Infinite Summer

The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil
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Author:  OneBigParty [ Fri Sep 04, 2009 5:09 pm ]
Post subject:  The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

As the Marathe and Kate at the bar section entered my head I began to get the sense of DFW having both an angelic and a demonic side.* A displaying of an extreme humanistic stance and something like its opposite in the text.

The Ugliest Girl Of All Time, for how could it get worse than this?:

"She had no skull...Without the confinement of the metal hat the head hung from the shoulders like the half-filled balloon or empty bag, the eyes and oral cavity greatly distended from this hanging, and sounds exiting this cavity which were difficult to listen...her head it had also neither muscles nor nerves...the sac of her head...the more than standard accepted amounts of eyes and cavities in many stages of development upon different parts of the body...cerebro-and-spinal fluids which dribbled at all times from her distending oral cavity...cerebro-spinally incontinent woman...[needing] special pans and drains...[and she had] a hand-hook" (778-780)

Her face, surreal in bad way, beyond the droopiness and meltiness of a watch painted by Dali. With the use of the word "incontinent" it's as if her head literally shitted and pissed. And eyes and cavities on her body?

Let's call her Blob I. Consider the similarities, because also limp-headed (a symbol of what their hideousness does to a man's penis?) of Blob I to Blob II: "It":

"a vegetable (like Marathe's wife became)...invertebrate...[not a] valid member of the chordate phylum...[lying] in a heap...with only the whites of its eyes showing [a life in death look], with fluid dribbling from its mouth and elsewhere, and making unspeakable gurgly noises...pale and moist and...stagnant...soggy...paralytic pliability [which afforded It the ability to be raped, despite paralysis is what seems implied]" (370-371)

After one of her many rapes It had an expression straight out of the chordate phylum that she's said to not be a valid member of, another life in death twist, a theme that's come up before in the book. (Were her eyes rolled back then, too?) "Its expression...Its face looked post-coital sort of the way you'd imagine the vacuole and optica of a protozoan looking post-coital after its shuddered and shot its mono-cellular load into the cold waters of some really old sea." (373)

"It" is not only less than human, but akin to the very lowest form of life. And while experiencing one of the most sublime of emotions in human life. A total turning on its head of the natural order of things.

Both Blob I and Blob II are, paradoxically, participating in what are some of the highest forms of human connection, desire, sex, marriage. Although in the case of Marathe, it is passionless desire. Here the idea of desire/despair over the unattainable beauty is turned on it's head. When there is deep despair, to the point of suicidality, over not being able to be with a woman it is usually the case that female beauty plays a big part, at least in literature. In Marathe's case he was suicidal over not being able to be with a woman beyond hideous. Their "participation" in humanity doesn't cause us to see the Blobs as any more human; the descriptions of them just don't allow that.

The extremes of the idea of the P.G.O.A.T. and Marathe's wife, the extremes of what desire is to different people in a way are parallel to the two opposite facets of DFW's overall text. So I don't think that DFW is writing about Blobs I and II to get us to feel compassion over their plight (although who is more lonely than they are, who would have more reason to be "psychotically depressed" than people like this? Because they don't think, they don't feel, so we don't have to feel for them either.) That's not what the writer focuses on. In Marathe's wife especially the "ick" factor is very high, and for me that's my main reaction to her. How else to think of a face that seems to continually urinate and defacate? It seems as though DFW is intentionally trying to really gross us out. Furthermore, I think it can even be seen as a sort of (maybe unconsciously) power-trip/sadistic attitude towards the reader. He does it because he can. "It' being imagine things and describe things that will be more repulsive than anything we have ever seen before. But on the other hand, where has there ever been more penetrating descriptions of internal mental suffering in human beings, one that arouses compassion and understanding even in people who haven't experienced this? There are all those other sections of the book that are so completely unlike anything in literature that has ever dealt with these difficult subjects. This is DFW as angel.

*The eye of the author is sometimes a very judgemental one. He notices things that innocent (I'm not one of these) and even not-so-innocent eyes would not notice about other human beings--the average ones that we see everyday. Here are a few examples:
That old men who are physically fit look creepy.
That Norwegian blond people's blond eyelashes are creepy.
That people who look like they have Down Syndrome are included in the ranks of the hideous, therefore by extension people who have Down Syndrome are hideous.
When he thinks up the example of the fat woman who's fat makes her lose control of the situation, especially the fecal aspects of it, he's not painting a pretty picture of fat people either. He's making this person into a kind of Blob too, that has no control over her body. The fat man in the Meeting at Quabbin Recovery Systems is not painted too flatteringly. This all reminds me a little of the story that DFW wrote (whose title escapes me) of the boy who looks at his father and rather repulsed by what he sees. My impression is that he has a bit of "snotty looking-right-through-you-if-you-weren't-a fucking-covergirl (or coverboy) Ken E." in him. When human beings in the text are defective, it's almost like they might as well be "Blobs" because he sometimes sees creepiness in just what's average. (I admit that I catch myself doing the same thing.) And if you're not a P.G.O.A.T or a 56-year old woman who is physically fit--notice that doesn't make her creepy--and only seemed to get sexier as she ages, then you're defective. Okay, so I'm exaggerating. Is this deliberate or the effects on him, as on all of us, of "the USA image-culture"? Is he just trying to show this or is he controlled by it to some extent? Is it really just humanism in disguise? What do you all think?

Author:  OneBigParty [ Sat Sep 05, 2009 8:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

I have to insert a bit more here: the above is not to say that most of us aren't both angel and devil, too. But when a writer sets himself up to be the former, to be a kind of moralist answering the problems of our time...well, it invites one to take a closer look in close reading. If I hadn't heard so many comments from DFW himself I don't think I would have bothered.

But why do I feel like I just threw acid on his book?

Author:  jenco [ Sun Sep 06, 2009 5:23 am ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

I've also given alot of thought to Marat's description of how he fell in love with his wife. This is a facinating section, in which the willingness to give one's life for another person is depicted as a sort of ultimate transcendence of the self.

This notion is occurs in countless instances of world literature. What's amazing here is how DFW takes it to the radical extreme. He depicts a man who has fallen in love with a mate who is ugly and deformed and repulsive and the mental equivalent of a vegetable.

But the transcendence is so powerful that it dosen't really matter. Real redemption comes not from being loved, but in making the choice to love.

Author:  testforecho [ Sun Sep 06, 2009 11:41 am ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

OneBigParty wrote:
I have to insert a bit more here: the above is not to say that most of us aren't both angel and devil, too. But when a writer sets himself up to be the former, to be a kind of moralist answering the problems of our time...well, it invites one to take a closer look in close reading. If I hadn't heard so many comments from DFW himself I don't think I would have bothered.

But why do I feel like I just threw acid on his book?

I don't think DFW set himself up as moralist answering the problems of our time. I think he has a pretty keen insight into and ability to articulate about what it's like to be alive now. I don't think he gives us any moral commandments or suggestions to deal with these problems. His commencement speech could be misinterpreted as preaching, but he tries to warn against that in the speech itself:

"But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water." It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

Your feeling that you just threw acid on his book may be caused by your own mis-reading of DFW's intention. I don't think he intended IJ to be a book that preaches to our time. Also, I don't think everyone would agree with your understanding of DFW's intention in writing the descriptions of Joelle, Marathe's wife and the molestation victim. There are many ways to view his intention of describing these characters as he did. One perspective you may consider is, how the other characters relate to these people. For example, Marathe loves his wife. The molester puts a mask of a movie star over his victim's face. We can write a book about how Orin, Gately, etc. relate to Joelle's and how Joelle relates to her own beauty or deformity (note that one of the deformities she reads from the UHID pamphlet is a term for excessive beauty).

Don't take this as criticism. I just think there are other things you should consider before you dismiss DFW as a devil and IJ as deserving of an acid bath.

Author:  OneBigParty [ Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

Yeah I'm struggling to think of those characters the way you do. I'm a little surprised that I seem to be quite alone in that. Thanks a lot for your helpful comments.

Author:  bluestocking [ Mon Sep 07, 2009 3:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

Wait, no! I totally agree with you OneBigParty. We are MEANT to be beyond the outer limits of grossed out, here. Clearly, Wallace tried his damnedest to create the most repulsive imagery imaginable. Gave it his All, as it were. I submit though that this effort was made in an attempt to communicate disgust with what Ernest Becker called "creatureliness." Disgust with corporeality, meatspace, mutability, the entropy-prone, the finite. That which eats lobsters, you might say (cf. Virginia Woolf, who wrote of a dinner party, "We are putting the bodies of dead birds in our mouths." DFW was similarly grossed out by bodily functions, fluids, etc., in real life as in his art.)

You will recall that Mildred Bonk, a perfect, beautiful girl, is the opposite of creaturelyand the opposite of It. She is "wraithlike," "iridescent," "a vision," "who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal-emitter's dreamscape." She herself does not sweat. Nor do we hear a syllable about her own (possible) concupiscence; one suspects a creature so angelic of being wholly above the crude demands of the flesh.

The real horror of It is that It is capable of lust; that an object of such repulsiveness a) can be tricked out in a Raquel Welch mask and used as a sort of living sexual device and b) that even a barely human creature such as this would have some really horrible deep paramecium-like need satisfied in such a depraved scenario. Yikes!

Author:  bluestocking [ Mon Sep 07, 2009 4:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

Furthermore: I LOVED your equation of Blob I and Blob II. It's almost like they are the same person! (Could they be, even?) How did I miss that?

As for DFW's harsh judgment: he was indeed a harsh judge of a lot of things. "K-Mart People," grammatical solecisms, selfishness, greed, Young Republicans, you name it. He was very up front about the stuff that grossed him out (a LOT of stuff.) But he often saw that propensity to become grossed out as a flaw in himself. His purifying candor gives us the chance to mull these things over freely, to wonder aloud what really ought or ought not to gross us out.

I hope you'll talk more about this.

Author:  OneBigParty [ Wed Sep 09, 2009 12:17 am ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

I think DFW was unusual in that he could be really "harsh" as you say, bluestocking, and as I so clumsily say the "opposite of humanistic"--hence the tropological devil imagery--as well as incredibly gracious and good. (And I'll say it again, as we all are--but he was so in touch with it.) Both with a superlative genius, with gusto, I mean man, if he wanted to let out or portray the darkness, he could reallylet us have it, as he did here. I think it's perahps putting people off and I'm sorry, but I can't help still thinking about how these two sides of him may be informing his writing here to the extreme in the text we are considering because I can't help thinking of something I read on repats blog about another text, the short story "The Depressed Person". Repat related how DFW told her that "he wrote the story from a very mean, angry place, about someone. She was hurt by it, he said; she recognized herself immediately, he said." I thought of that text as a totally humanistic text, until I read this information. I was, on first reading, made uncomfortable by the story in certain ways, because it also can be read as a pretty accurate description of a person with the neediness and whatnot of a character disorder (and if you know anything about that diagnosis, it's can be quite an insult to the person so it makes a lot of sense from this standpoint that the person he wrote it about would be hurt), but I also felt comforted by the aspects of the story that show that the author understood depression. This little anecdote shows me that he could let sides of himself out in his writing that maybe he didn't like at all, but he went ahead and did it anyway. I'm guessing he was probably way beyond harsh with himself, if he regretted it later at all. I think the grotesqueness he points out in people and in the hyperbolic characters and relationships he creates are part of that.

So these are the questions that came up earlier, to summarize:
As I said above about myself, I have some of that harshness, maybe even the capacity for grossness and seeing things in human beings that can generate the disgusting and that you sure wouldn't want to hear about, in myself too, so I'm not setting myself up as holier-than-him, it's just very intriguing that he puts this type of extreme disgust-generating stuff in his writing and begged the question for me, what is his relationship to this material and to the reader here? I mean with the Blob I and I, now Is the grossing out a form of emotional discharge, like the story cited above seemed to be? That's what I was asking above. About it's purpose. Or a way of trying to get us to a more human place? Or is it, just as I've asked in another part of the forum, and as it says on the back of my copy of IJ, just a "wickedly funny" way to create a world?

Well, I think you've explained the answers to these questions in a very intriguing and erudite way, but I just wanted to give a better sense of the hunch, because that's mostly what it was--until I read repat's blog--behind my post.

The way you put things is far better than any elaboration I could make besides this on my first post.

Author:  bluestocking [ Wed Sep 09, 2009 10:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: The U.G.O.A.T/DFW as angel and devil

AWESOME post I loved it.

The truth hurts. Not least, the truth about ourselves ... in IJ this is illustrated very clearly through (to take the first example that comes to mind) Don Gately's difficult and painful AA "sharing," where he is confessing all his weaknesses and doubts and this confession turns out to be the most valuable sharing there is. I see that as 100% analogous to Wallace's own struggle to speak the truth at all times, the most painful and disturbing parts of what it means to be human, to be an adult, to be <i>alive</i>. Which does indeed turn out to be the thing that makes many of his admirers feel so close to him.

Thanks again for this.

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