Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75

Gaddis, William 1922–

Illustration of PDF document

Download William Gaddis Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 JR. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Maxwell Geismar

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

In some quarters of the literary scene today William Gaddis's novel "The Recognitions" is bound to be praised to the skies, and this reviewer keeps wondering who is being taken in. Mr. Gaddis has immense erudition; he writes in at least four languages; his use of mythology is impressive—and he shows the decay of faith in the modern world in over 900 pages of bright chatter….

[Beneath] the elaborate religious superstructure of the story, and the series of parallel invocations to the pagan gods, "The Recognitions" is really a typical art novel of the 1920s. And the fatal flaw of this genre is simply that the central figures, as in Mr. Gaddis's case too, are only half-artists, who never really engage our sympathy or interest; who never represent anything but themselves….

It is quite possible that Mr. Gaddis is not even pretending to an elementary realism, since the plot is complete fantasy….

Despite Mr. Gaddis's "irony, wit, and erudition," of which we are told, "The Recognitions" never achieves any kind of contact, not merely with modern life, but even with the biological vitality which it stresses. Or with any other kind of true human experience. Whatever is of genuine merit in the novel is drained off into a continuous verbal vaporizing; and whatever is here of genuine talent is consumed by an obsession, as I can only call it, with pretentiousness.

Maxwell Geismar, "World of the Half Artist," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 38, No. 11, March 12, 1955, p. 23.

Charles J. Rolo

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

[The Recognitions] is an immensely long first novel whose spiritual forebears are Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's The Waste Land, and Gide's The Counterfeiters. Its theme is familiar—the modern world is hell: a place where the counterfeit is preferred to the genuine and where the presiding spirits are Fakery and Delirium. Sizable sections of the novel are set in Spain, New England, and Rome, but the dominant milieu is New York's downtown Bohemia and its prosperous uptown affiliates. Mr. Gaddis's manner, as his publisher observes, brings to mind the phantasmagorical canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. There is a similar sense of pervasive damnation; a similar combination of surrealistically imagined monstrosities and meticulous concern with detail; a similar comic grotesquerie. (p. 80)

The novel's central failure is that the characters through whom the corruption of the modern world is dramatized are inadequate for the purpose. Too many of them are drawn from Bohemia, which has always been (along with better things) the refuge of fakers, self-deceivers, and hysterics. One does not convincingly demonstrate that the world is insane by describing life in an insane asylum.

A second failing is that the theme has been elaborated before the halfway mark and what follows is further illustration rather than development. As for the resolution, it is presented too thinly and too obscurely to emerge as a counterpoint to the thunderous chorus of perdition. There are other obscurities, some of them due to excessive deployment of the author's phenomenal erudition; and generally speaking, Mr. Gaddis has been mastered by, and not achieved mastery over, the delirium he wishes to depict. In spite of these flaws, which make The Recognitions a somewhat incoherent semi-failure, the book seems to me one of the half dozen most remarkable first novels published by American writers since the end of the nineteen-thirties. A work of 956 pages in the nightmarish vein could easily sink into unbearable dreariness; but as far as this reader was concerned, The Recognitions retained a quality of excitement to the end. Mr. Gaddis has wit and passion and imagination in abundance, as well as seriousness and learning. A profound sense of irony enables him to distill savage comedy and atrocious farce out of his doomsday vision of the world. His extravagant portraiture is arresting and frequently brilliant. All this adds up to something new in contemporary American fiction—a highbrow novel of ideas which, flawed though it is, has the qualities which our intellectual novels have tended to lack: momentum, range, and imaginative vitality. (pp. 80-1)

Charles J. Rolo, "Life & Letters: 'The Recognitions'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1955, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 195, No. 4, April, 1955, pp. 80-1.

James J. Stathis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

[In The Recognitions, the] canvas overflows with characters who are fatally infected with a malady that the author naturally attributes to decayed religious, professional and social institutions and their false values.

Mr. Gaddis himself does not escape infection. And it is significant that a novel which treats counterfeiting on such a grand scale should itself be an ambitious and impressive imitation. The Recognitions is particularly indebted to Gide, Joyce and Eliot for its theme, form, tone and symbolic use of imagery. And Mr. Gaddis does not discriminate against the past, with the result that we have such unhappy Shakespearian renderings as "age had not withered her, nor custom staled her infinite vulgarity" … and the glaring (if not inappropriate) "who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him."…

The most obvious borrowings from Joyce include a preoccupation with language—which in the Gaddis novel becomes an obsession: the Daedalus myth replete with a concern for the artist as artificer, fluttering birds and a Stephen (the name assumed by Wyatt at the end of the novel); and the Ulysses myth accompanied with allusions to Penelope and her suitors.

The influence of Eliot, however, is dominant and seeps into every crevice of the novel. We find obvious liftings, such as cruel April and depraved May, vacant lots, deserts, dry seasons and yew trees. We find dialogue that echoes Edward in The Cocktail Party…. We find Eliot's techniques of fusing disparate items for an ironic effect and joining contemporaneous fragments in the form of newspaper headlines, radio advertisements and popular songs to historical or mythological allusions. (p. 92)

Although Mr. Gaddis achieves tonal and thematic unity, he fails to provide us with either a plot or development, with the result that The Recognitions seems more like a crowded tapestry than a novel. For a plot he substitutes the conventional vehicle of a party and an omnipresent observer-eavesdropper who records bits of seemingly unrelated data. Both devices are handled with the skill and self-confidence of a seasoned writer. The party scenes … are classic examples of their kind. In these pages the dialogue which seems easy and offhand, at times almost careless, but always faithful to the nuances of the spoken language makes us wish that Mr. Gaddis had chosen to be a playwright of sophisticated comedies.

If we expect to find character development in our novels, The Recognitions will disappoint us. Mr. Gaddis does not provide us with a Molly Bloom whose personality is tactile, or a Michel who pursues a steady course toward disintegration until, at the end of L'Immoraliste, we do not recognize him as the same person although we are convinced that the change does occur. Almost all of the characters who inhabit Mr. Gaddis's world have no real identity, no meaningful existence. They are content to play roles and talk themselves to death.

Since there is little room here for any significant character development, Mr. Gaddis, instead, employs elaboration or amplification to such an extent that the form of the novel assumes a grotesque quality not unlike that which surrounds many of its characters. But more important is the diminution—by hundreds of pages of freakish detail—of what should be the most significant moment in the novel: Wyatt's "recognition" that the moral action he must undertake in order to free himself from the web of forgery and verify his existence consists in deliberately living his sin through. He must face man's imperfection and deny himself highways of escape since they all lead to forgery….

Perhaps Mr. Gaddis uses so much amplification because he feels that he should exhaust his subject, or because he intends it as a tribute to the admirable "hematitic … painters who weren't afraid of spaces, of … cluttering up every space with detail."… The result, at any rate, is that the novel runs away with him.

But for the most part Mr. Gaddis employs sufficient learning, satire and wit to distract us from the serious failings of the novel. (p. 93)

The satire in the novel ranges in intensity from invective (as when Mr. Gaddis trains his sights on the advertising industry) to the gentle irony with which he treats sexual deviation. The ferocity of Mr. Gaddis's satire of the medical profession and the heavy-handed irony that we find in these sections remind us of Swift's numerous attacks on scientists. In general the conventional though clever satiric passages which expose hypocrisy and something resembling madness in professional, social and religious institutions reflect the author's most natural and brilliant style (at least four different styles are distinguishable in the novel of which the most asphyxiating resembles a parody of Thomas Wolfe).

Mr. Gaddis is above all a wit who unfortunately dons a serious mask much of the time. He scrapes beneath the human façade and is unsure whether what he sees there is tragic or comic. Thus in The Recognitions we find an essentially comic view of man and his condition which Mr. Gaddis is not as yet able to accept. What there is of value in the novel derives from the freshness and vitality with which this view is presented. (p. 94)

James J. Stathis, "William Gaddis: 'The Recognitions'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1962), Vol. V, No. 3, 1962–63, pp. 91-4.

J. D. O'Hara

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

William Gaddis's [JR] is a deadly serious attack on the American business ethic, the profit motive, and the materialism of contemporary life. It documents its charges in detail, and it covers the manufacturing, distributing, and advertising of shabby and often unnecessary products;… and the intricate and corrupt interrelationships between business and government. Not only does it expose the sordidness of this tangled knot of victims and victimizers, it expands to show the effect of this world on the corrupt world of art, the suborned American educational system, and the manipulable children whom it perverts into future victims and victimizers.

Nor is Gaddis content to describe merely the present state of things. A novelist within the novel is writing about F. W. Woolworth and the origin of the 5 & 10, for instance. But with Empedocles's aid, Gaddis goes back much farther than that, to the birth of the world in a chaos of fragments. These fragments, still whirling today into momentary patterns and apparent orders, also forecast—with T. S. Eliot as guide—the entropic decay of our culture into a future wasteland more horrid than even the present. Is there a way out? Gaddis offers only the faintest of hints…. [Love] and a loving communistic community of workers might save us—but nothing in this grim study of our time suggests that these are more than snowballs in hell. (pp. 523-24)

To an extraordinary extent, this is a spoken novel. Description is cut to a minimum, summary and explanation are nonexistent, while conversations—face to face and by ubiquitous telephones—chatter along interruptedly, confusedly, farcically, in several dozen styles, jargons, and dialects, while simultaneously technical literature, journalism, artistic literature, radio programs, and advertising contribute their babble to the novel's towering hubbub. Here, too, chaos and entropy reign; a complete and grammatical sentence constitutes a minor cultural triumph, and one longs for the steadying and sane tones of a reliable narrator. (p. 525)

This spoken style, coupled with the general headlong rush of event and comment, constitutes the novel's most obvious quality—and its weakest one. George Steiner has classified JR as a "truly unreadable text." He is wrong, as usual; most of the dialogue is extraordinarily well written, skillfully complicated, wittily created. But the cumulative effect of this verbal torrent—especially since so many of the speakers are stupid, orally semi-literate, if one may say so—is almost stupefying. One must read at a certain minimum speed, after all, or language degenerates into nonsense syllables. But the text continuously sprays out particles of information about a myriad of subjects—some of them as complex as the many business transactions, some as arbitrary as Gaddis's rather silly parodies of the critics who spoke unwisely of his first novel, The Recognitions, and some as deliberately hidden as JR's last name (Vansant—mentioned only once). One cannot cope.

There are other difficulties too. The manner in which JR acquires and then is divested of his complicated empire is wittily contrived, like a financial chess game; but most of the characters are dismayingly trite…. And as for Gaddis's critique of capitalism …, lawyer Beamish states the problem: "in this particular instance corporate activities seem so preponderantly inspired by such negative considerations as depreciation and depletion allowances, loss carry-forwards tax write-offs and similar …" Such negative considerations characterize almost all the business maneuvers of the novel, maneuvers also characterized by piranha-like voraciousness. But ordinarily piranhas are mild enough, and most of American business is more passively, even lethargically corrupt, just as most Americans are more absentmindedly materialistic and even more casually kind than Gaddis gives them credit for being. But this may be a minor flaw at worst: we can hardly blame Dante for the dearth of likeable people in the Inferno, nor can we ask Jeremiah to lament moderately. Gaddis is right, essentially, after all. But few Americans will be able or willing to read JR. (pp. 525-26)

J. D. O'Hara, "Boardwalk and Park Place vs. Chance and Peace of Mind," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976), pp. 523-26.

Joseph S. Salemi

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2450

Despite the intricacies of structure and design that have gone into the making of The Recognitions, there is apparent in the work, as in the flamenco music so loved by Wyatt, "the tremendous tension of violence all enclosed in a framework," Much of what strikes the casual reader as "excessive" in the book—its length, the virulence of its satire, the wide and esoteric range of its allusiveness, the improbability of certain incidents—suggests the extreme lengths to which William Gaddis was prepared to go to create an art commensurate with all reality rather than some limited aspect of it. As with Moby Dick, the novel's implications move in wider and wider circles from the bobbing coffin of Queequeg, or the catastrophic final harmony at Fenestrula.

The Recognitions is an obsessive book, in that both author and characters seem driven to extremities of experience, perception, and thought…. [It] is through the focal character of Wyatt that The Recognitions carries on a continual and insistent debate. That debate, which might be termed the obsession of the novel as a whole, revolves around the following double question: What is the nature of, and what are the conditions for, genuine art?

That in The Recognitions "reality" and "art" are interchangeable metaphors for each other is, I think, clear to every thoughtful reader. The cheap tourist art of Montmartre, the upside-down painting of Max, the distorted portrait of Recktall Brown—each symbolizes and epitomizes the context of life that surrounds it. For Gaddis, art is the touchstone by which the genuineness of life is judged, and the purity of human motives measured. Wyatt is not only an individual artist, but an Everyman whose concerns are universal; his art—and art in general—is no mere adornment or addition to life, but life itself in the deepest and truest sense. This is part of the achievement of the novel: it succeeds in turning the simple analogy of art and life into a baffling and frightening identity. In The Recognitions questions that ostensibly deal with aesthetics actually are questions that probe to the very core of the human condition.

The Recognitions is remarkably self-reflective, in that the novel abounds in authorial comments about itself, its style, its difficulties—even its probable reception by critics. Part of the parody of the book is directed at itself, as if Gaddis were holding up a mirror to his work as it progressed. The comparison is an apt one, I think, for Wyatt uses mirrors in his work to obtain deliberate effects, and a sense of "the obscure reveries of the inward gaze" is sustained throughout the novel. This kind of conscious self-scrutiny, which unlike a conventional prologue or epilogue is intrinsic to the work itself, indicates that Gaddis's own art as a novelist, as well as Wyatt's as a painter, is a thematic and structural concern. The Recognitions is a first novel, and as such displays more than its share of self-consciousness, but the author's insistent scrutiny of his protagonist's aesthetic may well have served as a personal exorcism of similar demons troubling his own art. (pp. 127-28)

[Wyatt's] aesthetic is one of precise and severe laws that aim at the creation of … genuine art. I have used the word genuine here deliberately. It must be carefully distinguished from original, which in the lexical context of The Recognitions has a slightly pejorative connotation. The quest for originality is denigrated in the novel more than once as a misunderstanding of the artistic task…. [Genuine art] respects the achievements of the past and consciously builds upon them. It is concerned not with the vagaries of period style, but with transfigured reality, with that captured moment of luminous significance that Wyatt calls recognition. Such art is only secondarily original in the Romantic sense, but primarily seeks out, as Stanley puts it, "the origins of design," the archetypes of formal perfection which art can only reproduce in a reflected image. (pp. 128-29)

Wyatt's aesthetic is typically that of a certain kind of "melancholic" artist, if we might use that term in its full traditional significance as a humor. It is an aesthetic which is extremely conscious of technique and manner, often to the extent of forcing creativity into a Procrustean bed of preconceived forms. It sees itself as supremely serious, tending to a rejection of frivolity and play as inappropriate or unworthy of the truly artistic. It cherishes a personal piety (whether religious or secular) that invests reality with numinous, even mystical significance. It is an art of distillation rather than the wide swath, of the delicate jewel rather than the roughhewn stone. Moreover, it tends to exalt suffering as the origin and subject matter of all truly great creation, choosing themes and motifs reminiscent of Virgil's Sunt lacrimae rerum, mentem et mortalia tangunt.

At its worst, this art lapses into stiltedness and preciosity; at its best, it is subtle, refined, and capable of piercing discernment and sensitivity…. The drawback to perfection in small, limited forms (the "separate objects" that so intrigue Wyatt) is the danger of stagnancy and hyper-refinement, just as the danger in wide "epic" vision is banality and inflation. A healthy tension between the two modes is ideally desirable, although individual artists and periods lean to one or the other. In The Recognitions Gaddis is acutely conscious of the simultaneous polarity and complementarity of these two modes, and it might be a useful point of departure for structural criticism to consider the novel as a continuing counterpoint between them. Gaddis shows his love for (and skill with) fine detail and suggestion in the finely woven texture of his description and the labyrinth of his allusions; he reveals an impulse to epic scope in his effort to tie a welter of plots, characters, places, and conflicting and parallel levels of meaning into a coherent symphony. (p. 130)

[The] world of shallow art and intellectual falsity … throughout The Recognitions is parodied and attacked, mostly through the devastating technique of quoting its representatives verbatim. Cliques of dishonest critics, backbiting literati, the entire rout of cocktail party intellectuals and pen-pushers—all are mercilessly exposed. In its form and structure The Recognitions is thoroughly modern, but in its cumulative judgment of these representatives of modernity, it is profoundly anti-modern. Like Pound's Cantos or Eliot's Waste Land, the novel betrays bitterness over a world gone rotten with oversimplification, facile moral relativism, glib, hucksterized psychology, latitudinarian religion, and amorphous, undisciplined art. This is a world where the equally pompous dogmas of Establishment and Anti-Establishment are indifferent or hostile to the labor of genuine creation, and where Invidia, Ira, and Avaritia are as virulent as ever. Above all it is a world of cliches, publicity, pretentious faddism in thought, and fatuous posturings by both the great and the small.

What this world lacks most, from the vantage point of Wyatt's art, is dignity. The self-possessed privacy of genuine recognition, the chastened and awed silence in the face of a significance deeper than the merely human, is absent, and the absence renders characters trivial and clownish. (pp. 130-31)

In a real sense, Wyatt's forgeries are more genuine than the products of Romantic originality…. But wherein does the genuineness of a work of art consist, according to Gaddis? I suggest that these three criteria are involved in the judgment of a work of art in The Recognitions:

a) Does the work in question adhere to the "origins of design"?

b) Is it a faithful reflection of the artist's "recognition" of this design?

c) Does it refuse to serve any motive beyond these two?

Wyatt's forgeries perhaps fulfill the first two criteria, but they violate the third. Their value is vitiated by the intrusion of avarice and pride; indeed, it is the greed of Recktall Brown and the self-centered isolation of Wyatt that have called them into being. Despite Wyatt's rationalizations, deceit and falsity have riddled his art; his playing at medieval craftsman only serves to cover the continuing and deliberate fraud that he must perpetrate to satisfy his employer. A man of consummate technical proficiency, Wyatt dedicates himself solely to the reduplication of medieval techniques, hoping that through the perfection of such skills alone he will recapture the mysterious Innigkeit that gives art its life. Thus Wyatt calls himself a "craftsman," but the very stridency with which he insists upon this self-definition hints at the serious doubts entertained (unconsciously by Wyatt, consciously by Gaddis) concerning the usefulness of deriving the elan of art from craftsmanship alone.

And yet it is by means of such self-definition that Gaddis sets Wyatt—and one other character, I believe—apart from all other figures in the novel. Wyatt is the sensitive and profound soul, living in but not of the world around him. Like his father, who serves in the novel as a kind of emblematic prologue to Wyatt's life and troubles, he is a brooding, complex, self-sequestered person, obsessed with plumbing the depths of an occult truth. Wyatt's designing of bridges relates him, metaphorically, to his father. Each is a pontifex ("bridge-builder") or high priest: Reverend Gwyon in terms of divine ceremonies, Wyatt in terms of human art. It will be remembered that Esther complains bitterly of Wyatt's self-contained, priestly solitude, and even calls him a priest. Such juxtaposition reinforces the novel's insistence on the intimate connection between art and religion, or more properly, between the secular and sacred attempts to interpret reality, to bridge the gulf between what we see and what we imagine.

It is through the unwitting agency of his father, moreover, that Wyatt has his first chance at forgery. Reverend Gwyon's purchase of the Bosch table-top painting of the Seven Deadly Sins introduces a tangible symbol that appears and is alluded to over and over again in the novel. The metaphoric importance of this table in The Recognitions cannot be stressed enough. One is never certain as to the authenticity of the painting; Gaddis carefully confuses the issue. Is it the original Bosch? Is it the copy ordered by the Conte di Brescia? Is it Wyatt's copy? But the real question to be asked and answered is this: To what extent are we oblivious of our enslavement by the sins allegorized on the table, the sins of pride, avarice, envy, and lust that drive us to trickery and deceit? This larger moral question goes beyond the minor issue of the painting's genuineness. Whatever its provenance, the table serves as a stunning emblem throughout the novel of the unconscious fraud and falsity of human motives. Gaddis is masterful in his use of the table to bring into high relief the venality of characters who are not even aware of their place and judgment in a wider cosmic framework. (pp. 131-33)

Every tenet in Wyatt's aesthetic can be viewed, psychologically, as a rationalization of early conflicts and guilt. The disparagement of originality finds its roots in the terror of original sin instilled in Wyatt by his aunt when he first began to draw. The love of privacy and "violence all enclosed in a framework" are merely adult versions of the secretive repression and fear of his childhood. And, most symbolically of all, the loving God who solicitously looks at every detail is simply a palatable counterfeit of the stern Christ of the Bosch table-top, who with the warning Cave, cave, Dominus videt ("Beware, beware, the Lord sees") stares out in judgment from amidst a host of sins.

I certainly do not mean to write off Wyatt and his aesthetic in a psychologically reductionist manner. This would be to fall into one variety of simplistic narrowness that Gaddis attacks in the modern world. It is crucial to an understanding of The Recognitions to realize that Gaddis uses this particular falsity in Wyatt's life as an image of the spurious core of human life as a whole. It would be a mistake to look upon Wyatt as an individual troubled by idiosyncratic mental habits, all the result of a curious upbringing. He, like most of the other characters in the novel, is in many ways more of an archetype in a moral drama than a person in a realistic story. Yet he is also unmistakably human, and it is a mark of Gaddis's artistry that he is able to create characters who are clearly part of the world, and at the same time implicated in a metaphysical scheme of things transcending their own lives. The force of Wyatt's past is as vividly present to the reader as it is insistently at work in Wyatt's life, but rather than allow Wyatt to be conveniently pigeonholed as a clinical "case history," the art of The Recognitions forces upon the reader the question which modern psychology cannot bear to listen to, much less answer: Even if it is so that a man's ideas and actions stem from sordid or unhappy incidents in his childhood, why should those ideas and actions not be judged solely on their own merits as ideas and actions? The question is not explicit in The Recognitions, but the cumulative force of Gaddis's art raises it, and with it the specter of those traditional realities of free will, faith, sin, and grace.

Here indeed is the aesthetic which lies at the core of The Recognitions, both as a work of art and as a statement about art. The words of Stanley that "the Devil is the father of false art" take on an ethical, even metaphysical meaning in this light. The creation of art is an act of atonement, in that it constellates true significance in the midst of falsity, redeeming that falsity just as the cross redeems sin. In point of fact, Gaddis's position seems to be that genuine art atones not only for false art, but for false life as well. Stanley's work expiates the falsity of Wyatt's and that same work is the instrument of his martyrdom. This martyrdom … is actually that of Stephen-Wyatt, for Gaddis has deliberately created a "mystical participation" between these two characters, corresponding to the relationship of Redeemer and Redeemed. Art is the ultimate expiation, for through it not only suffering, but the falsehood which lies at the core of existence is transfigured beyond the pettiness and sordidness of its context and origins. Thus, as Stanley's music "soared in atonement," the shaky edifice of falsehood trembles and falls, and this final counterpoint of upward release and triumph and downward collapse and fatality is art's perfect image of both man's implication in falsehood, and his capacity for redemption. (pp. 135-36)

Joseph S. Salemi, "To Soar in Atonement: Art as Expiation in Gaddis's 'The Recognitions'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1977), Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter, 1977, pp. 127-36.

J. Bakker

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

In a world in which people cling to their separateness, originality as a justification of their claim to individuality is of prime importance. But what if they lack originality, and are unable to accept it? They resort to fakery….

That there is something alarming about a world in which the compulsion to cling to one's separateness degenerates into … perverse and bizarre antics, not only enables Gaddis to provide the … rich texture [of The Recognitions] and much of its hilarity, but also engages him in an extensive exploration of the notions of individualism and originality. (p. 287)

Wyatt himself is only the centre of consciousness in the first few chapters; after that he remains for the greater part of the novel in the background as a nameless, though haunting, presence, until he reappears under his new identity, Stephen Asche, merging at the very end of the novel with both his literary model Stephen Dedalus, since Gaddis changes his name Stephan into Steph en, and the dead. What seems to be suggested here is that the boundaries between the world of fantasy, the dead, and the living are illusory. The only reality is the species, humanity at large; the ultimate recognition of reality is the people—in their organized, institutionalized forms: the community, the state; and the Russians, the Chinese, will find no difficulty in agreeing. Is America to follow? Is what The Recognitions conveys a symptom of what must be looked upon as a complete break with the traditional view of America's significance, as represented by two of the country's greatest individuals: Emerson and Whitman? In one respect, though, Gaddis has remained "typically" American, and that is in the way his main protagonist conducts his quest for reality. In this he is led by the basic question of self rather than by some socio-political commitment, and so Gaddis's novel too has its rightful place in the tradition of the better American fiction which has always shown greater interest in personal redemption (or damnation) than in the cause of social betterment. (pp. 294, 296)

The subject matter with which both Gaddis and Pynchon deal is important and relevant. They are both concerned with man's place in mass society, but their starting points are entirely different. The Recognitions leads to the recognition that the self is dispensable, and that reality resides in the people, the community, in humanity, in the species. In Gravity's Rainbow the notion is retained that the self is an independent entity, but the novel ends on a deeply pessimistic note: even though the self succeeds in eluding control, man ceases to be an individual the moment he escapes the system, because he has been conditioned to function only within the system; outside, all sense of connection is lost, the individual dissolves, but not into the people, as in The Recognitions, but into nothingness, and this constitutes the difference between Gaddis's and Pynchon's approach to the problem of individualism in modern mass society.

What both novels epitomize—and this, I think, justifies the discussion of them together—are the two polar modes in which the idea of the separate self is abandoned and discredited in so much recent American fiction…. In The Recognitions and Gravity's Rainbow we witness the final solution of the problem of that troublesome presence in modern mass society, the separate self: either he merges with the people, or he dissolves into nothingness.

Considering the significance of the subject matter and the length of the books (The Recognitions is about a thousand pages, Gravity's Rainbow close to eight hundred), the question inevitably arises whether both Gaddis and Pynchon have at last presented us with the great American novel every new generation of American writers promises to produce. The question does not admit easy answers. For one thing, both novels are clearly too long. Along with flashes of inspired writing, they contain large chunks of plain boredom, testifying to an almost compulsive preoccupation with trivia and accumulative detail. (pp. 300-01)

More striking parallels between the strengths and weaknesses of the two novels can be indicated. Both are remarkably traditional in the sense that the authors make use of the conventional techniques of narrators, picaresque plots, and skilfully handled leitmotifs, while their experimental bent is shown in the presentation of two-dimensional characters (in Gaddis's novel to the point where they dissolve into one another), and a total disregard for the logic of time, place and motivation in the events and circumstances that bring them together, leading to unnecessary obscurities. Both novels testify to an extraordinary prose facility, in styles that shift from the grand elegiac sweep to a raucous colloquialism in the dialogues and the interior monologues, Gaddis's more traditional handling of the language showing a greater affinity with that of the great classical American prose-writers than Pynchon's nervous, idiosyncratic exuberance. Both novels share a certain numbing exhaustiveness, which in The Recognitions reveals itself as a compulsive urge to leave no name in Europe's cultural history unmentioned, while Gravity's Rainbow seems to contain a potted history of practically all the major findings of twentieth-century sociology, psychology, philosophy, physics, and chemistry. (pp. 301-02)

[There is] a curious parallel to be noted between the significance of the two final metaphors employed by the authors: in The Recognitions, a blank canvas; in Gravity's Rainbow, an empty filmscreen. Although both images function within the total metaphorical structure of the two works in which they occur, they also have epistemological meaning. What they emphasize is the degree to which both Gaddis and Pynchon distrust reality as represented by works of art on the one hand and those of science on the other, for it is these that seem to cut off man from a far more profound reality, causing him to take his fictions for reality, and becoming the engineer of his self by acting on them. (p. 302)

Considering the darker mood of Pynchon's novel, it will not come as a surprise that the sounds of the Apocalypse in Gravity's Rainbow are so much stronger than in The Recognitions. When the aesthetic-religious discourse that is carried on in Gaddis's novel is translated into socio-political terms, no one will find it difficult to recognize the particular value Stephan's decision has for our time, provided one takes the appropriate ideological stance, nor fail to notice for that matter that the book might as easily have belonged to the thirties as to the fifties. (pp. 302-03)

J. Bakker, "The End of Individualism," in Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 7, 1977, pp. 286-304.∗

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Gaddis, William (Vol. 10)


Gaddis, William (Vol. 3)

Explore Study Guides