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September 8, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

The Triumph of Life (The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza, Part I)

Our long-awaited ghost has finally shown up – Himself is a visiting wraith in the dreamy, partially conscious imagination of Don Gately (pp. 829-840). The scene is wonderfully drawn, as Gately first experiences a series of “visitations” – from Tiny Eldred Ewell, who tells us about his forgotten shame; from Calvin Thrust, who gives us an excellent update of goings-on about Ennet House in the aftermath of the Lenz-inspired night of violence; even from Geoffrey Day.  We also get a nice bit on the Entertainment, or possibly so, since Clenette H. had “promoted” (i.e. stolen) a bag full of cartridges from E.T.A. that were to be disposed of, though these cartridges have yet to be viewed (p. 825; we should also suspect that these are cartridges found in the underground meanderings of the Tunnel Club, three bags-worth about half-full, p. 670; for a thorough accounting of this line of reasoning, see Jeff Anderson’s Journeyman post).  Gately is finally left alone long enough for the wraith to begin talking to him.

Gately’s slipping in and out of consciousness reminds me of another “fugue-state” vision with some interesting thematic parallels to IJ: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s unfinished masterpiece, The Triumph of Life.  Triumph, of course, being both a processional and also a conquering.  The poem begins with the narrator, having sat up all night, falling into a vision state; the dawn is marred:

When a strange trance over my fancy grew / Which was not slumber, for the shade it spread

Was so transparent, that the scene came through / As clear as when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer

And then a vision on my train was rolled.

Gately himself is fustratingly (to him, anyway) aphonic during this time, unable to produce anything more than kittenish mews when he opens his mouth, but though he falls in and out of sleep, he is also seeing very clearly in these non-interfacing interfaces with his visitors – as if through Shelley’s “veil of light.”  The veil is a crucial image, of course, for it both inhibits and illuminates. (As Joelle noted way back during her Very Last Party, “The absence of the veil dulls the bathroom’s smells, somehow,” p. 236).  A confessional is also a sort of veil through which truth may pass, and Gately thinks to himself that he is like a confessional for all of these visitations: “Don G. as a huge empty confessional booth” (p. 831).

The word ‘veil’ actually shows up another four times in Shelley’s poem.  And he is rightly famous for another sonnet, Lift Not the Painted Veil, which begins:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there, / And it but mimic all we would believe / With colours idly spread, – behind, lurk Fear / And Hope, twin Destinies

Also interesting is Shelley’s image of an appearing train, La Culte du Prochain Train being the “root-cult” of the A.F.R., or Les Assassins des Fauteils Rollents.  Make of it what you will, probably just more fractals spinning outward from our text-at-hand to the worlds we inhabit, a not-uncommon occurrence for most IJ readers.

Still, the apparent message of The Triumph of Life is one that resonates with the post-ironic readers of IJ. Here are words of the wraith that has appeared to Shelley:

‘Figures ever new / Rise on the bubble, paint them as you may; / We have but thrown, as those before us threw,

‘Our shadows on it as it passed away./ But mark how chained to the triumphal chair / The mighty phantoms of an elder day;

‘All that is mortal of great Plato there / Expiates the joy and woe his master knew not; / The star that ruled his doom was far too fair.

And life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not, / Conquered that heart by love, which gold, or pain, / Or age, or sloth, or slavery could subdue not.

and later, famously,

the wondrous story / How all things are transfigured except Love;

Amidst the failures of the ages, the breaking of backs and the lives ground to dust, the misrepresentations and abuses of emperors and philosophers, Love is the unconquerable spirit that helps to arm all heroic figures, and is a buttress against the depredations of life.  This is a swell thought for those seeking an escape from the too-limiting, hyper-self-conscious narratives of postmodern fiction; Shelley’s romanticism comes without any of the putridity of sentimentalism, but nevertheless holds out a human heart which can still experience bereavement, sorrow, and a magnificent opposition to decay and death.

‘Mask after mask fell from the countenance / And form of all; and long before the day

‘Was old, the joy which waked like heaven’s glance / The sleepers in the oblivious valley, died; / And some grew weary of the ghastly dance,

‘And fell, as I have fallen, by the wayside;— / Those soonest from whose forms most shadows passed, / And least of strength and beauty did abide.

‘Then, what is life? I cried.’—

And there ends Shelley’s unfinished poem.  Reading the poem reminds me that I must be prepared for an unfinished Infinite Jest, too.  There are simply too many clues that all of our questions will not be answered, all of our needs will not be sated.

But then, it is the very nature of a text to clamber its way off of the page and into the world.  To tie everything off so neatly is merely to deny death, the point at which everything and nothing is answered.  We draw boundaries the best we can, but those boundaries “overrun” the limit points we have tried to set.  What I recall here is nothing more than Jacques Derrida’s description of a “text,” and the reason he claims there is nothing outside of the text: “a text that is henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.”

This quote comes from Derrida’s description of none other than Shelley’s The Triumph of Life (in the book Deconstruction and Criticism (The Seabury Press, 1979), including essays by heavyweights Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartmann, and J. Hillis Miller.  Derrida’s 100-page essay in entitled “Living On – Border Lines”).  In it, we find one other odd linguistic ocurrence, an occurrence that will have to wait until Part II of this post to unravel.  We have a connection between the figure of the revenant (ghost) and that of the figurant:

the story of glory engulfs or clouds over a sort of paternal figure, placing it in an abyss-structure, in vision-beyond-vision. The story obscures the sun (“the sun their father,” says The Triumph of Life) with a blinding light. (Thus perhaps the mother lives on, and on, as a ghost – a phantom, revenant – an absolute figurant, a walk-on who walks on and on… I am my father who is dead and my mother who is alive, says Nietzsche at the midpoint of his life, in Ecce Homo, after passing through blindness.)

James O. Incandenza, the ghost who has been haunting the entire text of Infinite Jest, the auteur, the addict, the father, the creator of the Entertainment, is the revenant.  Yet he identifies himself as a figurant, a walk-on character, a “fractional actor” (p. 835), continually obscured and yet now able to be seen through the clarifying gaze of the veil.

Alas, this post has gone on long enough, and like Shelley’s poem, must remain unfinished, too.  But unlike Shelley’s poem, I promise to return soon (in Part II) to analyze J.O.I.’s wraithy self-identification as figurant, and attempt to answer the questions: Why did J.O.I. put his head in the microwave?  Why did he create the Entertainment?  Why is Hal aphonic in the Year of Glad?


Leave a Comment
  1. Daryl Houston / Sep 8 2009 10:42 am

    So now you can see why I was so giddy when you brought up ghosts what seems like so long ago. 🙂

  2. Jeff / Sep 12 2009 5:33 pm

    Thanks for this. I’m never really sure how I feel about Shelley (although I do appreciate your description of his “romanticism [that] comes without any of the putridity of sentimentalism”; that seems right on the mark), but this was an interesting excursion.

    As another minor link between IJ and the poem, the description of the poem’s narrator’s interlocutor seems like (a Shelley-fied version of) something DFW would write: Oh, I thought that was just an old root, but it turns out it’s a dude. With holes in his face that were or had been eyes (a DFW-type specificity of verb aspect).

  3. Aaron / Sep 15 2009 7:27 am

    What I found really interesting was the suffering Gately (pulling a Job moment) thinking about Higher Powers and so-called Loving Gods: “What if God is really the cruel and vengeful figurant Boston AA swears up and down he isn’t?” (p. 895)

    So far as the events of the book go, God-as-figurant is pretty dead on. So what does that make James-as-figurant?

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