Nat: The Double Bind of Reading IJ

You guys, I’ll admit. I wanted to quit. But I can’t.

For some time, I’ve been musing over the darkness of the addiction theme in Infinite Jest. Can I endure it? In addition, this week’s reading about Mario’s birth elicited nagging discomfort with the ambivalent descriptions of disability in the text. Questions about these aspects of the book rattle me. Really rattle me. (Truth: I cried in a Wendy’s bathroom when Tony died.) This book is not an escape that offers warm comfort!

So what is the secret sauce? Why do I love it so? Continue reading “Nat: The Double Bind of Reading IJ”

Ode on a Grecian Urn

 “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


Ah, Keats. My darling. If only it were that simple.*

I open with these famous final lines from the poem upon which I based this week’s blog post title because I want to talk a bit about beauty this week –  Joelle’s beauty, to be precise – and how it operates within the latest section of Infinite Jest. Both Shazia and Joe have written about truth this week and so I thought I’d tackle the beauty part of Keats’ iconic yet reductive equation.

According to Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” everything that is beautiful is truthful and everything that is truthful is beautiful. This is, of course, a very lower-and-uppercase-‘R’-romantic notion that presents the reader with an idealistic sentiment that appeals to the heart over the head. What can I say? I’m a total sucker for a lovely turn of phrase that paints a rosy picture of the world we live in; however, if there’s one thing I know for sure that our friend David is trying to tell us in IJ, it’s that the truth is not always beautiful. Admitting to the truth often means exposing some of the ugliest parts of ourselves, the gory bits we try to hide away or forget. Look at the lengths to which many of the characters try to dissimulate their deepest, darkest secrets in order to keep up appearances and thus appear ‘good’ to those around them (e.g. Hal’s paranoia that someone might know about his addiction to marijuana).

But what about beauty?

Well, for starters, Keats ascribes to a very picturesque notion of beauty – one that is truthful, yes, but also simple. I’ve always found it interesting that he makes his “beauty is truth, truth beauty” statement in a poem inspired by a Greek piece of art because the Ancient Greeks had an entirely different conception of beauty. The gods and goddesses of Greek mythology were stunningly beautiful, but also terrifying – a more sublime kind of beauty.

Although Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) was one of the most pretentious novels I think I’ve ever read,** there’s a particular passage that has always stayed with me and it puts into words the kind of beauty I’m talking about here: “It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it” (42, emphasis added).

When I was reading this week’s section, Tartt’s chilling description of beauty popped into my mind the minute the narrator describes Joelle as “grotesquely lovely” and later “hideously attractive”  (290). Her intense beauty strikes actual fear into the hearts of all her admirers – so much so that no one can pluck up the nerve to get near her let alone even talk to her for the longest time. Orin, for one, cannot “get closer than four meters at parties” (290). In fact, Wallace puts a name to this effect that she has on people: “[Joelle] induced in heterosexual males what U.H.I.D. later told her was termed the Actaeon Complex, which is a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty.” (290)


Alright. Now. Before I get carried away (as I’m about to do), I just thought I’d warn y’all that I’m going to let my nerd flag fly in the next few sentences/paragraphs, so… please bear with me.

nerd alert

I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to see a mention of Actaeon in the novel. My love for the Classics hit me like a freight train when I did and I knew the second I saw this reference to one of my favourite Roman myths that I would be writing about it. So, leapfrogging for one minute from Greek to Roman mythology, let me tell you a bit about Actaeon. Our dude Actaeon is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and figures in a myth revolving around Diana, goddess of the hunt. In it, Actaeon is hunting with his dogs and strays from the group. In so doing, he stumbles across Diana bathing in the woods and accidentally catches a glimpse of her naked body. Enraged, Diana punishes Actaeon by transforming him into a stag and he is subsequently torn to pieces by his own dogs who do not recognize him anymore.

Why is this myth one of my favourites? Well, it does a lot of things that appeal to my feminist sensibilities. For one, it punishes the intrusive male gaze. Diana refuses to let herself become an object to be stared at and she reverses their power dynamic quickly. In so doing, Diana also reasserts her authority as the goddess of the hunt – although she is initially made vulnerable by Actaeon’s gaze, she quickly puts him in his place by making the hunter become the hunted. All in all, it’s a myth in which typical gender roles are reversed and Diana’s beauty becomes a terrible thing indeed.

So, back to Joelle and Infinite Jest. The fact that she produces a kind of Actaeon Complex in those who admire her seems to suggest that she is meant to be read as a Diana-like figure in the text. And, if that’s the case, then I’m so looking forward to Orin (a.k.a. Douchecanoe Extraordinaire) being dismembered by ravenous dogs.

I kid. (Not really, but whatever.) Speaking of Orin and myth, though, let’s analyze him for a second. If I’m lucky, then he really is an Actaeon-like figure who is meant to be punished for gazing on the likes of Joelle; however, the way Wallace describes Orin’s scopophilic self-obsession (watching Joelle’s footage of himself over and over) in this latest section brought to mind another Classical figure: that of Narcissus – the man who fell in love with his own reflection. Narcissus dies, of course, consumed by his own vanity, so… either way you slice it, Orin’s potential mythological counterpart dies and that makes this Orin-hater supremely happy as well as hopeful. #SorryNotSorry

Anyhow, I really must wrap this up now, as I’m sure you’ve all had quite enough of the Classics-talk. In my defence, the narrative is rich with so many allusions that catch my eye and I just can’t help writing about them! I will try to be a bit more fun (but not Too Much Fun) next week. Promise.

Until then, my friends!

F O O T N O T E S : 

This gif is of Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Bright Star (2009). It’s seriously one of my favourite movies of all time and I just had to take this little space to recommend it. Highly. (*whispers* Go watch it.)

** And, as an English Major, that’s saying something.

Feeling This One Out

I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to write anything particularly coherent this week (but then again, is any of it, really?) after just reading Shazia’s post/thread regarding the truth of what (mostly) Hal says in his conversation about his grief therapy sessions.

That one there’s a brain-buster, y’all. How does Hal really feel after the bullshit apparatus/structure of the interface is removed? Did Hal just figure out the “trick” to the grief therapy sessions just before he was about to make a real breakthrough, or is the entire thing a complete fabrication start to finish? I guess we might find out if we tune in next week: same bat time, same bat channel.

It does make sense that Hal simply discovered the “trick”, given his ability to learn what is expected of him and find a way to deliver the goods through sheer effort. It seems like it all goes back to Mario secretly procuring the copies of the O.E.D for Hal during the time when he was being assessed for damage as described on page 317: “It was Mario, not Avril, who obtained Hal his first copies of the unabridged O.E.D at a time when Hal was still being shunted around for the assessment of possible damage […] months before Hal tested out at Whatever’s Beyond Eidetic on the Mnemonic Verbal Inventory designed by a dear and trusted colleague of the Moms at Brandeis.” I honestly never thought that it might be possible that so much of who Hal thinks he is might have something to do with a fear of being somehow damaged or being found out as some kind of fraud by others, but now, so it seems to be! It seems like I keep seeing stuff from “This is Water” at almost every turn: “if you worship intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” I don’t know, I just feel like that speech gives such a clear summary of so many of the big ideas that have been fictionalized in Infinite Jest.

Oh man, now I don’t know what to think about the characters…what is real? What is the truth? Oh, God, where art thou?!

It’s a crisis (Arnold voice)!  An existential crisis! (Oh no…not again! *no celebrity emphasis)

And here we have Mario (seemingly) tied up with Hal’s fears. But what is it about Mario that freaks Hal out exactly? It certainly isn’t his appearance.

More pointedly, why does Hal “fear Mario’s opinion more than probably anybody except the Moms”? Is it simply because Mario knows the truth about how Hal came to be identified as “Beyond Eidetic” and Hal fears being found out? It’s probably part of it, but somehow, I think it’s more than just that. It’s not like Hal hates him for it, and there seems to be a genuine brotherly tenderness between the two brothers that is sorely lacking between Orin and the others.

I think it’s pretty clear that Mario loves his brother. Take for example the instance where he participates in a whole bunch of shit that doesn’t make any sense, simply for the sake of being near his brother: “Hal remembers the unending hours of blocks and balls […] tangrams and See ‘N Spell, huge headed Mario hanging in there, [again, AA language mysteriously popping up in something that is seemingly unrelated…why?] for make-believe in which he had no interest other than proximity to his brother.” It’s like Mario is acting out how the ideal convert to AA should act: he wishes to simply just be present in the moment, toughing it out so that he can just get close to his brother. He may well never understand on an intellectual level, (probably like Gately, Ferocious Francis, and most of those that adhere to the AA program, day in and day out) but he tries simply because it affords him an opportunity to be with his brother, who he loves.

And then, several sentences later, we hear of “Hal, brandishing his Dunlop stick, [at the representative from the UHID rep] who told the guy to peddle his linen someplace else.” This part made me smile. I think it’s pretty clear that Hal is protective of Mario. I would probably say tenderly so, even. But still, I’m not completely sure if Hal’s love for his brother is totally “agendaless”, as the narrator tells us that “Hal fears that Avril sees Mario as the family’s real prodigy, as an in-bent savant-type genius of unclassifiable type, a very rare and shining thing[…]” . Maybe on some level Hal in a way sees Mario as another logic puzzle to crack or another skill to master to gain the complete approval of his Moms, and this is why he keeps him close?  Like grief counseling, might there be a “trick” to this “unclassifiable genius” that he sees in Mario?

It’s interesting when the narrator mentions that even at age thirteen, Mario still wanted help with bathing and dressing from Hal, “and wanting the help for Hal’s sake, and not his own.” Mario is acting with selflessness here, but why? What is wrong with Hal, and how does he know?

It’s like even then, Mario just senses something in Hal that is missing and wants to help him by enlisting his help in these basic activities of daily living. Mario is born helper/listener (carrying the lenses, and etc.), and seems to recognize and appreciate the basic, child-like glee in being able to be of assistance to somebody in need. It’s another pure type of pleasure that costs nothing: or as mentioned earlier, a type of “raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” NO THOUGHT REQUIRED (*tentatively*…right?…). It seems like this impulse goes on in Hal (as in the scene in which he delivers advice to his little buddies).

Unlike Hal’s intelligence, Mario’s style of intuition cannot be reduced to studying, or reading a manual, or effort, or will, and etc. (or can it?…jeez, I don’t know…maybe it can?). Just contrast the type of empathy/intuition practiced by the resident doctor on Kate Gompert earlier in the book, with Mario’s unaffected intuition. Every gesture that the doctor makes is meant to convey empathy and intuition, but is clearly measured and artificial—he must have read it in some medical student textbook about interpersonal doctor/patient relationships: proxemics and kinesics, and all that jazz.

I guess my point here is that (at least ideally) Mario’s intuitive approach to things has to be freer of thought than Hal’s rampant intellectualizing of every thought and emotion, and these different approaches produce very different results when interacting with others. It’s not to say that one is good, or one is bad—it’s just that they are different. Somebody (Mario) who is intuitive just knows something on a gut level and acts accordingly—while someone (Hal) that thinks with just their head may never act at all for fear of being wrong, or misunderstood, or whatever—teen angst and beyond (Hamlet, anybody?). Maybe Hal’s afraid of Mario’s intuition because it can’t really be rehearsed and mastered. It’s not perfect. There will sometimes be mistakes. But that’s kind of the point, right? Sometimes acting on intuition can open up a conversation with another person by exposing the cracks in your own thinking that you never would have realized were there had you not had the courage to ask or engage in the first place.

Side note:


I’ve always kind of thought that each of the Incandenza boys end up being hyper-developed (or radically skewed) in one particular way. Orin is all sex and body, Hal is (mostly) intellect or brain, and Mario is all heart (I’m sure there’s a Freudian analysis in here, as per Hamlet, etc.). It’s like they could be one reasonably well-functioning child if they could somehow combine their powers by raising their rings to the sky and summoning captain planet (who is [presumably] here, a well-functioning child taking pollution of the soul down to the zero). Or like how the power rangers combine their Dinozords (sp?) into a Megazord (again, sp?), or something, I don’t know.

The Question Concerning Technology Smells Delicious

Hi hi hi from the Land of the Ahts,

These pages of Infinite Jest creep me out.

Thoroughly enjoyed the Orin hate yesterday. Orin is certainly detestable… but look deep within yourselves, jesters, and you shall also find you have been an Orin at some point in your life! YES! I jest — only infinitely, but ok let’s not venture too far into Orin territory. I write this next part with hesitation: Joelle might be very similar to Orin, though in a more convoluted way (her room is mirrored on all sides) because she is not visibly narcissistic and gross. Buuut, aside from these comments on our hideously beautiful lovers, what creeps me out more than anything in these pages is “ ‘That something smelled delicious.’ ” (256)

What I find completely creepy about Hal’s confession during grief therapy is that:

  • His reaction is probable and realistic, despite the absurdity.
  • It is probable and realistic because his reaction is a bodily reflex that he cannot control.
  • If he can’t control reactions such as feeling hungry when he smells his own father’s suicide-exploded head in a microwave, it makes me think big things that I can’t answer but that pester me in eternal temporal flux; obvious questions like:

– What does it mean to be “human” if we’re all equally capable of reacting this way?!* What the hell is consciousness?!*

Let’s rewind a little bit:

“The microwave, O. The rotisserie microwave over next to the fridge, on the freezer side, on the counter, under the cabinet with the plates and bowls to the left of the fridge as you face the fridge.” (248)

Now rewind even further:

… to Gately (cannot for the consciousness of me find the page right now), when he is able to find his way around Duplessis’s house with ease because he’s noticed that humans generally stow their things in the same places and in the same arrangement. Gately talks about a similar arrangement as Hal does in the para. above.

And now scoot over to the middle distance of Molly Notkin’s thesis party*** where some of the party voices say:

“— more interesting issue from a Heideggarian perspective is a priori, whether space as a concept is enframed by technology as a concept.”

“It has a mobile cunning, a kind of wraith- or phantom-like —“ (233)

Back to Hal:

… who has to hear from Lyle that Hal has to give the grief-therapist a textbook response in order to go through with it. Considering Lyle’s function and character, and based on my understanding of spiritual-ish characters (I am thinking of that rabbi at the end of A Serious Man), I know that you only hear what you are meant to hear at the time of asking, which doesn’t mean that your situation will be resolved, but whatever you’re told is told to get you moving along, so Lyle tells Hal what he needs to hear. Hal is so extremely intelligent, obsessed with language, self-conscious, and cerebral-ish that he has to fool himself into thinking that he is only acting out what the grief-therapist wants to hear. But the truth as I see it is that Lyle has framed this understanding for Hal just enough so that Hal can go through with it in his own way — so that Hal can reveal himself to himself and actually accept that something smelled delicious.

And but so, why am I giving you all of these eggies from the book?

Hal’s reflex to his father’s suicide, the way he got through grief therapy, and the way that humans somehow have very similar patterns of arranging things, and designing houses a certain way so that things end up in a similar arrangement all point to something that has to do with habit that is far from conscious…

What I just said sounds really obvious, but I’m going to give you another eggie that will hopefully make you “?!” just as much as it does to me:

“You know, of course, that human nails are the vestiges of talons and horns… That they develop in-utero long before the cerebral cortex. […] That at some point in the first trimester we lose our gills but are now still now little more than a bladdery sac of spinal fluid and a rudimentary tail and hair-follicles and little microchips of vestigial talon and horn.” (257)

Tell me, jesters, are these facts not truly exotic?! Am I making sense?!

There is no way to follow and unravel all the patterns for clean cause-and-effect relationships, but knowing the complexity of these patterns, I think that being aware of them definitely affects how we might think of free will, of consciousness, and of how we are changed by things and technologies.

In case you would like to continue feeling “?!,” I recommend Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in which he talks about how writing changed humans. In one of the essays, he discusses Shakes’s King Lear w/r/ t writing (main function of which was law-creation, in the context of KL) changing the relations among family members, specifically the relations between Lear and his daughters as one that shifted from roles to jobs.

I am not clipping my nails tonight.

See y’all at p.m. drills.

*(major emphasis on the disorienting emotion conveyed by the interrobangs).

***they are drinking sweet, muddy B.C. apple juice! Excuse me one second: SHOUT OUT TO DAVE LAIRD + SUNRYPE!

P.S.: We don’t have gills when we are bbs in the womb.

The Worst *terrifically intense*

Orin is the worst. I can’t stand Orin. Now, I don’t think you’re supposed to like him, but still. He’s terrible. And whenever he comes into the book, I may get a laugh or two but then I’m like:

(Maybe this is what Hal’s expression – noted as “terrifically intense” (258) – looked like while cutting that toenail right by the phone). Continue reading “The Worst *terrifically intense*”