Self and Other

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The theme of Self and Other exists in much of Wallace's work. In particular though, it shows up most in his two published novels, Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System. There are several ways in which this theme could be represented besides just Self and Other. These include: "Inside and Outside," "Yin and Yang," and in one specific case "Orin and Subject."

Self and Other deals with how characters interact with other characters in their stories and how they compare what exists inside of their heads with the outer world as a whole. Oftentimes, characters are plagued by the feeling of being alone, inside their heads, and try to find ways in which they could escape from this feeling. Lenore Beadsman deals with this, as does James Incandenza (trying to relate to Hal in Infinite Jest. In some cases, the idea that the Self is being controlled by Others arises as well. The most extreme case of this is when Lenore begins to question whether or not she is just a character in a book and she is just what other people have written her to be.

When considering a separation between Self and Other, another idea comes into play: boundaries. In order to have a Self and an Other, there must exist some sort of boundary two separate and exist between the two. In The Broom of the System, the term used to describe these interpersonal boundaries is a "membrane." This boundary allows characters to keep the other out as much as possible. The strength of the boundary however can vary from character to character, or even over time when looking at a single character. The idea of letting an Other come through the boundary to become part of the Self arises in The Broom of the System as well.

Wallace also discusses Self and Other in his interview with Larry McCaffery.

In Infinite Jest

In Infinite Jest, Millicent Kent "ask[s] Mario if he'd ever seen a girl's yin-yang before... Her literal term for it was 'yin-yang'... 'Yin yang,' Mario offered, nodding" (124-5). Here, Kent's euphamism makes the connection between Self and Other and the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, two opposing yet complimentary forces. Yin and yang are thought to arise together from an initial quiescence or emptiness which is sometimes symbolized by an empty circle, not unlike the empty circles that serve as section breaks in Infinite Jest. The yin and yang continue moving together until they reach a state of emptiness and rest again- not unlike the restful state many of Wallace's characters strive for. Yin is black and female, while Yang is white and male. Kent's "yin-yang" is apt, then, as it signifies the source of life as well as the site of union between the male and female.

Another example of Self and Other is looking at James Incandenza and Hal Incandenza. This relationship is specifically built on how the Self (James) deals with and relates to a single, specific Other (Hal). In particular, James has become very concerned, (without any base of evidence of course), that Hal has become unable to talk anymore. This fear is mainly played upon because his father treated him in the same way. This would represent for Hal, from James' point of view, that Hal has become to enclosed/attached to his Self, and has stopped interacting with Others. This relationship is very important as it directly leads to the creation of the Entertainment, which James makes for his son, Hal.

Wallace also plays with Self and Other dichotomy in Infinite Jest. He essentially switches it around, as Orin Incandenza refers to the women he pursues as Subjects. For Orin, instead of a Self/Other, which could be abbreviated as S/O, we have an Orin/Subject, which could be abbreviated as O/S, exactly the reverse. Hal points out that Hal calls them subjects when he clearly means the opposite, i.e. objects. Indeed, Orin certainly thinks of women as Objects, as he has a "need to be assured that for a moment he has her, now has won her” (566). However, Orin is also looking for "The One" i.e. the ultimate Other/Object, and "this is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough…. For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would be not he or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I and We. Orin felt this once and has never recovered, and will never again” (566-567). Here, Orin seeks to fuse the Self with the Other, the Subject with the Object.

In Broom of the System

In The Broom of the System, Wallace investigated very thoroughly the theme of Self and Other. He touched on the issue with the very obvious words and actions of Norman Bombardini, but also in a more serious and subtle way regarding Lenore Beadsman and her struggle to identify and define herself. Throughout the novel, Lenore is concerned that she is being defined by the words and actions of others, and that she needs to determine where Other stops and Self begins.

We see different characters work in different fashions to reconcile Self and Other in TBOTS. Rick Vigorous, for instance, consistently and openly attempts to possess Lenore. It is never enough for them to be together. Rather he needs her (Other) to be his and needs to control her. His strategy appears to be one in which the Other is contained within the Self.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Norman Bombardini. He intended to eliminate all of Other (with the possible exception of Lenore herself) and simply have the world contained in one monstrous Self by “grow(ing) to infinite size” (91). This is just a destruction of Other altogether.

In the end, Wallace utilizes the relationship between Lenore and Andy "Wang-Dang" Lang to perhaps suggest that the proper way to reconcile Self and Other is not through consumption or destruction, but rather through an elimination of the barriers between the two entities. The quote, "Now I didn’t mean to make you sad…. That’s my sad, it’s not your sad” (417) seems to suggest that Lenore, and perhaps Lang also, has transcended, at least momentarily the wall dividing the Self and Other through love. In loving Andy, if only for that moment, the Self and Other may have become one and the same, solving the Self and Other puzzle.

Occurrences in Wallace's work