From the archives: “I think this is a shattered time”

William Gaddis. Photograph by William Gass.

As I follow the rather discouraging headlines, I’m reading (among other things, not least the Gospel of Luke, most suitable for these times with its emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, and the sick) Kenneth Paul Kramer’s Redeeming Time, a book-length study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last year on May 1 I published the below post, which touches on Eliot’s poem and Gaddis’s pessimism, suggestive of my own, I suppose.


From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”

The quest for the authentic self

Both Wyatt Gwyon, the protagonist of William Gaddis’s 1955 The Recognitions, and John Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22, are engaged in quests for an authentic self in a corrupt world. This alone opens up a 64-ounce can of worms, not the least worm of which is the question as to whether there is an authentic self to be found at all, whether the very idea is an illusion. How, once one starts looking for it, does one know that it’s been found? Is it even an important question, or is it just another form of narcissistic navel-gazing that we could more merrily do without?

Not to mention that not every person feels the need to search for it; the question never even comes up for most of us, probably; it never comes up for the other characters in these novels. Whether one sets out on this quest or not, one doesn’t feel the need for it until a discomfort and dissatisfaction is felt within; a sense that something, somewhere, has gone wrong with the relationship between us and the world and needs to be set to rights. Most of us probably wander around in a Panglossian haze: that this is the best of all possible worlds anyway, and it’s our job to work our way through it. Neither Gwyon nor Yossarian know precisely what it is that they’re searching for. But they know that, whatever it is, they don’t possess it.

The mid-1950s New York of The Recognitions and the 1942-44 Pianosa of Catch-22 are microcosms of the larger world and, as satirists, Gaddis and Heller are engaged in detailing the corruptions, fraudulence, and stupidity of this world as they impede their heroes on their quests. Both novels are lengthy, as befits the need to detail these corruptions, for they’re many. There are those, of course, that are local to the novels themselves: the corruptions of the artistic scene and popular culture of postwar Manhattan; the corruptions of the military and bureaucracy of the war machine of the 1940s. But Gaddis and Heller both see these corruptions as only local variants of a wider corruption and inauthenticity in the western world in the twentieth century; each of these corruptions receives its due. Among them are corruptions in religion, history, technology, politics, capitalism, education, aesthetics, family life, ambition. As Gaddis and Heller build their long novels out, each of these corruptions results in a barries to the quests of their heroes; they have their obvious effects on the other major and minor characters in the novels as well.

It seems that Yossarian and Gwyon are the only two characters who find these corruptions potentially lethal to their own sense of well-being. Even then, it’s unlikely that either could recognize and name these corruptions themselves, or recognize that they stand in the way of their quests. Ultimately, neither novel answers the questions about the authentic self with which I began this contemplation: Gwyon disappears into the Spanish landscape with his lover and their daughter at the end of The Recognitions, and Yossarian goes AWOL and deserts to Sweden, following the desertion of his crewmate Orr (a homophone for “or” — an alternative to the existing condition), on the last page of Catch-22. Rather than conclusions, these seem like indications that their quests are just beginning, but that they’ve finally been able to take the very first step on that journey. Both books end with a new life for both characters; how Gwyon and Yossarian end up is beyond the scope of the satire.

“I think this is a shattered time”

From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”

Augustine’s “love” and William Gaddis’s Wyatt Gwyon

I said earlier this week that art was one of the things that led me to faith, and in a short essay last July which is published below, I wrote:

From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?

In Reza Aslan’s 2013 book about the historical Christ, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he writes about the culture of Christ’s time in the Middle East of the first century CE. “The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time — so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite. … Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. … [The] picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an area awash in messianic energy.” And you don’t have to trust either myself or Aslan; the same culture was accurately and more entertainingly depicted in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. (There’s even a 2015 book testifying to the film’s accuracy, among other things: Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, by Joan E. Taylor.)

There can be many responses to the questions that end this post that don’t involve faith, that explain the enduring power and influence of Christianity in the minds and works of the great western artists. Perhaps the uniqueness of the Christ story and its archetypal qualities have had a special, continuing Jungian appeal to the Western world and the Western creative mind in particular. Perhaps the Christ story was manipulated in a variety of power plays among sects and elites to maintain their own social power, and that the story was particularly effective in doing so; the powerful knew this and commissioned religious art accordingly. But then one must ask: Why Christ, if he was only one of hundreds of similar preachers and prophets? Why him, and not others whom Aslan cites?

In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowed himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome. … There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba — all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were killed for doing so.

There is historical evidence for the existence of all of these figures, along with Christ. But, except in places like Aslan’s book, they are not remembered, and certainly have not given rise to great art or churches.

I think if one is to genuinely keep an open mind about the matter, one must also consider, among the possibilities I mentioned above, that the Christ story is true: Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, all of it, and that in some sense these artists’ imaginations were infused with something we can only call, in this case, the Holy Spirit. One can’t now question these artists to discover their inspiration, of course; most of them are long dead. But something of that inspiration remains in their art. And it may be, among other things, particular evidence of Christ’s truth.

The below was written in July 2016.


Wyatt Gwyon (also known as Stephen Asche), the central character of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, departs from the novel on page 900, when there’s about another hundred pages to go. He is in Spain carrying a box which holds earrings that belonged to his mother, who died when he was a young boy, and Wyatt/Stephen is preparing to give them to his own infant daughter. Steven Moore in William Gaddis glosses the episode:

Not until the last page on which he appears does he realize the importance of the earrings; by intending to pass them along to his daughter, he demonstrates his recognition of the emotions and especially the strongest, most liberating emotion of all, love. Not the sentimental love of romantics, nor the lust of sensualists: the kind of love Wyatt embraces is less eros than agapē — charity, attentiveness, caring. “–Charity’s the challenge,” Wyatt had admitted earlier, but not until the end of the novel is he psychologically prepared to commit himself to this challenge. It is crucial to note that the Augustinian motto Wyatt chooses reads “Dilige et quod vis fac” (“Love, and do what you want to”), not the more popular form “Amo et fac quod vis” — that is, Wyatt prefers the verb meaning “to esteem and care for” over that meaning “to love passionately.” This is the kind of love recommended in Eliot’s Four Quartets; for Wyatt it represents a new beginning, not an end, for as Eliot argues, this form of love never ceases to be a challenge. (Moore 52)

But in terms of mottoizing, Wyatt/Stephen isn’t quite done. As he slowly bids farewell to Ludy, an acquaintance, and the novel, he engages in a small bit of illuminating dialogue:

Stephen’s throat caught, looking down at the figure on the ground struggling to get up. –Yes … His eyes blurred on the figure older each instant of looking down at that struggle, and the hand where the blood lost all saturation. –Goodbye, hear? the bells, the old man ringing me on. Now at last, to live deliberately.

–But …

–What!

–You and I …

–No, there’s no more you and I, Stephen said withdrawing uphill slowly, empty-handed.

–But we … all the things you’ve said, we … the work, the work you were, working on … ?

–The work will know its own reason, Stephen said farther away, and farther, –Hear … ? Yes, we’ll simplify. Hear? … (Gaddis 900)

Wyatt/Stephen’s final motto, then — Love, and do what you want to; live deliberately; simplify — echoes those of Saint Augustine and Henry David Thoreau. Whether or not this makes him a Christian, though, he reaches it through Christianity. At the moment of his greatest despair about halfway through the book, he demands of his father, a Calvinist minister slipping into madness, “Am I the man for whom Christ died?” (Gaddis 440, italics in the original) He never receives an answer. The novel, though, as a whole, might be considered a response. Just prior to his disappearance, he considers his motto in light of the Incarnation. (I don’t have the novel with me at the moment, but turn to page 899 of the Dalkey Archive reprint — it’s there. In a 1986 interview, Gaddis said of that passage, “Wyatt’s line … says that one must simply live through the corruption, even become part of it” — which is Christ’s attitude towards his own suffering in the Gospel of John.) The novel itself ends 100 pages later, with a Roman Catholic composer, Stanley, performing an organ mass which leads to the collapse of a cathedral around him.

Moore’s citation of Eliot’s Four Quartets is instructive. Eliot is a major influence on The Recognitions, and not just his final poem. Perhaps the greatest influence on the structure of the novel is The Waste Land — a portrait of a Western culture in its final decline, corrupted by fraudulence in its intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic endeavors. (The novel and the poem have endured, in part, because things haven’t changed.) Though Four Quartets is undoubtedly a Christian poem, and Eliot a Christian — and passages from the poem are woven intricately through the novel — the same can’t quite be said for The Recognitions, Wyatt, or Gaddis himself. But it can’t be dismissed, either. “We come back to the Faust story and to the original Clementine Recognitions, which has been called the first Christian novel (I remember thinking mine was going to be the last one),” Gaddis told the interviewer as he discussed his intentions in The Recognitions. Though an off-hand comment to the Paris Review isn’t very much to hang an interpretation on, it does illuminate both the character of Wyatt Gwyon and the overarching satiric perspective of the book, at least during its composition.

I mention all this as a casual meditation about the influence of Christianity on Western art of the past 1,000 years. From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?