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August 5, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Holy Schtitt, a Revenant!

When I first read (p. 260) that Schtitt calls Hal his revenant, a French word for specter or spirit, that which returns to haunt or otherwise horrify the living, I was confused. From the Hamlet-referencing lines DFW penned to begin IJ, we knew that some ghost or other would play a role, and of course the plethora of addictions throughout the text so far are full of hauntings – for what else is recovery from an Addiction but a kind of Haunting? Still, the typical appearance of a revenant is to indicate something along the lines of “see how the past dominates the future,” which is not an apparent fixation of IJ, and in any case young, talented Hal is not the candidate we would expect to make a ghostly appearance.

Nonetheless, Schtitt calls Hal by this pet name again in this week’s reading (specifically, pp. 450-61 passim.), this time in the context of an interesting lecture to the ETA players on how to “occur.” [Update: my discussion of this lecture is now posted as Schtitt on Two Worlds (vs. Buddhism).] The significance of the revenant remains murky at this point in the novel, but it is worth thinking about it to help prime our expectations for further “appearances.”

Let’s read this the way I did [19]. The first mention of revenant is here:

Hal’s delicate and spinny, rather cerebral game hasn’t altered, but this year it seems to have grown a beak. … He’ll probe, pecking, until some angle opens up [...]. Schtitt calls Hal Incandenza his ‘revenant,’ now. (p. 260)

This made no sense to me; in some folk traditions, a revenant returns in the form of a bird, but the connection is not terribly strong. So I pretty much forgot about this until the scene in which Schtitt calls out Hal on 9 November Y.D.A.U. for his laziness in a.m. drills, Hal not backpedaling quickly enough while working the overhead (an excruciating drill requiring him to run forward, touch the net, backpedal for a leaping overhead, sprint forward again, repeat until collapse):

Overhead, Schtitt uses an unamplified bullhorn and careful enunciation to call out for everyone to hear that Mr. revenant Hal Incandenza was letting the ball get the little much behind him on overheads, fears of the ankle maybe. (p. 454)

Hal’s ankle, we know, is a bit “out of joint” (do I go too far?), and he is unable to move as adeptly as he would like. So, perhaps Schtitt is calling him out as revenant ironically, for his inability to return (backcourt) from where he has been sent (the net). Still, this feels like a stretch. The word comes up once more in Schtitt’s fascinating discourse on Conditions, Occuring, and Two Worlds [20]. Here’s the quote:

‘Where is where you apply for citizenship in second world Mr. consciousness of ankle Incandenza, our revenant?’

Hal can lean out and spit in a way that isn’t insolent. ‘Head, sir.’

‘Excuse?’

‘The human head, sir, if I got your thrust. Where I’m going to occur as a player. The game’s two heads one world. One world, sir.’ (p. 461)

Where is it, Schtitt queries, that one finds the secret of how to play? It is in the head. Of course, we know that tennis is a “mental” game, and that, for example, the Clipperton saga is among other things a metaphor for the inability to deal with succeeding in what one has sought for all along (and thus one can even refer to the Clipperton “syndrome” (see p. 436), the failure to “keep the fires stoked” when a top ranking is achieved). For these problems, ETA has its very own Dr. Delores Rusk, M.S. Ph.D., though anyone with any sense goes to see Lyle (p. 437). But when Hal says “The human head, sir,” there is something deeply eerie and unsettling. Flip back, flip back… oh yes, there:

I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Don Gately and I dig up my father’s head. (p. 17f.)

While I’m sure others have written on the Hamlet parallel in detail, here’s my untutored explanation. In Hamlet, the Ghost or revenant claims to be Hamlet’s father, inducing him to revenge on his uncle Claudius. The skull dug up late in the play is that of Yorick, “a fellow of infinite jest.” In IJ, C.T. takes over the headmaster role after J.O.I.’s untimely microwave event, and “Prince” Hal ultimately digs up the head (which, from Hal’s description of the suicide (see, e.g., p. 256), cannot be expected to be a pretty sight). The revenant, then, should technically be J.O.I.’s ghost, and not Hal himself, according to any strict analogy.

But we need not be compelled by the analogy, and instead focus on the meaning of the revenant. For the appearance of the word ‘revenant‘ is a means of creating anticipation for what is “to come.” In 1994, Jacques Derrida wrote one of his more interesting texts, in which he looks closely at Hamlet in the context of his coming to terms with what he titled Specters of Marx. For Karl Marx, too, was deeply engaged by the revenant, by the overdetermination of the present by the past, and by the possibility of a return from beyond. His famous line, “A specter is haunting Europe,” is complemented throughout his work by the idea that money is “but a shadow” and an “apparition,” that the State is a “magical” entity that can transmute paper into gold, that the appearance of capital is “veiled.” Derrida writes:

As in Hamlet, the Prince of a rotten State, everything [for Marx] begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely, by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (“this thing”) will end up coming. The revenant is going to come. [21]

At minimum, this describes our readerly experience of Infinite Jest: we are anxiously awaiting the return of some “thing” (and Derrida further explains that the difference between a revenant and a spirit/Geist is the phenomenality of the revenant: it is a “thing,” though what thing it is cannot be known in advance). Perhaps it is J.O.I., perhaps it is the Entertainment (which was supposed to have been buried in the tomb of Himself – see n.#80, p. 999), perhaps it is even some purloined bit of Hal, since as I’ve indicated we don’t know for sure what it is that has stolen his voice. I’m betting DMZ. But we are still waiting.

I’ll conclude this inconclusive and promissory rumination with a brief comment on the messianic component of the revenant. Whatever is “to come” in the form of the revenant comes out of the past but more immediately it comes from the future. The revenant, whether in the form of a non-alienated, post-capitalist society or some other edenic pastures – or, conversely, the horror of, say, the Spider that is out there for each of us – is both “to come” and “not yet.” The messianic revenant “to come” is thereby an embedding of both the holy and the profane. As we profane what has become holy to us (and in our society, what is more holy than Entertainment?), as DFW profanes Entertainment by exposing its centrality to addiction, to despair, loss, death, Bottoming, and c., we are nonetheless and precisely for that reason exposed to something, some “thing,” that is more holy, that shows our present-day worships as misguided and replaces them with the truly holy. Holy Schtitt.

15 Comments

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  1. Daryl Houston / Aug 6 2009 5:22 am

    Outstanding, exciting reading here. I am having to clap hands over eyes, mouth, ears, nostrils, and anus to keep spoilers from bursting out. I’ll go so far as to say that you’re on a very good track (which is not to say whether or not there are any real resolutions — but you’re picking up on something valid here). Thanks for this.

  2. Aaron / Aug 6 2009 6:38 am

    Just to bounce off your final paragraph: the revenant comes “from the future,” right? Technically, so does Hal, who opens the book in “the future” (well, at least compared to every other pre-Glad scene so far). In fact, you could say that the entire book is an attempt to return to where Hal is (Glad), or to where he was sent (his head). I have another reading on the Schtitt section that I need to post about soon, but I’m loving everything you got out of it!

  3. infinitetasks / Aug 6 2009 7:10 am

    Aaron, great point! I hadn’t thought of that.

    Daryl, it must be hard to be so active commenting on the book when you’ve read it before. You do an amazing job of staying within the spoilers. I stay only one to two days ahead of the spoiler line, and this post is a lot of guesswork. Glad I’m not way off the mark!

  4. infinitedetox / Aug 6 2009 1:08 pm

    Beautiful stuff. I looked it up in the OED, and ‘revenant,’ in an obsolete definition, also denotes ‘pleasure.’ Which of course is a heavily-laden term in IJ…

  5. Jeff / Aug 7 2009 11:21 am

    Thanks for looking into this. It’s always confused me mildly that Schtitt calls Hal his revenant, but never enough for me to bother thinking through it. This is a nice analysis of the symbolic weight here.

    On a more prosaic level, I wonder whether Schtitt’s reason for using the term might be a combination of the sudden resurgence of Hal’s development in tennis (i.e., his game’s improvement has “return[ed] after … a long absence,” to take from M-W.com) and Schtitt’s peculiar personal English.

  6. Paul / Aug 7 2009 11:29 am

    I love the detail and care you fill your posts with. Even though I fancy myself as a good reader of this book, I tend to get lazy. So, I didn’t bother looking up revenant, thinking I knew what it meant. And I was quite, pitifully wrong. I had it in my head that it was a sort of play on “reverend” or at least “revered” [the laziness of a Catholic education] and that Schtitt was playing around with the idea of Hal being Jim’s son, etc etc. [Again, lit crit from a Cathlolic school, especially with a concentration on Joyce makes you see God in the details].

    But this brings up a whole new angle (Math jokes are too easy, right?) on things, and thanks for showing it to me.

    I also wanted to reveal my embarrassment at not really getting the Hamlet connection until after I’d seen so much about it. And, like with a hole in your shirt, once you’re aware of it you can’t stop seeing it.

    The one really fun thing about this Infinite Summer is seeing what so many people notice in the book (and then being humbled by the fact that it was written by one guy).

  7. infinitetasks / Aug 7 2009 12:17 pm

    Thanks, y’all, for the kind words and additional revenant meanings. We are humbled by one another, yet most of all by the polymathic brilliance of DFW.

  8. stephanie / Aug 8 2009 12:23 pm

    “Still, the typical appearance of a revenant is to indicate something along the lines of “see how the past dominates the future,” which is not an apparent fixation of IJ…”

    I actually think that is a fixation of IJ. We’ve been filled in on so many people’s family history, and their parents’ stories have carried into their own. In one of the AA scenes, Gately (I think) explains that AA teaches you not to make excuses or defend behavior by pitying your unlucky family situation, but at the same time, your experiences as a child/adolescent ultimately guide and shape who you become.

    I don’t have my book in front of me, but I’m sure there are a bunch of examples – JOI and his father, USS Millicent Kent and her father, Gately and his mom, Joelle and her father, Wardene and her mother, Poor Tony and his father, etc.

    That aside, I really love your interpretation / explanation, and I’m not contesting it or anything. I just wanted to add my two cents about the familial, particularly father/son or father/daughter, relationships in IJ thus far. I keep thinking of the movie Magnolia.

  9. infinitetasks / Aug 8 2009 12:37 pm

    Well said, Stephanie, and a fair response. The simple fact of the book being (among other things) about the Incandenza family, and the recollections of JOI’s childhood, indicate that I shouldn’t overlook the weight of this past and its “returns.”

  10. itzadrag / Aug 16 2009 3:43 pm

    Marry, Stephanie (in the Shakespearean sense), I tend to agree. I hallucinate a refrain while reading: the lyric “I’ll be damned, there goes your ghost again…”.

    Beyond the multiple individual family history references (incest, abuse, neglect, survivor guilt, problems with: self/other/us/them/clan/outsider), much of the Big Book IJ demonstrates elements of environment, and the effects of manipulation of same. Within, of course, the structure or limitations of that same family or tribe. The ghost of the father walks both before and after the son, very like that spooky surveillance box, very like recursive mirrors. Haunting, indeed.

    • infinitetasks / Aug 16 2009 6:25 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Itzadrag. I may pore over it a while, though. You’re more elliptical than even I!

  11. itzadrag / Aug 17 2009 7:55 am

    Or circuitous; apologies. Never got my dose of college lit analysis, and still jonesing for it, in an awkward, sophomoric, “fix me up” sort of way. A good moment to thank our sponsors for the Joy you bring. This here (as we say in TX) found drama is a deep pleasure.

    At issue was the past dominating the future as thematic concern, and echoes of the revenant. From the chronological structure, the inter-referencing endnotes, to the content, I agree with S. that this Past/Future influence is a mainline. Not only is the ghost-of-the-father seen arising from the past, but also is glimpsed walking ahead, about in the world at large. (Somewhat like the team surveillance box technique discussed by Gately & Day). I am paranoid enough, no?

    And w/r/t the Disease alcoholism, as well as misc. self/other abusive behavior patterns, the ghost of the father actually inhabits the son. These overdetermined generational remnants are the motley hand-me-downs worn by our present-time characters, at Ennet House & ETA, as S. mentioned.

    Hal “burns-too-bright” Incandenza wings it in guise of Icarus (another crafty father’s son), maybe, hurtling vertigo through the cumulo-clouded blue sky of his psyche, another doomed experiment of escapism. And so high in his mind, ever more remote from contact. Schtitt calls him out as “revenant”: a shade of his potential, afraid of his Achille’s weakness; an incompletely realized being, achieving plateaux justly slightly above mortals, but resting there too easily; the very ghost of his father in his distract-ability; mere smoke in his hiding-away (underground, no less); not Occurring as a focused mind, as a fully integrated being in “flow”, in the present connected Now of play.

    One other aspect of the revenant or ghost that strikes me as pertinent at this point in the reading is that of subject/object. As formulated by Hal when bantering with Orin, the “subject” really is the object of Orin’s act or intent. The spectre likewise is seen as glimpses of the past, or projected forward onto others. But Hal occasionally can make the distinction (when looking Orin-ward, rather than in-ward). He can spot a projection, and see the ghostly source as the unconscious drama of family/inheritance, or perhaps of archetype. Hal notes that the object is but a projection of the subject– that the ghost walks within.

    Was Hamlet madly seeking the outward ghost of his father? Or seeming mad, seeing it within?

    • infinitetasks / Aug 17 2009 10:36 am

      Itzadrag, thanks so much for the comprehensive deepening of your thoughts! If I can just highlight a part of that, since it deserves repeating ad infinitum:

      Hal “burns-too-bright” Incandenza wings it in guise of Icarus (another crafty father’s son), maybe, hurtling vertigo through the cumulo-clouded blue sky of his psyche, another doomed experiment of escapism. And so high in his mind, ever more remote from contact. Schtitt calls him out as “revenant”: a shade of his potential, afraid of his Achilles weakness; an incompletely realized being, achieving plateaux justly slightly above mortals, but resting there too easily; the very ghost of his father in his distract-ability; mere smoke in his hiding-away (underground, no less); not Occurring as a focused mind, as a fully integrated being in “flow”, in the present connected Now of play.

      This is an awesome set of connections – “he shade of his potential,” the too-easy resting and dissipation into underground smoke – beautiful!

      I also just posted on Orin and his Subjects (“Orin’s Endless Fall“), so if you like, we can develop O.-related issues there!

  12. itzadrag / Aug 19 2009 3:46 pm

    Most kind. I had just found that post and responded, before returning here. I deeply appreciate the skill and care with which all you writers consider IJ themes and characters. This multi-logue is wonderful.

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