Author Archives: emrad

Help me with my TSL article

I promise to take this down, but first I need some help. I’m writing an article for The Student Life on where we get our news, so let me know: Do you read the newspaper? Get it just for the crossword? Get your news online? Listen to NPR? Watch Colbert? Don’t care about the news at all because while you watch 9 hours of TV a day, you spend every single one of those 32,400 seconds watching   M*A*S*H repeats? How interested in current events are your friends? How well-informed do you think the student body is in general? Comments are cool, or email me at

Thank you!

Gately’s click, and some semi-related questions

I was quite taken with the fight scene when Gately stands up to the “Nucks.” Two things interested me in particular. First, the way the fight forces Gately into an animalistic, instinctual mode seems similar to what DFW is driving at in general.The immediate threat and adrenaline surge make Gately feel alive: “At the blade’s sound teh situation becomes even more automatic and Gately feels adrenaline’s warmth spread through him as his subdural hardware clicks deeper into a worn familiar long-past track. Having no choice now not to fight and things simplify radically, divisions collapse” (612). Since DFW is writing about what it means to be human, here, the definition of human seems to be a racing pulse, but more importantly, a stripping down of divisions. The “subdural hardware clicks” obviously remind me of DFW’s own clicks- for Gately, the fight causes something to click into place, and he feels alive. The fact that he clicks into a “familiar long-past track,” however, troubles me, because this track seems to refer to his former track as a burglar. In the face of danger, Gately is reverting back to a pre- or uncivilized nature. When he was a burglar, he clearly disregarded society’s laws and ethics, and now, he enters a sub-dural place where animal instincts alone determine right or wrong, although those terms no longer apply, because “divisions collapse.”

Furthermore, I think Gately’s click back into a pre-societal, animal state relates to a click back into a pre- or just non-linguistic state. The divisions that collapse exist through words, as language creates difference. This is tangential, but seems worth noting- something I’ve been thinking about generally w/r/t DFW is how différance seems quite similar to the infinite space between two objects; the infinite regression of 1/2’s between two points, for example, reminds me of the eternal deferring of signs. Back to Gately.

However, the fact that “Gately has just division enough to almost wish he didn’t feel such a glow of familiar warmth, a surge of almost sexual competence” (612) shows that he is still embeded in culture enough to know that his animal urges are (at least in society’s mind) “wrong.” He is sufficiently immersed in division (i.e. language) to consciously recall the difference between right and wrong. The “surge of almost sexual competence” reinforces the instinctual nature of his click- Gately is an animal with powerful sex and death drives, and his competence is neither right nor wrong, but totally natural.

I was also taken by the metafictional way DFW choreographs this fight scene, but also talks about choreography as it if were something different; the ultimate effect is that, just as with Gately, “divisions collapse.” Although DFW states: “it’s impossible, outside choreographed entertainment, to fight two guys together at once; they’ll kill you” he immediately writes that “the trick to fighting two is to make sure and put one down for long enough that he’s out of the picture…” (613). Essentially, even though it’s impossible, DFW is telling is how to do it. But the question remains- can it actually be done, or is Gately only so capable because he is in choreographed entertainment? For example, Gately “pirouettes around twisting the broken arm behind the guy’s back,” “the guy rolls gracefully,” and Gately “gets all his weight into a Rockette kick” (613). These images are not only choreographed fight moves, but reference dance choreography. There’s nothing incredibly lethal about the fight scene at all- it doesn’t seem scary, and is funny because of the dance imagery. Later, Gately “waves off concern with the left hand and goes ‘Flesh-wound'” (615). This Monty-Python reference adds to the humor and choregraphed-nature of the scene, but is also unsettling. I can’t get my head around why, in a scene where Gately’s clicking into something so primal and human that DFW can’t drop the irony… Is the fight figured in dance-terms because of the beauty of being human and animal? And if so, where does that leave the flesh wound irony?

I was also curious, what do you make of the fact that the Canadians have so much Hawaiian-themed shirts and leis? I find them funny, but also unsettling. Is it that Hawaiian culture has been so coopted and bastardized by America that now they are being reclaimed by a completely different group of anti-Americans as a statement of independence? What does that say about the Canadians? About Americans?

Return of the broom

The broom of the system figures prominently in IJ’s narrative, at about the novel’s midway point. Lucien Antitoi has “a broom he made as a boy, carved out of a tree branch” (483), and this broom serves multiple functions, not least of which to remind us we’re in Wittgenstein territory.

Lucien “is one of the few natives of Notre Rai Pays ever who cannot understand French, just never caught on” (480). He practices the three French words he does know on the broom, but he really seems to have a sort of pre-linguistic existence: “he attends mutely, meticulously, and with childlike innocence to the general cleanliness of the store, using a broom he made as a boy, carved out of a tree branch” (483). He sweeps with “his stout trusty broom” (482), but has also sharpened the tip so that it serves “as a sort of domestic weapon, even then, before ONANite experilaist impost made any sort of struggle or sacrifice remotely necessary, as a silent boy, keenly interested in weapons…” (482). Even though Lucien was silent, he had a keen interest in the broom’s second (linguistic) function. The broom is a relic of his childhood, and now shows his inability to participate fully in the Notre Rai Pays- he is excluded from it because he cannot enter their language game.

In a way, Lucien uses the broom as a crutch- practicing his limited vocabulary on it, and never cataching on to the rules of language in general- he is thus like Vlad the Impaler, repeating one catch phrase over and over, out of context. Furthermore, Lucien has “pretty good intuition that the lone comunicable ‘va chier, putain!’ wouldn’t be a good idea in this context” (fn206.1034). The only words Lucien knowns, the only thing he can communicate, is totally innappropriate given the context- it would function to offend his assaulters. His “lips are quivering not so much from fear — although there is certainly fear — but not from fear spo much as in an attempt to form words. Words that are not and can never be words are sought by Lucien here through what he guesses to be the maxilloficial movements of speech, and there is a childlike pathos…” (488). The childhood pathos recalls his childlike innocence, as he goes through the same process a toddler would while trying to learn English- appropriating the right movements, trying to communicate. I think this whole passage, especially given its context (there’s a broom right there!), can be seen as Lucien’s gestation- perhaps it’s a tribute to Joyce’s Oxen of the Sun chapter in Ulysses, where he traces the gestation of the English language, though obviously on a smaller scale.

Lucien soon becomes Vlad the Impaled, as the broom’s function expands from crutch to weapon. In a particularly gruesome passage, “the broom is shoved in and abruptly down by the big and collared A.F.R…. down Lucien’s wide throat…” and this elicits “the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream” (488). Lucien’s inability to speak or understand makes him a landed-fish, out of his element because he is speechless. He becomes impaled by the broom whose significance he could not comprehend.
DFW describes Lucien’s death in unusually poetic language in the final passage of the chapter/episode, structurally reinforcing perhaps the idea that Lucien’ss linguistic gestation is complete: Lucien becomes “newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palidsades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues” (488-9). Where Lucien had struggled with language in life, and could not understand the nuances of language or word’s meaning as function, he now speaks all the world’s well-known tongues; he has achieved linguistic mastery through his “necessary” “sacrifice” (482). He matures, as he moves from “childlike” to “near maternal.”

There seems to be a dark implication here that we must be impaled/killed by our own brooms/words in order to transcend language. I think this ties in to what DFW said in the McCaffery interview, that the author must “be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. And the effort to actually do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage that I don’t seem to have yet. (McCaffery, 150).

Random thoughts

1. I was running on College yesterday and noticed a building’s inscription: “This building is a symbol of a house not made with hands… -Eleanor Browning Scripps” It reminded me of “Church Not Made with Hands,” and I thought, how curious, until I realized DFW probably walked past this building quite a bit…

2. I was reading Infinite Jest yesterday outside, trying to position the book to block the sun’s glare, which involved holding it at length above my head. Needless to say, my arms started to ache. I tried to stick it out, but when I got to a passage with a ton of endnotes, and kept having to flip awkwardly in the air, I gave up, flipped over onto my stomach, and started thinking about the endnotes, and the weight that must be transferred every time we move back and forth… The endnotes, I think, illustrated physically (though on a much smaller and less painful scale) the sensation of the bricklayer being pulled up and down. Is Infinte Jest too much weight to pull? It’s certainly a rather heavy book, emotionally, intellectually, psychically- and physically, of course. Does the book exceed the reader’s weight? Sometimes I think it exceeds mine- it’s got this gravity that just sucks me in- into the book’s universe but also into myself, pretty solipsistically, I might add. It’s scary sometimes, because I feel like I’m the bricklayer being yanked around by this weight, and it’s exhilerating, but also unnerving, and whenever I stop reading, I have to just sit there and like, hurt. What would Lyle say about all this? What do you say about all this?

I thought about maps, and got a little lost

I was struck by eschaton, and decided to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “Eschaton means the end of the everything, the final destiny of the world, as studied in the subject of eschatology.”

In the eschaton scene, the line between reality and the game becomes blurred, quite literally by the snowdrops. Even though “it’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory” (333), the question remains: “is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though” (334). Does the snow in real life effect the weather in the game? And how much does the game effect their “real life”?

It’s interesting that Eschaton requires used tennis balls- they’ve outlived their function (as tennis balls) and their final destiny is a symbol of nuclear warheads, which in turn, are capable of quite literally eliminating maps by destroying territory and messing with countries’ borders in a real war. Also, lobbing a tennis ball creates an arc much like that of a nuclear warhead. It’s also interesting that Orin, a master of eschaton, can so quickly change sports, or maps, but still perform the same function- lobbing the ball to just near the end of the map. This near-end seems significant.

This map reminds me of the Borges story “On Exactitude in Science,” where the cartographers guild decides to make a one-to-one, exact map of their Empire, which ends up on top of every inch of the territory, a palimpsest in ruins. In a way, the Eschaton is a virtual-reality type mapping onto the physical territory; its rules govern the field of allowable play, but only apply when the game’s map is over the territory. Take away the map (the arbitrarily drawn lines) and the territory has no rules. This seems like a statement about life in general- that perhaps we create games and rules for some sort of map/order, which is artificially imposed on top of the organic territory. But that brings us back to that solipsistic question: is that organic territory even the “real world, quote unquote,” i.e. isn’t it pretty likely that the territory we see is merely our perception, and that if might be just as artificial/contrived as the map we’ve placed over it?

Furthermore, on a personal level, “map” seems to signify telos. For example, in footnote 75, “Hal’s private dread is that Tavis will want him to offer up his personal competitive map and dignity to John (‘N.R.’) Wayne…” (998). Here, the competitive map is the carrot on the stick- what drives Hal to even try in the first place. The map is his raison d’etre, which is essentially arbitrary and comes from without. Here, an “utter demapping” (998) would be total humiliation and would eat at Hal’s resolve for the WhataBurger.

“De-mapping” comes up later, when “Emil still had him [Poor Tony] marked for de-mapping” (300) or death. Furthermore, earlier in the novel, Joelle tries to “eliminate her own map for keeps” (220) or commit suicide, which would be the end of everything for her, fitting in with the map in eschaton. When she freebases, Joelle feels “sheltered by limits” (235), in a self-contained and safe world. But the world has no such sheltering limits, the map is not concrete. To eliminate the map would be to remove the lines that create the bounds of life… essentially the only way for Joelle to escape the “game” of her life (and this game plays out [pun intended] in various ways for various people…) is to end her life. She sees no viable way to destroy the map without also destroying the territory.   Would eliminating her map have eliminated her territory? Would that have ended the real world for her?

I see this map/territory question as very related to the questions of abstract/conrete and idea/fact we talked about in class today. I feel like de-mapping removes the abstraction of Joelle’s thoughts, making her just a concrete thing, or territory. At the same time, I can’t get over the fact that a map is a concrete collection of geographical facts, but is also an abstract representation of a concrete place… hence, I think, the Eschaton’s players’ confusion over the snow. This is further complicated by the fact that Infinite Jest essentially creates a new, fictional map (not that all maps aren’t to some extent fiction) over North America, creating his own geography and new national borders (ONAN).

Now I’m completely confused, but one final thought: if one accepted life as an organic territory, and accepted and decided to deal with everything that comes with the territory (so to speak), i.e. all of life’s ups and downs, convex and concave parts, highs and depressions, etc., without trying to impose our own map of artificial parameters, limits and goals (the main goal DFW seems to see people driving/punting at is a constant state of anesthetized happiness or a general, perpetual high), then perhaps one would never feel the unbearable urge to de-map like Joelle.

Annular fusion

In Infinite Jest, DFW uses the word “annular” frequently, fitting it into a variety of semingly unrelated contexts. It creates an interesting thread to follow through the disjointed narrative. According to the O.E.D. (and yes, I’m an O.E.D. woman, Doctor) annular means, “of or pertaining to a ring or rings, ring-formed, ringed.”

Even extra-lingual aspects of Infinite Jest are annular. For example, the circular symbols in between pagragraphs are certainly ring-shaped. On another level, they separate the different narrative threads, such that each thread becomes its own ring, in addtion to forming a larger ring of the novel itself.

Time takes an annular form in Infinite Jest. For one, the book starts in the final year of narrative time (Year of Glad), and then moves back via Hal’s memory to a much earlier date. While this shift could be seen as a mere flashback, a jump back in a linear time scheme, I think it makes sense to consider it an annular move- the narrative comprises a giant ring, and DFW shifts back and forth along it, with equal ease in each direction. Also, this may just be me, but it seems like it is often April 1, which is interesting to me because it’s like Avril I(ncandeza), Hal’s mom, and the return to April 1, each year, in the ring of narrative time, represents a return to the mother/origin/source. The fact that this is April Fool’s Day adds further signifigance- it is a day of Jest, a day dedicated to Poor Yorick and all the other Fools.

To bring those two ends together (in true annular form), at WYYY, there is “a numberless disk someone hung for a joke, to designate the annularized Great Concavity’s No-Time” (183). The numberless disk is a “joke” in the same way DFW’s little numberless disk section breaks are a “joke.” They designate the novel’s annularized, narrative No-Time.

More from the O.E.D: “annular process or protuberance (in the brain): the Pons Varolii; ‘a process of the medulla oblongata; thus called by Dr. Willis [1664] in regard it surrounds the same, much like a ring.’ Chambers Cycl. 1727-51.” This annular process seems a little too similar to “the coaxial medulla” that the WYYY engineer pumps the music through “into the crawlspaces above the high false ceiling of the corpus callosum’s idle tennis courts” (183). Here, we have DFW making architecture into a (prosthetic) body part, much like the phone center with a human temperature and the Antichrist’s lymph node in Broom, only this time, we have radio instead of telephones- a different speaker-listener ratio to be sure (still trying to figure out the significance of that… thoughts?, but not so far off. Within this body/object, the annular process is a step toward (radio) communication.

Furthermore, the engineer who pumps the sound out through the annular coaxial medulla is ALSO an annular physicist: his “graduate research specialty is the carbonated translithium particles created and destroyed billions of times a second in the core of a cold-fusion ring” (185). In this “cold-fusion ring” (a very annular set up indeed) the particles are created and destroyed in annularized No-Time, existing “mostly to explain gaps and incongruities in annulation equations” (185). These particles seem to me to correspond to the work we’re supposed to do as readers. Ideally, I think, our neurons should be firing billions of times a second as we read Infinite Jest. I know that while I read, more thoughts pop up and disappear than I can possible process or deal with properly, lest I read at the speed of about 1 page per hour. So these thoughts pop up and die, and ultimately, I believe, serve to fill the gaps in the novel, gaps left by DFW’s heavy use of annularized No-Time.

Later, as Joelle prepares to commit suicide, the ring of creation/destruction gets expanded to human level: “The ultimate annular fusion: that of an exhibit and its cage” (222). Is the real annular fusion the ring of self-consciousness that leads us to feel trapped in our solipsistic cells?

Another question- is annular fusion somehow related to/an answer to the question about a potential physics of fiction?

Wittgenstein in the Book Review

Just thought I’d share Jim Holt’s review of Alexander Waugh’s new book The House of Wittgenstein

Octet- interhuman sameness or obscene secret shame?

In “Octet,” DFW claims that he wants his piece to do all these incredible things. I admire his ambition, but I’m not atr all sure he suceeds. I want him to suceed in producing “belletristic fiction” that “works,” but I really don’t know if “Octet” is anything more than some “mortal gymnastics equiptment” (156).

For starters, why doesn’t DFW actually just “ask the reader straight out whether she feels it, too, this queer nameless ambient urgent interhuman sameness” (157). Why does he create a barrier to that sameness he claims to so urgently feel by hiding behind this metafictional “you”? He claims that the “unfortunate fiction writer – will have to puncture the fourth wall” (157), but does he? He comes so close, and this is what frustrates me the most: he acknowledges, at length, exactly what he would have to do to puncture this fourth wall; he knows how to do it, but he can’t, and I think the big question, the one the stories in the octet and, perhaps more importantly, DFW’s seeming inability to actually come out and be honest, asks us is:

Can we ever transcend/stop hiding behind our own self-consciousness and become truly, genuinely “other-directed” (138)?

We are ashamed of our self-consciosness because it is a sign of self-involvement, but isn’t that shame just self-involved on a whole new level? I.e. if DFW just came out, unarmed, and said “‘Do you like me? Please like me‘” (154), would that be more, or less, self-involved? Is there any way to penetrate that wall? If “the idea of sayig this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene” (154), does that mean it actually is obscene? Is it obscene (improper, immoral, indecent, all those bad things) to be totally naked/unarmed? Isn’t it only obscene because we’re trapped in a fourth wall of post-lapsarian/post-modern cynical self-consciousness and “secret shame” (141)?

In Pop Quiz 6(A), “X’s secret conflict and corrosive shame finally wear him down so utterly and make him so miserable at work and catatonic at home that he finally swallows all pride and goes hat in hand to his trusted friend and colleague Y” (139). My Pop Quiz question for DFW (who I really think needs to be quizzed here) is why can he write characters who do this but never do it himself?

My question to you- do you think he succeeds? If so, WHY/HOW?

Non-fiction as light reading

As much as I have a penchant for literary criticism and loves me some close reading, I am very much a civilian reader. I like chick lit. Sometimes I’ll read 5 or 6 of said chick lit novels in a weekend. It’s wonderful. I like flimsy plots driven by name brands. I like wildly fantastic stories I can get swept up in for hours on end. I like large fonts. And I like page turners. As a civilian, I read to relax, and so I usually (about 95% of the time) go for a novel. While I like non-fiction, and certainly read my fair share of it, I do it when I’m a thinking mode. But as far as relaxation goes, say, when curled up in bed or laying out in courtyard, non-fiction always seems a little ambitious/like schoolwork.

When I want to read DFW to as a civilian, i.e. to simply relax, on the other hand, I would never pick up his fiction! I’d go straight for non-fiction, make my self a cup of tea, and chill out. I love Infinite Jest, but it’s really hard, and not relaxing. Broom was more of a page-turner, but even that’s a stretch. DFW’s non-fiction, on the other hand, is effortless in the way most fiction is for me. Each essay is a neat little package of tight writing, expansive vocabulary, effortless humor, and superhuman eye-for-detail. He writes about topics I’d never even think to read about (state fairs, luxury cruises) and topics I really couldn’t care less about (David Lynch) in such an engaging way. His essays are page turners of the best sort. He even makes the death of the author seem accessible and sort of sexy (which it’s really not, but he’s that good).

And the best thing, the thing that makes it so refreshing, is that it shows DFW’s humanity. I love the way he writes himself into his essays in, what at seems to me, brutal honesty. When he points out what’s wrong with the world, he never overlooks himself, and comes off as, not only insightful, but acutely self-aware and remarkably humble.

By now, it’s become plenty evident that DFW loves to talk about consumption. We are programmed to consume. We consume too much. We love it. We live to do it. We consume and consume and consume, mindlessly, and it leaves us (ironically) totally empty, more so than we were before, so we consume more. Most of this consumption (tv, food, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc.) seems designed to be mind-altering/numbing, to both assist us in becoming and help keep us sedated. As I read Girl With Curious Hair, I was consistently astounded by just how much (both in terms of frequency and sheer quantity) his characters smoked. It really got to me, until I learned that DFW has a “penchant for nicotine (and worse).” What a wonderful little phrase! And what a normal guy! For some reason, it’s assuring to learn that the same man who writes at such phenomenal length about consumption and its ill-effects ultimately just wants to unwind and be mindless for awhile too, but also, really wants to write about it.

Eros, Anteros, Agape… Where’s the love?

I’m about halfway through “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” and am intrigued by how DFW conflates love, sport, violence, and authorship.

He writes that “logically it seems like if your sight and aim are truly true, the arrow should always land just to the left of target-center, since it’s angled off in the wrong direction right from the beginning. But the straight-aimed and so off-angled target arrow will stab the center, right in the heart, every time. It is an archer’s law that makes no sense. How is this so?” (293) DFW likens the “truly true” aimed arrow to the well-intentioned story, which can be “menacingly alive, self-sufficient, organic… but still outside the creature who desire to take it inside and make a little miracle. How is this so?” (294). In both cases, we have a well-intentioned aim, a straight-shot for the heart. At the risk of being too graphic, the arrow and story are the semen that never reach the egg: the author shoots his story out and it becomes “his, yet it is not his” (294), and never fully gets inside the “creature who desires to take it inside and make a little miracle,” a child, an original thought.
The archer, or writer, with his true sight and aim (a true intention of hitting the target) while shooting for the “center” and the “heart” made me think of Eros, the God of both lust/erotic love and, fittingly, the creative impulse. I also think its interesting that Eros uses a weapon to pierce hearts… DFW imbues all the “love” with violent images in this manner. What do you make of it?

On the other hand, there is Anteros, the God of requited love. Basically, Ares and Aphrodite gave Anteros to their first son Eros because he was lonely (not unlike the way God gave Eve to Adam as a “helpmeet” to remedy his loneliness), because love–to be a true human connection–must be requited. This made me think about mediation and what DFW sees as our need to feel like we’re being watched, because requited love allows the lover to see his/her love mirrored back to them in their lover’s love for them, if that makes any sense. Eros and Anteros didn’t have an erotic relationship, but shared a genuine human connection, a brotherly love, which seems like a model for true companionship.

The two get separated however (I forget why) and Eros goes out looking for Anteros. His eyes become so strained from always aiming his arrows, however, that one eye got blind, and he is constantly duped by Anteros-imposters who stand on his blind side, preteneding to be his beloved and loving companion.
Mark is a blinded Eros, out looking for his Anteros. His gaze is so narrowly focused from aiming all the time, however, that no matter how true his aim is, he is duped by the infertile DL, who isn’t even pregnant and who’s name is pretty manly. She is an imposter because she never desired to take “it inside and make a little miracle.” She is strikingly masculine–tall and breastless, she struts like a cowboy. She makes Mark seem impotent by comparison, because she’s always producing, shooting off her creative drive, even though it’s cold.

In the Greek tradition, there are many types of love in addition to eros, or erotic/passionate love. I think DFW uses eros to get at agape, which seems like his larger concern. Agape is multifaceted, but boils down to feelings of humanity, love for mankind, connectedness, wholeness–in short, contentment. Whereas eros demands reciprocation (has the self-conscious need to see itself being loved and loving), agape demands nothing in return, because it is a general feeling of already being complete. This whole Self/Other dichotomy and the quest to fill up or be filled by another is pure eros. I think DFW portrays sex so harshly is because he sees erotic relationships as a metonym for our failure to attain an agape type love: he mediates sexual encounters with rough language as a stand-in or example of the way we mediate all of our connections through tvs, telephones, masks, etc.