The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis


William Gaddis is one of the most significant postwar American novelists. His three large and experimental works - The Recognitions, J R (which won the National Book Award in 1975), and Carpenter's Gothic - sell to a reverential underground. In this first discussion of the ethical dimension of Gaddis's novels, Gregory Comnes maintains that Gaddis writes "epistemological" novels, narratives whose form provides readers with the means to understand how a postmodern ethics is possible. To establish this position Comnes argues three points. The first is that ethical concepts derive from fundamental epistemological principles - that "oughts" are legitimated by what passes for what "is". The second is that Gaddis's novels employ the epistemological concepts, grounded in quantum science, as principles of composition and form. From this interpretation, the novels dramatize the truth described by contemporary science. Readers of Gaddis come to realize what Bohr and Heisenberg understood, Comnes argues: that life is not linear, aimed at one fixed point and seeking consummation there. He concludes that Gaddis wants readers to understand the issue of ethics in a way that one of his characters describes as "Agape agape". Within the constraints of an indeterminate world, love itself can serve as the basis of meaning and value. The three novels, each postmodern and ethical, correlate the worlds of science, religion, art, and economics to show that ethical choice (not conformity and passivity) is possible, even when the absolute is replaced with the probable as the basis for judgment.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Gainesville, FL
Publication year:
  • 1994