The Recognitions

. . . "because God did not relax"

As you recall, the 42 Minutes Seasonal Book Club read The Recognitions back in the Fall of 2016. Since then, NYRB Classics has published a new edition of this work this past Nov. (2020).

What this means (for us), is that there is a little more scholarship out there due to this new edition. This essay in the November Harper’s is a good introduction to the work:

Because God Did Not Relax

By Christopher Beha

The difficult pleasures of William Gaddis

. . . The critical neglect that The Recognitions suffered upon its appearance in 1955 has become the stuff of legend. But by the time the book made its way into paperback seven years later, it had been acknowledged as a landmark of postwar American literature. Published in 1975, J R solidified Gaddis’s reputation and earned him the National Book Award. He would go on to publish two more novels in his lifetime, one (Carpenter’s Gothic) merely very good, the other (A Frolic of His Own, which won him his second National Book Award) a masterpiece nearly on the level of the first two. At his death in 1998, he was universally hailed as a giant of the age, and his books have not fallen out of print since.

“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades,” The Recognitions begins, “of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.” Camilla is the young wife of the Calvinist minister Reverend Gwyon, riding in a horse-drawn carriage on its way up a hill in the Spanish countryside, part of a Catholic funeral procession “impelled by the monotone chanting of the priest and retarded by hesitations at the fourteen stations of the Cross.” Another paragraph will pass before even attentive readers understand that she is the procession’s corpse. The story of how she arrives at this fate, instead of being buried in “the clean Protestant soil of New England” where she belonged, takes up just the first twenty of the novel’s one thousand pages but establishes many of its themes.

Briefly: The Gwyons sail for Spain on the Purdue Victory out of Boston Harbor sometime around 1920. On the journey, Camilla suffers from appendicitis and dies under the knife of the ship’s surgeon, a fugitive counterfeiter named Sinisterra, traveling incognito. Rather than bring his wife’s body back to Connecticut, Reverend Gwyon—who has a taste for “the sincere theatricals of religions more histrionic than his own”—allows the local priest to bury her and becomes a guest at a Franciscan monastery.

Gwyon eventually returns home to his four-year-old son, Wyatt, who has been left in the care of an aunt. He arrives with various Old World objets in tow, including a Hieronymus Bosch tabletop painting of the seven deadly sins, and the Barbary ape (tail-less? yes) whose specs Edith had taken at the Bronx Zoo. The reverend’s subsequent descent into heresy and madness will be recounted at some length, but from here Wyatt becomes the novel’s central character. Like Gaddis, he falls feverishly ill in adolescence. When doctors prove useless, Reverend Gwyon invokes occult powers to save his son. During his convalescence, the boy develops a talent for painting, which he learns from copying the religious art his father has brought from Europe. His efforts at original work go nowhere, but his reproductions exhibit “that perfection to which only counterfeit can attain, reproducing every aspect of inadequacy, every blemish on Perfection in the original.” Restored to health, he forges the Bosch tabletop and sells the original to pay his way across the Atlantic. (In a gesture typical of the novel, he will eventually learn that he has forged a forgery.)

Some years later, Wyatt is preparing for his first show in Paris when a corrupt journalist offers a career-making write-up in exchange for a cut of his sales, explaining that “criticism pays very badly, you know.” The reviews that follow Wyatt’s principled refusal essentially end his career, and he winds up a commercial draftsman in New York. He also does occasional restoration work, and one of his clients, the Mephistophelean Recktall Brown, recognizes his talent and enlists him in a forgery scheme.

The effects of Wyatt’s Faustian deal provide the novel’s main through line, but there are a dozen or so other major characters, most of them artists of one sort or another, introduced by way of Wyatt’s wife, Esther, and his model, Esme, who both make the rounds of postwar Greenwich Village. (As did Gaddis himself, who has a brief part in one of Kerouac’s novels.) Most significant among them is Otto Pivner, a feckless Harvard grad and would-be playwright who arrives in New York from picking bananas in Costa Rica with trumped-up stories of revolution and an uninjured arm in a sling. Midway through the novel, Otto makes a lunch date with the father he never knew, mostly with the aim of hitting him up for cash, but meets instead our old friend Sinisterra, who believes he is passing fake bills to a criminal contact. Otto accepts the notes as paternal largesse and unwittingly puts them into circulation, which leads to another character’s arrest.

OK before we continue—at this point in our Book Club’s history—I feel like we need to catalog some of the author’s dates . . .

Joseph Campbell: 1904-1987

Albert Hofmann: 1906–2008

Robert Heinlein: 1907–1988

John W. Campbell: 1910–1971

L. Ron Hubbard: 1911–1986

William S. Burroughs: 1914–1997

John C. Lilly: 1915–2001

Though it’s just a moment in his youth, Wyatt’s Wren is on my mind . . . .

—I'll go out like the early Christian missionaries did at Christmas, to hunt down the wren and kill him, yes, when the wren was king, do you remember, you told me . . . When the wren was king, he repeated, getting his breath again,—at Christmas.

On a small rock nearby is the wren, the sacred bird of kings, revered as an oracle and a keeper of secret wisdom. The wren is an ancient totem bird that flew highest of all creatures by riding the back of the great eagle, thus earning itself the title of King of All Birds. It serves as a reminder that the smallest of Earth's creatures is capable of soaring to the greatest heights and seeing beyond the furthest horizon.

This time of rebirth is both inward and mystical, and yet outward and universal, beyond the narrow boundaries of human civilization and moral codes.~The Wildwood Tarot