Book Discussion: The Recognitions

Pages 723-823

He had escaped, where, he did not know, he did not think, he had not thought since Christmas Eve, and when thought or memory intruded he forced it off with calculations drawn to one purpose: to keep moving, with money no object to spend his way through it, to keep moving and live it through, without looking back.  (pp. 728-29)

This passage is talking about Otto, who has found himself living out his lie about being caught in the middle of a Central American revolution, but it just as well anticipates Wyatt’s strangely comedic drama in Spain with Sinisterra/”Mr. Yak”. Like Otto, Wyatt’s object, upon attacking Valentine and losing Esme, is simply to keep moving. Away from his crime(s), foremost; away from being used, in the service of criminals even greater than he; etc. That he ends up in league with yet another criminal, another counterfeiter no less, is of course the kind of circumstances we at this point in the novel have come to expect. That he is in Spain, Wyatt has learned from his father, is fitting, for “Spain is a land to flee across” (p. 769)

This long chapter detailing the weirdly co-dependent relationship between Wyatt/Stephan and Sinisterra/Yak turned out, in this second reading of the book, to be one of my favorites. (Not least because I did not remember it at all from the first reading.) At this point of the discussion, reiterating the plot is kind of pointless. Suffice it to say, as in the other parts of the story involving Sinisterra, the comedy is suffused with darkness — recall the scene in the first chapter when he accidentally kills Wyatt’s mom, while impersonating a doctor; or his encounter Otto, who mistakes him for his father — and really highlight Gaddis’ way with humor.

An interesting element in this chapter especially is, while there is so much movement going on, be it by foot, by train, or by carriage — indeed, so much activity in general, much of it involving corpses, prostitutes, cognac, and the ever-present sounds of La Tani — very little moves forward as such. Indeed, for all his desire to get away from his past, Wyatt finds himself (or so he thinks) chased by it. Gaddis flags this absence of movement for us in a beautiful passage where, I think, he also seems once again to be describing his book:

The image of Stephan Asche did not move. Nothing moved there, but the smoke rising gently behind the disorder of newspapers, the untended trail of a fire smoldering in a pile of debris where nothing retains its original shape, or purpose, among broken parts and rusted remains of useful objects, unidentifiable now, indistinguishable from other fragments of the past, shapes and sharp angles of curious design and unique intention, wasting without flame under the litter of news no longer news, pages of words torn by the wind, sodden with rain, words retaining separation, strung to the tear, without purpose, but words, and nothing moves but the smoke, rising from two bright embers. (p. 796)

When you do not move,  it seems, you are consumed. (Perhaps like the reader of The Recognitions — it is no coincidence, maybe, that it’s been a couple of weeks since my last write-up.)  Note that throughout the first three chapters of Part III, most of the characters are moving. Otto & Wyatt, of course; but also the ancillary characters, like Stanley, Max & Hannah. Those who are not are, at best, like Ellery, left in pitiful states of self-pity; or, at worst, like Agnes, Maude & Benny, physically abusive (toward self and/or others. )

If you are not moving, you are no longer working, as Wyatt says, to “prove one’s own existence. . . . Why, there’s no ruse at all that people will disdain, to prove their own existence . . .” (p. 800). I know I keep returning to this theme throughout my readings, but I do so only because I think Gaddis is so repeatedly explicit in saying that it’s when the ruses stop, when you’ve given up on either fleeing from one ruse to another, or at least having the courtesy of seeing one through to its consequences, that you’ve no other outlet but destruction of some sort. Not a happy vision of life either way, I suppose, but nobody ever mistook The Recognitions for How to Win Friends & Influence People.

4 thoughts on “Book Discussion: The Recognitions

  1. So if we define “authenticity” as what lies behind the mask or what remains when we stop trying to fake it, then destruction is the only possible authenticity — and that seems to fit Wyatt’s experience, as when his “own” “original” paintings are lost in a fire, or of course when he stabs Valentine as part of his broader plan (to the extent Wyatt can have a “plan”) to bring down the forgery ring. Not having read the whole thing, it seems impossible to me that Wyatt will ever learn to live with the mask, and the only outcome is for him to destroy himself — but it will be interesting if I turn out to be wrong on that.

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