Gaddis' Agape Agape: Dead Man Micturates onto Masses' Delight
The publication posthumous of Agape Agape by the estate of William Gaddis gave closure
to - if one believe in phantoms and shadows bumping in the night - an obsession by Gaddis
of some half-century with the idea of writing a social history of the player piano (or
pianola by which term it shall be mentioned in this paper) and expanded when he found a
voice in the mouth of a dying, fragile, emphyzemic man. The novel is written in the form
of an exhaustive bombardment of images, sentences lasting for pages, a lack of a single
paragraph break, and centered upon an obsessive repetition that the soul (also called a
'doppelganger', 'detachable self', or 'belly-talker') has been killed. Essentially, Gaddis
asserts that technology built for the masses' mindless enjoyment - such as the pianola and
television - leads to the deterioration of truly brilliant minds and magnificent souls such as
Wagner and Tolstoy, culminating in a 'collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of
values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look,' and that the only chance for
puropose that a sane man or woman - the artist - possesses is to separate his or her self
from the masses and to allow this 'belly-talker' to compose of its own accord.
The pianola, the advent of which was perceived as the cause of so much misery to Gaddis'
narrator, was 'perfected' into the form by which it became popular by Edwin Votey of
Detroit in 1896. Though it is not relevant to make a detailed explanation of its
machinations, the device is powered by suction, and the 'operator' can attain the illusion
of playing skillfuully by applying pressure to the foot-pedals. He or she may also add notes
to the piece with the conventional keyboard. Because Gaddis never states that his
objection is to the availability of music to the greater populace but rather to the idea that
the makers of the pianola profited from exploiting great masterpieces and then cheapening
artwork by allowing every housewife and businessman with disposable income to receive
the illusion that he or she can rival the great composers like Schubert and musicians such
as Sarasate. In his typical 'stream-of-conscious', prednisone-induced manner, Gaddis or
his narrator (one must remember that these are still somehow two separate entities) waxes
bitter over this capture and prostitution of magni opera.
'[M]ob out there crash bang storming the gates seeking pleasure democracy scaling the walls
terrifying the elite who've had a corner on high class entertainment back to marie Antoinette
storming the Bastille with here yes, here's one yes, here's a German ad 1926 holding the line for
the class act against here they come, here they come, "a still larger class of people who cannot
successfully operate the usual type of player, because they lack a true sense of musical values.
They have no 'ear for music', and for that reason they play atrociously upon pianos equipped
with even high grade player actions" talking about a class act? about defending these elitist music
lovers? Not here no, talking about what we've always talked about. Sales!...'
(Gaddis, pp 13-14).
Following at the heels of this outburst Gaddis addresses the issue of what music ought to
There's Plato again agreeing that the excellence of music is measured by pleasure, but for
this gang out there playing You're a Dog-gone Daisy Girl with its feet? Good God no, for
them Plato rhymes with tomato, it can't be the pleasure of chance persons, he says, it's got to be
the music that delight the best educated or you get the poets composing to please the bad taste of
their judges and that's what this glorious democracy's all about isn't it? (Gaddis 14).
There is an objective 'yardstick' technique to determing the value of a piece, and that is
defined by the those most talented themselves.
Still, this narrator's conviction remains elusive, as he continues mercilessly to criticize
both the bourgeoisie who make up the 'target market' of the pianola's manufacturers, and
yet the greater measure of his malice is directed at the merchants and manufacturers who,
he feels, ought to know better.
'[A]nd wait Mr Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic
pleasure in the worship of art was the priveledge of the few. I was saying, Mr Huizinga, that the
authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical
dependence. Ah, quite so Mr Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam
and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr Huizinga, and I'd add that this
massive technical reprodution of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses
looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr Benjamin, you might say that art now
became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and The Last Supper became
calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink.' Gaddis (pp 33-34).
This is an imagined colloquy between the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945),
famous for his commentary on the Middle Ages, and philosopher Walter Benjamin
(1892-1940), known for his ideas about the symbolism of architecture and the puropose of
art as an entity for its own sake. It is perhaps fitting that the narrator mention Benjamin,
because the narrator still wrestles with the question of the purpose inherent in life and by
'Clock without the clockmaker perfectly simple in word and deed says Plato, God wouldn't lie or
change because he's perfect so it's God God God, virtue and beauty and no mad or senseless
person can be God's friend no, make yourselves eunuchs for the kingdom's sake says Tolstoy,
nothing senseless about that is there? Strive for absolute chastity for the good of the
neighborhood whole purpose of lifge to be part of God's kingdom only way to get there's absolute
chastity, husband and wife live like brother and sister nothing mad about that is ther? Dress up
like a muzhik float around the house look like Noah's Ark whole performance out of the greatest
fiction ever created, take God out of the equation you've got nothing left not even love no, had
that somewhere if I had that letter Wagner wrote to Rockel where love's lost sight of because
everything we do, think, take and give is in fear of the end, the greatest most desperate fiction of
the afterlife ever created yes, the denial of death, what this whole mad escapade's about...'
(Gaddis pp 72-73).
The narrator's conflict is never resolved fully, for immediately after despairing the idea of
a unifying being in the universe and afterlife, he dispels the idea of 'noble amorality' and of
becoming one's own arbiter. He dispels the notion of any freedom existing in any human
effort or activity. His problem, and he admits this several times, is that once reduced to a
series of impulses and analyzed, becomes both tedious and asinine. Using Tolstoy's
nickname, he addresses the author on the nature of the character Podnyshev's motivations
and whether he himself believes in this conception of asserting free will simply bybreaking
one's grandparents' morals. 'Levochka,' he points out,
'Your man Pozdnyshev in the Kreutzer Sonata wallowing in the slime of debauchery he tells us,
keeps stripping away the fictions right down to what it's really all about and then he can't face it,
not just love no, only you, the choice of one man or woman over all others says the lady on the
train won't have it will you, Pozdnyshev. Supposed to be something noble and ideal but it's just
something sordid that brings us down to the level of pigs. Natural? a natural human activity?'
(Gaddis p 73).
To continue with Gaddis' fears that nothing is sacred when conceived of and arranged by
humans with the intent of happiness, pleasure, or comfort, which brings the narrator back
to the issue of the 'belly-talker' or 'self who could do more'. This soul must be some sort
of automaton separate and finer than the pathetic mind and gross body, a machine for
creating beauty, acts of love, music and art and literature. As is remarked in Richard
Wagner about the disconnexion between the artist's perceptions of his masterpiece and the
intent that is 'hidden' even from the artist,
'If one could approach with as little knowledge of his thoughts and prejudices as we have, say, of
Bach - would the music strike us as immoral? If one approaches Parsifal without any
preconceptions would one find there a racist creed?...
'If these indictments of the text have any substance, did Wagner really fling a cover of
marvellous and bewitching music over an evil creed. Or is the immorality, the falseness and
maliciousness of the text, an illusion?' (Watson pp 317-318).
In this admission that there exists some force of inspiration to which a select few are privy,
a group responsible for maintaining the collective value of society simply in existing, that
'when Flaubert writes to George Sand "I believe that the crowd, the mass, the herd,will always be
detestable. Nothing is important save a small group of minds, ever the same, which pass on the
torch.'... Hawthorne talked about horrified at success with the public taste, with the crowd meant
you must have sold out.' (Gaddis p 50).
An interesting emphasis is that this handful of people endowed with brilliance do not rule,
but simply 'pass on the torch'. The doctrine of an artist-tyrant, put forth by Nietzsche, as
the only suitable ruler is also by default criticized, for again that would be 'selling out' to
accept fame and power from the vulgar multitude. Nero, though he tried to see
government as a sort of masterpiece wrought in blood and fire, was really a wretchedly
fearful and pathetic weakling. Again, art is inviolate both by the artist and audience.
At the end of the book, at which also lies the ending point for the paper, the tone takes a
sudden swing from its diatribe against free will, piety, and industrialization to reveal an
'ecstatic experience' of some sort - after which the author appears to die - in which the
author cries out that
'"music carries you of into another state of being that's not your own, of feeling things you don't
really feel, of being able to do things you aren't really able to do"... That was the Youth with its
reckless exuberance when all things were possible pursued by Age where we are now, looking
back at what we destroyed what we tore away from that self who could do more.' (Gaddis p 96)
In lieu of proposing to create a framework for a society or proposing the Ultimate Value
to life, William Gaddis concludes his last novel by using himself as a cautionary example
against trying to change society and even other individuals - they never turn out right
anyway - or even dwelling upon what what is wrong with existence in general. The idea is
merely to find the 'self who could do more', and to nourish him in a private world, rather
than destroying him or allowing him to perish.
Works Cited/ General Bibliography
Gaddis, William. Agape Agape. Harmondsworth: Viking Press. 2002.
The book around which this paper and subsequent 'genres' are centred, this is a
very original commentary on the social repercussions of technology and the true
nature of the 'pursuit of happiness'.
Tabbi, Joseph. Afterword to Agape Agape. Harmondsworth: Viking Press. 2002
This addition to the thin volume was most helpful for having given an explanation
of Gaddis' motives for writing and of his his influences, such as Thomas Bernhard.
It was also helpful enough to discuss some of Gaddis' own notations on his
Franzen, Jonathan. 'Mr Difficult: William Gaddis and the problemof hard-to-read books.'
The New Yorker 30 September 2002: 100-111.
Though this is what induced my curiosity about Gaddis in the first place, Franzen
seems obsessed largely with boasting about his 'accomplishment' - finishing the
novel The Recognitions. Though this does not deal directly with Agape Agape, it
is a worthwhile source on Gaddis' themes and life.
'History and Devlopment'. The Player Piano Page. 12 July 2001. The Player Piano Group.
11 January 2004.
It was rather ironic to see a sight which so glorified the invention and marketing of
these loathsome contraptions. After reading and writing about this book, the
website was almost sickening.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster:
A very interesting sketch, though by definition this limitation to Western thought is
severe and annoying. However, in its own way, this book is quite useful, were it
not it would not be on this page. A great deal of personal insight is brought to bear
on the ideas of Nietzsche and Tolstoy.
Watson, Derek. Richard Wagner: A Biography. New York: Schirmer Books. 1979.
This final source is perhaps the finest of all, as it explores at length the personal life
and documents of Willhelm Richard Wagner. Very little is lacking from this.