Make it Personable

To instantaneously convert otherwise coma-inducing information into the human experience, look no further than Personification, a witty rhetorical technique William Gaddis’s The Recognitions frequently employs, who, between whistling whilst he works, smiles agreeably upon the reader, winking all the while.

Personification is a great device to use if one knows the subject upon which she is about to endeavor is boring. Let us consider Gaddis’s commentary on the Enlightenment era’s transmutation of medieval alchemy into modern chemistry. This could, for some, prove to be a dry topic. However, when the themes of transcendental alchemy, scientific inquiry, and shifting cultural-knowledge paradigms are anthropomorphized, given personalities, and ultimately coaxed to act upon the stage of life, we suddenly are more keen to learn about them. Moreover, it is fun to watch.

It might be most advantageous to begin with Gaddis’s depiction of “The alchemist,” who “was likely an unsophisticated man of a certain age assisting in smelly hallucination over an open fire, tampering with the provenience of absolutes…seeking the universal dissolvent in the fifteenth century with a mixture of mercury, salt, molten lead, and human excrement.” This is not the most flattering image. Furthermore, it is not yet personification, just a great description. However, this image that Gaddis creates is necessary to the birth and growth of a human image-tree, upon which a complexly personified narrative may brachiate. 

We get it: Alchemy was old, dumb, and stinky. Furthermore, we can now get that crust-covered warlock perambulating his putrid cheese-breath around by personifying him as “the blundering parent of modern chemistry.” Doddering and incontinent, this purple-caped progenitor was “with the age of enlightenment…left behind, to haggle in darkness over the beams which (he) had caught, and clung to with such suffocating desire.” Personification here plays such a key character in the depiction of Alchemy’s fall, as Gaddis not only characterizes him as the blundering parent of a more supreme being, but nuances that character with specific word-choices such as “haggle,” “darkness,” and “suffocating,” words conjuring images of a quibbling old fool from the dark ages, choking on the malodorous concoctions of freshly outmoded idiocy.

Modern chemistry, however, engendered less by the lofty promise of divine transcendence and more by “the enlightenment of total materialism” has now “established itself as true and legitimate son and heir.” It seems not unintentional, too, that Gaddis decides to further personify modern chemistry by giving him a name by which we may associate him: “Doctor Ehrlich.” And it seems to be a candid depiction indeed that, when, while Herr Honesty “grew up serious, dignified and eminently pleased with its own limitations,” Alchemy “was left behind…dead of injuries received in a drunken brawl…turned out like a drunken parent, to stagger away, babbling phantasies to fewer and fewer ears, to less and less impressive derelicts of loneliness.” It seems infinitely appropriate as well that modern chemistry is finally characterized as now being in possession of the knowledge that “the old fool and his cronies were after all the time.”

Although it may be properly deduced that Gaddis’s exhibitions in personification fortified modern chemistry in the superior position, it is not without irony that this position is solidified through the ancient rhetorical skill of personification. Instead of employing, as many Classic Modernist wise-guys made a career of doing, a mock-empirical meta-narrative to satirize the scientific position, Gaddis decides to create an exceedingly witty and meaningful juxtaposition of the Enlightenment age’s rational, almost naïvely literal, take on the world through the ancient art of sophistry. This suggests that perhaps it is neither chemistry nor alchemy that we must choose to accept as certainty, but rather to strive against becoming the Joycean idea of The Cyclops; we must, instead of attempting to find one understanding of the world, develop the awareness to collect all disseminated, equally valid understandings as fractured parts of an ultimately unified cosmic Truth.

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