Readers have often understood The Recognitions’ obsession with counterfeiting as a familiar Fifties critique of American phoniness. “Peel away the erudition,” Jonathan Franzen wrote about the novel, “and you have ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ ” But Gaddis makes clear throughout that he is after bigger, more interesting game; his real target is not fakery but something like its opposite, what a teacher of Wyatt’s calls “that romantic disease, originality”:
"Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates."
This notion of degeneration owes something to Plato, for whom the visible world is a copy of the eternal forms and mimetic art a copy of that copy. In this view, the artist’s true job is not to depict our transient reality but to pierce through it and give us some access to the absolute. This is what contemporary viewers miss, Wyatt insists, when they focus on the meticulous craftsmanship of the Old Masters.
"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."
By these lights, the problem with forgery is not a lack of originality but the fact that it divorces technique from its proper aim, leading to empty virtuosity. Which, the novel suggests, is also the more general problem with the modern world—meaning not the air-conditioned nightmare of midcentury America, but the West from give or take the Reformation on: “Reason supplied means, and eliminated ends. What followed was entirely reasonable: the means, so abruptly brought within reach, became ends in themselves.”
Closely related to the disease of originality is the cult of self-expression, which views art primarily as a reflection of its maker and often takes as much interest in the eccentric life of the artist as in the work. A running joke concerns Otto’s play, which is really a “series of monologues in which Gordon, a figure who resembled Otto at his better moments, and whom Otto greatly admired, said things which Otto had overheard, or thought of too late to say.” The novel’s most famous lines, known to many who have never cracked its pages, are spoken by Wyatt in response to Esther’s speculation about a famous poet’s sexuality:
"What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology."
The question that follows is where exactly that leaves the artist forced to live in the kingdom of means. For many of the writers Gaddis most admired—Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh—the solution was a retreat into religious traditionalism. At various points in the novel, Gaddis presents such a retreat as a live option. “Thank God there was the gold to forge,” says Wyatt, meaning that there is after all something real and enduring at the core of things. When Wyatt finally abandons his counterfeiting scheme, he returns to the same Spanish monastery that his father visited in the book’s first pages; there is some suggestion that his stay will deliver him a sort of creative authenticity. Even Otto muses in his shallow way about the possibility of conversion: “It kind of gives a reason for things that otherwise don’t seem to have any.” Meanwhile, the one artist in the book who produces something genuine is the devoutly Catholic composer Stanley, for whom faith provides a meaningful context. Admittedly this context is an equivocal gift. Toward the end of the novel, Stanley plays an original composition on an organ in a Medieval church, which topples from the strain: “He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”
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