William Gaddis’ Agapē Agape and the Myth of Originality
William Gaddis is hard going. The Recognitions weighs in at 956 pages and JR at a slimmer 726. But his message is the same: the counterfeiting of artistic experience and the mechanical reproduction and destruction of artistic values via capitalism. Gaddis was an unapologetic elitist, who saw “every four year old with a computer” as a threat to artistic integrity. Agapē Agape, his last and most accessible work of “fiction” (at a wrist relaxing 96 pages) is an oldster’s rant against the loss of artistic originality. That Agapē Agape is based on Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete kind of undercuts Gaddis’ point, which in itself is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter Seiner Technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). [Note: another book based on Bernard’s Concrete is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. If you’re really interested in understanding the process of artistic “creation,” read Concrete, then Out of Sheer Rage, then Agapē Agape and you’ll understand how writers really work.] Benjamin falls back on metaphysics, theorizing an aura to the original work of art, an aura that disintegrates slowly over time, an aura that democratic mechanical reproductions of art cannot reproduce. The aura is tradition, alive and changeable, which imparts uniqueness to the original work of art. But Benjamin was wrong. The mechanical reproduction doesn’t empty art of an aura but bestows the illusory, magical aura of celebrity on images. In the age of information we are addicted to endlessly reproduced images. Gaddis was wrong as well. He blames the death of art on the player piano, of all things, which eliminated the need artists to reproduce music. One can only imagine his prednisone-fueled rants over iTunes and Garage Band. The reality is that elitists have controlled access to art since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, through patronage, museums, publishing houses, critics, record companies, and universities. The internet has given anyone and everyone free and open access to the means of production in the age of information. The binary system born of piano rolls, William Gibbs, and the Babbage machine hasn’t destroyed art, it’s made it available to everyone with a laptop.