One particularly striking feature of Infinite Jest is its odd blending of actual historical people with those of the fictional world that it presents. So far, we’ve seen the likes of Marlon Brando, David Lynch, Venus Williams, Jean Chretien, and now, recurring again this week, Winston Churchill. Wallace’s inclusion of these historical personages functions along the lines of theorist Brian McHale’s discussion of “transworld identities” in the world of literary fiction—in his 1987 book Postmodernist Fiction—whereby real-life people inhabit the world of fictional characters.
I wrote about this in my 2015 DFW Conference paper, in relation to Wallace and Infinite Jest’s cryptic inclusion in Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. I said that Lethem takes this idea even further in his book by fictionalizing Wallace by naming him Ralph Warden Meeker, and calling his “opus” Obstinate Dust. Many other parallels abound, such as the book constituting a “heft” that “must have been a thousand pages long” and instilling in its readers the feeling they’d “incurred a responsibility, [were] somehow doomed to the book.” Feel familiar?
I’m thus curious this week about the invocation of Winston Churchill yet again, and wonder what Wallace’s fascination with the man’s aesthetic failure signifies. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the British WWII P.M., having heard the legend of U.H.I.D.’s name origin as being coined by him, and Ortho Stice’s perfect Greco-athletic body being stuck with the face of Churchill himself:
The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed was unofficially founded in London in B.S. 1940 in London U.K. by the cross-eyed, palate-clefted, and wildly carbuncular wife of a junior member of the House of Commons, a lady whom Sir Winston Churchill, P.M.U.K., having had several glasses of port plus a toddy at a reception for an American Lend-Lease administrator, had addressed in a fashion wholly inappropriate to social intercourse between civilized gentlemen and ladies….W. Churchill — when the lady, no person’s doormat, informed him with prim asperity that he appeared to be woefully inebriated — made the anecdotally famous reply that while, yes, yea verily, he was indeed inebriated, he would the following A.M. be once again sober, while she, dear lady, would tomorrow still be hideously and improbably deformed. Churchill, doubtless under weighty emotional pressures during this period in history, had then proceeded to extinguish his cigar in the lady’s sherry and to place a finger-bowl napkin delicately over the ruined features of her flaming visage. (226)
Hence, the U.H.I.D. veil.
Stice is one of those athletes whose body you know is an unearned divine gift because its conjunction with his face is so incongruous. He resembles a poorly spliced photo, some superhuman cardboard persona with a hole for your human face. A beautiful sports body, lithe and tapered and sleekly muscled, smooth — like a Polycleitos body, Hermes or Theseus before his trials — on whose graceful neck sits the face of a ravaged Winston Churchill, broad and slab-featured, swart, fleshy, large-pored, with a mottled forehead under the crew cut’s V-shaped hairline, and eye-pouches, and jowls that hang and whenever he moves suddenly or lithely make a sort of meaty staccato sound like a wet dog shaking itself dry. (636)
From what I can gather, Churchill actually did say something to this effect to the politician’s wife, but it appears Wallace may have taken creative liberties with that last part, from which U.H.I.D. gets its name. And we can just picture Stice now, forehead fastened to the window, Hal trying to defenestrate him, and the Churchillian visage pulling away to reveal “for a second…what might be considered Stice’s real face, his features as they would be if not encased in loose jowly prairie flesh: as every mm. of spare flesh was pulled up to his forehead and stretched, I got a glimpse of Stice as he would appear after a radical face-lift: a narrow, fine-featured, and slightly rodential face, aflame with some sort of revelation, looked out at the window from beneath the pink visor of stretched spare skin” (871).
And so Gately’s dream in this section about Joelle van Dyne’s undressing to disclose “an incredible female body, an inhuman body…this body to die for,” with the removed veil revealing the “historical likeness of fucking Winston Churchill, complete with cigar and jowls and bulldog scowl” (847), really drives the point home, visual fantods-wise.
As to what Wallace’s fascination with Churchill’s mug indicates, I know not, except that he continually mashes up the grotesque with the aesthetically desirable in a great many places throughout the book. Think of Orin with his gargantuan left side, forearm and thigh in stark disproportion to his starboard side, and E.T.A. players with gorilla-esque arms pasted on the bodies of children. I read a 2001 essay on this subject by Catherine Nichols in a directed studies class with my MA supervisors a few years back, entitled, “Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” and I think she is very much onto something there.
Theorize what you think all of this Churchillian invocation might signify in the comments below.