The Recognitions: Part II

May 11, 2007

Nearly two months after completing Part I of The Recognitions, I am finally finished with Part II (440 pages) and a few dozen pages into the the third and final part (I’m now on 738 of 956 pages). At that time, I was wildly excited about the novel and the possibility that it would prove to be one of the best I’ve ever read. Sadly, I no longer feel that way. I really like The Recognitions, and I think it’s a great book — but I simply don’t love it as much as I want to love it. This is most unfortunate.

I noted while reviewing the book’s first Part that Gaddis’s dialog outshines the rest of his writing (description, internal monologues, etc). Often, his prose reaches towards brilliance, and the several “set piece” scenes are simply astonishing, but on the whole I find his style difficult to hold onto, not only on account of Gaddis’s erudition, but because he nearly always writes too much and too vaguely. This is certainly an intentional style, but it’s not one that I enjoy.

As I have yet to finish the book, and still retain a hope that its final pages will redeem the story and force me to reconsider, I’ve been trying to instead determine how the book to this point has disappointed me. My current thought is that my preferred reading-style is not well-suited to The Recognitions. I am a “section seeking” reader: one who is constantly awaiting key scenes, passages, and sentences that rise above the rest of the text, hoping to glean universal meanings from them. This style has its benefits — the highs are higher — but on the whole I consider it a shortcoming, one that The Recognitions is exposing in new ways. The novel resists any such efforts: there are, of course, crucial passages and scenes, but my harvest has been thin to this point.

The meaning of The Recognitions is always epically ahead of me; not in the way that great texts are always ahead of us on account of their greatness and the new things they perennially reveal, but in the sense that anything but the most rudimentary and fragmentary understanding and insight remain elusive. Gaddis’s unparalleled erudition and constant grabs for more-more-more (details, characters, references, etc etc) make it very difficult to maintain a grasp on the text — it always slips away. The Recognitions, to this point, has been a mass without a center.

But, perhaps, The Recognitions is a book without a center because the world it depicts lacks a center. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land (lines from Eliot’s poetry, especially the Four Quartets, pepper the text), The Recognitions is a lament for an earlier time, an era where art meant something — a reach towards the transcendent even — and is now just our best hope for shoring up fragments against the ruins.

On page 660 of The Recognitions, a French art critic quotes Michelangelo’s’s unfavorable judgment of Flemish art, in which he claims that Flemish art pleases women, monks, nuns, and men “who are not capable of understanding true harmony.” This dismissal is important to several of the book’s main characters for reasons I won’t summarize here. But what is most fascinating is that Michelangelo, several sentences later (from a larger source quotation here) describes the Flemish masters in terms that — at my lowest moments with the book — I think apply rather well to The Recognitions:

In short, this art is without power and and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single one would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application.

(pictured: details from Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights — which, like The Recognitions, overwhelms)


One comment

  1. Very interesting. It is always hard when you have high expectations for a book and something happens, or doesn’t happen, and you end up disappointed. But like you said, maybe the ending will redeem it all.

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