Book Discussion: The Recognitions

Another week, another party. Do people actually have Christmas parties on Christmas Eve? I wish I knew such people. The only thing I ever manage to do the day before Christmas is catch a movie. It always seems as though friends have other plans, typically with family. Ah, but we should know better than that bit of sentimentality, whether it be borne of “disciplined nostalgia” (p. 672) or intemperant familial bondage, having an enduring role in The Recognitions.

Indeed, it seems that in this week’s reading, amidst the operatic backdrop of Wyatt’s formal severing of ties with his counterfeit operation there is a more subtle dissolution of family. By the end of part II, Wyatt is completely alone. He is already estranged from his father, but this estrangement is solidified by Rev. Gwyon’s institutionalization and death. His surrogate family, Brown & Valentine, are (respectively) dead and mortally wounded. And Esme, Wyatt’s Stabat Mater, is both physically and mentally missing.

As ever, Otto seems to serve as a kind of parallel to Wyatt. Like Wyatt, Otto has already rejected Esther and lost Esme (if he ever had her). In this week’s reading, though, the familial decay continues. Not only does Otto discover that his “father” gave him counterfeit money, thus destroying at least one aspect of the illusion constructed in their bizarre meeting, but his real father, Mr. Pivner, adopts a new “son,” apparently giving up on ever actually meeting Otto. Fittingly, Otto is left to roam alone the frozen hell that is New York City. This sets up one of my favorite sentences in the novel: “He stood numb, surrounded by ice, among the frozen giants of buildings, as though to dare a step would send him head over heels in a night with neither hope of morning to come nor heaven’s betrayal of its triumphal presence, in the stars.” (p. 699)

On a perhaps more mundane level of analysis, I was delighted once again by Gaddis’ eye & ear for the banality at the heart of formal sociality. He is arguably being corrosively cynical, but I think saying such misses the mark. Gaddis is having a good deal of fun at his party-goers expense, to be sure, but one must at least consider the pragmatic merits of Valentine’s ambivalent appeal to ugliness?

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 its 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? (p. 690)

This is second-order cynicism, we might say. Cynicism about cynicism — ugly acquiescence to ugliness. This will not have the final say: for now, suffice it to say, on the one hand, we would be naive to not see its internal appeal, and blind not to see its debilitating effects. (One need only look at Senate Democrats and most A-list liberal bloggers to see what I mean here.)

The numerous party scenes throughout The Recognitions give us a hint at the debilitating effects of this kind of “vulgarity.” Most notably, perhaps, is the complete decay of communication. Not merely in misunderstanding, as on some level this implies an attempt to understand — e.g., one of my favorite passages from chapter eight, “The bearded young art critic was speaking in French, managing it with such urbanity, indeed, that his little friend . . . told him later, with demure awe, that he had not been able to understand a word of it; no marvel of ignominy, really, for the harassed Lyonnais who was listening could not understand a word of it either . . .” — but, as we see exemplified by Valentine throughout the party, in making more of an attempt not even to listen, or, as exemplified by nearly everybody else, listening only for conversational cues to say something long ago prescribed by social form or expectation. (This is bordering on, if not altogether jumping straight into, wankery, but the latter seems akin to signing your name to the books of other, like Mr. Feddle.)

Again, as vulgar as this is, we probably err to say it is absolutely negative or evil. A coin’s not counterfeit if everybody knowingly accepts it, as currency and as counterfeit, right? A forgery is only as good as the source to which it makes its appeal.  “Thank God there was the gold to forge.” (p. 689)

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