The following paragraph appears on page 6 of The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
Below, like a constellation whose configured stars only hazard to describe the figure imposed upon them by the tyranny of ancient imagination, where Argo in the southern sky is seen only with an inner eye of memory not one’s own, so the ship against the horizonless sea of night left the lines which articulated its perfection to that same eye, where the most decayed and misused hulk assumed clean lines of grace beyond the disposition of its lights. “Obscure in parts and starless, as from prow / To mast, but other portions blaze with light,” the Purdue Victory lay in the waters off Algeciras, and like Argo, who now can tell prow from stern? Vela, the sails? Carina, the keel? where she lies moored to the south celestial pole, and the end of the journey for the Golden Fleece.
Argo was a celestial constellation of the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece as per Greek mythology. The constellation was too large and difficult to see and in 1752 was split into 3 smaller constellations: Carina (the keel, or the hull), Puppis (the poop deck, or stern), and Vela (the sails). A hulk is a ship that floats but is incapable of going to sea. The embedded poem is by the ancient Greek poet Aratos (ca. 315-240 BC), from “Appearances of the Stars” which describes Argo…
Against the tail of the Great Dog [Sirius] is dragged
Sternward the Argo, with no usual course
But motion contrary, […]
So sternward labours the Jasonian Argo
Obscure in parts and starless, as from prow
To mast, but other portions blaze with light.
It is either a clever twist or a deliberate attempt to confuse the reader to start with “Below, …” and then proceed to describe only stars above. We are lead to believe “below” is a reference to the Purdue Victory but this isn’t made clear until the following sentence. Where is the narrator’s geographical location? There is a sense we are expected to be looking down at something from somewhere above it.
The only real thing to hold on to is that the thing being likened is like a constellation. What follows is a narrowing of a particularly rare and obscure kind of constellation. In fact Argo may be the only breed that fits this description, a constellation only barely seeable, doomed to partitioning.
“…where Argo in the southern sky is seen only with an inner eye of memory not one’s own…” We can think of this as having something to do with the historical idea of the constellation Argo which no longer exists as a constellation, but now only as a memory of one. It can’t be one’s own memory because no reader of this text was alive in 1752 when Argo last existed. But it is still an abstracted way to talk about memory. It is paradoxical to have an “inner” eye to a memory only considerable from outside it. It would have been more concrete to ask us to simply imagine it, but Gaddis wants us to think of imagination itself in a different way.
We continue… “so the ship against the horizonless sea of night left the lines which articulated its perfection to that same eye, where the most decayed and misused hulk assumed clean lines of grace beyond the disposition of its lights.” The final phrase, although still strange, gets to the crux of the simile where we are finally thinking about the idea of a hulk. These two phrases iterate the idea of seeing not just the constellation from the “memory not one’s own” but also the lines connecting the stars, which no one ever actually sees. But due to the imaginariness of the “memory” we can imagine that it includes these lines, lines that are straight and pure and bright, regardless of how fucked up its representational ship was. So the idea is laid that Argo the barely seeable constellation is a fitting representation for a ship that was no longer sea worthy. Argo in Greek mythology was eventually consecrated to Poseidon and then translated, or “hulked” into the sky. Gaddis is considering the translating of the constellation Argo as the hulking of the mythological Argo in order to liken the Purdue Victory to it. But we are not only concerned with Argo as hulk. We are also concerned with Argo as failed constellation, and there is a sense that Gaddis wants these two ideas blended together. In the second sentence, the simile (or the first simile’s sequel) continues and Gaddis adds a third likeness to the equation, that we can no longer see or understand the ship well enough to tell which parts are which. It is as if Gaddis is trying every possible avenue to liken these two ships, the Purdue Victory and the blended idea of Argo (mythological and constellational), together.
Consider the effort involved in building this paragraph. An average writer would simply say, “The Purdue Victory was hulked.” One might throw more color at it, but few would go to the extent Gaddis did for something so relatively unimportant. As quickly as you may want to move on and read the rest of this book so you can finish it in your lifetime, this isn’t a paragraph you can read flippantly. You have to stop and digest it for a while if you want to grasp everything you read. Then move on to the next paragraph, which will inevitably flirt with a similar complexity. The ideas floating around are gorgeous, but in the context of the novel express just another tedium. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because that’s what fiction is.