“Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of…recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it…”
The above quote come from William Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, and acts both as an insightful comment about how we humans engage with created objects and as a key theme for the entire novel. Published in 1955 to generally unfavorable reviews, the novel has earned a life for itself over the years, finding itself spoken of academically at the vanguard of postmodern literature (just about everything that defines the genre is contained here in spades) thanks to famous postmodernists like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Jonathan Franzen citing Gaddis – particularly The Recognitions – as an inspiration for their work.
Broadly speaking, the novel explores myriad was that humans forge/fake/counterfeit feelings and personalities (the protagonist earns his money forging art) and the many things they pursue to feel more genuine; relationships, money, power, art. As it so often does, New York City plays microcosm for the whole of mankind in The Recognitions (and why shouldn’t it? The art world was centered on New York during the late-’40s-early-’50s when Gaddis was writing it) but the novel’s action occurs all over the world, where the characters learn they do not become more real simply by changing their location or taking care of a long put-off personal chore. From the quote above, one can see throughout this the novel Gaddis’s struggling with the seemingly natural tendency for people to look at others like they do pieces of art, “as though they are creating them themselves”. Another quote from the book:
“I know you, I know you. You’re the only serious person in the room, aren’t you, the only one who understands, and you can prove it by the fact that you’ve never finished a single thing in your life. You’re the only well-educated person, because you never went to college, and you resent education, you resent social ease, you resent good manners, you resent success, you resent any kind of success, you resent God, you resent Christ, you resent thousand-dollar bills, you resent Christmas, by God, you resent happiness, you resent happiness itself, because none of that’s real. What is real, then? Nothing’s real to you that isn’t part of your own past, real life, a swamp of failures, of social, sexual, financial, personal…spiritual failure. Real life. You poor bastard. You don’t know what real life is, you’ve never been near it. All you have is a thousand intellectualized ideas about life. But life? Have you ever measured yourself against anything but your own lousy past? Have you ever faced anything outside yourself? Life! You poor bastard.”
I am intentionally not saying much about the novel itself. It’s just that I decided to pick it up the other day for a re-read and was immediately excited about it once again – it is written by someone who clearly loves the artistry that is possible with language (and a killer vocabulary, to boot). It is a long book, and a dense one, but it is one that I tell people is my favorite book. Why do I still feel that I have a “favorite book”? Well, it taught me more about how I view myself and the word around me than just about any other thing I have yet encountered. In these pages I saw a mirror to the conversations and relationships that I was having, a critique of my own “serious person” self-identification torn apart in passages like the one above, and it introduced me to the then-soul-crushing notion that if counterfeit and forgery were the way of things in 1955, how much more so in 2003 (when I first read the novel), in 2013?
Will I learn anything mind-blowing? Who knows? I will probably drop a quote up on here every now and again, so there’s your fair warning.
On with the re-read!