Gaddis's Recognitions : The Major Theme
William Gaddis's "The Recognitions" is a highly praised contemporary American novel. Yet, relatively little has been written about the lengthy and complex masterpiece, as a summary of the criticism indicates. This dissertation, then, introduces the work through a discussion of its major theme, which involves a search for reality, meaning, and salvation. The search explores three principal realms--art, religion, and interpersonal relationships--frequently resulting in profound recognitions. The most pervasive discovery is the counterfeit nature of reality, which may result in either cheapening or perfecting of the rarely perceived genuine. Chapter two deals with the subject of art, around which the dominant plot revolves. Through art counterfeiting, reality is sought and revealed. On the one hand, deep recognition and redemption of reality is achieved; on the other, self-debasement and entropy result. Even when the genuine is discovered, however, copying entails victimization of the artist. One of the chief forgeries alluded to is "The Recognitions" itself, which copies (particularly the Faustian legend, Bosch, and the Western Cultural Heritage in general) in an attempt to find its creator's salvation. Gaddis also introduces himself into his novel, as the seemingly minor character Willie, thereby providing keys to the work's interpretation. Another major subject in the narration, closely related to art, is religion, which is examined in chapter three. What is found is the obscurity, yet limited attainability, of truth, as well as the derivative nature of religion, as emphasized through allusions to Mithraism. Organized faiths are depicted as frequently corrupted and perverting of their mystical origins. And science is seen as the modern surrogate for religion. Finally, reason is attacked as the chief cause of the modern wasteland. Chapter four investigates the novel's concern with individuals themselves and their interpersonal relationships, in a world of separation, no longer dominated by absolute beliefs, institutions, and values. Again counterfeiting is discovered. In this case, people are revealed as often phony imitations, masking themselves, in need of union with the universe, but substituting lesser phenomena. The possibility of love as a unifying force with something outside the self is seen as a means to achieve individual meaning. In the end, reality is acknowledged to be composed of a multitude of inseparable dualisms (especially, reason and emotion, good and evil, spirit and matter) which must be put in their proper harmonious balance. A summary chapter attempts to establish "The Recognitions" as a contender for the "Great American Novel"--not only because the work successfully dramatizes the American Dream/Nightmare (as a symbol of the Western World's latest evolutionary stage); not only because it profoundly debates art, Christianity, and love; but because it scrutinizes the breadth of existence itself, finding that there are genuine impulses and truths worth copying. Ultimately, despite its surface level description of a world dominated by chaos and nihilism, "The Recognitions" proves itself a penetrating philosophical analysis, recognizing redemptive possibilities in the cosmos in which man finds himself.
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