ADDICTION TO ITSELF:
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS IN DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S INFINITE JEST
A thesis submitted to the
Department of English and
American Literature and Language
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Bachelor’s
Degree with Honors
March 14, 2001
I. The Metafictional Monologue: Sincerity With a Motive 4
II. Mirror, Mirror: Limitations and the Transfinite 14
III. Something Will Have Been Predicted: Sounding the Private Language 35
All parenthetical citations are for Infinite Jest unless otherwise noted or implied.
All italics are from the original quotations.
All ellipses are added.
Citations for Philosophical Investigations, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and The Society of the Spectacle are in paragraph/thesis numbers.
The texts and numerical assignations of Emily Dickinson’s poems are taken from the Thomas H. Johnson edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
PI = Philosophical Investigations
SFT = A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Interview = “An Interview with David Foster Wallace”
“Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness.”
—John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
In the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a character narrates a childhood memory of watching a broken doorknob rolling over the ground on its circumference: “[T]he movement of the amputated knob perfectly schematized what it would look like for someone to try to turn somersaults with one hand nailed to the floor” (503). The choice of a doorknob is not arbitrary (nor is the anecdote’s intermediate position in the narrative): its detachment negates its original communicative function—allowing entry between rooms—and instead siphons off all contact.
Paul de Man defines irony as “the recurrence of a self-escalating act of consciousness” (220), and its infinite regression mimics the broken doorknob’s fate, if doorknobs could speak. The ironic consciousness, he says, “dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral” (222). The pitfalls of de Man’s ironic consciousness are closely linked to those of the self-conscious mind, as Wallace sees it: “[L]inguistic self-consciousness…gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals in on itself” (Interview 142). Wallace aims his critique specifically at the self-consciousness of metafiction, which sought to lay bare the mechanics of fiction and replenish what John Barth termed “the literature of exhaustion” (Currie 162). While metafiction was a revitalizing step for fiction, its original vocal intent—to create a more authentic dialogue between author and reader—had soon shouted itself hoarse, dialogizing its own self-conscious battles and precluding outside voices. In the end, metafiction’s “dialogue” was the sound of one hand writing.
A linguistic retreat into oneself leads to muteness, and muteness in Infinite Jest is a form of death. Before his suicide, alcoholic Jim Incandenza (the narrator of the doorknob tale) claims he cannot hear Hal, his youngest son, speak. Later in the book, Jim pays a ghostly visit to the hospital bed of Don Gately, a former drug addict and criminal. Jim discusses the “myriad thespian extras” in sitcoms and films, “concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations: their faces would animate and mouths move realistically, but without sound” (834). His self-proclaimed success as an avant-garde filmmaker was in giving a voice to these “figurants” (using the terminology of silent ballet), but he could not prevent his own son from becoming a figurant to him.
Hal’s metamorphosis into a figurant is complete by the cryptic, anachronic opening of Infinite Jest, which takes place one year after the narrative ends. Despite his perfect interiorized first-person narration on the scene and his memorization of the dictionary, the only sounds Hal can make are frightening, inhuman ones. Jim observes that the figurant is “completely trapped and encaged…in his mute peripheral status” (835) and, in less literal terms, the rest of the novel’s cast, especially the drug addicts and alcoholics at the halfway house where Gately works, is also verbally encaged. The “Cage,” as the all-purpose symbol for the enclosure of addiction is called in the novel, is the cyclical cause and effect of loneliness, as a character notes: “’[T]he very imprisonment that prohibits sadness’s expression must itself feel intensely sad and painful’” (767). Addiction of any kind, Wallace makes clear, severs the individual’s doorknob to the outside world, drowning the addict ever deeper in his mind’s whirlpool, dampening his voice.
This thesis explores Wallace’s strategies for restoring and conveying his figurants’ voices through a paradoxical application of self-consciousness, a self-consciousness that does not mutely spiral into itself but amplifies its original tones. Chapter 1 briefly views Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s essay on irony, television, and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,” to present his case against the dominant contemporary aesthetic styles. These fictions, he maintains, are either maliciously ironic or manipulatively sincere: both are silencing and further encage the figurants in monologic prisons. Chapter 2 charts Wallace’s reformulation of these aesthetics and his use of a dialogic form of self-consciousness in Infinite Jest’s progression to heteroglossia, Mikhail Bakhtin’s term for the novel’s zone of “differing individual voices” (263). Wallace’s modified self-consciousness primarily demonstrates an awareness of linguistic limitations; as his voice of authority weakens, the characters’ voices strengthen and distinguish themselves. This liberates the reader, too, who contributes to the chorus. However, as we will see in Chapter 3, language proves too impenetrable a barrier between character and reader. The reader must assume the role of freeing the figurants from their Cages through his experience of reading. The narrative structure of Infinite Jest is related to the temporality of addiction, and the addicted reader’s escape from the novel is achieved only through the self-conscious creation of a non-addictive temporality. His freedom coincides with the destruction of the figurants’ Cages, a final dialogic exchange that reopens the portal between reader and text, without which Wallace’s reader devolves into a peripheral audience member, a silent figurant.
We live in an age of irony—and sincerity. The popular-culture landscape provides a wealth of evidence. Television saw the ascendance of the ironic Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and David Letterman in the 1990s, while the conversely earnest Touched By An Angel, Seventh Heaven, and Dawson’s Creek have flourished. Underground rock and hip-hop now jockey with 1950s-style balladeers on the Billboard charts. Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit song, “Ironic,” confusedly spouts a slew of non-ironic lines about misfortunate reversals (“rain on your wedding day”). The millennium culminated in two opposing books on irony by young writers: Jedediah Purdy’s jeremiad against irony, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, lambastes American irony for stifling compassion; Dave Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, conspicuously and repeatedly apologizes for adding to the recent glut of self-absorbed memoirs and thanks NASA for its help in the acknowledgments.
Wallace has touched both poles of the debate. His earlier work often relies on metafictional, ironic strategies (he refers to his 1987 debut novel, The Broom of the System, as “a funny little post-structural gag” [Interview 142]). In 1993, while he was writing Infinite Jest, he condemned the ironic surfeit in American fiction in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” labeling the post-metafiction movement of ironic writers “Image-Fictionists.” In Infinite Jest, several characters personify either the wholly ironic or wholly sincere, and Wallace presents no simple solutions. Both deny the possibility of dialogue and strengthen the bars of the figurant’s Cage.
Image-Fiction’s superficial approach to depth, its “surfacey look ‘behind the scenes’” (SFT 52), is a response to televisual culture, Wallace argues, and not simply a byproduct, but its absorption of television’s strategies as a means to render media culture accountable frames its own defeat. In Infinite Jest, Mario Incandenza, a hydrocephalic who shares his father’s passion for optics (Mario walks around with a camera strapped to his head), represents Image-Fiction’s confusion of reality and simulation, even without the Image-Fictionist’s stock cynical irony. Filming a documentary on Enfield Tennis Academy, Mario spots LaMont Chu, an otherwise sympathetic 11-year-old who stands out as the most star-struck fame-seeker in an environment teeming with them. An Image-Fictionist in his own right, LaMont worships clipped pictures of tennis players from magazines, creating false dimensions out of his flat, glossy photos. It should be a perfect union, but when Mario trains the camera on him, LaMont cannot improvise: “’The minute your invitation became official my mind went blank’” (757). After stalling for a moment, LaMont forgets the presence of the camera by asking Mario about a serious incident with Hal. Mario is unable to distinguish between LaMont-as-documentary-subject and LaMont-as-interlocutor; he assures him that he’s “’acting perfectly natural’” and “’I should tell you I feel like we’re getting the totally real LaMont Chu here’” (758). When LaMont repeats his question, Mario responds “’Is this what you’re saying, or are you asking me?’” (758) Mario’s vague sense of a dialogic voice materializes through the obvious binary of self-conscious acting (“saying”) and unself-conscious behavior (“asking”), and both conflate for him in Image-Fiction’s show of “self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness” (SFT 25-26), as Wallace describes television’s polished appeal: all the world’s a sound-stage.
LaMont’s silent paralysis is linked to his own status as a spectator; he “looks into the camera atop Mario’s head” and, even in his pose, “looks penetrating” (757). He sees his own reflection in the lens, either literally or imaginatively, and is unable to handle the imaginative stress of self-gazing. His formerly one-dimensional photos of tennis players are suddenly fleshed out with human representation, but his only prior knowledge of the medium is as a surface-portrayal of flawless confidence, which LaMont knows he lacks. Wallace notes that television’s “conflicting juxtaposition of pictures and sounds” is a perfect medium for irony, since “the tension between what’s said and what’s seen is irony’s whole sales territory” (SFT 35). By speaking, LaMont threatens the illusion of perfection and authenticity he can maintain through silence (he clearly looks like a top-ranked tennis player), and this imposition of muteness is Image-Fiction’s greatest danger.
Wallace develops the notion of irony as a distinctly American weapon through several hilltop conversations between Hugh Steeply, an American federal agent, and Rémy Marathe, a quadruple-agent who has reluctantly betrayed his Quebecois separatist-terrorist group, A.F.R., to join forces with O.N.A.N. Much as Mario’s camera, “emitting a tiny whir” (757), creates a palpable tension through its seemingly silent judgment, so does Steeply use silence as domination: “Steeply’s most effective interviewing tactic was this long looking down into the face without emotion of any kind. For Marathe felt more uncomfortable not knowing whether Steeply believed a thing than if Steeply’s emotion of face showed he did not believe” (475). Steeply’s total lack of expression is an expression itself, one of blasé world-weariness that builds its authority specifically without the use of words.
Steeply’s silence has a double edge. It not only intimidates Marathe into a passive silence, it also clears a space for Steeply to speak in without exposing him to the vulnerability of language and belief, as Marathe angrily curses in the scene’s last piece of dialogue (after Steeply finally says a few words): “Marathe tried to make his face expressive of anger, which was difficult for him. ‘This is what happens: you imagine the things I will say and then say them for me and then become angry with them. Without my mouth; it never opens. You speak to yourself, inventing sides’” (321). His is a weakened last word, as Marathe admits: his voice has already been silenced. Unlike LaMont, who fears his words will mar his image, Marathe’s poor image-control defeats his words’ power; the actorly Steeply can manipulate expression-detachment with ease and precision, whereas Marathe struggles even to match his appearance with his rage. Steeply’s ironic, unrevealing silence muffles Marathe’s opportunity for inquiry. This, Wallace claims, is the crippling weapon of the ironist, for anyone who asks “an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny” (SFT 68).
While Marathe accuses Steeply of turning their conversation into a monologic bout, what the ironist truly fosters is a vacuum of absolute silence in which neither he nor anyone else can state his beliefs, a double negative that does not yield a positive. Their scene of negation ends with unspoken fears and unasked questions in the face of a barren landscape: “Unmentioned by either man was how in heaven’s name either man expected to get up or down from the mountainside’s shelf in the dark of the U.S. desert’s night” (321). Although a more graceful sentence would substitute “how in heaven’s name he expected,” Wallace’s awkward repetition of “either man” emphasizes irony’s final disunity. Their interchangeability—“either man”—suggests the easily replaceable loss of individuality and voice, and the singular Caging of both men.
Wallace allows for irony’s necessity in a culture where appearance is often mismatched with reality. While late-night television talk-show hosts’ endless monologues about Presidential foppery grow stale, they help fulfill, at least initially, the self-governance required in a vital democracy. But, Wallace warns, quoting essayist Lewis Hyde, “’Carried over time, [irony] is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage’” (qtd. in SFT 67). The students at the tennis academy watch Mario’s puppet-show movie and “have a rousing good time… heckling or cheering ironically” the figure of Johnny Gentle, a “President roundly disliked for over two terms now” (385). The pleasure they take in the act of rebellion obfuscates the politics and encages the rebels: they love the fact that they hate their leader.
Wallace proposes that the next literary rebels will be those who explore “untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” and “risk the yawn, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists” (81). Sincerity, however, can be just as monologic as irony. Realist fiction, as a straightforward, earnest medium, is presumably the answer, but Wallace warns that “classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops right into spectation,” that most televisual of activities (Interview 138). Joelle van Dyne, ex-girlfriend of Orin Incandenza, the eldest brother, is a product and producer of spectacle. Dubbed the P.G.O.A.T. (Prettiest Girl Of All Time) by Orin for her “grotesquely lovely” appearance (290), Joelle has joined the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D.), the members of which wear a veil at all times, masking herself either because of an acid-accident or because, as she responds to Gately’s prodding questions, “’I am so beautiful I am deformed’” (538).
Joelle’s attachment to the spectacle of cinema harkens back to her childhood movie outings (she has since become a “Film-Cartridge” scholar and amateur auteur), for once watching instead of being watched: “[Orin] never made her feel quite so taken care of, never made her feel about to be entered by something that didn’t know she was there and yet was all about making her feel good, anyway, coming in. Entertainment is blind” (237). Although big-budget film is a far cry from Realist fiction, for Wallace “commercial entertainment…is basically an anesthetic” whose “suppression of a mediating consciousness” (Interview 138) invites passive spectation in a similar fashion to Realist fiction’s denial of an authorial consciousness. Joelle’s childhood love for film plays off the same sexual desires of voyeurism she normally receives for her beauty and mysterious veil. Though the cliché “love is blind” means that love blinds the lover’s judgment, “Entertainment is blind” refers to film’s disregard for the audience; its alluring self-absorption attracts Joelle because she is usually the untouchable desire-object. The spectacle of film establishes for her an anonymous one-way mirror for which her veil falls short, as Guy Debord writes: “The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue” (18). Held at this passive distance, the viewer becomes the lover used and discarded for the sex act alone, “entered by” the cold celluloid whose virtual rape pleasures her only as a side-effect after first satisfying its own agenda. Joelle’s last name captures the abuse perpetrated against the passive voyeur: van Dyne sounds like “anodyne,” or something, especially a drug, that assuages pain, much as the spectacle of film lulls the viewer into a numbing passivity, while her initials recall venereal disease, the condition resulting from this rape (and from her own repellent beauty).
Though a visual medium, commercial film (and, by extension of Wallace’s “passive spectation” claim, Realist fiction) is monologic. It seduces its audience through a veil, or theatrical curtain, of mystification. The “suppression of a mediating consciousness” is what Wallace seems to find most disturbing about Realism, the covert action that disallows any openness. The addictions in Infinite Jest lie within this interior realm: “Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he’s as attracted to the secrecy as he is to getting high” (49). Secrecy provides several comforts, namely the ease of not having to confront one’s own addiction through communicating it to others, as Alcoholics Anonymous forces its members to do. But secrecy breeds secrecy: Avril, Hal’s mother, “works tremendously hard to hide her maternal dread of his possibly ever drinking like James himself or James’s father, all so that Hal might enjoy the security of feeling that he can be up-front with her about issues like drinking and not feel he has to hide anything from her” (50-51). The absurd logic of Avril’s strategy is apparent, but this maternal camouflage carries an infectious strain, not only down to Hal, for whom the occasional glass of beer is the least of his problems, but to those who should help her: “Dr. Tavis and Dolores Rusk have privately discussed the fact that not least among the phobic stressors Avril suffers so uncomplainingly with is a black phobic dread of hiding or secrecy in all possible forms with respect to her sons” (51). Charles Tavis (who has assumed Jim’s vacant positions as Avril’s husband and Headmaster of the academy) and Rusk (the school psychiatrist) are afflicted by the very disease they diagnose when they “privately discuss” Avril’s problems with secrecy. Their repression, though supposedly through the form of a “discussion,” is as monologic as Avril’s, placing blame without the self-conscious recognition of their own culpability. This mirrors the relationship the reader has to covert fiction, which ostensibly opens up for dialogue a specific agenda that it masks, encaging itself and its reader.
Covert fiction is only a short distance from covert metafiction, the most sinister silencer. Linda Hutcheon defines metafiction’s paradoxical act of co-creation as “narcissistically self-reflexive and yet focused outward, oriented toward the reader” (Narcissistic Narrative 7). She divides these narcissistic texts into overtly self-conscious and covert forms, the latter of which create texts that are “self-reflective but not necessarily self-conscious” (7). Covert metafiction, an attempted straddle of the regions of self-conscious and Realistic fiction, is continually referred to in Infinite Jest and in “E Unibus Pluram” as “sincerity with a motive,” a phrase Wallace borrows from Hyde. The most skillful practitioner of this is Tavis, “possibly the openest man of all time” (517). Tavis’s openness stems not from confidence but from a self-sabotaging vulnerability; we learn that as an awkward child he would retreat from socializing and “always say, loudly, in some lull in the group’s conversation, something like ‘I’m afraid I’m far too self-conscious really to join in here, so I’m just going to lurk creepily at the fringe and listen, if that’s all right’” (517).
Tavis fails to acknowledge, however, some less pleasant secrets; he even admits that he is “not entirely open and forthcoming” about his experience as supervising architect of Toronto’s SkyDome ballpark-and-hotel complex (517). Although Wallace omits this information, the SkyDome (built in 1989) was the first retractable domed stadium. With the potential to open or close at will, it occupies both spaces its name suggests, those of natural infinitude and man-made confinement; like Tavis, it can assume these conflicting positions at once. Tavis’s firing resulted from the scoreboard operator’s training his instant-replay camera on the sexual shenanigans behind the hotel windows. The confluence of public broadcasting and X-rated privacy is a fitting reason for Tavis’s dismissal. The instant-replay screen has a dominating effect over viewing habits at sporting events; viewers tend to trust its reconstruction of the game over their own eyes. In the same vein, Tavis would have people believe that his own reconstructed, simulated truth, his scoreboard-sized display of openness about his essential closure—his unself-conscious appearance of self-consciousness—is more authentic than the closure of first-degree self-consciousness. His “sincerity with a motive” comes back to haunt him in the SkyDome and, more importantly, it flattens his openness to the depth of the scoreboard. Orin (another abuser of sincerity with a motive) describes Tavis as “less like a person than like a sort of cross-section of a person” (517), and we are told that he is “physically small in a way that seems less endocrine than perspectival. His smallness resembles the smallness of something that’s farther away from you than it wants to be, plus is receding” (519). This recession constitutes the reflective properties of mirrors that do not hold up a true-to-life glass to nature, mirrors of both infinite regression and of funhouse-distortion (the students suspect that Tavis was the inspiration for Jim’s invention of the “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” rear-view car mirrors ). His static position of open closure only distances him from dialogue and draws him deeper into himself.
Irony either destructively silences or becomes the voice of the entrapped who have come to love their cage; sincerity shatters the dialogue into dual, virtually silent monologues that infinitely regress. Both images, the cage and mirrored regression, return us to LaMont’s stage-fright in the face of Mario’s Image-Fiction camera. LaMont’s paralyzing fear is located in his reflection in the lens, in his idea of someone else seeing and judging him from another, perhaps more objective, vantage point. This is the crux of self-consciousness: LaMont’s internal idea holds an external conception, utilizes information from within and without himself at once, and homes further inside his mirrored cage. Wallace plots the addict’s mental processes on this course; one, Ken Erdedy, finds that marijuana ravages his face: “[H]e got terribly self-conscious about the fact that his face was sagging, and he had long ago forbidden himself to smoke dope around anyone else” (21). This self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness creates a self-conscious vortex akin to LaMont’s, a mental, but external, vision of oneself that draws on the harshest self-perceptions locked within and, most likely, affects the external composition; Erdedy’s face changes not only from the marijuana, but from the paranoid perceived change that cyclically accentuates the transformation. The individual’s monologic escape from his Cage is impossible, under both self-conscious and unself-conscious conditions. Only through language that is both self-conscious and dialogic can the addict reclaim his voice, the first step in sounding it to others.
The self-conscious vortex is everywhere. Wallace reminds us of the addictive similarity between inverted habits: “[S]leeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused…purposeful sleep-deprivation can also be an abusable escape” (202). That “12-Step fellowships themselves” (998) can be abused makes addiction’s problem clear: addiction itself. Alongside Wallace’s definition of a malignant addiction as something that “offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes” (SFT 38), we can see how metafiction, in attempting to offer itself as relief from the falseness of fiction, is malignantly addictive in its negotiations with authenticity, as de Man points out: “[T]o know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic” (214).
While Mark Currie argues that metafiction has led to a “point of convergence where fiction and criticism have assimilated each other’s insights, producing a self-conscious energy on both sides” (2), for Erdedy and the other characters in Infinite Jest, self-consciousness exponentially depletes the self. De Man agrees that the ironic consciousness can lead to a “progression in self-knowledge,” since “the man who has fallen is somewhat wiser than the fool who walks around oblivious of the crack in the pavement about to trip him up” (214). However, de Man contends that this wisdom both energizes and depletes, like the Biblical Fall, and that the “point of convergence” between self-invention (fiction) and self-destruction (criticism) splits the original self. He borrows Baudelaire’s term, dédoublement, for the “characteristic that sets apart a reflective activity…from the activity of the ordinary self caught in everyday concerns” (212). The dédoublement divides its subject between the empirical world and an entirely linguistic existence:
The ironic, twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes by his language seems able to come into being only at the expense of his empirical self, falling (or rising) from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification. The ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. (214)
In other words, the linguistic self dominates the empirical self and, through its domination, reaffirms the falseness of its empirical side. De Man cautions against the further internal disjunctions this produces, since irony then “construe[s] its function as one of assistance to the original self” and continues expanding the gap between the two selves (217). The imposition of one set of limitations—“irony to the second power, or ‘irony of irony’” (218)—may remove the previous set, but it adds another layer of armor to the original consciousness, muffling the voices of the figurants.
But if the subject could somehow straddle this self-conscious world and an unself-conscious one without descending into Tavis’s “sincerity with a motive” or internally seeing himself from the outside, like LaMont and Erdedy, he would regain his original self while reaping the rewards of de Man’s “Fall.” A scene in Infinite Jest briefly sketches this balance, the goal of Wallace’s revised self-consciousness. “[M]ost Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking” (203), Wallace tells us, and while the students play Eschaton, a chaotic nuclear-war simulation, he gives a “prime example of what’s sometimes called ‘marijuana thinking’”: “Hal wonders, not for the first time, whether he might deep down be a snob about collar-color issues…then whether the fact that he’s capable of wondering whether he’s a snob attenuates the possibility that he’s really a snob” (335). Hal’s rooting “deep down,” of course, only sends him into a spiraling self-examination further divorced from the original questions of class-consciousness. Later, as the game descends into mayhem, his “marijuana thinking” does manage, somehow, to climb out of the hole it has dug for itself: “Hal finds himself riveted at something about the degenerating game that seems so terribly abstract and fraught with implications and consequences that even thinking about how to articulate it seems so complexly stressful that being almost incapacitated with absorption is almost the only way out of the complex stress” (340).
Hal’s successful application of “irony of irony” is not a solo venture, as we will later see. It relies on the self-conscious acknowledgment or imposition of limits to move oneself into an intermediate realm. Gerhardt Schtitt, a philosophical German tennis coach, intuitively understands tennis as a game of these limits,
as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self. (82)
George Cantor’s 1878 Diagonal Proof, his paramount achievement in set theory (which neatly shares tennis’s name for a block of games), demonstrates that the infinitude of real (rational and irrational) numbers between zero and one is, despite its seemingly smaller range, greater than the infinitude of natural numbers (integers). The real numbers are infinite and uncountable, while the natural numbers are infinite but considered countable. In infinite sets, the cardinality (size of a set’s infinitude) is defined by “transfinite” numbers. The natural numbers have the lowest transfinite cardinality, and the real numbers have a higher transfinite cardinality—and the transfinite numbers go on forever to higher cardinalities. For simplicity’s sake, “transfinite” will hereafter refer to the transfinite cardinality of natural numbers, the infinite but countable set; “infinite” will refer to the cardinality of real numbers, continually increasing the size of their set.
The author-character relationship follows this paradigm. The author is the collector and organizer of various voices and accompanying fictions; he is the novel’s conductor who “orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions” (Bakhtin 263). The author’s world of orchestration is the transfinite one of natural numbers, governing all in its external and measurable participation, while the characters live inside the compressed, but truly infinite, void of real numbers that threatens to grow even larger. Wallace’s amendment to Schtitt’s theory is in allowing victory for both “players.” The transfinite perspective is possible only through dialogue, as Bakhtin stipulates: “[I]nternal dialogization can become such a crucial force for creating form only where individual differences and contradictions are enriched by social heteroglossia” (284). With the guidance of Wallace’s limited natural number-voice, the characters can transcend their infinite voids, and we can read Hal’s “way out” as an escape from the chasmal infinitude of his own real numbers, the limits of zero and one (“these boundaries of self”), and into the knowable infinity of the transfinite.
Before we further explore this dialogic strategy, we must first take a more extended look at why a monologue fails to expand beyond itself and instead combusts. On her radio show, Joelle invites potential members of U.H.I.D. through a list of characteristics that eventually incorporates everyone. One of her more telling invitations is delivered to “’The in any way asymmetrical’” (192). Infinite Jest is a study in asymmetries, from the tennis players, who squeeze tennis balls with their hypertrophied playing arms at every non-playing moment, to the book itself, top-heavy with epic narrative matched against endnotes one-tenth its size. She later hypothesizes the existence of only “two really distinct individual people walking around back there in history’s mist,” and that “all difference descends from this difference. The whole and the partial. The damaged and the intact…The performer and the audience. No Zen-type One, always rather Two, one upside-down in a convex lens” (220). The difference between any two individuals, though it breeds (perhaps unjust) oppositions, is necessary for the sake of continuation and society. Without asymmetry, without multiplicity, the convex mirror Joelle speaks of reflects only the self, and this unself-conscious image distorts self-perception.
Wallace is fascinated by convexity and its refractions, and he quotes from John Ashbery’s poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in the short story “Little Expressionless Animals” from his first collection, A Girl with Curious Hair. According to Stephen Miller, Ashbery’s poem, inspired by the 1524 Francesco Parmigianino painting of the same name, treats the convex mirror as a pathway to artistic freedom that simultaneously entraps the artist. The convex lens grants a universal field of vision, but only once the viewer has positioned himself in front of the lens, for he cannot utilize it from any other angle. He thus obscures its universality and traps himself in the self-surveillance of the image. Furthermore, the viewer can never see the tain, the backing of the mirror and a term employed by Jacques Derrida to signify the “delimitation of unconfined semiotic play” (Miller 111). A mirror without a tain would reflect an infinite image impossible to detect, so what the viewer sees is always limited by some infrastructural agency on the mirror’s unseen side. For Miller, the tain stands as a “master trope for the organization of reality as a kind of social discipline” (111-112), but just as easily stands for the organization of language as a social discipline, as Ludwig Wittgenstein proposes in Philosophical Investigations. His fundamental argument is that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43). For instance, a bricklayer’s imperative “Slab!” has a variety of meanings in different “language-games,” or social contexts. Without the tain, without an awareness of the social conditions of language, the monologic mirror convexly magnifies the individual’s self-image at the expense of all else; he practices not self-consciousness, but solipsism.
Solipsism’s failure to expand the self through self-consciousness corresponds to Kurt Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem in 1931, in which he proved that a system’s metalanguage cannot be used to prove the system’s own consistency. In other words, there are certain true statements in a system that can never be proven, such as “This is unprovable.” The “true” logic (since we know that it is possible to make the statement) of the claim is not provable within itself, since it leads to contradictions on both the true and false sides. The hope of internal imagination some see in Ashbery’s poem—that the “self-portrait of the artist generates an image of the poet at work, and thereby of anyone at the rest of life” (Hollander 85)—is defeated by Gödel’s logic, since there exists a truth outside the artist’s system (“anyone at the rest of life”) of which he may be aware but cannot prove (“generate an image of”) with only his own resources.
A specific mirror in Infinite Jest reflects these linguistic and social ideas through a monologic prism, and the only person who emerges with any kind of truth is Joelle, through a dialogic awareness of the tain’s social limitations. The owner of the mirror is a graduate student, Molly Notkin, who throws a party to celebrate her pre-doctoral Oral Examinations success, gained by costuming herself as Karl Marx and delivering a “devastating oral critique of post-millennial Marxist Film-Cartridge Theory from the point of view of Marx himself, Marx as pretend-film-cartridge theorist and scholar” (227). The dialogic layering of her unironic facade (which she continues to wear at the party) and Wallace’s hyper-ironic presentation of it (division of labor even within the costume: the Homburg was ordered from Germany, the industrial soot from a “British souvenir-filth shop” ) presages Joelle’s dialogic undoing of the mirror’s solipsism.
Ignorance of the tain initially prevails, however. The mirror is “hung between two empty ornate gilt frames,” and “Notkin thinks she’s been retroironic by having the frames themselves framed, in rather less ornate frames, in wry allusion to the early-Experialist fashion of making art out of the accessories of artistic presentation” (229). The double-framed mirror has four expanding levels of self-consciousness (the mirror, the inner frame, the outer frame, Notkin’s ironic allusion) which enlarge the space the mirror occupies but decrease its relative power (in that the reflective surface takes up a lesser portion of the entire surface). Within that reduced, monologic space of the mirror, an unnamed young woman dances and watches “herself with unselfconscious fascination” (230). For the moment, at least, the woman rises above the entrapment of the mirror through her ignorance of any tain or cage:
[S]he turns…not to the man so much as no one in particular, the whole dancing mass: I was just looking at my tits she says looking down at herself aren’t they beautiful…she’s pronounced beautiful like the earlier interested in four syllables, splitting the diphthong, betraying her class and origin with the heartbreaking openness Joelle’s always viewed as either terribly stupid or terribly brave… (230)
The woman labels her body with reductive terms and even emphasizes the words, to a vague recipient, as there is no need for specificity in her conversation: she has fused her roles of audience and performer into one monologic entity. Wallace, too, can only call her a “beautiful young woman, quite beautiful” (229), stressing his conscious failure to move beyond these basic expressions. His consciousness is aware of the limitations of these words, for his later italicization of the woman’s use of “beautiful” typographically identifies her particular usage and inflection as separate from his. Joelle, well aware of the relativism stipulated by performative beauty, recognizes the limitations of these words and alters them. Like Wallace, she dissociates herself from the woman’s words, putting quotation marks around “’tits’” (230). She later amends even this: “Joelle applauds the Xtatic woman as well, because they are, Joelle admits freely, the paps, they are attractive, which in the Union is designated Compelling Within Compatible Relative Limits” (231). Joelle displays an awareness of the language-games of female beauty in her dual modifications of “tits” to “paps” and “beautiful” to “attractive.” The Union’s euphemism for attractiveness even concedes a circumscribed zone for each individual’s judgment as “compatible” with someone else’s, which is the definition of a language-game, as words exist only in their usage in specific dialogic contexts.
Wallace plays some more dialogic games with the words “tits” and “paps,” as both are palindromes in the singular. For the “Xtatic woman” (dubbed by Joelle, also no stranger to nicknames, in another language-game for the woman’s ingestion of the designer-drug Ecstasy), the palindrome confirms the mirror’s infinite, symmetrical image of her own infinite beauty and accords with the male fixation on perfectly symmetrical breasts. This conforms to Wittgenstein’s “picture-theory” of language in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which states that language’s only relation to the world is through mimetic, pictorial representation. The Xtatic woman literalizes this “pictorial” component in trying to reflect her infinite beauty through her speech to the crowd, but she runs into problems from both the Investigations and the Tractatus. Her verbal restrictions not only confine her linguistic “picture” to the unique usage of the language-game, but her very attempt to translate her infinite beauty into words is also an admission of the picture’s finitude. If her beauty were truly infinite, it would be unrepresentable by pictorial language; the earthbound (despite its elevated intentions) word “beautiful” suggests a tain the woman believes the limitless mirror lacks. To describe an otherworldly beauty, she would have to be silent, as the famous last line of the Tractatus directs: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (7). Just as Wittgenstein overthrows his claims from the Tractatus in the Investigations, arguing that language is predicated upon social, not pictorial, relationships, so does Joelle’s palindrome allow for speech while still describing the woman’s beauty. In seeing a somewhat mirrored image of herself, Joelle acknowledges the seemingly perfect symmetry of the image (of the woman and her mirror) and correlates the palindromic word to the picture. But she knows that the capacity to phrase the same image in two different ways means that neither reflection is absolute (just as the pluralization of either “tit” or “pap” destroys its palindromic perfection), that there is a tain to both the mirror and the word.
Through dialogic comparison, Joelle uses self-consciousness progressively to emerge from the monologic regression that absorbs Notkin and the Xtatic woman. The Xtatic woman’s use of the mirror, on the other hand, turns it into an encaging convex mirror that negates its potential for universal objectivity. The reduced scope of the mirror ends up reflecting the subject alone, for she is the only reality she can ever know through monologue. She cannot escape the real number infinitude (her infinite beauty) between zero and one and launch herself into the transfinite realm, nor can monologic or falsely dialogic metafiction. Wallace seems to agree; Notkin’s mirror later crashes to the floor, but she is not surprised: “’Oh everything falls off the wall sooner or later’” (235). The mirror crashes, but the “sooner or later” qualifier acknowledges undecidability within the knowable crash, a combination that allows freedom from the Cage, as we will see.
The Church-Turing theorem of undecidability (1936), combined with the related work of mathematician Alfred Tarski, advanced Gödel’s ideas and established the undecidability of truth in mathematical systems. Coach Schtitt embraces this undecidability: “Schtitt’s philosophical stance is that to win enough of the time…you have to both care a great deal about it and also not care about it at all” (269). In an endnote, Wallace emphasizes the undecidability even of Schtitt’s terminology, “that it’s not at all clear day-to-day what this it and caring mean, or how you can be expected both to care passionately and not care at all,” and “that huge amounts of internal psychic energy get expended on trying to come to some acceptable understanding of this stuff” (1000). Most players cannot handle this contradiction and “steer more by head prorector deLint’s clipboard and reductive statistics, which at least afford you a firm idea of where you stand, comparatively, at all times” (1000). In its infinite spirals, self-consciousness is always undecidable, making decisions and revisions which the next aporetic minute will reverse. Barthes couches Gödel’s theorem in literary terms: “How can a text, which consists of language, be outside languages?” (30) He answers with a version of the Church-Turing theorem: the text must be “radically ambiguous (ambiguous to the root)” (9) so that it “liquidates all metalanguage, whereby it is text: no voice (Science, Cause, Institution) is behind what it is saying” (30). The text then “destroys utterly, to the point of contradiction, its own discursive category” (31). Through this paradoxical undecidability, language becomes both “language, and not a language” (31).
For Wallace, this paradox can exist only through transfinite dialogue, through the liquidation of the incomplete metalanguage and the harmonization of two completing, not competing, voices. Transfinite dialogue maintains an infinite undecidability of its origins—it is unsure whose voice is behind its sound—while being a knowable, decisive statement. Before a tennis match in Infinite Jest, a fellow player counsels an anxious, butterfly-ridden Michael Pemulis: “’Pretend you don’t have a stomach’” (264). Pemulis repeats “’I have no stomach’” (264), and a little later we learn that “Except for some rubber in his legs Pemulis feels stomachless and tentatively OK” (266). The elimination of his stomach comes about only through the paradoxical dialogue. Pemulis first pretends he has no stomach by using language to confer a constructed reality, but in using the word “stomach,” prefaced by the negation “I have no,” he acknowledges the existence of a linguistic stomach while trying to deny its physicality. He only inverts the problem, which, for Wallace, is not a solution (see the addict’s dual sleeping abuses of indulgence and abstinence). The monologic statement is incomplete, refuting its own aim through a metalanguage. He succeeds only because of his friend’s co-limitation; the dialogic reinforcement overrides incompleteness and becomes “true,” in the sense that “This is unprovable” is true. Pemulis can now progress to the paradoxically limitless “stomachless,” a known sensation that coexists with its undecidable origins.
Wallace often refers to fiction’s ability to make the reader feel “unalone” (“Salon Interview”), using negation for the same purpose as the “in” of “infinite.” We can only conceive of infinitude through the negation of the comprehensible finitude, and Wallace believes fiction should negate our fundamentally solitary state of being while reminding us of it, placing us in the transfinite state of “unaloneness.” “Stomachless,” belonging to the unalone/infinite family of transfinite terms, eliminates the first two voices (the friend’s and Pemulis’s)—the languages of solitary paradoxical negation. It dialogically arrives at the language of “unalone” paradoxical harmony, the narrative voice with no single voice behind it, the knowable sound with undecidable sounds: it is neither a stomach nor a not-stomach, but something in between the two. While his second degree of self-consciousness makes inauthentic the corporeal existence of his stomach, as de Man would claim, the purely linguistic world Pemulis ascends into is liberating and becomes authentic. The dialogic approach to harmony does not rely on the convex mirror of reductive language, but on two mirrors perpendicular to each other. The mirrors are limiting (since the tain is still present in both) but endlessly play off each other, yielding a distinct image of undecidable origin: neither mirror is solely accountable for the image. The image of the self in the center of the two-mirror set-up appears as it does to others, without the horizontal inversion of a single mirror. The symmetry this provides, however, does not strive for the perfect symmetry the Xtatic woman thinks she sees and possesses but, in the same way Joelle’s “pap” as a mirror reflects off the woman’s “tit,” for an asymmetrical vision of symmetrical wor(l)ds.
Wallace’s relationship with his characters operates via this perpendicular mirroring, albeit stereophonically. Since neither of the two speakers, Wallace or the character, dominates the resulting sound, Wallace seems to achieve a true Bakhtinian admixture. He frequently employs traditional indirect discourse, as when he assumes a tennis player’s privileged voice and refers to Ennet House as “the halfway-house thing for wretched people who come up here to work short-time” (633), or in his use of vernacular (“But so some E.T.A.s…are involved with recreational substances, is the point. Like who isn’t, at some life-stage” ). But more compelling is when he aligns his narrational power with his characters, making his voice no more authoritative than theirs. Wallace occasionally concedes ignorance through parabasis: “To I think it must be the southwest, E.T.A. overlooks the steely gray tangle of Sunstrand’s transformers” (241). During conversations, he sometimes writes out silences as ellipses to excise any narrative intrusion while amplifying the magnitude of the characters’ silences. An even greater self-excision on Wallace’s part, a full surrender of authority, galvanizes Hal’s transfinite escape.
Hal’s own surrender to his paralytic absorption is only partially responsible for his “way out.” He accepts his limits; Hal’s understanding of calculus-dense Eschaton, even outside his drug-induced state, is admittedly weak, and his inability to foresee what will come of the Eschaton game (several injuries, Pemulis’s expulsion, and an officially enforced 30-day drug-free period Hal must endure, the last two of which may figure largely in Hal’s eventual muteness) is impossible. Hal’s obstacle is not thinking about the game, but his “thinking about how to articulate it” (a rare deterrent for him), the verbal roadblock that disallows his filtering through the “almost infinite-seeming implications” (341) of the game. Wallace first comes to the dialogic rescue, making transfinite the “almost infinite.” Not only does he continue the narrative flow, capturing the “degenerative chaos so complex in its disorder that it’s hard to tell whether it seems choreographed or simply chaotically disordered” (341), he even provides an endnote with an elaboration of the formulae used in Eschaton—written by Hal, as dictated to him by math genius Pemulis. Wallace makes sure that the reader is aware of the twice-amanuensed status of this diagram-laden endnote: “It’s going to be interesting to see if [sic] Hal, who thinks he’s just too sly trying to outline Eschaton in the 3rd-person tense [sic], like some jowly old Eschatologist with leather patches on his elbows [sic], if Inc can transpose [sic?] the math here without help from his Mumster” (1024-1025; all sic notations original). The “Notes and Errata” section adds 97 pages to the narrative’s initial 979 and are presumably, as endnotes usually are, the domain solely of the author. But here, by allowing Hal and Pemulis to take control of the endnotes, or by undermining his authority through unexpected parabasis (as in endnotes 216’s response of “No clue”  to Rusk’s psychoanalytical neologism, “’Coatlicue Complex’” ), Wallace makes even the endnotes a dialogic realm, a region that expands upon the monologic infinitude of the real numbers between zero and one (roughly pages zero and 1,000 of the narrative). Hal may not get help from his “Mumster” in “transposing” the Eschaton formulae in the endnotes, but he does get help from Wallace, who is at once the “jowly old” professorial figure and his younger incarnation, Pemulis (Wallace was a prodigious student of philosophy of mathematics at Amherst). The endnotes emulate this image of encapsulation: the senescent text harboring its ephebic beginnings. Through the elder’s transfinite wisdom, countable yet infinite, the lost adolescent becomes a man or, in this case, translates Pemulis’s difficult dictation.
In the Eschaton example, Wallace’s subversion of his own authority bulks up that of his characters, creating two distinct voices. The vocal distantiation avoids the manipulation of Tavis’s “sincerity with a motive.” His habitual flouting of indirect discourse purifies the characters’ voices and, if articulation is necessary, does so honestly. He diagnoses LaMont’s fame-seeking with a manic word-spree that ends with a retiring stroke: “He’s ashamed of his secret hunger for hype in an academy that regards hype and the seduction of hype as the great Mephistophelan pitfall and hazard of talent. A lot of these are his own terms” (388). This attribution of language works in reverse, especially for the less eloquent characters, but Wallace always makes sure to designate proper authority. We learn that “Gately sort of fears these old AA guys with their varicose veins and flannels shirts and white crew cuts and brown teeth and coolly amused looks of appraisal, feels like kind of low-rank tribal knucklehead in the presence of stone-faced chieftains who rule by some unspoken shamanistic fiat” (354). Wallace dips into indirect discourse here in the run-on visual description of the men and through the absence of a conjunction or pronoun before “feels like,” but an endnote also tells us that “None of these are Don Gately’s terms” (1026). With this knowledge, we can more safely assume that the first half of the sentence is Gately’s descriptive voice, and the second half is Wallace’s clarification of the vague emotions Gately has (“sort of” and “kind of”) but cannot articulate. Gately’s elusive feelings are now transfinite: infinitely felt but precisely written. This endnote begins a string of six out of the next seven endnotes that demarcate speech boundaries in the microcosm of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is a vocal democracy, a heteroglot fusion of high, low, and middle accents, and Wallace calls attention to his authorial dissociation from their real plights.
This blend of dissociation and articulation is at the heart of Wallace’s self-conscious dialogic fiction. Wallace’s oscillation in and out of his characters ultimately obscures its own movement, not because it covers its tracks, but because the final result is a transfinite dialogue of indeterminate origin. Schtitt lectures Mario at length in a scene, and Wallace writes “This should not be rendered in exposition like this, but Mario Incandenza has a severely limited range of verbatim recall” (82). Mario later mentally struggles for a rebuttal to Schtitt’s anti-individuality argument: “He was trying to think how to articulate some reasonable form of a question like: But then how does this surrender-the-personal-individual-wants-to-the-larger-State-or-beloved-tree-or-something stuff work in a deliberately individual sport like competitive junior tennis, where its just you v. one other guy?” (83) The answer is precisely what has been accomplished in the sentence: both narrative “players”—Wallace and Mario—have worked with, and not against, each other, by opening and closing their distance, as the limitation of one produces the expansion of the other. The process answers the next question: “[W]hat are those boundaries, if they’re not baselines, that contain and direct its infinite expansion inward, that make tennis like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense?” (83) To continue the tennis metaphor, Wallace’s narrator-character oscillation resembles an infinite back-and-forth rally and not, as said before, a game with a victor and loser.
This movement counters fiction’s frequent practice of hailing the reader into identification with characters through interpellation. The jargon in AA is wary of the confession’s generation of sympathy and directs listeners to the fundamental communication: “Everybody in the audience is aiming for total empathy with the speaker; that way they’ll be able to receive the AA message he’s here to carry. Empathy, in Boston AA, is called Identification” (345). Wallace later repeats this: “Again, Identify means to empathize” (345). The italicization of the word is a textual sign that Wallace is doing just that—identifying meaning for the reader after the original explanation—as he does elsewhere. He refrains from forcing the reader into a position of empathy and exposes only potential identification-material; Identification is intimate without the forced pretensions of empathic intimacy. Gately explains “Identifying” by recalling that his sponsor “’wouldn’t say what was the difference between hearing and listening, which pissed me off. But after a while I started to really hear. It turns out—and this is just for me, maybe—but it turned out hearing the speaker means like all of a sudden hearing how fucking similar the way he felt and the way I felt were’” (365). “Listening” is the surface reception and “hearing” is the Identifying understanding, since “all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own” (345).
Wallace, like Gately’s sponsor, will not reveal which parts of Infinite Jest the reader should “hear.” His experiments with undecidability splice a distinct linguistic seam, as Barthes calls it, between his and the character’s voice. The ensuing zone of oscillation allows for the reader’s varying interpretation of the voice, so that with the undecidability of voice comes an undecidability of sentiment: the reader chooses when to Identify with the characters, and the text becomes transfinite, vocally undecidable but knowable for the reader. Infinite Jest’s progression from cynicism, parody, and destruction to earnestness, originality, and creation is not a one-way road, since we are meant to read much of the novel with the first set in mind. But for the moments when Wallace does want to communicate earnestly, his irony frees the characters. After Hal gives a locker-room speech about the dictatorial strategies the coaches use to bond the embattled players, he is “struck by the fact that he really for the most part believes what he’s said about loneliness and the structured need for a we here; and this…makes him uncomfortable again, brooding uncomfortably for a moment on why he gets off on the secrecy of getting high in secret more than on getting high itself, possibly” (114). The narrational downplaying of Hal’s buried emotions (“really for the most part”/”possibly”) accentuates his unease and reminds us that Wallace, the scribe behind those modifications (reversing his clarification of Gately’s hazy emotions), is part of the reason for this fear of earnestness. He positions himself as the ur-coach of the novel, the looming, detached antagonist against whom his characters must fight for their authenticity instead of fighting a regressive battle against themselves. Wallace exhibits similar self-revisions in his interviews:
[T]he really tricky discipline to writing is trying to play without getting overcome by insecurity or vanity or ego. Showing the reader that you’re smart or funny or talented or whatever, trying to be liked, integrity issues aside, this stuff just doesn’t have enough motivational calories in it to carry you over the long haul. You’ve got to discipline yourself to talk out of the part of you that loves the thing, loves what you're working on. Maybe that just plain loves. (I think we might need woodwinds for this part, LM.) But sappy or no, it’s true. (Interview 148)
Wallace’s ironic counterpoints—the reference to background music, his calling the interviewer by his initials, the qualified final statement—permit his bare beliefs. His raging superego may dominate, but the occasional emergence of his id (a very loving id, here) makes the mediating ego that much more honest for its dual excesses.
The overall structure of Infinite Jest accords to this juxtaposition of the ironic and sincere. The satirical overload is hard to take at times, from the “Subsidized Time” corporate calendar to the New Age men’s group therapy session Hal accidentally invades. But for every parodic wink-and-nudge, the novel presents an equally earnest examination. Wallace’s attention to language effects this duality, often in the same paragraph. We read that Orin’s “Subjects” who spend the night have, in the morning, “this thing about they call it Feeding My Man, wanting a man who can barely keep down A.M. honey-toast to eat with male gusto, elbows out and shoveling, making little noises” (46). This sentence, undoubtedly written in Orin’s grammatically inconsistent voice, ironically distances itself from the women (who are, indeed, the primary verbal “subjects” of the sentence) by phrasing their idiom in capital letters and presenting their desire as a trough-side feeding-frenzy. The sentence that closes the paragraph, however, is a poetic reflection on Orin’s morning misery, delivered without a proper subject/Subject: “These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light—the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer” (46). The juxtapositional composition of the sentence—“cold floors and hot windows,” the soul’s climb and descent—illuminate the tonal shift to Wallace’s more sensitive voice, sanctioned by the initial condemnation of sentimentality in Orin’s voice. Most important to this transformation is that, once again, Wallace merely molds the essential material of the character’s emotions while conceding a limited authority to do so (“sort of”) in the face of the character’s dominion of feeling (“the soul’s certainty,” despite Orin’s inarticulacy).
As can be expected, Wallace’s irony often betrays itself, as it “has to ironize its own predicament and observe in turn” (de Man 217). That betrayal, however, gives him maneuvering room to make novel use of language. A visual description of Mildred Bonk, the eighth-grade love-object of Bruce Green (who later shows up as an adult in Ennet House), bombards the reader with acrobatic language that, with a conspicuous word choice, turns seemingly self-deprecating:
Hair that Green had heard described by an over-wrought teacher as “flaxen”; a body which the fickle angel of puberty—the same angel who didn’t even seem to know Bruce Green’s zip code—had visited, kissed, and already left, back in sixth; legs which not even orange Keds with purple-glitter-encrusted laces could make unserious. Shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous, amply busted, given to diffident movements of hand brushing flaxen hair from front of dear creamy forehead, movements which drove Bruce Green up a private tree. A vision in a sundress and silly shoes. Mildred L. Bonk. (39)
Wallace uses the same word—“flaxen”—as the “over-wrought teacher” does, but his deployment comes within a rush of words that conveys humor, pubescent anguish and, above all, acute physical detail that compensates for and reinvests with loaded meaning the hackneyed “flaxen.” The second half of the passage echoes the second paragraph of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, with its clipped rhythm, particularized vision, and final emphasis on name (Mildred Lolita Bonk?): “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita” (9). Both authors’ debt to the blazon is apparent, but both shift the reader’s attention from the subject to the language, and to the originator of that language: we read the dotted lines of Lolita with Humbert’s name for Dolores Haze, and we read the second “flaxen” with Wallace’s use in mind, not the over-wrought teacher’s, as a stale word refreshed by its ironic placement in a nest of creative wordplay. The reader is given ultimate freedom in choosing whether or not to see this, as Hutcheon argues: “The interpreter…decides whether the utterance is ironic (or not), and then what particular ironic meaning it might have. This process occurs regardless of the intentions of the ironist” (Irony's Edge 11)
Wallace can have it both ways. His implementation of an ironic tone does not deafen the earnest feelings of his characters, but amplifies them without threat of saccharine articulation. Character and author meet in the elusive zone of dialogue while still retaining their separate voices. The harmony is undecidable—we can never fully be sure whose words are whose, if the language is ironic or sincere—without being incomplete, since it is always dialogic and never rests on the melody’s ability to sing and prove itself. However, this does not sink into an aporetic mire. There is a decision made, by the reader, on how to read the language, potentialized by Wallace’s self-imposition of limitations; he “Identifies” two “listening” stations, and the reader chooses to hear the figurant and draw him somewhat out of his Cage. But hearing is impossible when the speaking voice is muted, as is the case for the figurants, and when language’s channel for deep pain is a sterile monologue, not a stereophonic dialogue. In the final stage of his project, the conveyance of the figurants’ pain, Wallace abruptly interrupts and deems inadequate his authority, his voice, with the unresolved ending of the novel. He calls upon the reader, through a self-conscious reading, to transform the text and free the figurants.
An addict in Infinite Jest, Geoffrey Day, calls attention to language’s limitations in describing his personal Cage: “[I]t was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing” (649). Against the obstacle of communicating pain, Day provides hope for a form of transmission: “I understood what people meant by hell. They did not mean the black sail. They meant the associated feelings” (651). Since the imagery itself is irrelevant, the reader can potentially understand the “associated feelings” through the experience of reading Infinite Jest, a reading that recreates the sensation of addiction. The novel’s plot thrust is the A.F.R.’s search for a duplicable master-copy of Jim’s unreleased film, Infinite Jest, which they dub “the Entertainment” (as it will be referred to hereafter), to disseminate through the U.S. as retaliation for the “gift” of a toxic landfill to Canada. The Entertainment is supposedly so pleasurable it leaves its audience in a catatonic state of filmic addiction. The zombie-viewer requires a perpetual loop of the video, and he soon dies of self-consuming desire.
Infinite Jest’s plot never reaches closure—we never find out if the A.F.R. secured the master-copy. As mentioned before, something has happened in the first scene of the novel, which takes place a year after the narrative’s conclusion: Hal’s speech is disturbingly subvocal. The temporal void, and its devastating effects, leaves the reader with a host of questions—did Hal watch the Entertainment? ingest or synthesize the potent (possibly apocryphal) hallucinogen DMZ? undergo a debilitating withdrawal?—and he addictively returns to the first scene for clues. The reader is lured into the same addiction to the recursive spectacle as is the viewer of the Entertainment, one devoid of any self-consciousness (the viewer neglects even food). The addiction is a specifically temporal one, and this chapter details the self-conscious steps the reader must take to devise a curative temporality. Through a final imposition of temporal limitations, the reader expands beyond the narrative’s end, and his freedom coincides with the figurants’.
Wallace first defines the linguistic barrier between character and reader that sets up the need for associative narrative tactics. Language’s principal deficit is its inability to vocalize the “private language” of interiority, sensations understood exclusively by their originator. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that the sensation of pain is only that, a sensation susceptible to changing self-definitions, and not a precise language. As Day echoes, one can only “associate names with sensations and use these names in descriptions” (PI 256). The word “pain” is for the person in pain a vague term and, therefore, according to Wittgenstein’s line of reasoning, private language does not exist—words only have meaning in their dialogic usage, in social language-games where definitions undergo constant external revision and checking. We all see different shades of red, for example, and since we cannot precisely define the color red for ourselves, we have only a vague, personal image of it, and not a precise, universal picture: “The image of pain is not a picture and this image is not replaceable in the language-game by anything that we should call a picture” (PI 300).
The only sentence in the second paragraph of Infinite Jest, Hal’s blank statement “’I am in here’” (3), recurs frequently as the wail of characters trapped within their imagistic confines. Suicidal Kate Gompert tries in vain to define her pain: “’It’s like I can’t get outside it to call it anything’” (73). To Wallace, this submersion in an ocean of language synopsizes the Investigation’s “fundamental problem of language” (Interview 144): “’I don’t know my way about’” (PI 123). Language is at once everything and nothing, the absolute material of the world that remains separate from our interior feelings, and forms the landscape of Infinite Jest—the initials “IJ” (and Hal’s initials, “HI,” which also mark a feeble attempt to communicate) advance in the alphabet to its endpoint, while Jim’s initials (“JI”) descend to the origin. The bi-directional linguistic movement of father and son, encompassing everything but uniting only at the first-person “I,” defines their tragic, mutually solipsistic relationship of non-communication.
After an exhausting practice, a tennis player comments, “’I’m waiting till the last possible second to even breathe. I’m not expanding the cage till driven by necessity of air’” (100). He refers to his rib cage, but it soon becomes apparent that the verbal cage cannot be expanded, either: “’So tired it’s out of tired’s word-range...Tired just doesn’t do it’….’Exhausted, shot, depleted’…’Cashed. Totalled’” (100). Language, too, is “totalled” here, as both the totalizing material that fails to pictorialize the image and as its resulting, totalled destruction. For the verbally inundated but emotionally empty Hal, this double bind is especially problematic. He feels that there is “an air of something other than failure about” an injured friend’s decision to forgo a tennis career for broadcasting, and that his friend’s “not caring enough [is] something you can’t quite define, the way you can’t quite remember a word that you know you know, inside” (270). His addiction to limitlessness creates this rare word-blockage; he cannot comprehend his friend’s acknowledgment of limitations (and the ensuing healthy application of this) and thus cannot define it. Mario points out the phenomenon of having a “word on the tip of your tongue that try as you might you can’t remember until the exact second when you stop trying, and in it pops, right into your head” (126). One can never move out of the verbal cage, but by conceding this, language can “pop” into the cage. This is why the cliché is the currency of Alcoholics Anonymous. Its simple construction and ideas concede its limitations and, through this, wisdom unexpectedly pops in as the cliché circulates beyond its original coining: “’I Didn’t Know That I Didn’t Know’ is another of the slogans that looks so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore” (271). The prior ignorance of ignorance takes on a profound awareness under the spoken cliché, since the implicit message is that the speaker now knows that he didn’t know that he didn’t know.
The “air of something” Hal cannot define is crucial. Despite his addictive memorization of the Oxford English Dictionary, he most likely cannot define “something,” either, a word that implies a knowable vagueness, a doubtful existence, like air: the infinite but countable transfinite. “Something” reappears in Infinite Jest as the private pain that external language cannot convey and, in its failure, denies private language’s existence. Cross-dressing Poor Tony suffers a torturous drug withdrawal privately in a men’s room stall and publicly on the subway, and his pain gradually eliminates both his external language and his “something.” In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry develops Wittgenstein’s argument by positing that pain’s resistance to objectification makes it a profoundly “language-destroying” experience (56). Wallace unleashes a multitude of rhetorical devices in his attempt to describe Tony’s pain:
[T]he phrase he’d had the gall to have imagined he understood was the phrase chilled to the bone—shard-studded columns of chill entering to fill his bones with ground glass and he could hear his joints’ glassy crunch with every slightest shift of hunched position, time ambient and in the air and entering and exiting at will, coldly. (302)
Wallace prefaces his elongated description of the cliché by using devices of cliché itself. Tony once “had the gall” to believe he understood the phrase, to surmount the barriers of sensory language, while the double use of the words “the phrase” frames the whole enterprise, marking this a self-consciously repetitive exploration of the cliché “chilled to the bone.” Wallace then elaborates the sonic definitions of “chilled to the bone,” using the immediate alliteration of “s”’s, “c”’s, and “g”’s (“shard-studded columns of chill…with ground glass”) to separate the areas of pain into their unique, referential descriptors. He combines the sounds into one onomatopoetic phrase—“joints’ glassy crunch”—to reproduce Tony’s cacophonous private pain. This is where the reader is left—at the level of cliché and language, no matter how ingenious the deployment. The rhetorical tricks only demonstrate the language’s minimal success in conveying sensation.
Tony endures more torture on the subway, and actions presumably speak louder than words. But behavior is only translatable externally, and none of the other riders can empathize with Tony’s sensations, as Wittgenstein would argue in the Investigations:
‘But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain-behaviour accompanied by pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?’—Admit it? What greater difference could there be?—‘And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing.’—Not at all. It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. (304)
Private language straddles the binary between the impalpable (to others) and the palpable (to oneself), and ends up as a “something.” Tony responds with according duality, screaming a “soundless interior scream of utter and soul-scalded woe” (304). Tony has lost the ability to define his private pain even in clichéd external language, and it becomes a something about which nothing can be said: “He suddenly felt nothing, or rather Nothing, a pre-tornadic stillness of zero sensation, as if he were the very space he occupied” (305). His cipherdom induces a seizure in which the last vestiges of speech are ejected from his body: “Then the pain (seizures hurt, is what few civilians have occasion to know) was the sharp end of a hammer. There was a squeak and rush of release inside his skull and something shot from him into the air” (305). Metaphor is perhaps the only way to convey the semblance of pain, but all metaphors are, at heart, similes, an “as if” or “like” statement that entreats the imagination of the listener. Wallace’s reformulation of simile into metaphor (“the pain…was the sharp end of a hammer”) draws attention to its similative origins by eradicating the “as if.” The false metaphor, alongside another alliterative streak (“squeak and rush of release inside his skull and something shot”), only emphasizes language’s futility, and the reader becomes one of the “civilians” who do not comprehend the italicized “hurt” of the seizure. The “something” that shoots out of Tony is his ability to voice, in any way, his private language, which Scarry writes is the torturer’s goal: “The ‘it’ in ‘Get it out of him’ refers not just to a piece of information but to the capacity for speech itself” (49). Tony soon feels “a piece of nourishing and possibly even intoxicating meat in the back of his throat” (305), swallows his tongue, and mutes himself.
Pain cannot be objectified, and the harder one tries, the more painful it becomes—pictorial language to describe the image does not “pop” in, but shoots out. While Emily Dickinson comfortingly finds in Poem 405 that “It might be lonelier / Without the Loneliness” (1-2), for Wallace the upper-case, self-conscious reflection exacerbates the initial lower-case sensation. The subject in pain is alone in a world of ineluctably infinite and useless language, a something about which nothing can be said. The rescues of Hal and Pemulis in Chapter 2 are made possible through dialogue, but private language is always monologic, and Gödel’s and Wittgenstein’s arguments both maintain that the monologic, self-referring system fails. For de Man’s ironist, the linguistic self that exists to deny the empirical self’s authenticity also “becomes like a sign in its attempt at differentiation and self-definition” (213). Language only spirals further away from the sensation, but narrative, as an experiential act, can produce for the reader an image of addictive pain that resembles the image of the addict’s pain.
Wallace matches the sensations by paralleling the novel’s form and the addict’s temporality. Ursula Heise writes that postmodern time is characterized by an entrapment in a present “without any possibility of linkage to past or future, and with at best a promise of meaning that is never fulfilled” (58). This is a fairly apt description for the viewer’s addiction to the Entertainment, which he watches over and over again (entrapment in the present) in a vicious cycle of recursion (looping and never fully touching the future or past). Steeply’s fake undercover journalism résumé attests to this present-tense focus in Infinite Jest. His elevating posts have been at publications whose titles condense to the present: Time, Decade Magazine, Southwest Annual, Newsweek, Ladies Day, and his current “job” at Moment magazine (227). Even the house resident who studies the incapacity of the “tattoo-type-class person…to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse” is riddled with the same present-tense blockage: “Tiny Ewell’ll put this same abstract but not very profound idea in a whole number of ways, over and over, obsessively almost” (206).
But Ewell’s entrapment in what Heise calls the “mutational” present (and Wallace’s entrapment, with his awkwardly iterating sound of “Ewell’ll”), in which “each instant is submerged in a series of alternatives none of which can claim priority over the others” (58), is a form of detachment from the present. As Tony’s immersion in private language eventually destroys his external language and empirical self, the addict’s pursuit of immediate gratification removes his presence: the comatose viewer of the Entertainment may be rooted in the present-tense of recursion, but he remains blissfully unaware. A looping video of former tennis great Stan Smith taking repetitive ground-strokes, “in anachronistic white” with an “anachronistic Wilson wood” racquet, plays for the students: “No wasted motion, egoless strokes, no flourishes or tics or excesses of wrist. Over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). The three primary tenses are in the viewing: Smith is the historic precedent, the video is in the perpetual present, and the future professionals hope to emulate him. As expected of the recursive display, the past is obscured (“No wasted motion”) and the future intercepted (“each forehand melting into the next”). Subtler are Smith’s “egoless strokes,” his detachment from his body, and the effect this has on the players who watch. The video tantalizes their present ego (“’I know just where I stand at all times,’” says one in reference to his ranking ) with the promise of future greatness so long as they repetitively practice—and since the video-loop refreshes Smith with each stroke, the memory of practice’s agony and recognition of lost youth is diminished. The players know where they stand only on a numerical scale, not on a physical one.
Instead of entrapment in the present, we may say that the addict’s “egoless” existence situates him in the near-future, between the present and future, an unsatisfied position looking to the future with a buried or destroyed past and a detached present. This lack of presence is what makes the future all the more desirable, since the addict relies on it to explain and gratify the present. The players’ future projection of Smith’s stature as a palliative and justification for the arduous past and present accords with Peter Brooks’s narrative term “anticipation of retrospection.” Brooks’s definition even uses language familiar to the vicissitudes of addiction: “[W]e read in a spirit of confidence, and also a state of dependence, that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional meanings of the already read” (23). In other words, we look forward to the ending in the hope that it will conclusively explain the mystifying and temporary present.
For Brooks, and many other theorists, death is the ultimate end that explains life, since “only the end can finally determine meaning, close the sentence as a signifying totality” (22). The Entertainment recursively bludgeons the viewer with pleasure and dependence and serves as a model of this death-drive. In one scene, Joelle goes through a revolving door, sees someone she dimly recognizes as being formerly intimate with, and continues revolving with the person for several turns. In a second scene, she plays a “maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure Death,” who explains to the wobble-lensed natal camera “that Death is always female, and…that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother” (788). She then utters “twenty minutes of permutations of ‘I’m sorry’” (939). The link is obvious: Joelle sees a former child of hers grown into a man in the first scene, and in the second scene apologizes either to him as a baby or to another one for the “murder neither” of them “quite remember[s]” (789). The mutated apologies are an attempt, in the present tense of the next life, to account for the senseless spin and termination of the past life.
The Entertainment itself is recursive and never dies; instead, it brings death, as do other drugs in the novel, and meaning is as inconclusive as a revolving door. The infinite present of the addict, then, is not permanent at all, since he eventually dies while the film rolls on, but is a repetition of temporary moments that creates the illusion of permanence. Infinite Jest, too, never dies, yet its temporal void is a place of death, the narrative’s unknown afterlife. The reader cannot finish the narrative of Infinite Jest and simply accept the inconclusiveness, for the associative sensation of addiction is lost and the opportunity to voice the private language of the figurants is stifled. He does, however, have the option of filling the temporal void with a definite conclusion. A symbol of a quarter-completed circle marks the bottom right-hand corner of the last page (981) of the narrative. At the start of the many time-stamped sections of the novel (specifically- or generally-dated), a white circle shrouds a black background to form a simultaneous ellipse and eclipse. The incomplete circle, then, is the invitation to loop addictively, in the figure of an ellipse, to the beginning of the novel (marked with one such ellipse/eclipse). The page after 981, before the “Notes and Errata” section, is unmarked by text or a page number. This voided page 982 allows the reader to “write” his own ending on the blank paper. Wallace seems to sanction this with two of Jim’s controversial cinematic works, the theoretical hoax of “Found Drama,” which stipulates that everyone is living an unfilmable movie right now (hence no one else can see what is on the blank page but the individual reader), and a film, “The Joke,” in which the camera turns on its audience and projects the image on-screen until they “get the joke” and leave. Wallace has gone on record (in an internet chat forum, no less, a democratic, textual space itself) about this reader-created ending: “Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an ‘end’ can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you” (“Live With David Foster Wallace”). Brooks might agree that this inversion of authority is the path to overturning anticipation of retrospection, since the act of narrative transmission “always comes after the writing, in a posthumous moment” (34). If the reader can resurrect the transmission, then he need not anxiously await the ending, for he has created it on his own.
Deciding upon one option, however, even if the option differs from reader to reader, as Wallace’s careful phrasing suggests, remains a masked form of recursion despite the progressive movement. The reader still returns to the first scene, along with other “parallel lines,” for imaginative help in “projecting” his ending—the ending must be coherent, in the future void, with the past narrative. Moreover, such an ending is inauthentic and self-defeating. In his analysis of Romantic symbol and allegory, de Man charges that symbol, in its fusion of subject and object, attempts to transcend, avoid, or deny finitude, while allegory’s differentiation of subject and object highlights human finitude. He connects irony’s fragmentation to allegory’s differentiation, since both engage “an authentic experience of temporality, which, seen from the point of view of the self encaged in the world, is a negative one” (226). Escaping from this cage through symbol—writing on the blank page, fusing a positive ending on to the novel’s negative void—is inauthentic, since it tries to resolve the novel’s mystifying afterlife by avoiding confrontation with the unknowability of death. Self-conscious irony, conversely, comes closer to acknowledging false permanence—the “succession of isolated moments lived by the divided self”—and faces its finite limits (de Man 226).
Wallace sides with de Man; he wants his fiction “to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny” (Interview 136). The reader must confront death—an associative death, obviously, that allows him to move on, unlike the terminal death of the Entertainment. He must find a way to restore a sense of permanence to his reading without an inauthentic leap beyond the void. To this “end,” he may choose a concept of an ending that never latches on to one concrete meaning, a transfinite “ending” that is always and never satisfied, an ending that provides a new way of looking at the first scene of the novel. He cannot use future projection—as does the writer of page 982, never advancing beyond a temporary, addictive near-future frame of mind—but must develop an expansive future perfect tense of reading, which decidedly takes on the undecidable. The path to this unified future perfect weds an unlikely pair of thinkers: Henri Bergson, who champions a non-linguistic, intuitive sense of time he calls duration, and Derrida, whose radical self-consciousness of language forms the future perfect tense of language. Through this synthesis of Bergson and Derrida, the reader reads in a tense that is the opposite of the addict’s intercepted recursion: In a transfinite duration that touches all temporalities while acknowledging its own finitude, the reader glimpses an exit from the Cage.
Bergson classifies a person’s relationship with an external object as either relative, which positions the person outside the object, or as absolute, which implies a sympathy with the object’s interior. In the relative position, which utilizes analysis, the individual interprets the object with symbols, such as language, while the absolute achieves its sympathy “by an effort of imagination” (21). For Bergson, this is an intuitive understanding and interior connection with the object, and as such fosters duration, a “continuous flux” (25) that unifies all individual temporal strands. Linguistic interpretation cannot access the interior: in its “eternally unsatisfied desire to embrace the object…analysis multiplies without end the number of its points of view in order to complete its always incomplete representation…It goes on, therefore, to infinity” (24). The analytic infinitude, Bergson argues, is not like the all-encompassing duration of intuition—an “eternity of life”—but is an “eternity of death” (49). Analysis’s asymptotic approach to infinity is not unlike the addict’s fatal need for the closure that never comes. Absolute meaning through language never arrives, and the conceptual object remains in this voided state of non-meaning.
But skipping the fatal, conceptual void, de Man would argue, leads to inauthenticity, not duration. One can expand life only through an attitude towards death, an awareness of the self’s finitude, resistance to absoluteness. Derrida conceives of an asymptotic approach to meaning through language that, far from announcing its death, revives it in eternal form. His self-conscious approach acknowledges language’s fragmented, finite capacity for meaning in the face of universal, infinite truth, and thus transcends finitude, gaining all meaning. Its mutations are not compulsive, as is the addict’s, but compelling, moving meaning non-recursively to both the future and the past.
For Derrida, language carries a trace of all its uses. Each “seed,” or word, is “its own term, finds its term not outside itself but within itself as its own internal limit” (304). The internal limit is constantly changing, however, in different contexts, as Wittgenstein’s language-games dictate, and the seed carries both past and future traces of different usage, such that “the moment of present meaning, of ‘content,’ is only a surface effect,” and the “’horizon’-value, that pure infinite opening for the presentation of the present and the experience of meaning…comes into question” (350-51). The trace adheres to Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem and to Church-Turing’s undecidability theorem, since no word can ever define itself (Gödel) and none of the instances of definition is ever the original, “correct” one (Church-Turing). The “present meaning” of each seed, then, is only an illusory present that camouflages the simultaneous configuration of past and future, which is why Derrida uses the future perfect to preface Dissemination: “This (therefore) will not have been a book” (3). Barbara Johnson notes in the book’s introduction that the sentence “map[s] out the play of anticipatory retrospection” common to the preface (xxxii). Johnson uses the same terminology as Brooks (while writing four years earlier), but Derrida’s future perfect does not carry such harmful effects. Anticipation of retrospection is “eternally unsatisfied” and seeks an as yet unknowable ending to explain its mysterious origins. The future perfect, on the other hand, takes place in the undecidable future but with a decided past and is both unknowable and knowable: transfinite.
As Tony’s episode showed, private language is infinitely useless, for the subject knows his pain only as a variable image and not as a definable picture. The simultaneous understanding of all possible states of that pain would conceivably allow for its definition, since every individual moment, in a system of multiplicity, would be defined against the others and not as an incomplete self-referent. Projection beyond the void prohibits entrance into this Bergsonian duration. Only by facing the void through an awareness of finitude can the “present” expand into duration, just as the seed’s acknowledgment of its finite meaning expands to truth through Derrida’s future perfect.
Near the novel’s end, Don Gately languishes mutely in a hospital bed with an agonizing gunshot wound. He recalls how he overcame the anticipation of future pain—“the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead” (860)—of withdrawal:
He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second—less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. Living in the Present between pulses. (860)
Gately denies his anticipatory will, his imagination’s “not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed” (861). His consciousness remains aware of the existence of the future (and past, knowing it has survived this long), but through that awareness it avoids falling into the trap of projection. Instead, he self-consciously creates an eternal Bergsonian, intuitive tense (his heartbeat, which resists definition in basic time units, “measures” the endless tense), the Now—and his naming of the tense suggests external language’s necessary role in the creation of such a duration.
But the Now belies its present-tense name; in its resistant awareness of the future, it recognizes the pain that will happen and pushes itself past it. Dickinson writes in Poem 650 that pain “has no Future — but itself — / Its Infinite contain / Its Past” (5-7), but Gately’s infinite realm of pain does more than simply contain its future. It is the future perfect: everything within its infinite zone will have happened, all pain will have been absorbed. Bergson allows that while one can, “solidify duration once it has elapsed,” this effort works only on the “stationary trace which the mobility of duration leaves behind it, and not on the duration itself” (30). Gately’s Now seems to fall under this critique, since all temporal strands have, in the future perfect, passed, and Gately is self-consciously solidifying them. But the “stationary trace” of duration is, in the evolving future perfect, as active as anything in the “present.” Peter Szondi also finds that analysis stalls the mind: the “knowledge of his own impotence prevents the ironist from respecting his achievements” and self-consciousness prematurely “measures whatever it encounters in the present by the yardstick of infinity and thus destroys it” (qtd. in de Man 220). Yet it is through Gately’s acknowledgment of his will’s impotence that he can overcome Dickinson’s arduous, infinite present and erect a space-time yardstick that expands to infinity on his own terms. By confronting the negative void—his own finitude in the face of infinite pain—he positively charges through, not beyond, the void.
Gately’s absorption of his pain is still fundamentally monologic. He may have found a way to defeat incompleteness within his private language, but the underlying cause of the pain—his inability to share his private language with another person—still lingers. The reader can play an essential role in the addicts’ sharing of pain, but only if he, too, can cure his own addictive temporality. The reader must follow Gately’s lead in overturning anticipation of retrospection by transforming the novel’s temporal void from a recursive loop into a zone of the future perfect: the first scene with Hal, and the void itself, will have happened. Gérard Genette’s simple terms— “narrative,” “story,” and “narrating” (27)—help us see how this is possible. As “narrative,” or written content, the first scene is in the past, and the reader can use it for hints (especially the warning against Hal’s addictive consumption of knowledge) on how to progress beyond its conclusion (instead of regressing to it, as page 982 prompts). Simultaneously, the first scene is in the future of the “story,” or series of events, and the reader advances toward its mystery. Thus, in the “narrating” mode—“the producing narrative action and, by extension, the whole of the real or fictional situation in which that action takes place” (Genette 27)—the reader is not present, since he is both moving toward and away from the first scene. As Gately establishes, an acute consciousness of temporality allows the reader to step out of the narrating time of anticipation of retrospection and into a unified, atemporal frame. The future perfect at once satisfies the reader’s addictive need for closure while placing him in a non-addictive, inconclusive future, since it has decidedly “consumed” the undecidable futurity.
The first scene issues many cautions against the recursion of regular tenses. Hal first narrates “I cannot make myself understood,” and then iterates it in speech to the room: “’I cannot make myself understood, now’” (10). The reader who has recursively returned to the scene has not understood Hal the first time around, and his looping makes the scene present again. Hal explains his inhuman sounds with the cryptic “’Call it something I ate’” (10), a reference to the moss he ate as a child that possibly contained DMZ, to DMZ itself, or to his “digestion” of the dictionary (“The boy reads likes a vacuum. Digests things,” says Tavis ). In any case, the digestive past also refers to the reader’s digestion of the book which, in a recursive reading, has been discarded as waste for its incomprehensible ending.
Near the end of Hal’s scene, he muses over a number of memories that are important to the novel’s main plotline (and which never take place in the narrative): “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head. There’s very little doubt that Wayne would have won” (17). Although these are perfect conditional statements that seem to defy any projection, Gately has a dream in his section that bookends Hal’s memory: “He dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some guy’s head and it’s really important, like Continental-emergency important…and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head” (934). The searches (for the master-copy of the Entertainment) are, singularly told, temporally linear: Hal’s is a flashback and Gately’s is a foreshadowing. In conjunction, the visions intertwine in the chiasmic future perfect of story and narrative: Gately, at the end of the narrative, imaginatively projects a story event that has already happened, at the start of the narrative, for Hal.
The achronological narrative and endnotes produce this self-conscious duration throughout Infinite Jest. The fragmented narrative disrupts the conventional triangulation of time, while the endnotes band together a multitude of points in the novel to a space outside the main narrative. The supposedly atemporal endnotes tangentially gain a sense of time by way of the temporal narrative (one already established as chaotic), and the temporal narrative loses whatever addictive temporal thrust it has and adapts the stasis of the endnotes. Wallace’s aggressive, obscure vocabulary—“mucronate,” “strigil,” the German word “zuckung”—from a number of fields (the medical, especially) nearly parodies Jean-François Lyotard’s central claim that postmodernism is defined by the heterogeneity of language-games. Narrating time seeps into the external world, and vice versa, for the reader given to rigorous consultation, but only through the glottochronological self-consciousness of narrating, of physically turning pages.
The future perfect, being both a single now and an all-encompassing Now, concords with Bergson’s definition of duration as “as a multiplicity of moments bound to each other by a unity,” and thus one can feel in it “a certain very determinate tension, in which the determination itself appears as a choice between an infinity of possible durations” (47). This “determinate tension” of duration affords a choice in an undecidable system, and this combination is the only way for the reader to escape and understand Infinite Jest. Although page 982’s blankness sets up an addictive, overdetermined decision, Wallace far from rejects the reader’s metamorphosis into writer: “Observing a quantum phenomenon’s been proven to alter the phenomenon. Fiction likes to ignore this fact’s implications. We still think in terms of a story ‘changing’ the reader’s emotions, cerebrations, maybe even her life. We’re not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader” (Interview 141). Writing in page 982 is not dialogic “sharing,” but an inauthentic ending. Facing the void, confronting death, is the means to a bivalent novel. Like Gately, the reader must acknowledge his own finite impotence in moving beyond the infinite narrative and must instead submerge himself in the narrative and confront the undecidable. His limited access to all characters in the novel makes him, like the author, a transfinite conductor. Through this position he can conduct the figurants’ pain across the narrative, through their Cages of private language. The conduction begins by moving to the novel’s core to subvert another of Jim’s cinematic movements (in his “middle period,” ironically), “anticonfluentialism,” an opposition to duration, “characterized by a stubborn and possibly intentionally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge in any kind of meaningful confluence” (996).
At the outset of this inward journey, the endnotes constitute the first frame and serve as Wallace’s reminder of his authority, an impasse that denies any infinite expansion beyond the narrative. Heidegger’s observations in “The Thing” subvert this authority; in his example of a jug, its function is the void—not the material sides—since the void holds the water. The potter is removed, as is Wallace, and the narrative is the agent. The next frames are the scenes with Hal and Gately. Both characters are muted somehow in these scenes, however, as is the private language of all other characters, so the whole of the narrative is a void, a collection of inaccessible voices. The retreat to the exact center of the novel, pages 488 and 489, leads the reader to the only “on-screen” death and longest sentence in the novel, as Chris Hager notes in “On Speculation: Infinite Jest and American Fiction After Postmodernism.” Here, a character’s total incapacity for language “pops” all language into him in his entry into death’s void, giving him infinite range for sounding his private language to all other figurants.
In search of a copy of the Entertainment, the A.F.R. visits Lucien Antitoi, a Quebecois immigrant who, with his brother, runs a cartridge-rental store outfitted with optical equipment. Lucien totes around a beloved broom (with a sharpened tip) and seems to have no linguistic resources: “He has that rare spinal appreciation for beauty in the ordinary that nature seems to bestow on those who have no native words for what they see” (482). But this inadequacy, and compensatory connection to nature, is what restores Lucien’s speech after his grisly death at the hands of the A.F.R. A terrorist (Marathe) shoves the broom-handle’s tip “down into Lucien’s wide throat and lower, small natal cries escaping around the brown-glazed shaft, the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia” (488). The broom’s inversion echoes a scene from Wallace’s The Broom of the System, in which a character recalls a language-game lesson from her mother, who studied philosophy at Cambridge “under a mad crackpot genius named Wittgenstein” (73). The mother asks her daughter which part of the broom is more fundamental to it, the bristles or handle. After the daughter answers with bristles, the mother says that if one wants a broom with which “’to break windows, then the handle’” is the broom’s essence (150). She demonstrates, as does Marathe, who drones “’In-U-Tile’” (488) with each shove of the broom in reference to Lucien’s uselessness in giving the location of the Entertainment. The chant serves as an ironic reminder of, as the mother herself repeats, “’Meaning as use. Meaning as use’” (Broom 150).
The broom passes through Lucien’s throat and body, shattering preconceived limits of language. It imbues Lucien, whose total limitations make this possible, with the meaning of every possible language-game, including those of the void of death, as his earlier “natal cries” mature: “[A]s he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues” (488). The 509-word sentence ends in the present tense but, after “Lucien finds his gut,” the subject is no longer present: Lucien, absent from the text, is “catapulted,” “soaring,” and “sounding.” As with the future perfect and the Now, he is both present and not present, and this duality induces the dialogic sharing of private language. Death, while holding Lucien in its void, gives him to others, as the void of Heidegger’s jug does: “In the outpouring, the holding is authentically how it is. To pour from the jug is to give. The holding of the vessel occurs in the giving of the outpouring” (172). The novel’s recursive, ellipsical structure also takes the form of an ellipsis in its omitted ending. The “something” of Lucien’s private language is sounded infinitely through the figurants’ Cages and beyond the book as a definite, “bell-clear” transmission; private language eclipses the ellipsis.
Lucien’s heteroglossia explodes out at the “desperate” speed of light to the rest of the novel’s figurants, thanks to his shop’s infinite array of optics, “curved and planar mirrors at studied angles whereby each part of the room is reflected in every other part” (482). On the other end of the spectrum, the reader listens at the speed of sound, and does not “hear,” as Alcoholics Anonymous would remind him, “all the world’s well-known tongues.” Lucien’s language remains, for the reader, Kant’s noumenon, an unknowable, transcendental thing-in-itself, comprising not a “definite knowledge of anything, but…only the thinking of something” (Kant 206). “Something” returns as the difference between intuitive understanding and analytic knowledge, between private and external language. The noumenon limits knowledge to the intuitive understanding of empirical reality, so that “whatever lies beyond the sphere of phenomena is (to us) empty; that is, we have an understanding which problematically extends beyond that sphere” (Kant 208). Lucien’s private language, an understood phenomenon to the other figurants, represents only external knowledge to the reader, a conceptual noumenon. It is like the lithograph illustrating the effects of DMZ, which radically alters the user’s “relation to the ordinary flow of time” (170). DMZ is described as “acid that has itself dropped acid” (214), but instead of infinitely regressing, the self-consciousness of DMZ permits outward expansion. The lithograph depicts its artist “plowing at high knottage through time itself, kinetic even in stasis, plowing temporally ahead, with time coming off him like water in sprays and wakes” (996). “[K]inetic even in stasis,” the lithograph literally sets in stone a concept that refutes permanence; it is a phenomenon to the artist and a noumenon to the observer.
Instead of searching addictively for finality, the reader matches the undecidable, known outcome of the novel with a Derridean future perfect tense of reading. Language in the future perfect is temporarily known but eternally undecided, and the “now” dilates into a “Now,” a Bergsonian duration. The undecidability recognizes the entire novel as a void, as an exercise in inaccessible private language, and thrusts the reader through its breaking waves of muteness to the island in the center of the narrative. There, a mute death restores private language to all the figurants, but not to the reader. He is left in the transfinite realm between knowledge and understanding—the “something”—like the background music to Joelle’s radio show that “suggests expansion without really expanding. It leads up to the exact kind of inevitability it denies” (191). The contrary “exact” and “kind of” speak for the ending of Infinite Jest; neither an exact conclusion nor an ambiguous one, it is conceptual and, as Jim’s filmography describes the eleven “Found Drama” films, “conceptually unfilmable” (989). The filmography elides what should be the fourth “Found Drama” film, and sandwiched between the third and fifth is a legitimate film, The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass, in which a man “discovers that he is brittle, hollow, and transparent to others, and becomes either transcendentally enlightened or schizophrenic” (989). The number four, half the size of eight (the trope for infinity in the novel), describes the placement of Lucien’s episode in the known middle of Infinite Jest. The reader may try to escape his glass cage, externally transparent but internally reflective, and destroy himself and his speech. Or, he may find comfort in his own reflections and transcend the novel by embracing the concept he can never own, the problematic extension of freeing the figurants while he stays.
The last sentence of the novel reaffirms this choice of glassware: “And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981). The paratactic “and” of unresolved iteration and dangling “back to” obscure the asymmetrical arrangement of prepositions: on/on/in/out (of)/out. The reader, by self-consciously diving from his peripheral position into the novel, can also observe, through the figurants, a “way out.” Wittgenstein writes that his “aim in philosophy” is to show “the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (PI 309). Later, he clarifies this project of seeing past the fly-bottle’s grammatical prison: “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (464). Wittgenstein’s reader still exists in a nonsensical state but, as with the deepening Alcoholics Anonymous cliché, he now knows that he didn’t know that he didn’t know. Wallace has adopted this in his fiction. The glass Cage is clear, unlike the opaque Cage of the addict; the reader can see out but may not leave. The transfinite novel is concluded while split down its spine, open.
Lucien’s noumenal language should not preclude the reader from meaningful dialogue. Wallace argues that “mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that’s set up through art by the writer” (“Salon Interview), so a fully dialogic relationship with the figurants would be an inauthentic one that evades the reader’s solitude. With its transfinite, conceptual ending, knowable yet undecidable, Infinite Jest instead unites reader and author. The conceptuality breeds multiple temporalities (in the void) that lead to a certain future (the first scene), but the reader never settles on a single prefiguration of that futurity. Heise finds that postmodern novels with multiple temporalities do not “lead to a wider spectrum of plot possibilities” but “to the almost obsessive repetition of a relatively restricted inventory of scenes” (65). This critique could apply to the transfinite ending of Infinite Jest were it not for the first scene, which decidedly forces a single outcome and eliminates contingent mutation.
Gary Saul Morson rails against multiple-universe fictional models, as epitomized by Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which hypothesizes that all possible times exist simultaneously. Rather than open up possibility, the multiplicity closes off contingency and undermines individual agency, for choice does not matter in any single temporality: “What difference does it make what I do, if I also do the opposite?” (Morson 233) Wallace agrees with this logic, since “once you’ve determined that something is irresolvable…you’ve really resolved it” (“Bookworm”). Infinite Jest skirts this trap with the reader’s conceptual choice. This choice purposely eludes Morson’s ideal, open temporality, achieved through what he calls “sideshadowing,” in which one present exists but allows for the non-deterministic possibility of a plurality of presents. Sideshadowing is the equivalent of writing in page 982, which chooses one potential ending out of many, and in doing so makes an inauthentic leap beyond the void.
Morson’s quarrel with multiple universes is based on the dilution of individual agency: “If selves split with each choice…then decision would seem to lose all meaning” (233). But if this “split” were spread across a dialogic partnership, between author and reader, then choice would be co-defined, subject to both the determinism of the author and the contingency of the reader, and neither resolved irresolution nor obsessive repetition would obtain. The transfinite ending permits this, since the reader undecidedly whirs within the author’s decided framework, and both participants must acknowledge the leverage of the other. This balance is crucial for Wallace; literature should not focus on endgame strategies, on “how to resolve,” but on questioning whether fictions “can be resolved or not” (“Bookworm”). This is by no means a simple condemnation of Aristotelian structure and a vote for unresolved narrative, but a desire for oscillation between the two, for dialogic revision and re-writing. The author-reader conversation is the only authentic aesthetic dialogue for Wallace: “I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art” (“Salon Interview”). The dialogic, transfinite ending not only makes for the reader’s feeling “unalone,” but the reciprocal arrangement helps the exhausted author—a figurant himself, peering in from the periphery of the book jacket—feel less lonely.
 While MTV-listeners absorb these as “ironies” despite the lessons of their rhetorically-correct elders, Morissette may have last laugh: the lack of any irony in “Ironic” is its ultimate irony. This observation, of course, is ironic. (This endnote will be this thesis’s first and last self-conscious, ironic comment.)
 Jim founded E.T.A.; the boys’ mother, Avril, holds an administrative post. Hal is a Senior and Mario rooms with him.
 “A.F.R.”: Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (the Wheelchair Assassins, named so for a train-dodging rite of passage all members must undergo). “O.N.A.N.”: Organization of North American Nations, acronymically emphasizing the solipsistic partnership of the former U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico. The countries maintain distinct identities and are usually referred to by their former names in the novel.
 Wallace recognizes that “’realistic’ doesn’t have a univocal definition” (Interview 140), but this chapter will work off his claim that Realism hides its mediating consciousness.
 “Film-Cartridge”: The media in Infinite Jest for any kind of entertainment-viewing.
 Again, this is not an entirely accurate definition of “transfinite,” which is used in this thesis as a metaphor for the countable infinite. The transfinite set of natural numbers is referred to as aleph-null, while larger transfinite cardinalities are denoted by aleph-one, aleph-two, and so on. The transfinite cardinality of real numbers, C, can be neither proved nor disproved as equal to aleph-one.
 “Mumster”: No clue, unless Pemulis means Hal’s mother, whom all her sons refer to as “The Moms.”
 Wallace’s research for the novel was conducted in similar fashion; he went to Boston AA meetings where, he writes on the copyright page, “anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.”
 The structure of the episode almost perfectly corresponds to Scarry’s anatomization of torture’s effects, as the following notes show.
 cf. Scarry on the “obscene conflation of private and public” that “brings with it all the solitude of absolute privacy with none of its safety, all the self-exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibility for camaraderie or shared experience” (53). Tony’s experience on the subway sets up a dehumanizing system of language-games in the public-transportation realm; he is a “loathsome urban specimen,” while others are termed “respectable persons” (“the respectables…quietly retreated as far as possible from the various puddles in which he sat” ).
 For Scarry, the copious imagistic representations of the “open mouth with no sound” depicting “a human being so utterly consumed in the act of making a sound that cannot be heard coincides with the way in which pain engulfs the one in pain but remains unsensed by anyone else” (52).
 cf. Scarry’s description of the spatial contortions of pain as “either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe” (35).
 Brooks cites Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frank Kermode as others in agreement.
 These scenes may be from Jim’s unfinished and unreleased penultimate film (as his filmography decrees), Sorry All Over the Place (993), and not from his fifth attempt at completing the (most likely unfinished) film Infinite Jest. If so, Wallace has pulled another self-conscious trick in making the reader fixate on the supposedly conclusive work of Jim’s career when, in fact, he has been looking only at the second-to-last. This is unknowable, so we will proceed as if these scenes are from Infinite Jest.
 Books ending on an odd page number often place a blank page between the main text and whatever back matter follows, but the blank page 982 seems especially conspicuous after the incomplete circle.
 “Glottochronology”: “The application of statistics to vocabulary to determine the degree of relationship
between two or more languages and the chronology of their splitting off from a common ancestor” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.).
 The novel starts on page 3 and, excluding the endnotes, ends on page 981, for a total of 979 pages (Hager neglects to include the original page in his subtraction and comes up with 978 pages). Half of this is 489.5, so the death in question ends on the middle integer value of the narrative.
 The filmography also omits the seventh and eighth films, perhaps as an allusion to the unspeakability of death (the seventh) and of infinitude (the eighth).
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