William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays eds. Crystal Alberts, Christopher Leise, and Birger Vanwesenbeeck. McFarland & Company. 216 pp., $45.00.
On March 9 and 10, 2005, at the University of Buffalo, a group of scholars and readers of William Gaddis—not quite “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but definitely small in number—met at the only conference devoted to his work. The warmth of our shared enthusiasm contrasted with the weather and the brutalist architecture of the campus, where one odd playground-like structure made of concrete and spikes would have fit nicely in the prison drama Oz. There were many papers, some more formal than others, including presentations by Steven Moore (doyen of Gaddis studies, and author of The Novel: An Alternative History, forthcoming from Continuum Books this spring), Joseph Tabbi (among other things, co-editor of a recent collection of essays on Gaddis, and founder/editor of Electronic Book Review), and speakers from Germany, England, Switzerland, and Canada, as well as many students from the university and various parts of the United States. Webmaster Victoria Harding, whose intelligent and sensitive interest in Gaddis is found on WilliamGaddis.org (an indispensable site), was also there.
The conference took place in Capen Hall, specifically in the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, which had selections from the Gaddis Archives at Washington University, St. Louis, including amusing letters by David Markson. Fittingly, Wyndham Lewis’ portrait of Samuel Capen, as well as a self-portrait, were (perhaps still are) housed in this room, and any reader of The Recognitions (1955) may be interested in comparing that novel’s party scenes with those in The Apes of God (1930), Lewis’ savage satire of artistic circles in London.
Many of the papers presented at the conference have now found a home in William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays, a new collection of essays that complements the 2007 publication Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System (University of Alabama Press), edited by Tabbi and Rone Shavers. (Disclosure: a paper I co-authored appears in that collection.) The timing of these two publications could not be foreseen, calling to mind Thomas Wolfe’s phrase “unswerving punctuality of chance” from Look Homeward, Angel (a phrase Gaddis first used in 1955, its source located only in 2004 by Travis Dunn). These recent studies come on the heels of work in the 1990s, productive years for Gaddis studies that saw the publication of critical books by Gregory Comnes, Christopher Knight, and Peter Wolfe. Two of the students behind the conference, Christopher Leise and Birger Vanwesenbeeck, as well as archivist Crystal Alberts, have done a service in pulling together these writers and essays.
As was the case with Paper Empire, one of the main virtues of this new collection is the decision to include papers that contradict others or go against received opinion. Some may see that approach as puzzling, but this isn’t a festschrift, after all: the debate on what is happening in Gaddis’ novels emanates from convictions, and that means argument, or in the editors’ words from the Introduction, the “sometimes competing perspectives.” Another virtue is that the prioritization of theory is marginalized here; as he should be, Gaddis—and not critical theorists—is the true subject of these papers.
The Introduction places Gaddis and his works in the current time, especially his second novel, J R (1975), with its assault on how capitalism works (or used to, depending on your viewpoint). Its contents are as fresh today as they were prescient at the time of publication. The first paper, Alberts’ “Mapping William Gaddis: The Man, The Recognitions, and His Time,” is a careful trek through parts of Gaddis’s first book, showing how sentences and impressions that appeared in his first novel have their counterparts in notebooks now available to scholars. By choosing a few instances of the travelling Gaddis did through Europe, Alberts is able to show the route of his imagination, as well as the author’s eye for monasteries, animals, and weather conditions; scenes and images found in The Recognitions often appear in the notebooks and frequently are about real-world counterparts (or inspirations) for places some Gaddis scholars assumed were entirely fictional. This is work based on evidence found in the Gaddis papers, presented in clear prose, and is a good start to the book.
“The Kvetch, the Rant, and the Bitch” by William Gass displays the affectations found in any number of his essays. (I realize he is regarded as an Authority and, like Benjamin, Adorno, and Althuser, is habitually the recipient of obeisant remarks.) The first sentences are indicative: “The rant is perhaps William Gaddis’s most frequently employed rhetorical form. Carpenter’s Gothic , for instance, is a festival of rant and rodomontade. Another name for the rant is the tirade.” It takes more than just some cheek to expect consonance to carry the main weight of a slender essay, it takes a whole arse. Gass is in playful mode, talking about his friend, and those who like his essays will be delighted. If his presence sells a half-dozen more books, then that’s not a bad thing. Whereas Alberts writes in a style that verges on colorlessness—archivists may be the accountants of the book world—what Gass offers is predominantly style.
Christopher Leise’s essay “The Power of Babel: Art, Entropy, and Aporia in the Novels” is an admirable attempt to squeeze all Gaddis’s novels and their multiple uses of language, on many levels, into a handful of pages. Leise’s argument is that the search for meaning in the world is enacted in the search for meanings in the novels, and in critical commentaries on them. He rightly says that “Gaddis recognizes and portrays the unswerving ambition to represent, and thus contain, artistic existence. Both the marketplace and the courtroom attempt to reduce art to terms they think they understand, which can lead to its corruption” (emphasis Leise’s). However, the sluggishness in the prose prevents a happy embracing of his ideas. When Leise writes a phrase like “thereby preventing the entropic decline of clichéd and idiomatic language that constantly moves towards the meaninglessness of homogeneity,” that strikes me as the very thing he’s commenting on. Nevertheless, this is rich territory, and I hope Leise returns to explore it at greater length and with a more relaxed style.
In “Trying to Make Negative Things Do the Work of Positive Ones: Gaddis and Apophaticism,” Christopher Knight addresses two subjects that run through Gaddis’s fiction and non-fiction like parallel streams: indirection (apophaticism) and disbelief (and also, of course, belief). Faith in anything—religion, art, the financial world, the justice system as depicted in A Frolic of His Own (1994)—is treated with Knight’s customary ease and deep familiarity with Gaddis’s works, and the essay ends well with a passage from Agapē Agape (2002) that recalls the lyricism found in The Recognitions but that seldom showed up from J R on. As usual, Knight gives one much to think about, particularly concerning the relationship between Gaddis and T.S Eliot, and the “parallel . . . between poetic and religious faith” evident in Gaddis.
Joseph Conway’s spirited “Failing Criticism: The Recognitions” provides a survey of writing on Gaddis by Jonathan Franzen, Steven Moore, Peter Wolfe, and John Johnston (who receives sharp elbows in the sides in Alberts’ essay), characterized as “critical reductions typical of studies that . . . derive from the highly polemical position they invariably take.” By examining the writing of these men—there are few women critics of Gaddis, and perhaps that’s something to note—Conway steps away from “establishing an overarching thesis” in favor of attempting to offer “related observations” about Gaddis’ novel: “one might say that the transposing of Gaddis’s densely envisioned novel into one’s individual perspective erases the figural fullness and multidimensional character of the work,” a misstep he doesn’t want to commit. Later in the essay a straw man replaces recognizable figures, as when Conway writes: “Rather than experience the allusions [to various pieces of writing] as distracting to the real matter of the novel’s narrative, I’d emphasize that this sense of general distraction created by the allusions is what really matters when reading The Recognitions.” It would seem likely that any reader of Gaddis’s novel who persists beyond the first twenty pages is hardly most interested in the narrative, or a story, but is much more taken with the tone and the style, which includes allusions. That’s a quibble, though, and Conway’s essay is very worthwhile, especially the modesty or, perhaps, common sense at the end when he suggests it could be a good idea to allow the real possibility that “an exhaustive reading is neither possible nor desirable.”
Perhaps if he had known the contents of the next essay, “Agapē Agape: The Last Christian Novel(s),” by Birger Vanwesenbeeck, Conway might have considered him as he did Franzen et al. The essay goes along well enough (though anyone can argue that someone else is the last Christian novelist; e.g., Walker Percy or Marilynne Robinson), but it founders when Vanwesenbeeck says that Agapē Agape “resembles neither [a] ‘social history’. . . nor the fictionalized autobiography that some scholars have made it out to be, but rather it comes closest to being a work of criticism, not that of a New(er) Critic, but one that follows in the eminent continental tradition of thinkers like Nietzsche, Huizinga, and Benjamin (all of whom are cited in Agapē Agape).” Most of the writers in the collection, including Vanwesenbeeck, cite one or the other of these writers and philosophers, thereby becoming their honorary descendants. I believe this is unconscious, though the reference to “eminent” figures versus New Critics (not eminent, evidently) calls to mind Conway writing that “[John] Johnston positions his works against the Dark Age approaches that preceded post-structuralism.” Perhaps the New Critics are a disreputable line.
We move into murkier waters when we consider that Gaddis’s novella is being placed in a gray area between fiction and criticism. Frankly, I don’t know of a lasting work of fiction that isn’t also criticism, but such niceties have no place here. Vanwesenbeeck writes:
Yet within American literature proper, too, there are important precedents for the peculiar narrative format of Gaddis’s final fiction, most notably Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), novels that, like Agapē Agape, dramatize the act of criticism itself by featuring as their main protagonist a scholar-like character in search of truth. . . . In each of these three texts—one might call them “critical narratives”. . .
Critical narratives—the coinage is Vanwesenbeeck’s—well, what could be more daring (i.e., transgressive) than to co-opt a piece of fiction for the benefit of a descendent from eminent men? This is either a lack of self-awareness or self-puffery; in either case it is a “critical reduction” in Conway’s sense. More complications arise when Paul de Man’s notion of “‘authentic criticism’” is affixed to Gaddis’s work. The silence and shiftiness of de Man regarding his journalistic work for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium, and his handling of marriages and debts, make his use of the word authentic hollow, but more specifically, the use of de Man, and Husserl later, have the air of subordinating Gaddis to theorists. Christopher Leise considers Gaddis “more than a critic,” but I suspect that a good few literary theorists get excited by being mistaken for the dog and not the tail.
Lisa Siraganian’s essay, “‘A disciplined nostalgia’: Gaddis and the Modern Art Object,” concentrates on the “aesthetic interests” Gaddis displayed towards art, in particular avant-garde painting, as well as sculpture, found in The Recognitions, J R, and A Frolic of His Own. “In his various novels, Gaddis reflects on—but, crucially, doesn’t agree with—the idea that the spectator’s or reader’s experience is an inseparable part of art’s meaning,” she writes, knowing that this is a hotly contested idea in current criticism. Siraganian elaborates on this significant topic (though I find her use of Oscar Wilde unnecessary) when, for instance, she writes: “But the point to be made here is that instead of trying to mediate between these two interpretive poles—art as atonement on the one hand and art as simulacra on the other—Gaddis’s theory of art and the art object’s relation to the beholder occupies a different position in the genealogy of modernism and cultural theory.” Readers will be interested in following the direction Siraganian takes from here.
“The Recognitions and Carpenter’s Gothic: Gaddis’s Anti-Pauline Novels,” by John Soutter, is a substantial investigation into religion, highlighting the Clementine Recognitions, a fourth-century work “assumed as reality by the Church to incorporate its power,” that Gaddis used to help shape his own first novel. More significantly, it discusses the role of Paul in the history of the Catholic Church and his role in Gaddis’s novels. Paul Booth from Carpenter’s Gothic is likened to the religious Paul, but a debased version in a debased time. Since the first Paul is assumed by Soutter to be an “epileptic fanatic prone to hallucinations” there can hardly be much of a debasement. The essay is complex and kinetic, and rendering it down would not do it justice; readers are encouraged to experience it first-hand. However, the copious use of footnotes and quotations means that Soutter’s voice and personality get lost among the citations.
Tim Conley’s “This Little Prodigy Went to Market: The Education of J R,” discusses the kind of pedagogy that flourished while Gaddis was writing J R, “where the schoolchildren are likewise underestimated and the classroom mechanized. By turns laughable and pitiful, the inadequacies of the standardized, closed-circuit model of the education system . . . yield a dumbshow sort of constant, unconstructive competition among the students.” This is fruitful territory, and Conley does good work. Many readers of the novel have stated their beliefs that J R is greedy, innocent, smart, or weak (Conley calls him “indisputably resourceful”), and while this essay won’t end the discussion, it does push it along. “Concurrent with J R’s deluge of games is a preponderance of infantile behaviour in adult males,” writes Conley, and this section offers welcome insights into the character of Jack Gibbs, for instance, with the use of J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan intriguing.
Mathieu Duplay’s “Fields Ripe for Harvest: Carpenter’s Gothic, Africa, and Avatars of Biopolitical Control” is the paper in the collection that, I find, has the least to recommend it. In the opening paragraph he refers to the “zebra music” a man named Crawley wants Edward Bast to compose (in J R) for a film on hunting. Duplay then writes:
Still, the fact is that “zebra music,” albeit of a very different kind, echoes through much of Gaddis’s fiction: the theme is first sounded in the North African sections of The Recognitions and recurs in the later novels, so that there is ample ground for regarding it as a satire on the lingering spirit of colonialism and its many manifestations in postwar American discourse.
The satire—the “it”—refers to zebra music, but how a theme can be a satire is not explained. Stating it’s a fact is only an assertion; that zebra music changes form significantly takes us farther from the point Duplay wants to make. In the second paragraph, the thought process becomes more difficult to entertain:
So far, this [the above topic] has been largely ignored by commentators, probably because Gaddis’s stronger emphasis on matters of much more immediate interest to most Western readers, along with the formal brilliance and inventiveness of his writing, have shifted critical interest away from what may, in comparison, appear to be a minor issue. This is unfortunate, for there are strong reasons to argue that the politics of (post)colonialism significantly interact with the epistemological concerns on which most critics have chosen to concentrate. . . . Nowhere is the absence of any reference to Gaddis’s interest in the fate of Africa more regrettable than in discussions of Carpenter’s Gothic, where it unquestionably occupies a central position, as the site of the major ideological conflict upon which the entire plot hinges.
To start at the end, Nicholas Brown, in Paper Empire, addresses “the fate of Africa,” and it’s surprising that Duplay does not cite his essay, “Cognitive Map, Aesthetic Object, or National Allegory?: Carpenter’s Gothic.” Brown does not leave Africa an abstract entity—he refers to conflicts in different nations—whereas Duplay invokes the name of the continent as if that will move it closer to the forefront of a reader’s mind. To the first part, if Gaddis has placed “stronger emphasis” on some matters over others, then they are major, and what has less emphasis is minor. Also, he didn’t emphasize things that would be more interesting for “most Western readers”—a remark that could lead to an interpretation that Gaddis wrote what he did so that he could sell more books. Further, Gaddis didn’t determine “critical interest,” unless one grants him the power to dictate what topics people would write on. His work contains aspects that appeal to critics more than others, that appear more salient, and/or that are worked out more obsessively, if you will, such as forgery and authenticity, commodity and art, etc. Lastly, there are fewer discussions of Carpenter’s Gothic than of Gaddis’s other novels.
When Duplay, later in the essay, writes that readers may be tempted to “search Carpenter’s Gothic for signs of a coherent strategy capable of salvaging the last surviving remnants of the compromised logos and of rescuing humankind from the biopolitical quagmire of which the tragedy that befalls Africa in the novel’s final pages is so potent an illustration,” a reader familiar with Gaddis may conclude that that’s quite a reach, and that few books could do anything approaching all that. Who would regard the novel this way? Is there a source that can back up this sentence? None is offered. Maybe Duplay has himself in mind. Thinking back to the conference, a contribution by Anja Zeidler, Eric Legendre, or Sascha Pöhlmann might have had a place here instead of Duplay. However, there’s no point wishing for a peach when a lemon is the reality.
“After Gaddis: Data Storage and the Novel” closes the collection, and in it Stephen Burn summarizes how what is contained in the “three long, data-filled books” reflects the problems caused by an overabundance of data (and insufficient knowledge, or wisdom, to select what is necessary). This challenges the characters as they try and make sense of their world, and also readers who are encountering “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen’s crude version of Gaddis. Burn writes, “As knowledge becomes more specialized, Gaddis suggests, no one can know enough.” (Cf. Conley: “An individual can comprehend these systems within systems, can connect with the makers and hear their stories, but only with considerable attention and diligence” [emphasis Conley's].) The works of Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Richard Powers are brought in to illustrate how these writers, in different ways, evince a debt to Gaddis for their own encyclopedic novels. It’s good to read this essay in conjunction with Burn’s “The Collapse of Everything: William Gaddis and the Encyclopedic Novel,” from Paper Empire.
William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays is an enjoyable and essential book for Gaddis scholars, and those interested in subjects Gaddis and other writers share. It’s good to see such diverse spirits jostling with each other, and the editors deserve credit for allowing disputations to be put in the open. It may be some time before we see another such flurry of activity in Gaddis studies. However, there is much in this collection that provokes thought, and hopefully it will encourage the writers to move on to other topics, or spur other writers to refute them.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, will be released by Enfield & Wizenty this fall.
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