The Recognitions – William Gaddis


The word “recognition” (in various forms) appears eighty-one times in the text of William Gaddis’s ‘The Recognitions’.

This information is captured in the wonderfully detailed ‘A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions’ by Steven Moore – available to read online here. A great resource with detailed annotations on the text, synopses and links to a raft of material about the novel. I do not intend to add anything of substance to the various material that is already widely available about this neglected, underappreciated, challenging but important book, nothing more than to look at one other form of “recognition” …the mirror.

Whilst I did not count the number of mirror references in the text (and I plan to do so upon a re-reading), I would estimate that it is more prevalent than the appearance of the word “recognition”.

A mirror, a distorted recognition;

And reversed, the mirrors? Backwards, like a contact print. Exactly like, and yet a perfect lie. (p335)

As the Steven Moore reader’s guide summarises;

Gaddis’s first novel takes the form of a quest.  In a carefully wrought and densely-woven series of plots involving upwards of fifty characters across three continents, we follow the adventures of Wyatt Gwyon, son of a clergyman who rejects the ministry in favor of the call of the artist.  His quest is to make sense of contemporary reality, to find significance and some form of order in the world.  Through the pursuit of art he hopes to find truth.   His initial “failure” as an artist leads him not to copy but to paint in the style of the past masters, those who had found in their own time and in their own style the kind of order and beauty for which Wyatt is looking.  His talent for forgery is exploited by a group of unscrupulous art critics and businessmen who hope to profit by passing his works off as original old masters.   As the novel develops, these art forgeries become a profound metaphor for all kinds of other frauds, counterfeits and fakery: the aesthetic, scientific, religious, sexual and personal.  Towards the end, Wyatt wrenches something authentic from what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”   The nature of his revelation, however is highly ambiguous and is hedged about by images of madness and hallucination, which disturbs simple distinctions between real and authentic, between faiths and fakes.

Wyatt’s forgeries being painted using a mirror, to reverse the image of the sitter, she can be recognised but “backwards…a perfect lie.” Another metaphor for the “distinctions between the real and authentic, between faith and fakes.”

Then she walked over to where to hinged mirrors stood against another wall, turned them open and closed them again quickly.
–You . . . she said again looking back to the bed, for she’d turned quickly.
There on the floor at her feet was a drawing, it was a meticulous self-portrait, and she took a step before she saw it, saw it was not a detail of brushwork that is, and leaned down to pick it up. –You. she said, –all upside down. Then she righted it and repeated, –all upside down.
She stood there staring somewhere between the bed and the drawing as though a hand were on her; and then turned and pulled the mirrors again. She cocked a leaf open with the toe of her right foot, holding the picture up with effort as though it were a great weight, and looked at the prompt emergencies, settling her eyes on the even image, the same that she held in her hands; then raised her eyes to the second image of her own face, and let the leaf go closed with a clap, so that a part of it broke out and fell to the floor separating as soon as it sounded, to reflect the glare of the bulb in the ceiling back, in shapes of breakage, to the ceiling. (pgs 468-469)

Characters not only observe through broken mirrors, they watch via mirrors in bars undetected, they pause to contemplate their own faces. Mirrors, a fraudulent recognition, fakery…

–did you bring your great Mirror?
–Mirror . . . ?
–There now, it’s not easy to transport, I imagine. The great mirror in which you can see all that goes on in your kingdoms. (p410)

A book that deserves re-reading and re-reading, however I’ll tackle his other works, ‘JR’, ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’ and ‘A Frolic of his Own’ before I head back to this amazing work … analogous to a religious experience…

…as he passed the mirror himself in both directions, where he might have glimpsed the face of a man having, or about to have, or at the very least valiantly fighting off, a religious experience. (p900)

Close to 1,000 pages and not a single regret having encountered them.


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