“The Dark Stars of Melt”

The entitled kids atop the hill at E.T.A.—whose leisure-game Eschaton eats up a significant portion of this week’s reading—presents an interesting juxtaposition to the world-weary addicts down the hill at Ennet House as they attempt to Hang In at AA meetings they deem to be absurd yet strangely effective. Interestingly, we see Hal, Pemulis, and their peers languishing on various drugs as they spectate the Eschaton debacle, headed for a life of substance-dependence and addiction themselves, but without enough life experience to have hit their own rock-bottoms yet. One day they might just slouch down that hill to Ennet House themselves.

My friend Nathan has been reading Infinite Jest for the first time recently, and told me about his experience reading the Eschaton scene on an airplane, embarrassed by his subdued but irrepressible laughter in a cabin full of bored and tired strangers. Moments that do it for me, comically speaking, include:

  • Everyone’s “thanatoptic fury” (327) [“thanatos” meaning “death” in ancient Greek, which I happen to know about because I actually took ancient Greek in my undergrad for some masochistic reason]
  • Jim Troeltsch’s running commentary of the game, which is “tough to enliven, verbally, even for the stimulated. Being generally too slow and cerebral” (329) [Troeltsch probably being my third favorite character after Mario and Pemulis]
  • Evan Ingersoll in the act of “positively strip-mining his right nostril” (332)
  • Struck’s being “abruptly ill all over his own lap” (331) [which if you recall from my post last week is funny for already established reasons]
  • And then also LaMont Chu’s “throwing up into the Indian Ocean” (341) [Ibid.]

The scene is also punctuated with moments of meteorological beauty, such as, “It starts to snow harder, and dark stars of melt begin to multiply and then merge all over the courts” (334), and “the no-sound of falling snow” (342), which strikes me as a beautiful but apt paradox.

So Eschaton, as you’ve probably noted from this week’s posts, is a fan favorite section of the novel, and for good reason. Its technical detail and metafictional cleverness make for 20 pages of ear-to-ear toothy glee. Nathan (the Guide) hinted at some of the interesting critical stuff going on in this scene in his post this week, and at the risk of me getting too academically obtuse and going against the Guide’s Mandate laid out by one Mark Flanagan, I’ll just briefly mention a few additional quotes about how fun the map/territory elements of this scene are, as they relate to Jorge Luis Borges’ cartography fable discussed by Jean Baudrillard at the outset of his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” (if you’re into this sort of thing). If it’s new, simulacrum is a weird phenomenon whereby copies are produced of an original thing that doesn’t actually exist. Baudrillard uses Disneyland’s themed “Lands” as examples of this kind of simulation. And so we get:

  • Pemulis: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” (333)
  • Axford: “Except is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though!” (334)
  • Lord: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!” (334)
  • Unknown: “Real-world snow isn’t a factor if it’s falling on the fucking map!” (334)
  • Regarding Hal: “It also occurs to him that he finds the real-snow/unreal-snow sang in the Eschaton extremely abstract but somehow way more interesting than the Eschaton itself, so far.” (335)
  • Narrator: “Now a real-world chill descends over the grainily white-swirled landscape of the nuclear theatre.” (337)
  • Pemulis: “It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory.” (338)

So that aspect of the scene cracks me up, and like Hal muses, it’s abstract stuff when put in relation to post-structuralist critical theory’s blah blah blah.

And then in the AA section, this made me laugh for a sustained 30-40 seconds, “Four-year White Flagger Glenn K.’s personally chosen Higher Power is Satan, for fuck’s sake. Granted, nobody in White Flag much likes Glenn K., and the thing with the hooded cape and makeup and the candelabrum he carries around draw some mutters, but Glenn K. is a member for exactly as long as he cares to Hang In” (352).

These moments are part of the reason Jest is so personally compelling to me, that combination Wallace strikes between high-art philosophizing and low-rent slapstick that just about no one else can execute in quite the same way. Feel free to fire away in the comments about your favorite lines from Eschaton; there’s a lot there to laugh about.

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14 thoughts on ““The Dark Stars of Melt””

  1. I think the snow is also a reference to the most famous last-line in literature.

    From James Joyce’s “The Dead”

    A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

  2. I love Infinite Jest but just don’t enjoy the Eschaton section. Are there others out there who feel the same way?

    1. Yes indeedy! I did not ever do more than skim it until I read the thread on “map:territory::body:soul(or whatever passes for soul i.e. non-body-based consciousness, portion-of-the-All-That-Is, God, etc.). Other than accounting for Otis P. Lord’s unorthodox headware in the Gately hospital scenes, it left me, ummmm, cold…

    2. Yeah, sounds like there are! I find the high-level cerebral nature of the game to be so funny, given that kids in their early teens are playing it and seem to understand its great geopolitical and mathematical complexities. And then when all hell breaks loose, I find it so entertaining. :)

  3. “Everyone’s “thanatoptic fury” (327) [“thanatos” meaning “death” in ancient Greek, which I happen to know about because I actually took ancient Greek in my undergrad for some masochistic reason]…”

    You know why I knew this? Marvel comics. There’s a villain named Thanos and he is in love with the universal embodiment of Death. It’s amazing what prepares us for reading…

    1. I knew it from a poem I learned (the last stanza I memorized–“So live that when thy summons comes…”) in high school: “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. He wrote it when he was seventeen and I always thought that remarkable.
      The Eschaton section was mostly tedious to me, though Ingersoll’s acting out at the end, refusing to play by the ever-so-precise rules, reminded me of Trump’s blowing up the game of presidential politics with the “…degenerative chaos so complex in its disorder that it’s hard to tell whether it seems choreographed or simply chaotically disordered.”

    2. classic greek mythos
      the daemon of death itself
      twin of hypnos (sleep), son of nyx n erebos
      classic philosophy, lads n lasses
      eros/thanatos diachotomy life or death
      flight or fight
      esp when fight means death
      as well as Jungian psychology
      n d’v got them all in play
      one might say
      as d’v did not much play wargames, board or other
      as he told it
      eschaton sprang from discussions n ’85-’86 in Tucson about the Purdue Wargamers Club circa 1975 or so
      (in contrast to the reality of combat, which led to the forswearance of such trivial sillinesses);
      concerns about the control of trajectories in the ballistics of both weapons and tennis balls;
      and the current local push against Peacekeepers and the constant Warthog (A-10 Thunderbolt II) traffic over the campus
      from Davis -Montham AFB bound n back for bombing near Gila Bend
      and the national drive for nuclear disarmament building until the downfall of the Soviet regime
      a mite f historical context frm bck n th day

      now we’ll send y’all
      nto th fray

  4. Love the “Dark stars of melt” snip. Baudrillard is new to me and I will have to read that linked piece. I have wondered if Eschaton’s map and territory could be analogous to language and the world. Especially because both pairs often suffer from rule breaking.

        1. You don’t think that’d be a fun class to talk about Eschaton in relation to Baudrillard and Derrida, Rob? Too obtuse? Perhaps. :)

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