(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.)
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.