The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

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The Ecstasy of St. Theresa was created by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini for the Cornaro famil Chapel in Santa Marria della Vittoria in Rome. According to Wikipedia, the two focal sculptural figures derive from an episode described by Teresa of Avila in her autobiography, The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582), a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun. The chapter describes divine visions, including one where she saw a young, beautiful, and lambent angel standing aside her body:

"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying."

Wallace makes explicit reference to the marble statue in Infinite Jest, but other implicit connections between the two abound.

  • According to Wikipedia, some modern critics have derided the semi-syncopal religious experiences as veiled orgasmic phenomena rather than spiritual encounters. In Infinite Jest, "religious experiences" are often related to orgasm, and true spirituality is highly questioned.
  • Joelle van Dyne is also critical of the statue: she "always sees, after inhaling [freebase cocaine], right at the apex, at the graph's spike's tip, Bernini's 'Ecstasy of St. Theresa,' behind glass, at the Vittoria, for some reason, the saint recumbent, half-supine... the angel's expression not charity but the perfect vice of barb-headed love" (235). As she plans to commit suicide, she expresses regret that the statue "is on perpetual display... and she never got to see it" (238), and immediately thereafter thinks that "she will never again say And Lo and invite people to watch darkness dance on the face of the deep" (238), which is her radio show Introit. As Madame Psychosis, Joelle leads a semi-religious experience, which has numerous "devoted listeners" (191), including Mario Incandenza, who "listens faithfully." Like St. Theresa, Joelle is veiled and hidden.
  • James Incandenza uses the statue in his film "Pre-Nuptial Agreement Of Heaven And Hell," in which "God and Satan play poker with Tarot cards for the soul of an alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman obsessed with Bernini's 'The Ecstacy Of St. Teresa.'" Joelle recalls "the 240-second motionless low-angle shot of Gianlorenzo Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa" which "ground Pre-Nuptial...'s dramatic movement to an annoying halt" and was "important for what was absent" as the statue lets the "alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman [whose perspective the scene is shot from] escape himself" allowing "freedom from one's own head, one's inescapable P.O.V." (742). The "almost moral thesis," Joelle notes, is "self-forgetting as the Grail" and "the self-forgetting of the alcohol as inferior to that of religion/art" (742).
  • At Molly Notkin's party, Film scholars speak of Infinite Jest's "ultimate cartridge-as-ecstatic-death rumor" (233), and the film induces the same "semi-syncopal" state the Theresa is in. The film then functions as perhaps Incandenza's final iteration of that almost moral thesis, wherein his own religion/art is a morally superior form of self-forgetting than the alcohol he was addicted to.
  • The statue is the centerpiece of a chapel, and on the side walls, Bernini added life-size portraits of the donors as if they were in theater boxes, watching the Ecstasy: the effects are theatrical, including the discourse the saint renders among the flanking Cornaro pedigree and thus the ecstasy becomes like performance. This is similar to the way James Incandenza depicts "audiences" in his own work, e.g. in "The Joke" which features "audience as reflected cast," and more similarly, "The Medusa v. The Odalisque" in which "Mobile holograms of two visually lethal mythologic females duel with reflective surfaces onstage while a live crowd of spectators turn to stone." Here, the audience depicted starts out live, but turns to stone, exactly like the donor portraits in the Cornaro chapel.
  • In Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way the protagonist Mark Nechter proposes a theory of writing wherein the union between Writer and Reader resembles that between the angel and St. Theresa. Mark, a a young writer struggling to uphold his unique literary ideals, is also an amateur archer, and this pursuit deeply informs his writing: he "sees himself as a would-be artist seeing himself as archer, baby Cupid; sick, bit Philoctetes, lover beyond time or compare. It is, he says, his one desire” (347), thereby analogizing writing to archery. Mark interweaves desire, love, and archery as he imagines himself as an artist imagining himself as a modern-day Eros. He wants to bind writer and reader together, and believes that when Ambrose and his peers distinguish between types of fiction, they create an artificial division that “does not bind.” This division is a “blind hatred” and Mark likens “dividing this fiction business” to “dividing history” and “dividing human beings” (346), which is the opposite of what he wants to do. He believes that writing is based on ahistorical truths and as an author, sees himself as a “lover beyond time” (347), capable of binding human beings with his writing. The drive to connect with the reader is inexplicably tied to the death drive (thanatos), as the arrow must stab the reader “right in the heart” (294). Furthermore, Mark acknowledges that fear (of death) and desire have always been entwined.