Gaddis’s Recognitions; the curse of the auto-didact; what to read after Marx

Hello friends, I haven’t been updating often, I’m the worst, I know. Absolutely nothing to report here. I finished reading William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which was brilliant and it’s one of my favorite books now. I liked the first two third better than the last part, and some of the ending seemed a bit pat, but all in all it was extremely funny and very humane, had a strong moral core. People say it’s bitter or cynical or satirical, and they insist that it’s somehow against modernity. I don’t think any of that is true. It’s a book about how to live. The hero, Wyatt, becomes a forger of Old Masters because, for him, that is the truest and most authentic art-style. The book is about how we have a cult of the individual, and how the search for individuality can undercut a person’s sense of self. To be individual, to be original, you need to be unlike anyone who exists or has ever existed, but that’s not what it means to have a self. Having a self, having a true inner life, means not defining yourself by the opinion of people outside yourself. It means having your own values, your own sense of right and wrong. And it’s impossible to develop those values if you’re atomized and disconnected both from other people and from your own history. If you don’t have a place in the world, then nothing you do matters–even worse, if you have no place, then everything you do ends up being a shout for attention, and you end up defining yourself entirely in accordance with how much attention you get. A personality, in order to develop, needs demands to be placed upon it, so it can figure out its own ethic and respond in its own way.

The book is about how art and literature can misdirect people, make them focus on the glittery and ersatz, instead of what is truly timeless, and so I think that, while much of the commentary focuses on the counterfeiting and plagiarism within the book, really the book ends up being a criticism of its opposite, of the way people are so lacking in their own values that they need someone to tell them if something is good or bad. They need something to be a Van Eyck, they need something to be canonized, because without those external markers, they can’t have an authentic response to it. And that, to those people, plagiarism and originality are all the same: there is nothing in them that can really respond to art.

SO I REALLY ENJOYED THE BOOK. The first half is pretty straightforward, narratively, but eventually it gets harder to read: about two hundred pages in, the author stops saying the protagonist’s name, so you need to start intuiting his presence as a speaker on the page. Most of the book is told in dialogue, and sometimes it can be difficult to figure out who’s speaking. I found this reader’s guide VERY helpful. I would read the summary of a section when I started that section, and I would consult with the character index as needed. But I think the book is pretty doable. The comparisons to Ulysses are overstated: this is a much easier read.

My dad’s been visiting, and I talked with him about writing literary criticism, one of my sidelines, and I said, you know, I used to really admire all these critics who were full of literary references and quotes, until I realized so much of it was faking. Each critic has a handful of authors they return to again and again, deploying endlessly to support their arguments.

When writing a critical piece, there’s a tendency to want to do a lot of research, but you can’t read everything! So where’s the end-point? In an NYRB-style review, you generally read an author’s entire ouevre (if it’s less than five books), but for other outlets you don’t even do that. I have a few big authors I’ve never read, and I always feel like I shouldn’t write anything until I’ve corrected those gaps. For instance, aside from The Poetics, I’ve never really read Aristotle. I have a lot of Plato, but no Aristotle. That’s not uncommon, unlike in medieval times, Plato is read much more widely than Aristotle, but still, it’s a gap.

For me, there’s also the auto-didact’s curse. When you’ve been conventionally educated, you don’t know everything, but you do know everything you’re supposed to know. And this can make you seem extremely well-read if you encounter other people who had conventional educations. For instance, when I was teaching undergrads, I used to ask their favorite book, and I’d almost always read it, not because I’ve read every book, but because I’ve read every book an undergrad is likely to read. And our professors were the same: they’d read every poet or story-writer a grad student is likely to know.

But when you’re an autodidact, you’ve often read far more broadly than a conventionally-educated person (hardly an English PhDs have read as many Chinese and Japanese classics as I have), but you also have basic gaps that can make you look very uneducated.

Often these gaps are in the realm of books about books. When you’re an autodidact, you see little need to mess around with the secondary writing that grows up around literature. You just read the books, and that’s it! But for an English PhD or professor, that writing constitutes the majority of their reading. So they’re more familiar with, for instance, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, and Foucault. Personally, I think Derrida, in particular, is a bit of a fraud. But I haven’t read Of Grammatology. So I’m in a position where I’ve read Hegel and Kant and Marx (which most English PhDs would not have), but not some of these far more (in today’s terms) influential writers that, often, even a grad student would know. This leaves you quite vulnerable, and it’s a difficult gap to cover.

C’est la vie. Anyway as I was telling my dad, when writing a piece of literary criticism, I just sit down and write it out. Whenever I get to the part where I’d put a quote, I write, Plato said something like, “this is the quote, it’s not the real quote, I’m making it up.” Then later on I go and look to see if I can find the real quote.

My dad said, “But how do you know the author really did support your point?”

And I was like, “Because the author helped form your thoughts! You’re not going into this with an axe to grind or a prearranged thought process, you’re taking the chain of associations wherever it will go. You developed your thesis precisely because of your own knowledge, which in turn comes from the books you’ve read.”

I’ve actually never had the problem where I just couldn’t find support for my points, because why would I make a point that couldn’t be supported? Now my points might still be risible, and the support might be scanty, but there’s usually enough there that I can at least make a case.

The more difficult part is when you make historical claims. For instance, if I say, “Chaucer’s output was a result of England’s victories in the Hundred Year’s War” then I’ve got to think…is that actually true? When did Chaucer do his writings? When was Britain on top in the war? When was the Battle of Crecy?” It’s very easy to say historical things that are just plainly, on their face, untrue. And I’m pretty sure that’s something I’ve done more than once. On the other hand, that’s why I don’t write about, say, climate change policy. When it comes to writing about writing, the stakes are rather low. And anyway, at least I attempt to make coherent sense, unlike Derrida.

I’ve started the third volume of Marx’s Capital. It’s going. Am already looking forward to what I’ll read next. My plan was to read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas in a project that undoubtedly would take several years. But already there have been sidetracks. I decided to read Adam Smith before Marx, which was invaluable. But now I’m tempted to read political and economic theory instead of philosophy. And I’ve already read volumes by Husserl and Habermas. Now am thinking too of Schopenhauer before Nietzsche. So we’ll see. There’s plenty of time. Will undoubtedly still be making my way through these books in ten year’s time. And then I’ll have the Anglo-American tradition to work through as well. And the Renaissance and Enlightenment: I should reread Descarte, and I’ve never read John Hobbes or Locke. I’ve read Hume, which was excellent. Hume is really all you need, honestly. That guy figured it out all out however-many-hundred years ago. You can’t know moral truth the same way you know scientific truth–Hume proved it quite satisfactorily. But still those crafty Germans and French, not sensible like the Scottish Hume, have tried for two hundred years to wiggle their way out of the conundrum, and they’ve succeeded sort of (not really).

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