Recognizing The Recognitions at Deseret Book

In The Recognitions by William Gaddis, a gifted artist is recruited by an unscrupulous art dealer to paint forgeries in the style of old Flemish Renaissance masters, and then pass them off as “lost” originals to wealthy art patrons.

But, the protagonist is such a dedicated artist, that his “forgeries” are actually as passionate, detailed, nuanced, and in many ways “authentic” as the old masters whose style he is imitating. He doesn’t “copy” them so much as paint with their same feeling of religious devotion.

When I recently read this portion of The Recognitions, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend, who told me of this new promotion at Deseret Book wherein they are selling reproductions of 1830 Book of Mormons specially constructed to look 180 years old–they are bound in leather chemically treated to look well-worn, certain pages are strategically “water-damaged” and torn, or made to look like the original scriptures of Porter Rockwell, etc, etc.

These are not mere 1830 facsimiles (I admittedly own one of those), no, these are custom built to appear as authentic, 1830 editions that have survived the ages as a family heirloom. Retail price: $500-$1,600.

I wondered aloud to my friend who this product’s intended market is. “Wealthy Mormons who wish to appear extra spiritual to their friends,” he quipped. “Yeah, you see why I have a problem with it!” I quipped back.

And now that I’m reading The Recognitions, I’ve been able to localize further what my problem is–for Gaddis’s title is a direct allusion to The Clementine Recognitions, a first-century Christian text by St. Clement. Like St. Clement’s Recognitions, I’ve found that Gaddis’s is as concerned with religious–specifically Christian–authenticity and forgery, as he is with artistic.

That is, what does it mean to be authentically devotional, whether in religion or art (and for Gaddis’s protagonist, these are the same thing), as opposed to plagiarizing this devotion to impress others?

When I visited Deseret Book’s flagship store and checked out for myself these faux-1830 editions, I was suitably impressed with the sheer craftsmanship that went into each replica. Nonetheless, these acts of religious and artistic devotion are being produced, a la The Recognitions, in the interest of forgery and in-authenticity, for a faux-religious and faux-artistic sensibility.

For if we truly valued art and beauty for its own sake (and not for how cultured it makes us appear), then Gaddis’s artist could produce his paintings and sign them by his own name; and if we were truly committed to our faith, than those $700 would be going to the sick and afflicted, the poor and widowed and orphaned, and our LDS artists could at last commit to making original art on their own terms.

But then, the text of these “authentic replicas” is still that of the Book of Mormon–the text is the same that was translated from plates of Reformed Egyptian in 1829, written in the melancholic prose of Israeli refugees during the Diaspora. The whole foundation and self-proclaimed “keystone” of the LDS religion is this Book of Mormon text contained within these expert forgeries–the text remains true, in ever words, even as the medium is forged.

This theme of truth contained within forgery is one that might have appealed to Gaddis himself, inasmuch as The Recognitions is his long-form meditation on the complex conflation of truth and counterfeit. In a sense, really, LDS-affiliated Deseret Book may be the proper place to see Gaddis’s meditation in action, given the tensions already extant within the Book of Mormon between copy and original.

For example, in the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ appears to these Israeli refugees in Pre-Colombian America…and quotes Isaiah and Malachi. That is, God quotes his own messengers quoting him, complicating the very nature of authorship itself. Similarly, Wyatt inThe Recognitions paints Van Eyck from the same stance of devotion as Van Eyck, even as he forges him–and here I use “forgery” in its double-sense, both to “imitate” and to “create.”

Joseph Smith adds another layer–an uneducated neophyte transmits a text into a new language; yet as every translator knows, every translation (which we can call a trans-linguistic imitation) is also a creation, for the writer must render the intent of the original text into a unique set of differing parameters. We as Mormons believe Joseph Smith was inspired of God to perform this transmission, but how much of this transmission was filtered through Joseph Smith’s own artistic sensibilities? For that matter, how much did (the real) Van Eyck and (the fictional) Wyatt filter their own transmissions of divine inspiration? For that matter, how much did Gaddis filter these divine inspirations as he wrote about masterful forgeries of Flemish devotional art in his first novel?

These questions have been on my mind as I have been most recently re-reading my own facsimile of an 1830 Book of Mormon–this astoundingly complex text nonetheless betray Joseph Smith’s own lack of education, as he consistently confuses “was” and “were” (a mistake that I, as an English instructor, I am grateful was corrected in later editions). Joseph Smith wasn’t just a transmitter–he was an interpreter–as was Isaiah, as was Malachi, as was Van Eyck, Wyatt, and Gaddis himself. God himself, far from being the mere initial transmitter, is Himself participatory in this process, as demonstrated by the moment in the Book of Mormon when Christ interprets Isaiah interpreting Him. In other words, this interpretive process is reflexive and reciprocal, and provides another layer of ambiguity between the mutual meanings of “forgery” at play in The Recognitions. (It is in this regard that the fact that the prophet’s surname is “Smith” becomes interesting, inasmuch as a “Smith” works at a forge).

I initially thought the premise of The Recognitions to be fanciful, until I began to see it among those professing my same faith–and likewise, how in turn the Book of Mormon has enriched my understanding of Gaddis. It had been my most recent Recognition.