Gaddis, William 1922–
An American novelist, Gaddis has tackled themes of hypocrisy, greed, and alienation in two highly complex, large-scale works of fiction. Echoing Joyce, James, and Gide, he employs multiple levels of meaning and intricate allusions in his portrayal of the confusion and pain of human interaction, the despair and purposelessness of the human condition. He won the National Book Award in 1975 for J.R. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[Few] outside of a coterie of devoted followers have read or even heard of The Recognitions…. We have now had, however, access to some of Gaddis' manuscripts, which may help The Recognitions find its rightful above-ground reputation. (p. 61)
To understand Gaddis' relationship to his characters, and thus his philosophical motive in writing the novel, we are helped by knowing how Gaddis conceived of it originally. The Recognitions began as a much smaller and less complicated work, passing through a major evolutionary stage during the seven years Gaddis spent writing it. Gaddis says in his notes: "When I started this thing … it was to be a good deal shorter, and quite explicitly a parody on the FAUST story…. (p. 64)
[When] Gaddis read James Frazer's The Golden Bough,… the novel entered its second major stage. Frazer's pioneering anthropological work demonstrates how religions spring from earlier myths, fitting perfectly with Gaddis' idea of the modern world as a counterfeit—or possibly inspiring it. In any case, Frazer led Gaddis to discover that Goethe's Faust originally derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a rambling third-century theological tract of unknown authorship, dealing with Clement's life and search for salvation. Gaddis adapted the title, broadening the conception of his novel to the story of a wandering, at times misguided hero, whose search for salvation would record the multifarious borrowings and counterfeits of modern culture…. Thus from a limited Faust parody, his novel expanded into an epical, theoretically limitless pilgrimage of recognitions parodying the immense Recognitions of Clement. (pp. 64-5)
The Recognitions examines the complex problem of salvation, a problem with Gaddis sees as stemming from the "Modernism heresy,"… the rationalist interpretation of history, which does not allow for meaningful suffering or redemption. Science, according to Gaddis, works against recognition of the need for suffering, as does its therapeutic extension, psychoanalysis. Religion tries to work toward salvation but fails, because like science, it is only a counterfeit of an earlier impulse and ability to wonder and believe. Modern art too, with its worship on the one hand of the past, and on the other of unbridled originality, has forgotten its earlier, painstaking function of recording genuine wonder and dread. Thus all of our modern occupations, institutions, and amusements seem in Gaddis' parody to be the counterfeit secrets of a pagan Egypt, where mere magic replaces true mystery and renders belief impossible. (p. 65)
Far more suggestive and full of potential, but deluded and a counterfeiter like the rest, Wyatt thinks of himself as an alchemist, recognizing that alchemy "wasn't just making gold,"… but was originally the search for the redemption of matter. For Wyatt it represents a spiritual quest such as medieval alchemists made when they saw "in gold the image of the sun, spun in the earth by its countless revolutions, then, when the sun might yet be taken for the image of God."… Gaddis' search for the ideal goes back to what he calls in his notes "those perfect forms of neo-platonism," and in The Recognitions "a time before death entered the world, before accident, before magic, and before magic despaired, to become religion."… Wyatt chooses the alchemist—part magician, part priest, part scientist—to reunite all these fragmented modern approaches and go back as far as possible to original truth. (p. 66)
Clearly, the world around [Gaddis'...
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In Gaddis' as well as Heller's and Pynchon's novels there is always apparent an ominous vertical structure of society, which finally appears to leave the individual completely at the mercy of its manipulative powers and with no human in control. But Gaddis, it seems, is much more of a Romantic than either Heller or Pynchon: there is individual triumph, and the inherent possibility of it, though necessarily of a very localized nature. Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions does reject finally the superficial and impersonal determinants of society, just as Edward Bast in JR rejects J R—the sixth grader who becomes a corporation tycoon—and his tyrannical financial manipulations; Bast goes off to write his opera unmindful of his material well-being. It is as though Gaddis shows us the primacy of "counterforce," whereas Pynchon wants to establish an inevitable transformation of "counterforce" into "Counterforce" into "They."
Moreover, Gaddis believes, like William James, that the world is essentially chaotic and furthermore that there is no ontological hierarchy. He sees that the multiple imposition of formal structures upon the chaos results finally in chaos, too. (pp. 153-54)
The tension which underlies Gaddis' work can be seen as one created by the antithetical perceptions of human existence by the individual and by Society. The individual is aware of his body and his bodily needs: Edward Bast tells the students, "here's [a letter Mozart] wrote to a girl cousin about the time he was writing his Paris symphony he says, he apologizes to her for not writing and he says "Do you think I'm dead? Don't believe it, I implore you. For believing and shitting are two very different things." Society, operating as it does in an abstract and inhuman realm, is interested in individuals in only a formal manner. Society in our time has tended toward technological efficiency, in the course of which it has demanded that we ourselves become technologically efficient—that we be predictable, that we be consistent…. It is within [the] framework of the institutionalization of inhumanism that Gaddis creates his fiction. He wants to place the onus of our inhumanness squarely on the shoulders of Society, specifically "masculine" society.
Gaddis in both The Recognitions and JR sees the rejection of physicality and the repression of physical needs as a culturally induced situation. In his first novel he saw the dynamics as inherent in New England Calvinism and the Pauline doctrine as enunciated in Galatians 5.24: "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." The world of New York and Paris, of business and jurisprudence, is seen as the direct result of this; it is the world prophesized by God through "the Greek Clement: I am come to destory the work of the woman, that is, concupiscence, whose works are generation and death." Thus The Recognitions is a sterile and impersonal world of "poses become life." Fortunately there is a more balanced assortment of characters in JR—a result, I believe, of the more "restricted" vision of the book. (pp. 154-55)
In JR … we see the demands of society that bodily passion and desire be rejected; only this time rather than developing these demands in terms of the metaphysical and religious tenets of the American experience, Gaddis simply drops us into the American educational system, a system operating within a technological imperative to teach skills, viewing human beings as little machines. The running look at J R Vansant's school provides the backdrop for the future structure which will result from the programmatic demands of business and industry for persons who are "trained" and "taught" the proper answers, not how to think. (p. 155)
Coach Vogel … is one of the prize teachers in the school; he has come out to this Long Island institution from New York City. Asked to create a create a sex-education film for the students, the future inventor of the Frigi-Com and Teletravel processes for a subsidiary of J R Corp. comes up with a show befitting the "man: the incredible machine" metaphor. (pp. 156-57)
J R, the sixth-grade mastermind of J R Corp., is a product of this environment; he is himself as dehumanized and mechanical as the various images that barrage him throughout the day at school—it doesn't seem illogical to him that the museum diaramas of Eskimo life should have "stuffed Eskimos." Having no appreciation of even the forms he is seeking out and copying in order to succeed in the American Way, it is not surprising that he has no appreciation for nature or music (or literature or painting). (p. 157)
Edward Bast … is never really interested in playing the game in the...
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William Gaddis' tour de force, JR, attacks many … perversions of the American Dream, above all the materialism of Franklinian man. Adapting a stream of consciousness technique borrowed from Joyce and contemporary telephone conversation, Gaddis mercilessly lays bare the greed and essential mindlessness of those for whom wealth has become and end in itself—an obsessive end. His satire is particularly effective since he uses as his primary vehicle a twelve-year-old school boy who has mastered all of the jargon and methods of a Wall Street wizard constructing immense paper empires inevitably and fatally vulnerable to strangulation by the very tape which once held it together. But missing from Gaddis' overlong...
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While the fictional achievement of William Gaddis is massive, both in importance and in sheer volume, the critical reception of his two novels has been skimpy and uncertain. (p. 61)
The uncertain reception of Gaddis's novels is understandable; the reviews indicate common problems in both for a casual reader: complexity of event and structure, unusual treatment of character, a difficult narrative surface. Gaddis self-consciously anticipates his lack of an audience in both works…. If Gaddis's novels have achieved only a very small audience because of their difficulties, they deserve a much larger one because of their importance. In particular, JR is an extraordinary achievement—richly funny...
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