The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. 1955.
“ – Yes, I don’t live, I’m…I am lived, he whispered.” (262)
I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time and finally made my way to it. It currently feels like the right thing at the right time for me. Gaddis has a prose style that reads as an unending flow of lived intensity, almost with an effect like listening to music; the writing at times is incredibly beautiful. I can sense the quality of intelligence on the other side of the book’s language-veil, and there have been moments the writing has caused me to laugh out loud. The book is as entertaining as it is intelligent and insightful.
The plot centers around a painter-character named Wyatt, who after a strange childhood illness begins making artwork in the home of his Reverend father and superstitious Aunts. The most secretive and important of the artwork are meticulous copies of old masterworks. Later when the character becomes an adult, he obsessively recreates works by old master painters, using unusual techniques to age and destroy the work into a type of perfection, as if they come into being in multiple times at once.
Wyatt is discovered almost by accident by a seedy Mephistopheles-type-demon character named Recktall Brown who begins putting him to work creating faked old master works to be sold falsely and for incredible prices.
In the intro to the book, William Gass writes that “The Recognitions, indeed, tackles the fundamental questions: What is real, and where can we find it in ourselves and the things we do?”
There is a good section late in Part I of the novel; during a conversation, a character makes the observation that if an imitation of a Raphael painting cannot be distinguished from the original then it is a Raphael. There are metaphysical implications of authorship in this type of thinking.
– My dear fellow, “If the public believes that a picture is by Raphael, and will pay the price of a Raphael,” Valentine said, offering a cigarette, -“then it is a Raphael.” (239)
I’m going to type up some good thoughts and excerpts from Part I here, before I continue reading into the novel.
“He stood there unsteady in the cold, mumbling syllables which almost resolved into her name, as though he could recall, and summon back, a time before death entered the world, before accident, before magic, and before magic despaired, to become religion.” (12)
“There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…a thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible? Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.” (57)
“- Look, I didn’t see you. Listen, that painting, I was looking at the painting. Do you see what this was like, Esther? seeing it?
– I saw it.
– Yes but, when I saw it, it was one of those moments of reality, of near-recognition of reality. I’d been…I’ve been worn out in this piece of work, and when I finished it I was free, free all of a sudden out in the world. In the street everything was unfamiliar, everything and everyone I saw was unreal, I felt like I was going to lose my balance out there, this feeling was getting all knotted up inside me and I went in there just to stop for a minute. And then I saw this thing. When I saw it all of a sudden everything was freed into one recognition, really freed into reality that we never see, you never see it. You don’t see it in paintings because most the time you can’t see beyond a painting. Most paintings, the instant you see them they become familiar, and then it’s too late. Listen, do you see what I mean?
-As Don said about Picasso…she commenced.
-That’s why people can’t keep looking at Picasso and expect to get anything out of his paintings, and people, no wonder so many people laugh at him. You can’t see them any time, just any time, because you can’t see freely very often, hardly ever, maybe seven times in a life.
– I wish, she said, – I wish….
How real is any of the past, being every moment revalued to make the present possible: to come up one day saying, – You see? I was right all the time. Or, – Then I was wrong, all the time. The radio is still busy with Puccini, Tosca all the way through: from the jumble at the end of the second act, Wyatt rescues her words, repeats them, – Questo è il bacio di Tosca! That’s reality, then. Tosca’s kiss, reality?
-I wish…she repeats (preferring Don Giovanni)
-Maybe seven times in a life.
Magic number! but she sits looking at him, waiting in the space populated by memory. One night when she was doing her nails, he came in. – Wyatt, you’ve never had a manicure? Never? Let me give you a manicure…But he said something in a tone apologetic, alarmed, and took his hands away one clutched in the other.
But it can’t really be that simple…(a discussion: did the coming of the printing press corrupt? putting a price on authorship, originality). – Look at it this way, look at it as liberation, the first time in history that a writer independent of patrons, the first time he could put a price on his work, make it a thing of material value, a vested interest in himself for the first time in history…
-And painters, and artists? Lithography, and color reproductions…
-Yes, I don’t know, if one corrupts the artist and the other corrupts…that damned Mona Lisa, no one sees it, you can’t see it with a thousand off-center reproductions between you and it.
-I don’t know, I’ve tried to understand it myself. Spinoza…
Mozart? The air is full of him, you’ve only got to have a radio receiving set to formulize the silence, give it shape and put it in motion: Sleigh Ride hurtles from the grid and strikes her. She suffers the impact without surprise.” (93)
“ – No, it isn’t that simple.
– I’m afraid it is, my boy.
– Damn it, it isn’t, it isn’t. It’s a question of…it’s being surrounded by people who don’t have any sense of…no sense that what they’re doing means anything. Don’t you understand that? That there’s any sense of necessity about their work, that it has to be done, that it’s theirs. And if they feel that way how can they see anything necessary in anyone else’s? And it…every work of art is a work of perfect necessity.
– Where’d you read that?
– I didn’t read it. That’s what it…has to be, that’s all. And if everyone else’s life, everyone else’s work around you can be interchanged and nobody can stop and say, This is mine, this is what I must do, this is my work…then how can they see it in mine, this sense of inevitableness, that this is the way it must be. In the middle of all this how can I feel that…damn it, when you paint you don’t just paint, you don’t just put lines down where you want to, you have to know, you have to kn0w that every line you put down couldn’t go any other place, couldn’t be any different…But in the midst of all this…rootlessness, how can you…damn it, do you talk to people? Do you listen to them?
– I talk to business people. Recktall Brown drew heavily on his cigar, watched the cigarette stamped out, the brandy finished.
– But…you’re talking to me. You’re listening to me.
– We’re talking business, Recktall Brown said calmly.
-Money gives significance to anything.
-Yes. People believe that, don’t they. People believe that.
Recktall Brown watched patiently, like someone waiting for a child to solve a simple problem to which there was only one answer. The cigarette, lit across from him, knit them together in the different textures of their smoke.
-You know…Saint Paul tells us to redeem time.
-Does he? Recktall Brown’s tone was gentle, encouraging.
-A work of art redeems time.
-And buying it redeems money, Recktall Brown said.
“-A steady hand! he said, and drank down the brandy. – Do you think that’s all it is, a steady hand? He opened the rumpled reproduction. – This…these…the art historians and the critics talking about every object and…everything having its own form and density and…its own character in Flemish paintings, but is that all there is to it? Do you know why everything does? Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so this…and so in the painting every detail reflects…God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then. Do you get the perspective in this? he demanded, thrusting the rumpled reproductions before them. – There isn’t any. There isn’t any single perspective, like the camera eye, the one we all look through now and call it realism, there…I take five or sic or ten…the Flemish painter took twenty perspectives if he wishes, and even in a small painting you can’t include it all in your single vision, your one miserable pair of eyes, like you can a photograph, like you can painting when it…when it degenerates, and becomes conscious of being looked at.
Recktall Brown stood up, and came toward him.
-Like everything today is conscious of being looked at, looked at by something else but not by God, and that’s the only way anything can have its own form and its own character, and…and shape and smell, being looked at by God. (251)
“ – Or the seven heavens of the Arabs, he said decisively, making a hemisphere with one hand, which trembled as he held it forth.
– Emerald, white silver, white pearls, then ruby, then gold, red gold, and then yellow jacinth, and the seventh of shining light…” (257)
“ – Seven lilies?
Seven celestial fabrics, seven spheres, the colors of the seven planetary bodies: all these revolved above the flower cart. But above the seventh heaven, we are told, there are seven seas of light, and then the veils, separating the Substances seven of each kind, and then, Paradise: seven stages, one above the other, canopied by the Throne of the Compassionate, discreetly remote from the tumult going on here in the middle distance. The lights changed, traffic moved, and waves of figured crested with faces dumbly unbroken, or spotted with the foam of confusion, or shattering their surfaces with speech, ebbed and flowed on a sea of noise, disdaining the music of the spheres.
The moment of evening loss is suggested in restricted portions of the sky which only suggests infinity, and that such an intimacy is possible when something rises from the inside, to be skewered on the peaks or continue to rise untrammeled: a desperate moment for those with nowhere to go, the ones who lose their balance when they look up, passing on all sides here, invited nowhere, enjoying neither drink not those they drank with but suddenly desolated, glancing up, stepping down from the curb alone, to seek anywhere (having forgot to make a date for “cocktails,” asylum of glass, brittle words, olives from across the sea, and chromium) a place to escape this transition from day to night: a grotesque time of loneliness, for what has been sough is almost visible, and requires, perhaps, no more than a priest to bring it forth. Restricted above the seven lilies, the sky lay in just such a portion as the Etruscan priest might have traced with his want when, building the temple, he outlined on the sky the foundation at his feet, delivering the residence of deity to earth.
Seven days, seven seals, seven bullocks in burnt offering; seven times Jacob bowed before Esau; seven stars the angels of the seven churches, seven lamps which are the seven spirits, seven stars in his right hand; seven years in Eden; and seven times seven years to the jubilee trumpet; seven years of plenty, seven years of famine; so Nebuchadnezzar heated the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated, to purge the three who refused to bow down before the holden image sixty forearms (counting to the end of the middle finger) high, and six wide; and when they came through unscathed and unscorched, the king exclaimed, – Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and quite sensibly joined the in their fearful subscription to a Hostility Who could afford no other gods before Him, and would seem to have triumphed in this fracas which took place not too far distant from India, where things remained quiet enough that many heard a serene voice saying, Even those who worship other gods worship me although they know it not.” (265)