Shadow of the Wing of the Thing

It’s probably pretty obvious, but I should say outright that I am a repeat Infinite Jest reader. I’m even reading it twice right now with Infinite Winter and my now much-overtaken reading for Drawing on the Infinite.

All week I’ve been aware that my two readings are converging somehow. Reading Joelle’s pre-attempted felo de se party scene (which I can still acutely remember from a few weeks ago) and Gately’s se defendendo where Joelle steps in and up herself has helped me better understand how she’s come from one point to the other, and where some parallels lie with my own journey since first the very first time I read Infinite Jest.

What I was completely unprepared for was reading both these passages (the first is Joelle, the second is Geoffrey Day, and I think is what Jenni alluded to earlier this week) early yesterday:

She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.

And then more than 400 pages later:

Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey.

Setting out to cause her heart to explode, Joelle is totally encaged. She, like the younger Day, is living in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see.

When I first read Infinite Jest I felt as Joelle felt then. I was encaged myself in the claustrophobically infinite space of my own head. That sounds contradictory but it’s somehow not, in ways that don’t think I’ll ever have the power to convey.

Depression lives in two places: in the head and the heart, and it’s hard to know which is in control. You feel the horror and your head starts telling you it’s real. The more you listen the worse you feel and as you feel worse you thing worse things, more often. You become more convinced.

I spent my days weeks listening to my head devour itself like this. At night I’d shut my eyes and in the darkness see something darker. The horrific shadow of the thing.

The worst nights – mercifully few – I’d lie foetally awake feeling nothing but a tingling current down my wrists, an unwanted invitation, and hope that if I could just stay curled up there in bed I could get through the night.

What’s perverse about Infinite Jest is that for all the pain it contains, it doesn’t drag you down into those dark, bottomless places but helps show you that you can rise out of them if you do the work.

Infinite Jest is an empathy machine. The least it does is teach you that if you can’t get outside your own head, you can still get outside your own self. The way it does this, I think, is to show you so much you have to empty your head of your own baggage – whatever it is – to fit it all in.

But what it does way beyond all this is to let you truly leap over the wall of the self, as Wallace would put it, to trade places with these characters and understand them, as I have with Joelle and Geoffrey and Kate this week.

Through their Ennet House residency, AA participation and totally, brutally honest self-inventory-taking, these characters are all learning to understand and take some control over what they think and feel. I’ve never been in a halfway house, I’ve never been to AA, and my own efforts at this kind of honestly probably fall way short of our characters’, but I’ve learnt much of what they’re learning; and that’s thanks in part to this book.

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238/1079 “She is now a little under two deliberate minutes from Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.”
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6 thoughts on “Shadow of the Wing of the Thing”

  1. The concept of an empathy machine is interesting, fitting with Wallace’s stated belief in the ability of serious literature to convey consciousness, to experience the mind and soul of an author in a way real life cannot. I say “author” here because, after reading his work and resultant biographies, I see IJ as a sort of blame machine as much as one of empathy, an attempt by a person to try and sort out why he is the way he is (hyper self-conscious to the point of interior implosion, sexually, socially, spiritually warped) and therefore why some of us are similarly afflicted. Essentially, what happened? He partitioned himself into so many of these characters, staring down the barrels of past experience, looking for answers so that solutions might emerge. Gately, Lenz, those who differ in origin from Wallace himself are scanned for similar subterranean concerns and neurosis, digging for overlap, the desire to feel less lonely inside, “what it is to be a fucking human being.”

    1. I wish I had never had this thought, so I will kindly share it.
      I think there is/was a lot of DFW in Randy Lenz (although I think most of his cruelty was more mental than Lenz’s physical torment of animals, though Lenz was no slouch in mental meanness, either). Some of his actions towards others, if ELSIAGS is to be believed, were pretty unkind.
      He wanted to be Post-Ennet Gately, or even P-E Bruce Green, but never got there — too much Lenz remained unexplored or somehow un-dealt-with… Sigh…

      1. I have been thinking of Hal as DFW, mainly because of the description of his breakdown at the very beginning of IJ. Seems to be first hand knowledge.

        1. There is lots of DFW in Hal for sure, and vice versa. But after reading biographical stuff about DFW, Franzen, ELSIAGS, etc, I think that Hal, like Gately, is a more idealized version of whom DFW wished he were, rather than who he was…

    2. Interesting post. Sorting out why someone is the way they are is tough. For example, is their condition due to genetics or is it environmental? Perhaps we can blame those around us for our environment, especially during childhood. But, can we blame our parents for our genes?

      It’s not clear to me how Wallace feels about this question, but maybe both genes and environment are in play. With all the glimpses of the Incandenza family tree in IJ it does seem to me that Wallace viewed some of these topics as legacy issues.

  2. The worst nights – mercifully few – I’d lie foetally awake … and hope that if I could just stay curled up there in bed I could get through the night.

    “He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.”

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