Discard anything: Frank Sinisterra and the lesson of poetic intelligence


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.


On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonniere sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty comb, and cleans his nails at the table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. That was in the morning.

In the afternoon the Captain came to fetch him, and was greeted by a scream so drawn with terror that even his doughty blood stopped. Leaving the surgeon in what was apparently an epileptic seizure, the Captain decided to attend to the chore of Camilla himself; but as he strode toward the smoking saloon with the ship’s operating kit under his arm, he glanced in again at the surgeon’s porthole. There he saw the surgeon cross himself, and raise a glass of spirits in a cool and steady hand.

That settled it.

I call this site “Wyatt Gwyon” only because the name of Frank Sinisterra—Wyatt’s popcultural and economic analogue in the forging of fraudulent masterpieces; the individual masquerading as a ship’s surgeon in the passage above, and thus the murderer of Wyatt’s mother, Camilla; and one of my literary heroes—is, surprisingly, taken. Using Wyatt’s name does present one advantage: of these two characters, both born of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, Wyatt, as the ostensible focus of the novel, is by far the more widely known. Other than that, Wyatt is a poor choice. Each man counterfeits masterpieces—paintings in Wyatt’s case, currency in Frank’s—and each is obsessed with meticulous reproduction of the original. Each is a perfectionist in a way that I like, in that each emphasizes an obsessive fidelity to the world over human concerns—as though working extraordinarily hard to replicate creation somehow makes up for the conspicuously immoral aspects of their enterprises. Each, that is, prizes perfection over people, a prioritization that is at once immoral and appealing for the way in which it implicitly asserts that adherence to an ethic of rigorousness excuses ignoring more interpersonally and societally salient ethical concerns.

But Wyatt is whiner than Frank; he is deterred from attempts toward rigor by his inclusion in the elitist but empty 1950s New York literary culture for which Gaddis had such broad and interminable contempt. Wyatt can’t keep his mind on his work absorbed as he is the sexual and artistic effeteness of those who move in that circle—most of whom are Jews, homosexuals, hacks. Wyatt is neither Jew nor homo nor hack, he certainly fits those bills in some senses, in the ways Gaddis means to imply by placing him in the milieu he does; Wyatt is, to borrow from Camille Paglia, a beautiful boy—the classical equivalent of today’s Playboy pinup with respect to desirability and submissiveness; he is the young Hanson brothers stripped naked and provocatively posed. But Wyatt is not a boy in fact—he is too old to be a Hanson (as, for that matter, are the Hansons). Yet given his failure to spawn original artistic or biological work, he cannot properly be called a man, either; he is barren. Wyatt is in all senses stuck. His stymied creative impulse is simultaneously sexual and artistic, driving him to what can only be described as frantic artistic masturbation.

There’s nothing wrong with masturbation. Frank knows this, and this is why I like Frank. He is comfortable with repetition and self-pleasure; he needs no external justification to validate his work. It is true that he compares his work to that of others, subscribing to government-published newsletters of counterfeit bills such as Counterfeit Detector Monthly (which notes only the best of the best frauds), but the perfection he finds within them serves as a motivator rather than an inhibitor. Recapitulating and improving another’s work by making it, somehow, more itself is not a problem for Frank. Quite to the contrary, he is emboldened by the task. Frank as a whole seems to suggest such masturbation is all that can be done, and that we should give up on the new and shoot, instead, for an ideal of perfection. (A personal ideal in Frank’s case, but one that could be easily reframed as a collective ideal; see, for a caricturish but apt example, Nazi Germany.) Frank simply makes nothing new. Otto, another acolyte of Gaddis’s effete New York culture, illuminates this in Frank when, in a chance meeting in a bar, he mistakes Frank for a long-lost father. No, Otto: Frank shoots at perfection, not at ova; he concerns himself with fidelity to the already-generated, not with genesis itself. Frank fathers nothing. [1]

Wyatt doesn’t father anything either, but not for lack of trying, as he, unlike Frank, remains invested in the notion that there is a way to unburden himself of theft and idolatry and deceit, and invested in the consequent notion that in so unburdening himself, he can and will create something new. Admirable in principle, but in application (if we could even begin to describe what such an application would look like) all we can say for sure is that’s it naïve, or, more generously, that it’s no more likely to be true than it is to be hogwash. Wyatt occupies himself with his imperfection (he is the not-quite-beautiful boy, the aged Hanson, the sterile immoral homosexual, the plagiarist, the hack) to the exclusion of all else, when forcibly working to dissolve (rather than solve or absolve) that imperfection by reconceiving creation could well work well for him. But we’ll never know, because he never does. Frank on the other hand will try anything. He floats nonchalantly through Gaddis’s 956-page book, doing what he must when he must and worrying, we gather, very little, if at all, about anything he does. Need free passage across the Atlantic, Frank? Just pretend to be a surgeon.

My endorsement of Frank here “over” Wyatt is not to be mistaken as an endorsement of Frank’s immorality. A person should not, I think we can agree, slice open another human being to maintain the illusion that he is a medical professional, especially when allowing that illusion to fall away would likely mean nothing worse for that person than a week’s confinement in an oceanliner’s brig. There is no question that of the two, Wyatt is more moral; he may try to screw you, but he’d probably tell you about it first, after agonizing over it for weeks. If the three of us crashed a small plane in the Andes mountains, Wyatt might try to eat me when we ran out of rations, but not without compunction. Frank would sneak up and shiv me the first time his tummy grumbled.

But the meaningful question for me about a given approach to anything is pragmatic, not moral. Actions can be moral or immoral, but approaches are neither; they have no place in discussions of morality save in predictions and analyses of their practical effects. If negative effects of an approach can be prevented or otherwise rendered moot (if, to return to our caricature, somebody had convinced Hitler to content himself with being remembered as the guy who rebuilt Germany after World War I)—if, to return to Frank and Wyatt, we force ourselves to adopt an ethic of rigor while conscientiously and ardently combatting the dogmatism and closedmindedness that ethics of rigor tend to foster—the practical downsides to that approach are vanished.

Frank, with his unabashed allegiance to nothing and no one, with his inexhaustible and inexhaustibly versatility, is for me a material analogue to the intellectual who has come about half that far, but no further—one who has come to and embraced a principled relativism, but has stopped short of acknowledging the way in which a rigorous application of his relativism would seek first and most vigorously to undermine itself, to show its own faith in itself to be as “relative” as any of its other convictions. The relativist’s seeming intellectual obligation to eat his own tail if he wishes to remain a faithful relativist is, of course, the problem with relativism as it’s normally discussed; relativism not only implies but models its own undoing. Which is why “relative” has become an intellectual curse word thanks, at least roughly speaking, to the academic counterparts of the journalists, political operatives, and religious leaders who’ve worked so successfully in recent decades to vilify the term “liberal” in popular political discourse by self-consciously tying it with less savory and even less understood “movements” such as libertinism and nihilism. Standing over the ailing Camilla with knife in one hand and fresh spirits in the other, Frank can either put down the knife and inform the captain of his deceit—or even put down the knife and just fabricate some excuse for being unable to operate; there’s no need to come clean even—or he can proceed to drunkenly slice and dice. Frank falls prey to the relativist danger of self-deconstruction, choosing to maintain his relativism, to keep up the game, rather than to put down the knife and, oh, catch up on back issues of Counterfeit Detector Monthly.

We must recognize, though, that Frank’s choice in this matter is an illusion, at least if we believe that for someone to rightly be said to have “choice” in a situation, there must be differences in the consequences of one selecting one option over another, and those differences must be clear enough to the chooser to allow him to weigh options and make an informed decision. Frank does not have that luxury. Although Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern relativism (I use both phrases loosely) are clearly opposed and could even be styled antitheses, the rationalist worldview—one that all serious contemporary thinkers are expected to adopt as a starting point—is just as “responsible” for Camilla’s death as Frank’s “anything goes” relativism. That is, the demands of Enlightenment rationalism lead Frank to perform an act of moral relativism; they demand that he kill Camilla.

Enlightenment rationalism demands consistency over correctness. Of course it demands that we have clear, well-argued points that correspond as cleanly as possible to “reality”—of course it demands a “correctness” of a sort. But that demand is fueled by an unspoken but enacted faith in the notion that there is a material world waiting to be objectively discovered. That world is one against which, for rationalists, propositions can be checked and confirmed or denied. Rationalism in this sense connotes not rigorous thinking but something quite the opposite—a process by which contradictory explanations of multiple phenomena take a backseat to broad phenomenological generalizing; correctness, in other words, takes a backseat to rationalism’s desire to see the world as a comprehensive whole. Rationalism is, on this view, an attempt toward cohesiveness and consistency.

We know that for Frank, hovering over Camilla, the relativist thing to do, the way for him to remain ideologically consistent, is to take a stab at the surgery. But what is the rationalist thing to do? If he spares her, he’s letting rational good sense come to the rescue—all well and good, seemingly sufficiently rational. But if he kills her, his endorsement of relativism is also despite himself a deeply rationalist act, insofar as the murder is motivated by the impulse toward consistency that sprouts from Enlightenment rationalism. Killing Camilla is bad, sure, but not killing her is tantamount, for Frank, to admitting that his entire worldview is and has always been incorrect. Not killing Camilla would satisfy the demands of rationalism—but then again it wouldn’t, in that not killing her not only invalidates Frank’s existence as a devoted relativist, but also, in devaluating adherence to the material, invalidates his claims to rationalism as well. Killing her, on the other hand, satisfies the demands of both the extreme relativism that characterizes Frank throughout the book and the rationalism demanded of him by the Enlightenment and the crew of the Purdue Victory—but them again it doesn’t satisfy either of them, in that killing her is, at base, not a “rational” thing to do in any way that does not incorporate a discussion of adherence to relativism as a profoundly rationalism act; and in that it is also not a relativist thing to do, in that doing it constitutes a tacit endorsement of the materialistic foundation of rationalism. Regardless of what Frank does, he can be said to have betrayed both the relativistic and the rationalistic.

That is nonsense, but it is nonsense produced by a paucity of intellectual approaches, and by the poverty of those that do exist, rather than by anything outside the realm of abstract intellectualization. My previous paragraph might be characterized by some as little more than wordplay—rationalism is functionally the same as relativism? pshaw!—but that is in a sense the point. The problem here is not that we have some sort of contradiction between two things that cannot by definition contradict. The problem is that we have quixotically made lack of contradiction (Enlightenment rationalism has quixotically made consistency) the core criterion for evaluating the usefulness of an intellectual approach. Under this rubric relativism clearly loses big according to most, but as Frank showed us, rationalism itself works in some cases to preclude rather than foster consistency, so rationalism nails its own grave shut as well. So what should Frank have done with Camilla?

Relativism and rationalism are so readily contorted and conflated here because neither is sufficiently conscious of its own undeniable blind spots. Relativism, if only because of the beating it as a term has taken from cultural conservatives, needs to go. Rationalism, at least in the very specific way I’ve chosen to define it, is equally bankrupt, deconstructing itself just as relativism does, inundated with the enunciation of its own principles. But it doesn’t end with rationalism and relativism and the critical approaches they encompass. That every ism has blind spots we will all readily agree in theory; yet in practice we must not truly believe it: how else to explain the continued prizing of consistency and cohesiveness over correctness? How else to explain the persistence of Robert Nozick’s “hedgehog” intellectual, for whom each intellectual engagement is an opportunity to test and confirm and strengthen his worldview? How else to explain the fact that we haven’t yet applied to the analysis of culture and literature what Louise Glück calls “poetic intelligence,” an intelligence that “lacks..focused investment in conclusion, being naturally wary of its own assumptions” and “derives its energy from a willingness to discard conclusion in the face of evidence, its willingness, in fact, to discard anything”? [2] We must be able to mix and match aspects all these of isms, to use what we find useful and discard what we don’t, without regard for whether those aspects will naturally arrange themselves into a consistent personal philosophy—just as Frank must be able to discard his knife without betraying anything. That is the lesson of poetic intelligence.

Another way to put that lesson is to say that prioritizing analytical rigor over consistency—to my mind, the mark of intellectual honesty—not only implies but demands a strict adherence to the sole tenet of poetic intelligence; it requires an ethic of rigorous and perpetual provisionalism, or, in other words, a willingness, indeed even an eagerness, to discard anything.



[1] When we consider the classical and pagan tradition of worshipping the young male physique, there is much more to be said about Wyatt’s being, in his role as a marred beautiful boy, an embodiment of the marred perfection Frank achieves in his artistic attempts; and there is more to be said about the implications of that analogical framework for readings of the novel that cast it as a critique of a capitalist system (see Gaddis’s second novel, J.R.) or an indictment of any or all of the host of human sins that thrive in and are perpetuated within such a system: selfishness, collective cruelty, collective indifference, perverse rejection of empathy as a vital individual and collective goal. I may revisit this line of thought and say these things later.

[2] Glück, Louise. Proofs and Theories. New York: Ecco, 1999. 94.


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