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The Secret History of
ē Agape

by Steven Moore

Two years after Gaddis died, and two years before the publication of Agapē Agape, Steven Moore gave this interim report on this last and perhaps most disturbing of Gaddis's work.   It was delivered at the international colloquium "Reading William Gaddis" in Orléans, France,  March 24-25, 2000.

When the obituaries appeared for William Gaddis a week before Christmas 1998, one piece of good news surfaced in those otherwise dismal announcements, namely, that Gaddis had finished a new book shortly before his death. This final book, with the rather ungainly title Agapē Agape, is a project he had been working on all his professional life.  Perhaps “struggling with” would be a more accurate phrase, because it’s a book that he abandoned decades ago as hopeless, beyond even his superhuman abilities, and in fact he dramatized his struggle in those pages of J R that feature Jack Gibbs working on a book with the same title.  The version that will eventually be published is considerably different from the one Gaddis began writing five decades ago, so I’d like to describe how this troublesome book evolved over the years.

It was when Gaddis was working as a fact-checker at the New Yorker in 1945-46 that he first became interested in the player piano, the subject of an article he was assigned to work on.  He quickly became interested in this musical contraption not for its own sake—I don’t think he owned one or played one—but as a popular manifestation of what he considered a dangerous trend, namely, the growing use of mechanical reproduction in the arts and a corresponding loss of the autonomy of the individual artist.  After he finished the assignment he decided to research the history of the player piano further and to write something of his own on the topic, which he hoped to publish in the New Yorker’s “Onward & Upward” column, only to have it rejected.  By this time, he had begun work on The Recognitions, so he set it aside, but in 1950, while in Paris, Gaddis dusted off his essay and sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, who, much to his delight (as he wrote in a letter to Helen Parker), “offered to take an excerpt from it, or possibly the whole.”  The following summer, Gaddis made his first appearance in a national magazine with “‘Stop Player. Joke No. 4.’”  [Click here for this article.]  The fact that this essay is only a few pages long suggests that it was indeed only an excerpt from a longer work, and thus that longer work would be the basis for what he eventually called Agapē Agape.

“‘Stop Player. Joke No. 4’” is a slight piece, just an anecdotal overview of the history of the player piano, and yet its opening paragraph gives a clear indication of Gaddis’s concern:  “Selling player pianos to Americans in 1912 was not a difficult task.  There was a place for everyone in this brave new world, where the player offered an answer to some of America’s most persistent wants: the opportunity to participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the manifestation of talent where there was none.”  Previously, it took real talent and dedication to play the piano, but with this invention anyone could “play.”  There was an ad in a 1925 Saturday Evening Post for the player piano (which Gaddis saw and later quoted) that even elevated its operator above true pianists:  “You can play better by roll than many who play by hand,” it promised.  “And you can play ALL pieces while they can play but a few.”  It degraded Art to mere entertainment, and encouraged passivity over activity.  And if you’re satisfied with a player piano, then what becomes of the piano player?  What part, if any, does an artist play in this “brave new world”?  Gaddis wasn’t merely displaying an elitist reaction to the democratization of the arts; instead, he was concerned about the growing demand for immediate gratification and for the willingness to accept a mechanical reproduction over the real thing.  It’s the same trend towards the elimination of the human element that was going on in assembly-line production, whose growth took place concurrent with the heyday of the player piano.  Mechanization of the arts ran parallel to the mechanization of people by means of efficiency studies, standardized testing, and various methods of measurement and evaluation more suited to machinery than people.

Some of Gaddis’s material on player pianos found its way into The Recognitions.  At Esther’s Christmas Eve party (in part 2, chap. 7), she finds herself seated next to a rather pathetic college friend of Benny’s.  This unnamed character first asks her if she knows anything about player pianos, and when she answers in the negative, he boasts that he’s spent two years writing a history of the player piano, and regales her with a list of famous people who owned them (579).  Here Gaddis treats the subject in a self-deprecatory way, and indeed a book solely on the player piano would be of limited interest.  But after The Recognitions appeared, Gaddis returned to the subject and began exploring more of the implications of mechanical reproduction.  And that’s where he ran into trouble.

As you may or may not know, the player piano uses paper rolls with rectangular holes punched in them.  And as you certainly remember from your youth, computers originally used cards punched in the same way.    Now both the player piano and the computer adapted this technology from the automated loom invented by Jacquard at the beginning of the 19th century, which also used punched cards, which were taken up in 1835 by Charles Babbage for an early calculator, and further modified in 1890 by Herman Hollerith for a tabulating machine, another forerunner of the modern computer.  As Gaddis realized the player piano was only a chapter in the long history of mechanization and automation, his researched broadened to the point where he was overwhelmed by the logistics of integrating all this material into a coherent narrative.

He tried to organize his notes by year, starting with 1876, an important date in American history: that was the year the earliest version of the player piano was introduced to Americans at the Philadelphia Exposition; it was also the year Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, the year of Custer’s Last Stand, and also the year (to quote from Richard Powers’s recent novel Gain) “that the fix robbed Tilden of the Presidency and reduced the democratic process to parody.”  It was also the year Willard Gibbs published his papers on statistical physics, and the year Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung was first performed in its entirety — all of which is highly relevant to Gaddis’s second novel J R, where much of Gaddis’s research wound up.  In fact, a page of Gaddis’s notes for the year 1920 is reproduced on page 587 of J R, and one look at that and you can see what he was up against.

To go back a little bit, it should be remembered the late fifties were a difficult time for Gaddis.  He was crushed by the commercial failure of The Recognitions in 1955, which he probably thought would set him up in the same way that Ralph Ellison was set for life after the publication in 1953 of Invisible Man.  Gaddis got married later in 1955 and had to get a job, and within a few years had two kids to support.  When he did begin writing again, he had trouble settling on the right project.  He began then abandoned a novel on business in 1957, then started a novel on the Civil War, which he changed to a play entitled Once at Antietam, then shelved it in 1960 after failing to find a producer for it.  He then decided to resurrect his work of a decade earlier on the player piano because he continued to be obsessed (as he writes in a letter to John Seelye) with “expanding prospects of programmed society & automation in the arts.”  He worked on this version of Agapē Agape from 1960 to 1962, at which time he accepted a commission from the Ford Foundation to write a book on the use of television in the schools, which fell through the following year.  Soon after this he decided to abandon Agapē Agape altogether and resume that novel on business he began in 1957.  In an attempt to salvage as much as possible from the failed nonfiction work, he decided to put the Bast family in the business of manufacturing player pianos, and created Jack Gibbs as an alter ego to act as a mouthpiece for the material Gaddis had planned to articulate in Agapē Agape, and to dramatize his own difficulties in bringing the book to completion.

In an oft-quoted passage in J R, Gibbs describes his project as “ -- a book about order and disorder more of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element . . .” (244).  Several places in J R Gibbs reads aloud from his manuscript (pp. 288-89, 571-604), which were intended to be the opening pages of Agapē Agape.  Those selections are so dense and allusive that some readers may feel it’s just as well that Gaddis never completed the book, because even the few pages included in J R are difficult enough that the thought of a lengthy book written in that manner is enough to send even sympathetic readers reeling

Gaddis was able to incorporate most of his thoughts on mechanization and the arts in J R, triumphantly if I may say so, and in later years he seems to have become reconciled to this solution.  In his letters he continued to refer occasionally to Agapē Agape, offering tantalizing glimpses of what it might have been.  In a 1987 letter to critic Gregory Comnes, Gaddis said that he had recently come across a book similar to what he had intended to write, namely, Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters, and felt “well damn! that settles it, mine will never be done; though something still remains that drives me to tear out and save anything I come across on mechanization & the arts to add to the 30 year hoard.”

Kenner’s book, originally published in 1968, covers a lot of the same ground as Agapë Agape:  mechanization and automation, closed systems, computers, the role of the artist, and of course counterfeiting and the related theme of authenticity.  It’s a brilliant book, too complicated to summarize here, but well worth seeking out for its own sake as well as for an indication of what Gaddis was working toward.  Another book that Gaddis told Comnes resembled what he had planned to do is Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command (1948), an erudite, far-ranging survey of how mechanization "has split our modes of thinking from our modes of feeling." It too is highly recommended.

In the same 1987 letter to Comnes, Gaddis mentions a writer whom he had not read yet, despite the relevance to his own work, namely, Walter Benjamin, whose seminal essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” would seem to be right up Gaddis’s alley.  (It must be remembered, of course, that Gaddis did most of his research on this topic back in the late fifties and early sixties, before Benjamin had been translated into English.)  In a 1992 letter to Comnes, Gaddis reported that he finally did read Benjamin’s essay and jokes that he would “certainly have been pilloried for plagiary” had he ever completed his work, which became, he goes on to write, “a casualty of overresearch; but then of course in my ignorance Benjamin had already clearly, concisely, brilliant[ly] and briefly covered the ground.” 

The extent to which his own book was “overresearched” can be gleaned from a letter Gaddis wrote to critic Joseph Tabbi in 1989; asked about his sources for Agapē Agape, Gaddis said they “were very far ranging & having largely to do with organization (Hull House, crime, John D Rockefeller &c); Hollerith, early punched card innovations (from Jacquard’s loom & Thos J Watson (pere) selling pianos off a truck; Plato’s warnings & exclusion of the artist; Babbage; von Neumann (which I found largely beyond my comprehension); & I cannot recall his wellknown name [Frederick W. Taylor] doing time/motion studies in the very early 1900s for industrial efficiency: all these flood back but there was far more however all this was done before (though spilling a little over into) the composition of J R for the never to be completed Agapē Agape whose premises — measurement & quantification as indexing thus dictating order & performance (cf. McNamara’s Vietnam body counts) — have long since caught up with us.  Alas it will never be realized but in massive notes & marked margins in the hands of some beleaguered doctoral candidate, since I am now immersed in an equally mad enterprise.”

This “equally mad enterprise” was of course A Frolic of His Own, which was eventually published at the beginning of 1994.  Afterwards, he toyed with the idea of expanding a legal opinion that he had left out of A Frolic, but in 1996 decided — despite everything he had said — to revive Agapē Agape in a final attempt to complete it.  His new agent, Andrew Wylie, sold the proposal to editor Allen Peacock at Henry Holt for a rumored six-figure advance.  Publishers Weekly reported the sale in its January 6, 1997 issue, stating that Agapē Agape:
  The Secret History of the Player Piano (to give its full title) was a nonfiction work that Holt hoped to publish in the fall of 1998.

Now, there are several possible reasons why Gaddis chose to return to an unfinished work rather than begin something new.  First, he was 71 years old and in poor health when A Frolic of His Own was published, so the idea of starting a new novel, especially given his slow working methods, probably struck him as unrealistic.  Second, I suspect he was uncomfortable with leaving unfinished work behind.  He had been able to salvage his Civil War play Once at Antietam for use in A Frolic of His Own, and a similar desire to get Agapē Agape into print in one form or another may have appealed to him.  I’m sure he didn’t really want to leave it in the hands of “some beleaguered doctoral candidate” in the future, despite what he had told Joseph Tabbi.  And since he had continued to amass material for this project, perhaps he felt he had a fresh perspective on it and could finally complete the work.

At any rate, he worked hard on it through 1997 and early 1998, and then history repeated itself.  Just as 25 years earlier he decided to convert much of his research into a novel, he decided to reformat Agapë Agape from nonfiction to fiction.  The model he decided to use was Thomas Bernhard, whose works Gaddis discovered in the early nineties and took a great liking to.  Many of Bernhard’s novels — like The Loser, Concrete, Woodcutters, and The Lime Works — are first-person narratives by brilliant but pessimistic men at odds with society.  Just as Gaddis used Jack Gibbs in J R to dramatize his difficulty in completing Agapē Agape, he decided once again to dramatize the process of writing such a book rather than publishing it in nonfiction form.  Whether this was a deliberate, inspired artistic choice, or yet another attempt to salvage something from an uncompletable work, I don’t know.  As it happens, he received a commission about this time from DeutschlandRadio to write a play for broadcasting, so he sent them the first 43 pages of Agapē Agape as a one-act monologue entitled Torschlusspanik (which means the fear of doors closing, of opportunities lost).  It was translated and broadcast on March 3, 1999, three and a half months after Gaddis died.

This brings us, finally, to the novel that will be published soon.  I don’t know what percentage of the final work the 43 pages of Torschlusspanik represent, nor have I seen the rest of the novel.  I understand it’s a short work, perhaps only a novella, which would bring the Thomas Bernhard parallel even closer, for many of the Austrian writer’s works are little more than novellas.  I’m not even sure who will publish it:  Allen Peacock, the editor who acquired it (as he had acquired A Frolic of His Own for Simon & Schuster ten years earlier), left Holt a few years ago and I understand they’ve cancelled the contract.  But this is what I can tell you.

The novel is a first-person monologue in stream-of-consciousness style by an unnamed man in bed recovering from surgery and trying to finish a book on mechanization and the arts.  We learn that he has three daughters on whom he has settled his estate and that he has arranged to take turns staying with each of them.  Now, we all know where that came from, and it doesn’t suggest a happy ending.  But this borrowing from King Lear seems to be the only fictitious element. (Gaddis has a son and a daughter, not three daughters.)  In every other way, the novella is an account of the last days of William Gaddis — not some fictional persona but the man himself — attempting to organize his 30-year hoard of material and raging like Lear on the heath about contemporary society.  In the late 1990s Gaddis was in and out of hospitals for a variety of reasons, and the problems and medical procedures the narrator recounts are the same Gaddis underwent.  The narrator is basically thinking aloud about his material, which encompasses everything and everyone from Hero of Alexandria’s water organs to Dolly, the cloned sheep that was in the news right before Gaddis died.  There are more examples of Gaddis’s lifelong study of Plato and the great 19th-century Russian novelists — two crucial influences, by the way, which still need to be addressed by Gaddis scholars. There isn’t any duplication of the material Jack Gibbs reads aloud in J R, but it has the same density, the same encyclopedic allusiveness, the same twisted syntax.  Consequently, it’s very challenging to read even if you’re already familiar with Gaddis’s characteristic themes and references.  When Gibbs described Agapē Agape to Amy Joubert in J R, she says, “— It sounds a little difficult, is it?” and Gibbs replies, “— Difficult as I can make it” (244). The charge of “difficulty” is one that plagued Gaddis all his career, and one that he felt was unfair.  But in Agapē Agape, it’s almost as if Gaddis said to himself, “They think I’m difficult? I’ll show them difficult!”  As a result, I don’t think the general reader will get very far in this book, and I’m afraid Agapē Agape may get reviews as harsh as any he received for The Recognitions.

But for Gaddis fans, it promises to be exhilarating, one final impassioned outburst from one of the greatest novelists of our time.  It’s bitter, offensive, unapologetically elitist, politically incorrect, atheistic, pessimistic, and contemptuous of almost every aspect of modern life.  And I can’t wait to read it.

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