One of the many Greenwich Village denizens of The Recognitions is Esme, a young woman who poses as an artist’s model for Wyatt Gwyon, the central character of the novel. A heroin addict and would-be artist herself, Esme lives in a small apartment just off Washington Square; she is not very bright and completely without guile. The constant object of several characters’ sexual desire, she is among the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the novel and, in her recognition of the difficulties that 20th century language holds for the artist, among the most honest and tortured of the artists depicted.
About a third of the way into the book, the narrator describes Esme’s torture in a way impossible for Esme to articulate herself. It’s also an example of the “Loose Baroque” style I cited the other day as a central element of Gaddis’ descriptive prose: “The Loose Baroque sentence begins ‘without premeditation, stating its idea in the first form that occurs; the second member (clause) is determined by the situation in which the mind finds itself after the first has been spoken; and so on throughout the period (sentence), each member being an emergency of the situation (since each is suddenly called for by what preceded it). The period, in theory at least, is not made; it becomes. It completes itself and takes on form in the course of the motion of mind which it expresses.” The below excerpt from the novel is an excellent example of this style, and captures not only the luxuriousness of Gaddis’ prose but also the profound despair that lies beneath it. (The character of Esme is based on Sheri Martinelli, whom Gaddis critic Steven Moore describes as a “Modernist Muse” in this fascinating essay.)
The sole way, it seemed to her often enough when she was working at writing a poem, to use words with meaning, would be to choose words for themselves, and invest them with her own meaning: not her own, perhaps, but meaning which was implicit in their shape, too frequently nothing to do with dictionary definition. The words which the tradition of her art offered her were by now in chaos, coerced through the contexts of a million inanities, the printed page everywhere opiate, row upon row of compelling idiocies disposed to induce stupor, coma, necrotic convulsion; and when they reached her hands they were brittle, straining and cracking, sometimes they broke under the burden which her tense will imposed, and she found herself clutching their fragments, attempting again with this shabby equipment her raid on the inarticulate. …
It was through this imposed accumulation of chaos that she struggled to move now: beyond it lay simplicity, unmeasurable, residence of perfection, where nothing was created, where originality did not exist: because it was origin; where once she was there work and thought in causal and stumbling sequence did not exist, but only transcription: where the poem she knew but could not write existed, ready-formed, awaiting recovery in that moment when the writing down of it was impossible: because she was the poem. Her hand tipped toward the paper, black stroke the pen made there, but only that stroke, line of uncertainty. She called her memory, screamed for it, trying to scream through it and beyond it, damned accumulation that bound her in time: my memory, my bed, my stomach, my terror, my hope, my poem, my God: the meanness of my. Must the flames of hell be ninety-story blazes? or simply these small sharp tongues of fire that nibble and fall to, savoring the edges and then consume, swept by the wind of terror at exposing one’s self, losing the aggregate of meannesses which compose identity, in flames never reaching full roaring crescendo but scorch through a life like fire in grass, in the world of time the clock tells. Every tick, synchronized, tears off a fragment of the lives run by them, the circling hands reflected in those eyes watching their repetition in an anxiety which draws the whole face toward pupiled voids and finally, leaves lines there, uncertain strokes woven into the flesh, the fabric of anxiety, double-webbed round dark-centered jellies which reflect nothing. Only that fabric remains, pleached in the pattern of the bondage which has a beginning and an end, with scientific meanness in attention to details, of a thousand things which should not have happened, and did; of myriad mean events which should have happened, and did not: waited for, denied, until life is lived in fragments, unrelated until death, and the wrist watch stops.
The Recognitions (299-300)