Random Reading (#5): William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955)

I first heard of Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) ten years ago when the professor who would become my M.A. thesis director gave a public lecture on “encyclopedic fiction.” I’m embarrassed that I remember so little of his talk (save a few references to Joyce and Flaubert and the connection between their encyclopedism and an imminent sense of apocalypse), but I am happy that some intrigue attached to the name “Gaddis” all the same and that this name has followed me all the way through my M.A. and my Ph.D. Though I never worked on Gaddis and read only one of his novels some seven or eight years ago—A Frolic of His Own (1994)—The Recognitions has always haunted the fringes of my protean “To Read” lists. About five months ago I made the decision to make “random reading” a part of my daily life, and on August 17th of this year I finally took on Gaddis’s challenge. On October 1st, I completed it, “caught in [its] collapse” (956).

The Recognitions is an explicitly daunting reading task. It is not just a long novel. It is—much like Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988, 1989)—a kind of overloaded “information” novel, swelling at the seams with data pertaining to religious history, theology, pagan rituals, literary history, cultural idiosyncracies of 1950s New Yorkers and Parisians (of a narrow demographic), painting, restoration, psychoanalysis, music and musicology, and much more. The novel revels in obscure and arcane knowledge. On top of that, The Recognitions aims to achieve a level of conversational and interpersonal exactness that makes the simple act of following dialogue in a work of fiction especially difficult. Indeed, Gaddis is such a master at crafting dialogue that he can set an entire room or house of recurring characters (major and minor) chatting and have us (his readers) leap from this corner to that, from this room to that, from this topic to that, from center to periphery, leaving every conversation fragmented, sharp, incomplete, yet rich in social satire, political incisiveness, and verbal cleverness. And, of course, all of this dialogue is arranged among mountain ranges of narratorial paragraphs (with their own cliffs, climbs, valleys, and seemingly impenetrable rock faces). I wish I could quote a small portion of the novel to demonstrate Gaddis’s dialogue and narration, but every time I turn back to a passage or to the few notes I’ve scribbled in the book’s margins, I lose my way and feel that I would have to reread an entire chapter (no minor task) just to make sense of one passage that was apparently so significant the first time through.

I’m not sure I could have made my way through the novel without a bit of help from this free online guide (the revision of a printed guide which was published in 1982 through the University of Nebraska Press). It’s remarkable and unnerving that one would dedicate oneself so intensely to one text. But, then again, I’m the one who is “slow reading” Difference and Repetition.

Though I don’t think I have anything substantive to write about this daunting book, I do want to linger with a few recurrences of the word “recognition” in the novel (all 81 appearances of the word are compiled here). “Recognition” is a rich philosophical word. In Kant’s epistemology, it names the harmony achieved when the imagination successfully synthesizes the appearance of an object and the understanding successfully matches a readymade concept to that appearance, making a kind of double sense of it (imaginative and conceptual). “That is a dog,” for instance, is a statement of recognition that follows from this harmony of the imagination and understanding, bringing a familiar concept to bear, in a purely rational way, on the canine appearance. If I can successively use this phrase, “That is a dog,” I am explicitly recognizing the creature. My mental faculties—the gears of my cognition—successfully spin (again) in order to know what I am looking at.

How does Gaddis’s novel align with and/or trouble this account of recognition? Many of the appearances of the word “recognition” (or cognates like “recognize”) constitute failures of recognition. The second appearance of the word, for instance, occurs at the end of a long paragraph detailing the strange childhood illness of Wyatt Gwyon:

Had his father come in with Heracles [a pet monkey], shaken  him in his bed and pounded the walls saying words he could not understand, and turned to drive the animal out before him and down the stairs? And then a faint cry from the carriage barn below: had he leapt from his bed toward the pale casement of the window, forgetting that he had been so long off his feet that they were useless, their function totally forgotten, so that he fell screaming at the pain in them? For he works on the floor with his father beside him, holding him by the shoulders, his father whom he did not recognize, wild-eyes in that dim light. Then he broke open sobbing at the memory of the pain which had just torn up through his body [. . .]

A few days later, Wyatt began to recover. [. . .] That fever had passed; but for the rest of his life it never left his eyes. (51)

Whom he did not recognize. This failure of recognition recurs throughout the novel. “Anselm said nothing; but smiled without recognition as they passed in Washington Square” (206); “Stanley said nothing; but hung his head without recognition as they passed in Washington Square” (207); he “saw that pale thin man standing in the park vividly silent, watching him without recognition” (220); “I thought I recognized you and then I thought No, it can’t be, it’s an old man” (269); “Esme sat, looking out over this spectral tide with the serenity of a woman in a painting; and often enough, like gallery-goers, the faces turned to look at her stared with vacuity util, unrecognized, self-consciousness returned, and they looked away” (306); “When people tell a truth they do no understand what they mean, they say it by accident, it goes through them and they do not recognize it until someone accuses them of telling the truth” (451); “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, a sense of recognition which he did not understand” (501); “She glanced at the two of them without recognition” (516); “But no: his nose was, really, quite like the one beside him, though Otto refused to recognize it as being absolutely so” (517); “eyes which shared nothing, recognized nothing, accused her of nothing [. . .] that lack of recognition [was] no more [of a] sanctuary than the opened eyes of a deadman” (552); “you can’t even recognize [your own feelings] when they come to the surface” (621); “She looked at him, glazed, without recognition” (644); “Father Martin passed, looking him straight in the face, without a word, without a shade of recognition, the medieval lines of his face standing out livid as though he had seen a ghost” (767-68).

These many failures (and many more)—far from uniform or consistent—are variable and relative. Sometimes they are connected with willfulness (i.e., refusals to recognize), sometimes with disturbing passivity (i.e., inabilities to recognize), and other times with successful recognitions that precede or proceed their own failure. Despite this wide variation, these failures collectively suggest—along with the more explicitly theoretical moments of the novel—that failure is an important conceptual, structural, and experiential component of the moment of recognition itself, that a “successful” recognition (whether aesthetic, political, or mystical) is always something of a ruse, fiction, or misrecognition. On the one hand, the novel demonstrates this with the cold satire of social and religious rituals. The mundane funerary gestures shown the “Town Carpenter” on the occasion of his daughter’s death, for instance, are shallow or hollow “recognitions” that are quickly exhausted (22). When the church consecrates a holy site or holy person, it bestows “highest recognition” based on contingent and misrepresented accounts (66). On the other hand, Gaddis also seems to be insisting that there is something nearing the authentic in the explicit acceptance of an art of forgery, in the willful attempt to construct objects that others will misrecognize as “authentic” with pleasure, awe, and delight. Those who best succeed (as Pound might put it) in making it new are those who strive, with extreme exactness, to be derivative. Perhaps the most original, powerful, and authentic experiences are beautiful, beautiful ruses . . .

But to develop this thinking (which, I’m sure, has already been developed by someone else), I would need more space and more time.

Final page of The Recognitions.

Reading on . . .

One comment

  1. Oh cool, thanks for this! Gaddis has been on my to-read list for a long time, probably since I read a review where Cynthia Ozick called him famous for not being famous. But the sheer size and density of The Recognitions (and JR, too) has kind of kept me away from actually tackling the book. That guide you linked to seems like it’ll be handy when I finally dive in!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s