Book Discussion: The Recognitions

(Ed. note: Sorry this post is so late. Been a pretty stressful week, and things just mounted as Friday approached. Then there was a Breaking Bad marathon Saturday, and the next thing I knew it was Sunday afternoon.)

Pages: 446-541

So, let’s talk about Esme. She really took centerstage in this week’s reading, I felt. Chapter II.4 begins with her withering evisceration of Otto, in which she concludes, “You had me all filled in before you met me, Otto. There was no room for me at all” (p. 449). Now, for me, this raises an important question: what would it mean really to know Esme?

In her letter to Wyatt later in the chapter, in which she laments that she exists only as a painting to him, she insists that there is in fact a part of her, a remainder, that the paintings for which she models cannot depict (or, she continues, devour).

Painting, a sign whose reality is actually, I, never to be abandoned, a painting is myself, ever attentive to me, mimicking what I never changed, modified, or compromised, Whether I, myself, am object or image, they at once, are both, real or fancied, they are both, concrete or abstract, they are both, exactly and in proportion to this disproportionate I, being knowingly or unknowingly neither one nor the other, yet to be capable of creating it, welded as one, perhaps not even welded but actually from the beginning one, am also both and what I  must, without changing, modifying, or compromising, be. (p. 472)

Her response to this we learn is “absolute death,” which she pursues in the form of her unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Is it is just me, or does her letter stands in relief to Max’s comments as Otto scrapes dog shit from his shoe:

Otto stood there, his arm shivering in the sling, the wind blowing his hair up from behind. –Yes, he said, raising his eyebrows, –sometimes it’s difficult . . . he curled his lip slightly against its tendency to tremble, –it’s difficult to shed our human nature. Then he turned away quickly and stepped back to the curb, where he stood with his back to them, scraping the edge of his his shoe. He heard Max laugh, and call to him, “A little always sticks . . . (p. 466)

As Esme realizes, and as Otto consistently embodies throughout the novel (hence, all the mirrors* and the drama with his “papers of identity” [p. 486]), to be human — and thus human nature in general — is to be depicted. Short of “absolute death,” there’s no getting around it. As with Esme’s failed suicide, “a little always sticks.” Arguably, even if one is successful, your absence is not felt as such, inasmuch as it is felt by others. Would not depiction devour death as much as life?

As a result, Esme’s collapse into the third-person seems highly appropriate. Note that while Wyatt is still struggling with matters of identity and such, Esme has given in. She is nothing but the depiction of others now. Thus, she can refer to herself as ‘she’, not ‘I’, where in contrast Wyatt adopts a variety of pseudonyms (e.g., the Reverend from last chapter, John Hus, a host of artists, etc.), inconsistently resists mis-identification, and for most of the novel is only referred to by others pronominally. (I cannot remember a moment in which he does, anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

This brings us to another question, which II.5 has much to say, but of which I will for now be silent and see if you have something to offer instead: that exactly of who gets to be counterfeit and who gets to be counterfeit artist? We’re all a bit of both, sure, but surely some reap the respective scorn and benefit more than others. (If you are at all sympathetic to poor old Mr. Sinisterra, I highly recommend you look into the performance-art of J.S.G. Boggs and his legendary ‘Boggs Bills’. If you’re unfamiliar, Lawrence Weschler’s Boggs: A Comedy of Value will help — see esp. chapter one.)

* Oh, how I loved the short passage at the end of II.4, where Otto is sitting at a bar and staring straight ahead of him, whereupon “it took him a good half-minute to realize that neither the stubbled chin, nor the flattened nose, nor the bunched ears, nor the yellow eyes he stared into, were his own” (p. 486).

* * * *

If there are not any objections, let’s see if we can get through II.7 (p.646) for next week.

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11 Responses to “Book Discussion: The Recognitions

  1. poserorprophet Says:

    Another bit I very much enjoyed from the exchange between Esme and Otto is this:

    -Esme, stop it, I really mean it. I mean, you know I’m sincere. I’ve always been sincere with you.
    She put her hand on his. -Otto, she said. -Sincerity becomes the honesty of people who cannot be honest with themselves.
    (p452).

    Snap! That certainly rings true with my own experiences. I tend to be at my most sincere when I lie — and when I lie because I am first and foremost trying to convince myself of the truth of that lie.

    Still, this question of what it means to really know Esme is a tricky one. It seems to assume that there is some sort of other more real Esme behind the ways in which everyone claims to know her. She certainly seems to think this, as she says later to Wyatt:

    -I dream and wake up. The love I have from others is not love of me, but where they try to find themselves, loving me. I dream and I wake up, and then at that moment you are something being real to other people; and they are a part of your reality; and I am not… But you are the only person I am real with… (p469).

    But who is to say who Esme really is? Can Esme, simply because she is Esme, be the one to determine this? I’m not sure. It seems to me that Gaddis pushes us towards the conclusion that we can’t “really know” anybody, including ourselves.

    Perhaps this is because there is no self behind all of these various perceptions and masquerades (I am reminded of Vonnegut’s introduction to his story Mother Night — you are who you pretend to be, he writes, and so be careful who you pretend to be). This doesn’t mean collapsing into the third-person, as Esme does, because that means privileging the perceptions of others about ourselves and denying the perceptions we have about ourselves, but it does problematize our notions of identity.

    I think that it also problematizes our thinking about counterfeits and counterfeit artists, because such language assumes the ability to refer back to something genuine or real… but I reckon this comment is already plenty long enough!

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’d flagged the same quote from Esme’s letter that you did. I thought it interesting that she felt “you are the only person I am real with” at the same time that she says his paintings are devouring her. There could be an antagonism at work in this, sure; or, it could be that she’d realized, while writing the letter, that she was most real in the course of the paintings devouring her.

    I think this might at the heart of her comment about tragedy. Something to mull over….

  3. poserorprophet Says:

    Perhaps this is because Esme identifies what is real about herself with the thing that Wyatt devours. After all, Otto and the other are incapable of devouring her (even though they try to) because she does not think that they arrive at that which is at the core of her — you cannot devour that which is inaccessible to you.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m highly unlikely to reach next week’s goal, as I’m now a full week behind — or a week and a half, perhaps.

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    Considering there are only a few people reading the novel at this point, I think it would be both merciful and wise to let Adam catch up. So … no post this week. Sorry, Poser, I know you’re probably still well ahead of the class — perhaps even finished!

  6. poserorprophet Says:

    No worries, I did finish the novel but I don’t mind waiting. I think Esther’s party is the best part of the book, so the more people there are to discuss it the better.

  7. errataagain Says:

    forgo disclaimer… but wanted to post this here, having just recently read…

    The scenario in Schiller’s work permits us to see how these two opposites are contained in the same initial kernel. On the one hand, indeed, free appearance is the power of a heterogeneous sensible element. The statue, like the divinity, holds itself opposite the – idle – subject, in other words it is foreign to all volition, to every combination of means and of ends. It is closed on itself, that is to say inaccessible for the thought, desires and ends of the subject contemplating it. And it is only by this strangeness, by this radical unavailability, that it bears the mark of man’s full humanity and the promise of humanity to come, one at last in tune with the fullness of its essence. This statue, which the subject of experience cannot in the least possess, promises the possession of a new world. And aesthetic education, as the compensation for political revolution, is the education received through the strangeness of free appearance, through the experience of non-possession and passivity that it imposes.

    -Jacques Rancière

  8. hugh Says:

    Hi folks. Sorry I’ve disappeared from this discussion. Every so often I find I need to impose pretty strict non-Web use on myself if I want to live a more generally satisfactory life. So that’s what’s up with me. Best wishes for continued Gaddis-ing.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    There’s been very little discussion the past couple of weeks anyway, Hugh. Due to a variety of circumstances. I should have something up and ready tomorrow.

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    Argh. It’s nearly Sunday evening, and I’ve still not gotten the new post up. For those of you still following these, a thousand apologies. It’s been a, shall we say, stressful time, with a host of personal matters coming to a head, none of which were anticipated a month ago. I hope to get on track soon, perhaps with a post tonight. If not tonight, tomorrow — I promise.


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