Tag Archives: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Self Without Awareness (Finally)

In the short piece, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Wallace introduces a new kind of character, a type that we have not seen from him yet.   The narrator/protagonist of the story is purely rational, distant, and trusting.   A far cry from Wallace’s more common neurotic, emotional, and troubled characters.   The interesting part is, this new character provides fresh perspective on several of life’s troubles.  

Our oafish narrator seems to categorize and catalog his world, to relate to it through a system of terms and definitions.   Wallace at times uses italics for this, as whenever he alludes to broad social concepts, be it, “special effects,” “ignorantia facti excusat,” or “old-fashioned way,” italics come into play (Wallace 186, 185).   There are other uses for italics, but I have trouble dissecting them all.   Anyway, this method for viewing the world creates a distance, mentally and emotionally, between the narrator and the rest of the world, including his unfortunately deformed mother.

While this separation is certainly profound, this character does not express any of the symptoms of alienation, anxiety, or isolation that we’ve seen in so many of Wallace’s other work.   In fact, he’s incredibly trusting and even a bit hopeful.   He puts a great deal of faith into the Los Angeles legal system, listening to his lawyers and agreeing with commercials (186).   He even defines sleazeball as the “the ones who say they will really get down in the dirt of the trench and really fight for you” (187).   He also puts a positive spin on his mother’s unlucky facial mishap, jokingly encouraging her to be an extra in film roles, “as an extra in one of the many films nowadays in which crowds of extras are paid to look upwards in terror… Which I sincerely regret, after all I’m all the support she has” (186).   The mother is quite bitter about the whole situation, and yet the narrator manages to find a smile in it.  

He is also trusting of his society in that he believes himself to be of “studious bend.”   He confirms this through standardized testing (184), without any sense of inner confidence or prescience.   He simply relies on cultural standards, as outlined in his system of definitions.   The whole setup creates an odd coupling of isolation and trust, alienation without the anxiousness. There is no real self-awareness here, just Self, which is the precise opposite of the majority of other DFW characters (the author in “Octet” and the protagonist from “Good Old Neon” as quick examples).

The question then becomes what do we learn from this lack of self-awareness in a story that’s apparently about philosophy? The narrator reminds me of Ignatius J. Reilly before he’d remind me of Plato. Is he any better off than the anxious self-aware characters? Could a system of blind trust be better than one of anxiety and loneliness?    

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

It turns out that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is also the title of a groundbreaking philosophical treatise written by Richard Rorty in 1979.  Rorty’s work was concerned with dissolving “the notion that epistemology is the arbiter of what is rational in Western cultures.”  A very basic encapsulation is that Rorty is trying to argue that philosophy should have a more practical use, opposed just attacking the “pseudo-problems that only exist in the language-game [Wittgenstein!] of Analytic philosophy.”  

I’m struggling in tying this to Wallace’s homonymous fiction piece.  I think that Wallace has slipped in what an aforementioned pseudo-problem might look like: “the first surgery’s bandages came off then one could at first not ascertain whether the face’s expression was a reaction to what she saw in the mirror or if itself was what she saw and this was the stimulus causing the noises” (185).  The way reality is represented (mirrored) the mind has been at the center of philosophical debate since Descartes.  This scene, although somewhat comically, seems to be addressing one aspect of this big question.  In P.A.T.M.O.N    Rorty seems to be arguing that this shouldn’t be the focus of what philosophers argue over.  

This parallels the narrator’s view in the story, which doesn’t seem to be about caring for his mother’s disfiguration, but more about taking care of her.  Ultimately, he seems to care for his spider husbandry more than anything, but regarding his mother the narrator is protecting her against “some young duo of punks or hostile organisms” (189).   This is reminiscent of the AA outlook in Infinite Jest: it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as the program achieves positive results.  In this case, the positive/pragmatic result seems to be making sure his mother isn’t harassed anymore than she already is.  

Still there are tons of unexplained things.  Why does the narrator grow black widows in his garage?  What’s the deal with the lawsuit over the child who fell through his garage roof and released all the spiders?  How does it relate to Rorty’s philosophy?


Wikipedia: Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature