her life? That's right. Agatha of the Cross. But Mummy's not a saint, is she. Mummy needs her sleep. Tell her about Necrostyle, if she doesn't already know. Don't forget, kids, Necrostyle, the wafer-shaped sleeping pill. No chewing, no aftertaste.

Like Ellery, Esther’s new flame, says, “It’s a big account, Necrostyle Products. That's the way to get at them, through the kids.” This segues later into another unusually articulate, …-free speech by Morgie, one of Ellery’s buddies at television, when he complains about the intellectuals’ inability to understand the importance of advertising:

“It's too simple. It's too goddam simple for them to understand. They still think their cigarettes would cost them half as much without advertising. The whole goddam high standard of American life depends on the American economy. The whole goddam American economy depends on mass production. To sustain mass production you got to have a mass market. To sustain a goddam mass market you got to have advertising. That's all there is to it. A product would drop out of sight overnight without advertising, I don't care what it is, a book or a brand of soap, it would drop out of sight. We've had the goddam Ages of Faith, we've had the goddam Age of Reason. This is the Age of Publicity.”

Although the modernists raised a hermetic barrier between art and advertising, brick by brick it collapsed because the masses were empowered by it and decided not to keep down in reverence of high art. A passage in Scruton’s Modern Culture about staging Wagner’s operas in modern times resonates with The Recognitions: “Hence modern producers, embarrassed by dramas that make a mockery of their way of life, decide in their turn to make a mockery of the dramas.” Throughout the novel the cheapening of high culture is accompanied by mockery directed at those who still attempt to produce it:

   Stanley raised his eyes, and they looked at each other intently until Max was upon them. Then Anselm laughed suddenly, pulling the little girl round between them, and spoke as though carrying on the same conversation. — Come on, play us something. Look, Stanley brought his instrument, he said, brandishing his magazine at the practice keyboard which Stanley held defensively in front of him. —He's going to play us something by Vivaldi. Come on, Stanley, for Christ sake don't be so bashful, some of that nice Jesuit baroque music, be-do-be-boo, be-be, boody doody boo… did you hear the one about the boy who sat up on the rock? and fitted fiddle strings…

   —Please… Stanley began.

   —Here comes Otto, Max said.

   —And with every erection he played a selection from Johann Sebastian Bach.

   —I have to get home, Stanley said.

   —To what, your five-fingered honeymoon?

   —To… to work, Stanley said

Another scene: “Someone had already turned the radio on, and someone else turned it off though not before Mr. Schmuck (of Twentieth Century-Schmuck, here from the Coast on business for the holidays) had heard a catchy phrase of music, demanded of his assistant the name of the composer, been told, —I think the announcer said Kerkel… and finished, —Have him in my office Monday morning.” He probably means the Gustav Merkel, I assume so because he was an organist and fits into the organ leitmotiv. The joke is that Merkel passed away in 1885. This reminds me of a true story involving Gustav Mahler: “One Hollywood producer liked Mahler’s music in the film ‘Death in Venice’ (Symphony No.5) so much, he asked if he could get Mahler to write more music for movies. He didn’t know that Mahler had been dead for over 60 years!”

Another telling response comes from Mr. Pivner’s reaction to music: “The Reformation Symphony made him nervous, as all such music (called ‘classical’) did, as the word Harvard did; but sometimes he was struck with a bar of ‘classical’ music, a series of chords such as these which poured forth now, a sense of loneliness and confirmation together, a sense of something lost, and a sense of recognition which he did not understand.” He goes to the bathroom to take his insulin injection: “He preferred that music to which he did not have to listen.” However, at the end we see him bond with a surrogate son, Eddie, over Handel’s music.

In my view, why painting and music are cut some slack in The Recognitions, whereas writing is stringently ridiculed, is because, being non-verbal artforms, they stood fewer chances of being corrupted by the commonplace. Gaddis assimilated the widespread belief since the mid-1860s that language was worn out or running out: Baudelaire joking that “nothing is more beautiful than the commonplace”, Flaubert making a Dictionary of Received Ideas, Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos describing his disconnect from language, Karl Kraus’ dictum that “Art serves to rinse out our eyes”, meaning that it should remove the superfluous, the saccharine, the common sense beneath which truth lay hidden. In a later writer like Ionesco, who was fascinated by ordinary language’s clichés and ambiguities, we find in his diary: “Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.”

Many fine writers, with a constructive outlook, figured the solution was to create marvelous language, safe at least within a work of art, uncontaminated by popular bilge. That path gave us the Joyce of Finnegans Wake (but not of Ulysses, I’m afraid), Proust, Woolf, undoubtedly Nabokov, prose so rarefied you can’t confuse it with anything ever written before, so gleaming and overwrought it could never be mistaken for utterances that had ever passed lips. The path Gaddis chose is not my favorite one: it operates by throwing everyday’s awful language back at the philistines who’ve mangled it, to shock them into recognition of how low it’s fallen, to provoke them nausea at themselves; at best it was an attempt at redeeming such detritus by integrating it into the grander pattern of an artistic whole, and Ulysses excels at that, although for the present case a more pertinent example is Eliot’s The Waste Land’s “A game of chess” section, a mélange of unattributed cacophony:

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—

  I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,

  HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

  Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

  He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

  To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

  You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

  He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

  And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

  He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

  And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.

  Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

  Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.

  HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

  If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.

  Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

  But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

  You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.

  (And her only thirty-one.)

  I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,

  It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

  (She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

  The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.

  You are a proper fool, I said.

  Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,

  What you get married for if you don’t want children?

  HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

  Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

  And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—

  HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

  HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME

  Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.

  Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.

  Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

which I have trouble believing wasn’t the template for every party scene in The Recognitions.

In these circumstances, those who have the gall to think they’re real artists can’t help thinking they’re surrounded by fakes. If absolute values have left the world, art can’t resist the temptation to fill in the vacuum left by religion and to at least legislate on what authentic art is. In so doing it can’t help inadvertently standing up for those absolute values religion once stood for. “Art for art’s sake”, “pure poetry” become the mottos of an impure world. What I like about modernism is that it’s schizophrenic, a half secular half religious movement to reenchant a fallen world. To quote Scruton again, “Our world has been disenchanted and our illusions destroyed. At the same time we cannot live as though that were the whole truth of our condition.” There’s a book by James Webb called The Occult Underground (1974), which without being specifically about literary modernism shows how it was brewed in a bouillabaisse of irrationalist practices like spiritism, occultism, theosophy, early experiments with drugs, as if the psychic energies dammed up by Cartesian rationalism, Baconian empiricism and Comtean positivism finally proved too voluminous for the thin barrier science had built between them and ordinary life. It’s no coincidence that art was being turned into a secular religion around the same time mystics were rehabilitating alchemy as a self-improvement method. Both operations constitute the “Re-Enchantment Industry” that Ernst Gellner talked about in his essay, “Ethnomethodology: The Re-Enchantment Industry or the California Way of Subjectivity” (1975). For Gellner Husserlian phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and Freudian psychoanalysis were amongst the industries that provided provide ludicrous and hopeless attempts at staving off rationalism’s empire. We could add Deconstructionism, conspiracy theories, the 1980s chaos magick fad, research into entheogens, and the New Age movement in general. Mind you that “art as religion” also fits the “re-enchantment industry”. Man, he argued, to cope with the onslaught of scientism that desacralized life and told him that he was just an organism that lived in thrall to its orifices, devised several strategies of respiritualization of which art was just one. Webb originally called his book The Flight from Reason, but essentially it was a revival of humans’ incrusted need to believe they have deeper meaning beyond the impoverished biological machine that eats, shits, fucks and dies that science says we merely are.

Although Gellner lumps psychoanalysis with the other re-enchantment industries, Gaddis singles it out as the natural enemy of three ways of reenchanting the world, namely religion, spiritual alchemy and art. In my opinion, whereas this trio seeks to improve man by forcing him to give up his ego, come out of himself and direct his energies to something larger than himself, psychoanalysis keeps the the patient anchored in his self, gives him free rein to wallow in egotistic needs, makes healing all about himself, excludes engagement with the outside world. Religion and spiritual alchemy require ordeals (“You cannot be his priest without passing through all the disciplines”; “I have passed through all the grades, of course, to be the Pater Patrum.”) to achieve perfection; art requires training and skill; but in the novel psychoanalysis is just blabbering, boosting one’s confidence by having a listener, putting oneself in the spotlight. The shallowest characters are the ones who undergo psychoanalysis and it has even spilled into writing: “the author of the best seller Trees of Home, who had kept his back turned to the room all this time, pretending conversation with Mr. Crotcher who was singing, said, to someone else, How can I respect my readers when I know they're just trying to get a cheap psychoanalysis at my expense? and was told that they probably thought that he was getting one at theirs”. Esther thinks that Wyatt needs to see a psychoanalyst. Rilke is said to have “refused to be psychoanalyzed for fear of purging his genius”. (Weeks ago I discovered that Hermann Hesse was the first writer to be psychoanalyzed.)

Again ahead of his time, Gaddis also foresaw the rise of the pharmaceutical industry and an American awash in a plague of legal drugs, including anti-depressants. A few decades before DeLillo’s lists of drugs, he identifies Seconal, Palagren, Passiphen, Pento-Del, Phanodorn, Diasal, Lesofac, Amchlor, Gustamate, Pantopon, Trilene, Dramamine, Phenobarbital, to name some. He figured that people, instead of feeling more acutely, would rather numb themselves, so neither the self-pity of psychoanalysis nor the disinterested focus required for art making and worship. He saw decadence in the fact that people, free from norms, sold out any sense of morality: they preferred to take drugs to stop feeling, they used children to advertise rubbish, they mostly seek to sate sexual needs, they may even retain art and religion but need to bring it down to their debased level instead of lifting themselves up to an ideal. Brown says of the people who buy Wyatt’s forgeries: “These pictures of yours, do you think you could get two hundred dollars for one? No. But these poor bastards crawl all over each other trying to get them away from me for prices in the thousands. They don't know, they don't want to know. They want to be told.” Around the same time the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in Masscult and Midcult that “the Midcult audience always wants to be Told.”

Another obstacle to the re-enchantment industry is the self-help industry which was booming when Gaddis was writing the novel. By another coincidence, in 1955 passed away a man who obliquely stands as the novel’s villain, Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, a bestseller since publication in 1936. His impact was so wide a Spanish translation is mentioned. Curious, I looked up other translations: the French one came out in 1940, right in the Vichy era. It doesn’t waste time with the false neutrality of the English title: Comment se faire des amis pour réussir dans la vie literally means “how to make friends to have success in life”. It doesn’t get more objectifying than that. I guess it did come in handy in the Vichy era! One of its most noxious effects that Gaddis keeps returning to is the removal of meaning from relationships, to turn them into a zero-sum game where there must be winners and losers instead of an emotionally reciprocal benefits. Otto and Mr. Pivner embody this approach; although they’re estranged, they equally crave to be liked, influence people, and win friends. Mr. Pivner is a serious reader and student of Carnegie, but underneath its lessons we find a lonely soul: “He had bought that book hoping to win friends. He wondered if other people had bought it for the same reason.” Eight years ago I wrote half in jest on the margin: “Saddest sentence ever?” But on my reread I came to realize that The Recognitions is a very sad book about broken, lonely people who cling to easy solutions for salvation or its illusion anyway; who wish to fill something they can’t put into words, and out of desperation resort to fantasies that promise them fulfilment or an easing of an unmentionable pain. Mr. Pivner and Otto are emotional cheats, and yet I think I glean a difference. Otto tries to ingratiate himself with others through lies by giving up his opinion and saying what others want to hear; he’s a cad looking for adulation, he wants to strut under the spotlight. As soon as he gets the fake money he starts distributing the bills to show off. Mr. Pivner resorts to psychological tricks he picks up from self-help books, thinking he’ll bridge the silence with others. He’s a shy, socially awkward desperate man who appears earnestly motivated to cure himself of his lack of self-esteem. By the end he seems to have developed a meaningful relationship with Eddie.

With each passing year the re-enchantment industry gathered an eclectic bunch of philosophers, gurus, neopagans, prophets, crackpots, nearly all the early fantasy writers from Machen to Dunsany to Lovecraft, magicians, anthropologists like James Frazer and Jessie Weston who had influenced Gaddis’ master Eliot before they migrated into The Recognitions. I’m nearly certain that one of the models for Reverend Gwyon, who after his wife’s death exchanges Christianity for Mithraism, was E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), founder of Anthropology in Britain, whose comparative studies in ancient religions led to his giving up Christian faith. In one sermon Gwyon makes his congregation endure the similarities between Christianity and ancient pagan rites: “True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl.” Such passages show that although Gaddis was sympathetic to his characters’ search for authenticity in a counterfeit world, he remained critical enough to point out that just because they’re capable of envisioning it, their aspiration stems form an unexamined belief. What is authentic if not even Christianity is a pure religion, but a patchwork of others? It doesn’t mean that it’s fake, it means that authenticity as a state reducible to its pure constituents is impossible. We can never go back to a mythical Edenic state before corruption set in; we’re all mestizos. That Edenic state is likely a fairy-tale, as Basil Valentine cares to explain to Wyatt:

“—Vulgarity, cupidity, and power. Is that what frightens you? Is that all you see around you, and you think it was different then? Flanders in the fifteenth century, do you think it was all like the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb? What about the paintings we've never seen? the trash that's disappeared? Just because we have a few masterpieces left, do you think they were all masterpieces? What about the pictures we've never seen, and never will see? that were as bad as anything that's ever been done. And your precious van Eyck, do you think he didn't live up to his neck in a loud vulgar court? In a world where every-thing was done for the same reasons everything's done now? for vanity and avarice and lust? and the boundless egoism of these Chancellor Rolins? Do you think they knew the difference between what was bizarre and what was beautiful? that their vulgar ostentation didn't stifle beauty everywhere, everywhere? the way it's doing today? Yes, damn it, listen to me now, and swear by all that's ugly! Do you think any painter did anything but hire himself out? These fine altarpieces, do you think they glorified anyone but the vulgar men who commissioned them? Do you think a van Eyck didn't curse having to whore away his genius, to waste his talents on all sorts of vulgar celebrations, at the mercy of people he hated?”

Gaddis suggests that “art as religion” can be just one more convenient illusion keeping man from being authentic. I don’t think he was defending a return to religous feeling. The absolute The Recognitions transmitted was not religious, at least I never read it as a religious tract. Frazer had taught him that pure absolutes are a delusion. Christianity is part of a tradition, it built itself up from past myths, the way an artist built on a tradition. However, he kept faith in the power of art to redeem the world, or to at least maintain a stable self-contained world still in synch with the absolute.


But in the end art doesn’t save the characters: Wyatt abandons it, it seems, and Stanley is killed by it. Sinisterra, the artistic counterfeiter, must flee because of it. How much Gaddis took this seriously is anyone’s guess. It’s worth remembering that the major influence in Gaddis was Eliot, a Catholic convert. Reading Gaddis’ letters we get intimations that once he did take it seriously. In a December 30, 1960 letter he stated that “what is vital is the faith that the absolute – the ‘perfect’, etc. – does exist”. On March 8, 1872 he still thought the novel was about “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”. But having set a tough act for realists to follow, courting came only from postmodernist theorist like George Comnes. In 1992 he sent Gaddis a letter regarding “how, if at all, being moral had any legitimacy in the postmodern world” and “the willingness of people to act without the sanction of absolutes”. Gaddis replied on October 15 admitting that as he was growing old “my youthful romantic preoccupations with love redemption not to say ‘God’ have quite given way to simply struggling with, documenting & surviving the senseless universe”. Whether he meant it or was cajoled by postmodernists knocking on his door is anyone’s guess. My theory is that, when he started the novel, he was young and had just left Harvard’s wooly, aloft climate where he had been exposed to the seductive idealism that kept him working for seven years on a punishing novel. He led a bohemian, carefree live, enjoying the currency conversion to cheaply globe-trot in South America and Europe, inhaling the atmosphere of his literary heroes. So, as it tends to happen, his first book was deeply bookish, submerged in Elliotisms. Then he settled back in New York, married, became a dad and was sucked by his copy-editing job into corporate world, getting a first-person account of the kitsch and crassness and greed and stupidity that he had once thought art could do something to mollify. As the years went by he realized that, no, art won’t save the world. So by February 1973 the “nostalgia for absolutes” had “drained away” and all that was left was the question “what is worth doing?” that had overtaken his ongoing project J R, “a secular version of its predecessor.”

Furthermore, I also think that Gaddis was beginning to be afraid of being left behind as a dated writer. So, since he was frequently beginning to “see my work cited in a postmodern context”, maybe he toned down his talk about the Absolute that does sound datedly modernist. It was a realistic fear for a self-described “traditional novelist” who admitted to be “depressed at the notion that it [his work] will be dismissed as behind the times”. Two years later he replied to Comnes (March, 1994), excited at having discovered a new word, “aporia”: “difference, discontinuity, disparity, contradiction, discord, ambiguity, irony, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, anarchy, chaos”. It’s as if he had randomly picked up a string of nouns qualifying postmodernism from a classroom textbook. He sure as hell wasn’t going to be left behind. If the world wanted a postmodern Gaddis, the world was going to get one! By March 13 he was informing John Updike that they had “essentially opposite orientations”: Updike’s were “grounded on absolutes”, whereas Gaddis had learned from reading Comnes’ book that he sought to “provide an honest vision of an essentially indeterminate landscape a postmodern world without absolutes”. Gaddis had nothing to fear: Academe was going to take care of his posterity.

Without absolute values, there was at least the hope that people could find truer lives, but that belief is still dependent on believing in an absolute state called authenticity, which no one knows what it is. The modernists still believed in it. When Henry James advised, “dramatize, dramatize!”, he was aiming at more authentic art. “The effect is dramatization - an immersion in a series of enacted present moments”, wrote Millicent Bell in Meaning in Henry James (1991, p. 23). “In one sense, this injunction is aimed at the correction of the atrophy of action in novels such as his own, which are concerned with what someone is thinking rather than doing. James redefined action to include the drama of feelings and ideas. He objected to after-the-fact 'telling' of the events of this inner drama as much as he objected to the static summary of the visible action.” From the resistance to telling, for the attempt at showing life more directly, basically in wanting to be authentic, to move past dreadful rhetoric, the modernists found two solutions: one was the immersion in subjectivity such as Woolf's tunneling, and Joycean stream of consciousness, although not Proust and Faulkner. (Hugh Kenner points out in in Joyce's Voices that stream of consciousness, at least the way Joyce does it, is objective, not subjective.) The other solution came from emulating theater and cinema’s objectivity.

The point was to avoid telling, that is, "rhetoric", a taboo word; to show life directly, more authentically, closer, more intensely, because they mistrusted language and cliché. Ironically, this solution led them to rely on that part of language that is all the more commonplace, degraded, worn out – everyday speech. So whereas a stylist like Nabokov “tells” his stories, each sentence is fresh, unlike any sentence ever written before it, whereas simply showing ordinary speech results in the banality that The Recognitions excoriates but indulges in. It's like the paradox of satire, that can't help stooping to what it's parodying.

But as Gaddis was finishing it authenticity was up for an upheaval. In 1949, Ernst Robert Curtius reminded his readers that verisimilitude was a very recent concept in literature; his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages reintroduced and rehabilitated a term from rhetoric: topos. In his book the topoi became a salient feature of literary production: in the past writers didn’t write from nature but from classic models. Aemulatio, as it was called, lasted well into Defoe and Richardson’s time, when writing from life became the ruling method for the next 150 years.

Then in 1956 Ernst Gombrich gave lectures that became the basis for Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960). Gombrich, instead of topoi, which he mentioned, talked about schemata. In his interpretation of art, authenticity had been a concern in short demand up until recently since most artists, including the ones we think are so faithful to life, were reared from early age by masters to copy, copy, copy preexisting models. This method only ended around Romanticism, when it became normal to paint from nature, when painters started taking easels outside the studio and looking at it directly instead of through schemata, conventions, "rhetoric". Gombrich shows that even Wyatt’s beloved Dutch Masters weren’t that realistic. He talks about a Dutch painter who copied a stranded whale on a beach from an earlier illustration:

The caption of a Roman print of 1601 is as explicit as that of the German woodcut. It claims the engraving represents a giant whale that had been washed ashore near Ancona the same year and "was drawn accurately from nature." ("Ritratto qui dal naturale appunto.") The claim would be more trustworthy if there did not exist an earlier print recording a similar "scoop" from the Dutch coast in 1598. But surely the Dutch artists of the late sixteenth century, those masters of realism, would be able to portray a whale? Not quite, it seems, for the creature looks suspiciously as if it had ears, and whales with ears, I am assured on higher authority, do not exist. The draftsman probably mistook one of the whale's flippers for an ear and therefore placed it far too close to the eye. He, too, was misled by a familiar schema, the schema of the typical head. To draw an unfamiliar sight presents greater difficulties than is usually realized. And this, I suppose, was also the reason why the Italian preferred to copy the whale from another print. We need not doubt the part of the caption that tells the news from Ancona, but to portray it again "from the life" was not worth the trouble.

What Curtius and Gombrich pointed to is the practice of pastiche as a perfectly responsible and tolerable practice authorized by history. This was a huge development for since Defoe the novelist believed, untormented by doubt, that his proper job was to imitate life. Pastiche was a childish deviation of his social job to report the truth; pastiche can only take us deeper into bookishness instead of thrusting us into the real world. Gaddis didn’t care for pastiche, the objective techniques he employed have always been at the service of rendering the external world rendered as faithfully as possible, whereas pastiche requires an active consciousness focusing on a specific style or author or genre. But although this practice was alien to his temperament, it was widely used in American fiction after 1955. And on that note next we’ll wrap up this series of posts with a minor question to me but that appears to be obsessing a lot of people: was William Gaddis a modernist or a postmodernist?

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