Near the end of The Recognitions we are told that Stanley dedicates his composition to the souls of three women. They are unnamed, but presumably are his mother, Agnes Deigh, and Esme. The latter two suffers, as all of the characters in the novel suffer, from a sense of their own unreality. At the same time, the affliction of the unreal affects Esme and Agnes with greater force than it does the men in the novel; the one (Esme) is a cipher and the other is sacrifice. They represent, in the novel’s scheme, an experience of unreality that sustains the unreality as men experience it, and that is also more extreme, one might even say self-conscious and self-understanding in its obscurity and blankness, than that of the men in the novel. Their intensity of experience is by no means that of all women—Esther especially is a counterpoint, though Gaddis’ interest in her seems to wane as the novel goes on, after the remarkable early scenes between her and Wyatt—but it is, in the novel, exclusive to women. Agnes Deigh’s name hardly even counts as wordplay; it is not Gaddis’ invention so much as it is Agnes’ intensely and eccentrically Catholic mother’s, whom we meet in Rome, when Stanley is her guest. But the name speaks nonetheless to her fate, abandoned by her mother as dead, abandoned by the rest of the world to Bellevue after her attempt at suicide brought on by her guilt at having wrongfully (in the eyes of the law) accused a dentist of abuse. Esme’s name is Gaddis’ joke: “Esme” echoes “is me,” a character in whom others find their reflection (Otto, whose name is itself a chiasmus of ciphers) and who is unable to affirm her own identity. Is Gaddis replaying Flaubert’s line “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”? At any rate, Wyatt alone restores substance to Esme by seeing something other than himself; like everyone else, he uses her, but he uses her to bring forth copies of biblical faces; he too sees her as a mirror, albeit a mirror of something that is itself a counterfeit of something real (divinity); he sees only a part of her, but it something of her at least, which is more than is true of most. Though it is evident that Esme could not speak to or of her plight and despair, it is nonetheless surprising when, her final letter to Dr. Weissgall having been mailed by a dimwitted and diligent police officer, Agnes’ words are made the central expression of what is the besetting sin in the novel: the inability to love another, to see them as real, and to accept the reality—itself a cause and consequence of each character’s inability to see himself and herself. Agnes has been a somewhat minor character, but with her letter to Dr. Weissgall, she takes possession of the novel, providing one of the grandest portals into its vast interior. She speaks for herself, as well as for perhaps all of the women in the novel who are subject to something more than the inability to see other people as real—but the unwillingness—and in circumstances of intimacy and desire when love should be most possible:
Why do they love us and trust us for all the wrong reasons, reasons often we know nothing about and then they are disappointed. They are always disappointed. Sometimes I want to just stop, just stop everything and thank everyone. What they do, they free us when they betray us. Is that too easy, doctor? Is it because we can share a part of Ourself with each one we know, the part he demands for the rest we do not offer because we would not recognize the rest and more important even would not believe it is us, so we think better perhaps to simply put it away and do not bother him with it. Then see him, with all his might and main and all of his necessity he builds a whole Us out of his fragment, an Us we may have trouble to recognize too but respond kindly to it but better fearsomely, better beware and afraid for one day he will face us with it and then who can say, This is not us at all, why has he depended upon that Us he made with such loving care? Oh surprised he is and disappointed! How we failed how we failed! He is angry and deeply hurt, betrayed! Betrayed! Do not trust Us, flowers of friendship. All the while we search beyond him for what he thinks he has offered so honest, so honest is he, so honest. Finding in him and everywhere some where where we may share a part but no more, is there anyone you can share nothing with? Is there then who you can share everything with? No no no no—but they do not understand.
It is the novel’s most direct reckoning with the need for the recognition that is a love both human and impossible for most people. It is also the most extensive, and, for all of its disjointedness, coherent expression of the mythology of selfhood in the novel: a mythology that, like all of the other religions of the novel, suggests a solid center of gravity that might not exist, but that, in its generative falsity, becomes a immanent substitute for the absence it persistently proclaims and bemoans. Agnes’ mistaken, misplaced selfhood speaks in the third person, the capitalized “Us,” because it is also Esme’s and Esther’s, and maybe even Hannah’s, all of whom have been told that they must exist in the eyes of men—but who are also, in their awareness of the precarity of such an existence—able to speak of a condition in which the men in the novel share without knowing it.
Agnes’ words are written, in a letter being disposed of as waste. They are ephemera, as so much of the language in the novel is ephemera, or materially inseparable from ephemera. They gather themselves into the novel’s structure at the instant of their disposal, and they are themselves written as if spoken, a transcription of what might have been, except for the lack of interruption, a monologue delivered over a phone. Later in the same letter, she writes:
That is why I do not telephone you, telephones are dangerous things, they separate us from one another and is that simply because we put them to the wrong use? Human, we treat them as we treat others, take for granted services to which they did not pretend. But we force telephones to corrupt intimacy while they pretend to preserve it by keeping alive only its dangerous symptoms. Say a word, say a thousand to me on the telephone and I shall choose the wrong one to cling to as though you had said it after long deliberation when only I provoked it from you, I will cling to it from among a thousand, to be provoked and hurl it back with something I mean no more than you meant that, something for you to cling to and retreat clinging to. There, now we are apart! Doctor? That is why I did not telephone you, send only a symptomatic fragment of me to you in my voice where you cannot see my face but instead sit and stare upon matters of your own intimate self arranged like furniture but not my face which I have been so long in forming for just this moment, writing a letter where you will see my face doctor and all of me laid out, what can I give you more for forgiveness?
Her words cut two ways, one of which is against her. For though the novel grants her complaint against telephones, against a technology that focuses attention selectively and falsely, it does not fall into the sentimentality of suggesting that there is another, better way; the telephone and the radio are technological emblems and extensions of the selective falsifying attention that besets all human exchanges of words; Weissgall cannot see her face in the letter of course, but even if he could, it would make no difference, as the faces that she sees and that see her, at parties, elsewhere in the novel, cannot guarantee the reality of selves within and between them. There are different media of ephemera, different techniques of evasion with each technology that promises intimacy; the letter can be, and in fact is, skimmed (if that) and discarded. But in the novel, something is preserved, nonetheless; the possibility of recognition is afforded by the attention demanded; the unreality of the characters dissipated, and their having and being real selves granted, by the acknowledgement of fiction that sustains them.