Re Cognize

Winter Book Club: The Recognitions

cognize | ˈkäɡnīz | verb [with object] formal perceive, know, or become aware of: what the novel cognizes, discerns, knows. ORIGIN early 19th century: from cognizance, on the pattern of words such as recognize.

I started into The Recognitions today, January 5th, 2021. This is our second time engaging with this material.

11.24.16 Episode 249: Fall Book Club
The Recognitions
For the fourth installment of our seasonal book club, the program recognizes William Gaddis's first novel from 1955, The Recognitions, a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake.

Topics Include: Sensitive Boy, Postwar Fiction, Gravity's Rainbow, Catch 22, Forgery, Infinite Jest, Voice, Encyclopedic Novel, Jet Set, Realism, Arrival, Crypto-Kubrology, Imagination, Man In The High Castle, Art World, Painting, Sun Worship, Golden Bough, Westworld, Player Piano, Fake, Postmodern Noise.

This was Gaddis’s first novel published when he was 32 and more than 40 years on it is at the very heart of his enviable literary reputation.  It has now come to be seen as a Janus-faced text that looks back in its complexity to the great Modernists of the inter-war years such as Joyce and Faulkner and forward to the post-war American writers such as Barth, Coover, Pynchon, De Lillo and Gass in its taste for black humor, literary play and absurdity.  It has established itself as a unique and influential novel, a pivotal work that makes connections between Modernism and what has come to be called Postmodernism, both as a literary style and as a philosophical position.

The first thought that struck me this time as I began, is how this novel begins like a Disney story with a dead mother. I’m not sure when that became a trope and whether it has any bearing.

The book begins shortly after WWI. Wyatt is four years old when his mother, Camilla dies en route to Spain.

CAMILLA "For Wyatt [she is] the idealized figure Graves calls the White Goddess – at once girl, mother, and hag, and patroness of the white magic of art."  (Steven Moore, 1989, 27)

His son Wyatt is four at this time, and deprived of his mother he now falls unwillingly under the tutelage of the dour Aunt May, Rev. Gwyon's father's sister. 

And that is how this work begins. I’m sure I will continue posting about this as my reading progresses. For now, here is a helpful website:


Gaddis worked on writing The Recognitions for seven years. He began it as a much shorter work, intended as an explicit parody of Goethe's Faust. During the period in which Gaddis was writing the novel, he traveled to Mexico, Central America, and Europe. While in Spain in 1948, Gaddis read James Frazer's The Golden Bough. Gaddis found the title for his novel in The Golden Bough, as Frazer noted that Goethe's plot for Faust was derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a third-century theological tract (See Clementine literature): Clement of Rome's Recognitions was the first Christian novel; and yet it was a work that posed as one having been written by a disciple of St. Peter. Thus an original work posed as something else, and was in some sense a fraud that became a source for the Faust legend.[3]

From this point, Gaddis began to expand his work as a full novel. He completed it in 1949.[4] Evidence from Gaddis' collected letters indicates that he revised, expanded and worked to complete the draft almost continuously up to early 1954, when he submitted it to Harcourt Brace as a 480,000-word manuscript.[5]

According to Steven Moore, the character of Esme was inspired by Sheri Martinelli and Otto was a self-deprecating portrait of the author.[6] "Dick", a minister, is a reference to Richard Nixon.

Ancillary to this, I’m simultaneously reading: Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G Jung & High Weirdness by Eric Davis. They seem quite resonant together and with this book club choice as well.

For some reason, I want to go out on the beginning of “The Silver Key” by Lovecraft. There is something here that sticks both in my craw, and says something about the state of Reverend Gwyon’s mind who is nearing 50 if I recall correctly. (“Gaddis once told Steven Moore that Robert Graves was the physical model for Rev. Gwyon.”)

The Silver Key
By H. P. Lovecraft

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other. Custom had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions. Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish, and he believed it because he could see that they might easily be so. What he failed to recall was that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.