The Recognitions is a book that is the first of its kind. Maximalism was semi-present in previous novels such as Moby Dick and Ulysses, but the massively wide scope of interweaving plots, characters, themes, and references, had truly never been done before. Not only was it the first maximalist novel, but it serves as a bridge between modernism and postmodernism by combining the more discomforting points of the human condition and the vast never-ending stream of different stories. This merging into the postmodern world was just a condition that Gaddis was living in, and with this novel was attempting to decipher it for himself. But the maximalist scope was a deliberate choice, and his reasoning is put perfectly by a quote by Stanley:
It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead.
And that is what Gaddis did. He wanted to discuss forgery, false living, what it means to create art, the critics he knew would bash him, a lack of love, an overabundance of religion, memory, suicide, and so many other topics. He took each of these ideas and put every thought he had into the book’s 900+ pages, creating a massive array of characters that would be able to help enlighten the different facets of these themes.
The main themes Gaddis discusses are art and originality, by asking: what does it mean to create art? is art ever truly original? does artistic talent itself merit creativity, or must it include some form of originality? and finally, what is the toll of plagiarism? Wyatt’s life is defined in childhood, in a moment of forgery – this instance being impersonation. Frank Sinisterra, a professional forger, is on the same ship that Wyatt’s parents are. He is impersonating a doctor, and when Camilla, Wyatt’s mother, falls ill with appendicitis, he fails to treat her correctly which leads to her death. From this moment on, Wyatt is doomed to repeat this defining moment. When the novel progresses through its first part, his Faustian bargain calls to power all of his artistic talents, but not in the act of creativity – instead, in forgery. His art though is not simply a recreation of masterpieces – it nears and sometimes matches them. Wyatt mimics the blemishes, burns, and scratches on each forged work so perfectly that no scientific method can prove them to be recreations.
Otto also exemplifies these themes but through different means. He is constructing a play featuring the main character, Gordon. As he moves around through parties, he records some of the lines he hears people speaking and incorporates them into his play. But when it comes to publishing the work, Agnes (one of the members at these parties and a literary agent) says that many people in her office who read it say that much of it sounded familiar. They are remembering these lines at the party, whether spoken themselves or by others. It is calling to mind originality once again. Almost all artistic creation, especially fiction, takes much inspiration from the artist’s real life, but can it take too much inspiration at times? Another layer is then added when it comes to light that some of these lines he took from members of the parties were actually the speaker’s copying other lines from certain literary works, claiming them as their own. Now the book further expounds on this topic. When borrowing from life, is it actually the reality that is being mimicked, or somewhere down the line does it always lead back to another work. This idea is perfectly captured in this quote:
“… a story about a forged painting. It was a forged Titian that somebody had painted over another old painting, when they scrape the forged Titian away they found some worthless old painting underneath it, the forger had used it because it was an old canvas. But then there was something under that worthless painting, and they scraped it off and underneath that they found a Titian, a real Titian that had been there all the time. It was as though when the forger was working, and he didn’t know the original was underneath, I mean he didn’t know he knew it, but it knew, I mean something knew.”
So if these characters and this quote show the impossibility of true originality, what does it mean to create art? If art is always some replication of the past (as Wyatt says, “to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way … so you copy masters, only masters”) then how can one create art and believe that they did something unique – found a way to say something that hasn’t been said and repeated for decades, centuries, millennia? The answer is not obvious, and I by no means think I have the answer, but Gaddis does drop some hints throughout the novel that I believe could reveal what his thoughts on this are. The most telling is when Wyatt has completed the forgery of a work and now must mar it to appear as the aged and beaten-up version that now exists. Basil Valentine is questioning him on how it must feel to scratch away at those most beautiful parts of the painting. Wyatt says:
…”it’s the most difficult part. Not the actual damaging it, but damaging it without trying to preserve the parts that cost such…” – “painters who do this kind of work, they can’t resist saving those parts, and anyone can tell, anyone can tell.”
He is saying we can take inspiration – creators can look at a work of literature or art or film and draw out the themes, the stylistic choices, the innovation – but they must be willing to destroy the most brilliant aspects of these inspirations so as to create something new. We cannot take what made that master’s work truly original and claim it as our own. Instead, we must bravely destroy it, which more often than not may lead it to its downfall. Although, this bravery gives it the possibility to lead to a true elevation as its own piece, even if the weight of genius crushes us as it does Stanley in those final pages.
Not only is this theme profound on its own – not only is it explored in nearly every single fashion Gaddis had available – but it also represents exactly what Gaddis did with The Recognitions. Gaddis shows inspiration from so many authors from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Goethe’s Faust. However, he does not steal their moments. He does not take what makes them great works of art and then rehash these ideas for his own novel. Gaddis instead draws inspiration, reworks it to his own image, and creates. If he would have plagiarized or forged or imitated, well, he may have met Recktall Brown’s same fate – trying to pass off a suit of armor as an original, he would have tripped over those counterfeit feet, tumbled, and died. His name would not be as prominent today. But he took that risk: destroyed what made other art great to create his own form of beauty. And although at first none could see his brilliance, he is now that master who is forged.
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