This is my first time doing this, really. Sure, I followed along with Infinite Summer, and a few of you might recall that I wrote a few things back when the Zombies were doing Ulysses, but in both those cases I had read the book several times before, and so wasn’t putting myself in the very vulnerable position of musing, publicly, about something unfamiliar and new. I’ve always respected the people who do that, but I’ve never been one of them.
Until now. This is my first time reading J R. I’ve read The Recognitions, once, a few years ago, and without any great care: I glanced at the wonderful annotations by Stephen Moore once or twice, but for the most part I just read it through, taking what I could get, enjoying the prose, not worrying about all the stuff (a lot!) that I was probably missing. That’s my preferred approach to a new book: taking it on its own terms, without any help from external sources to color (and potentially spoil) the process. You can always go back for that stuff, preferably on a second reading. And that’s what I am trying to do now. I’ve seen the lists of characters and scenes compiled by Moore, and I am sure they are helpful, but with a book like this I think it’s worth trying to figure it out on its own. As Lee Konstantinou (the originator of this little summer diversion) put it in a tweet, a book like this has to “train” you to read it, and reading someone else’s take on it before you’ve been properly trained seems a little bit like, well, I don’t want to call it cheating, but like you are missing a bit of the point, and depriving yourself of a significant part of the experience.
That’s sort of what I want to talk about, reading as a learning experience, because as much as this is a book about money and commerce (or so I’ve heard from book jackets and what not), it also strikes me, 75 pages in, as a book about education (same difference, right?). Of the scenes we’ve read so far, about half of them are set in or near a school. So, as a teacher, I want to think about what is this book saying about school: Nothing good, right? I mean, the focus on testing seems prescient: I don’t know the whole history of standardized testing, but it certainly hasn’t gone away since 1975, that’s for sure. Of course, they are also talking about predictive testing here, not just evaluative: they are puzzled by results that “aren’t consistent with forecasts in the personality testing,” by the fact that a boy (JR? I don’t think it’s him but I’m unclear, so far, who they are referring to; like I said, I’m trying to figure it out on my own) who “scores out at the idiot-genius level, this math-music correlation, perfectly consistent but he’s running around town sticking people up with a toy pistol” (23). They want order, to organize the students, to fit them into little boxes, but as Gibbs points out:
Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . . (20)
And he goes on to begin to explain entropy (until the bell rings). Chaos and entropy, knowledge and noise: Gaddis seems to be telling us exactly what to look for. (And is it any wonder people thought [perhaps still think] he and Pynchon were the same person?)
It’s a pretty bleak picture of the education system, to be sure. And a pretty hilarious one, as well. The use of TVs as pedagogical tools is fascinating (as a look at #OccupyGaddis on Twitter will reveal), especially from our instructional-technology-obsessed 21st-century point-of-view. I look forward to seeing where this is going to lead, in the text. (Possibly nowhere, I don’t know. That’s my point.)
One other pedagogical note: how the hell would you teach this book?
For me, the pedagogical problem extends to the “how can I possibly write about this book” problem. With Pynchon there are at least discrete, clearly identifiable people and (mostly) time-bounded events of significance that you can use to frame a discussion, but J R just hits you with a firehose, so that it’s hard to pull out a nice tidy single thing to write about. It seems to me, in other words, as if you could write a long treatise on something big like entropy or knowledge as handled throughout the book, but it’s hard to do any topic justice when dealing with just a fragment of the book.
Also, kudos for putting yourself out there. I guess Ulysses is the only hard book I’ve done that for here; I had previously read all the others except for Dracula, which isn’t exactly heavy stuff.
You’ve written a great post that has forced my mind to have thoughts:
1. What Gibbs says about the students–that they just want to know what they have to learn so that they can pass the test–resonates with the financial themes of the novel.
Originally, corporations were frowned upon and were only allowed to exist for very limited, clear cut purposes where the aggregation of capital was necessary. Say, if a bridge needed to be built. The purpose of the corporation was to build the bridge and the profit to the investors was a secondary thing. It only acted as an incentive to invest so that the project could be completed. [This is terribly simplified and probably slightly inaccurate because I don’t have my books on this with me, but it is the gist of it.] Over time, however, we got used to corporations, and now a corporation can be incorporated for any lawful purpose, without a specific, set goal and the main purpose is to create a profit.
The children in school are not there to learn, which is what we think of as the real reason for education, but are gaming the system to just pass a test, which used to be secondary to the actual learning. Now, passing the tests, and validating budgets, is the primary goal. If someone learns something, that is an incidental benefit.
In both, there is an original purpose, a system set up for that purpose and then an eventual change whereby the system became the focus and people began to exploit the system.
2. I think you could teach this book. I considered it for a class on History, Law and Literature. The thing that kept me from using it was not its difficulty, but the length. If it didn’t work, we would be stuck with the novel for a while. I wanted to teach it paired with Melville’s “The Confidence-Man.” They work really, really well together. I think that once you get a sense of the rhythm of the novel, it isn’t as difficult as something like “Gravity’s Rainbow.” However, it is very punishing if you zone out and skim. It is very easy to miss one of the transitions and become lost at sea.
And I forgot to say:
3. Education runs throughout the first 75 pages of the novel. Mr. Coen can’t just talk to the Bast Sisters. He has to try and teach them these points of law. Edward Bast is trying to teach the students the Wagner. Stella talks to her aunts and learns about the family history. Throughout there attempts, which usually fail, to transmit some information of knowledge.