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July 5, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

“… it seemed like it had to have been a bad sign, though.”

Shortly after posting my first entry, I went into the backyard and found a dead bird (“… an undistinguished kind of bird. Not a predator. Like a wren, maybe”) lying on the patio, still warm, but unresponsive to prodding. It now rests in a plastic bag, ready for disposal. Like Orin’s bird, there was nothing overhead, and thus the bird was the possible victim of a massive, abrupt coronary. But unlike Orin’s bird, thankfully, there was no frothing Jacuzzi to catch it.

The dead bird bobbed and barrel-rolled in the foam, sucked under one second and reappearing the next, creating an illusion of constant flight. (P. 44)

The image reminds me of an “Audubon bird” – or as I think Annie Dillard called it, an “Audubon cross” – a classic, if ironic, representation of the illusion of flight. The great naturalist and artist John James Audubon used to kill birds with small shot and prop them up with wires in order to draw them “as if” in flight. If I remember from my years-ago reading of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, he would also nail them to a tree. So, along with the artistic rendering of life via death (and an artifactual confusion between their identical representations), we get additional undertones of sin and redemption.

The sweating night fits of Orin, along with his obsessive control over the a.m. behaviors of his “Subjects” (to say nothing of the roach-under-glass project), all of this indicates a sin-consciousness initiated by dread that will presumably be the spur to any resolution of his project [2]. But (since this is still my first read of IJ), whether and how DFW decides to play this line of thought and character is unknown to me. At this point, we are left with simply a clear reminder that art can and even must use death to mimic life, that is, that no representations of living activity may be accurate without first finding the stillness of death.

Yet, we may also ask about, not simply the cause and resolution of Orin’s sin-consciousness, but the nature of that dread that has brought it about. In the chapter, most of the darkest descriptions describe dread as entombment, while another describes the passing of time as vertical, not horizontal:

  1. Orin wakes up “entombed in that kind of psychic darkness where you’re dreading whatever you think of” (p. 42).
  2. “By the next morning, waking up, curled and entombed, it seemed like it had to have been a bad sign, though” (p. 44).
  3. “These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light – the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer.” (p. 46)
  4. Fenton the televised schizophrenic test subject, five-pointed and fully wired: “the machine’s blurps and tweets not even coming close to covering Fenton’s entombed howls as his worst delusional fears came true in digital stereo…”, while Orin watches, “lying there slit-eyed, wet and neuralgic with a.m. dread” (p. 48).

To be entombed is, naturally, preferable after death, and yet what Orin is clearly struggling with is the feeling of death in life. Trapped, enclosed, separated from the human world for eternity, the screams of the entombed caught in an echo chamber in which they are never heard except by the locked away consciousness itself – all this with the added horror that one’s death in life is not even self-produced but, as with Fenton, one lives a death that is managed and controlled in a paranoid’s frenzy come true.

And if time is vertical, if a day must be climbed, only to fall back again at the end of it, then there is no meaningful escape from dread. Call it repetition, eternal recurrence, or the Sisyphean fate (Hal did mention that he’d be happy to discuss Kierkegaardian influences on Camus), in each case we are compelled to realize and affirm, rather than to flee. Orin provides a beautiful illustration of conscious dread without affirmation. I’ve always thought it interesting to see how post-existentialist writers, interested in the descriptions of conscious, subjective experience and thus required to address the fundamental categories of despair, forlornness, dread, are prevented from providing the kinds of resolutions that existential authors articulated (the embrace of ambiguity, maintaining an open future, religiousness B, rebellion, good faith, resoluteness, etc.). I expect I’ll return to this theme, as we wait to see if Orin must live out the Audubon fate of the bird or manages to escape or surpass it, to live with an awareness of finitude and death rather than being consumed by it.

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