Two quick things about The Recognitions. Gaddis has a preoccupation with the hesitancy of the artist. This was apparent in JR in the author who had spent years putting off and going back to his work detailing the effect of industrialized society (as catalyzed, apparently, by the player piano) on art. The book that author was working on was to be called Agape, Agape, which is the title Gaddis gave to his last short work of fiction, which I gather is an amplification of that theme. In The Recognitions, we’ve got Otto the playwright, who’s always jotting down what he thinks are heady things but who is really a complete buffoon. Esther even says to his face that if she could find a man with Wyatt’s ability and Otto’s ambition, she’d be in good shape. Esther too has a novel long in the works. And of course there’s Wyatt, with the painting of his mother he’s been working on for 15 years in addition to his lack of interest in producing an original work. It’s significant that Gaddis’s own output was a trickle (if you’re counting books rather than pages and quality of content) — that there were some 20 years between his first and second books, and that he published only three others (I believe) before dying in 1998 at something like 76 years old.
Now for quick thing number two. In addition to the treatment of art in The Recognitions, there’s fairly substantial treatment of science, and the medical profession more specifically. Take for example the fairly lengthy catalogue of the dreadful (and often misadministered) treatments Wyatt went through as a child in his near-fatal illness. There’s certainly a mistrust of medicine in the book. But it’s really more than that. Gaddis ties chemistry/pharmacy to alchemy and thus alchemy to medicine, and alchemy is a pretty clear extension of old rites of rebirth, transmutation, etc. Gaddis’s direct and indirect references to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (the many-volumes work of anthropology that T.S. Eliot modestly noted made a nice little set of footnotes for “The Wasteland,” which has been said to gloss that small thing “the human condition”) make it clear that he’s interested in ritual and in the roots of modern day rites and ceremonies. This interest comes out also in his description of funeral procedures and his interludes about the church. I suspect what Gaddis is coming around to eventually is a treatment of both art and medicine as somehow untrustworthy (it’s a book about counterfeiting, recall), which really has more to do with the practitioners than with the particular medium of practice. Art and medicine and pretty much everything amounts to a sort of alchemy is the point I imagine he’s getting to, and alchemy is a bizarre fashioning of something out of nothing. That doesn’t mean that it’s worthless. Quite the contrary: If there weren’t something appealing about the idea, it wouldn’t be so prevalent in our literature and wouldn’t have been a serious pursuit of inquiry for hundreds of years.
My assessment is premature (I’m a sixth of the way into the book) and is probably way off base. I do think Gaddis is working toward a comparison of science and art (now that I think about it, this would make sense in light of the theme of both instances of Agape, Agape as I understand it) and that alchemy plays an important role in bringing the two together.