Good morning, Institute community,

Thank you for your continued accommodation during this period of spring renovation on our campus. As the tree excision and path retiling have been completed without incident and according to schedule, the work will advance as planned.

In the coming days, there will be significant person removal activity around Feld Hall. We will carry on doing our best to limit disruption to our campus. Several persons around Feld Hall, D Building, A Building, and B Building have lived quite long with managed care and regular maintenance. However, as expected, the persons have been dying out due to age, and they are becoming increasingly dangerous to pedestrians on our walkways and vehicles driving or parked near them. The second phase of this project will be to replace each person with the same species as the one removed at each location.

Thank you again, for all that you do or have done, sincerely.

The temperature is well below freezing, and the property manager has notified their tenants that the heating systems in their buildings cannot help but operate less efficiently in the present conditions. That must be the reason for my hearing, from inside the radiator: the violent bubbling of an unwatched stew; the desparate knocking of thousands of tiny gnomes; a tennis match greatly complicated by the nonstandard, coiled geometry of the court; the lurching of a vessel, like a boat or a stomach, at sea; a child slipping down the stairs; an alien turning to sludge in an unfavorable environment; a jazz drummer alone.

These were supposed to be the lines that came to me earlier in the day, when I was feeling deeply about the ordinary. But those lines have since escaped me. They were plain lines, like these, but they were also sublime, as I saw that moment, as opposed to these more muted lines. That is what I seem to be able to recall.

How did I get here? I ask myself, struggling to contend with the boulder atop me and the Earth below, each exerting their natural forces. I have only a ragged memory of what came before this—a pleasant stroll on the mountain, a little hunger… And then? I am at a loss. It all feels inappropriate.

The sun is rising or setting and the wind is weaving through the tree line or being wrung from my body. The question is a distraction. Without recourse, I gather the meager forces I have to offer, close my eyes, and try to wake.

Our ancestors would utter things like, What do you wot of that traveller?

The verb there is to wit, synonymous with to know, but with an especially mischievous set of conjugations: present tense wot, present participle witting, past tense and past participle wist.

(The word does survive in our times in the adverbial phrase to wit, though, to my understanding, this is employed exclusively in legal contexts or in affecting a hoity-toity attitude.)

Had you wist this curious archaism? In any case, with both you and I now witting, we must go on digging.

Apparently the word came to us in English via the German wissen, but the roots unfurl further, reaching Sanskrit’s veda, meaning knowledge (perhaps familiar from the Vedas, texts at the origin of Sanskrit itself), as well as Latin’s videre, meaning to see.

This prompts a pause for reflection: the kiss between the Latin and the Sanskrit, or what seems to be a widespread confusion in our species regarding pronunciation of the letters v and w, or this etymological bond between seeing and knowing. The word perceive comes to mind. Or compare the above wit with witness.

Perception traces back to Latin’s capere, meaning to take in, to seize, to understand. Think capture. Think Caesar.

One sees beside this the suffix -ceps, referring to a catcher or a taker, as in princeps: the first in line, foremost. And from there we reach principia, whence our principle: the foundations (q.v. Newton, Russell-Whitehead).

So the project of knowing is one of capturing, conquering. Which, by the way, darkens the alternative Biblical usage of know. Veda, too, could also refer to acquisition or the obtaining of wealth, as well as to marriage.

Know is rooted together with can (Latin’s gnoscere), the ability to do something resting on the knowledge of how to do so, or the worth of knowledge resting on the ability to make use of it. See also the word ken.

We must set down our spades and meditate. How are we to reconcile any of this with the decency, or at times even virtue, that appears to us in the pursuit of understanding? André Weil described his experience of mathematics by paraphrasing the Gita: one achieves knowledge and indifference at the same time. How poetic, but upon such achievement, did he not collect the fallen truths and immediately renew his hunt with them in hand?

The Gita perhaps meant to signify a different, less ravenous kind of knowledge. But I cannot conceive of it. And with all the arrogance and desperation I can muster, I am skeptical that anybody else truly has, for our languages suggest something incompatible:

This is war. We see and we know to seize reality for ourselves, to become able, so that we can construct or raze or iterate and improve, climb higher and see more, standing upon generations of giants’ shoulders all knotted and trembling in the throes of conquest, wielding our principles like incisors, riding in the pure name of knowledge, the pure names of our children, and at the end of it all, after we have trampled through this place, taken the beauty it has to offer, a passing traveller shall gaze upon a desert: walls of dust risen miles high and millennia long, and our names scrawled everywhere in the sand.

A question

By the window, I look out blankly to a perched bird as I listen to the music, and a question returns to me: What do you think it is in music that moves you? A pianist posed the question to me recently, and it has returned to me more than once. Or rather, what leads these returns is an inaccuracy I’ve recognized in the response I gave; still, the question itself follows along too.

I said that words usually played a secondary role in my experience of music. (The pianist did not contend.) But what I meant to relegate as secondary, I repeat to myself, was conventional meaning of words. There is also a purely musical facet of language to consider, in song and in general, a facet I have felt more attuned to as of late, feel to be essential. It is alongside these feelings that the question has been returning.


I am slipping between these reflections and the music when a loud beeping enters through the window. I understand the source to be a vehicle in the parking lot just outside, though none of this is visible to me. The beeping grates through the music, out of tune. It recurs approximately once per second and has rotted my mood. Each pause is just long enough that the previous shriek seems final, yet it persists, gluing my thoughts into a seething mass interpolating a prelinguistic internal scowl and a more linguistic disbelief that any vehicular operation in this lot could take so long to execute.

These thoughts disintegrate as a sensation pulses through me: the last beep unsettled me in a different way, I notice, evoked a different grimace; its ugly violence seemed flecked with musical potency. Possibly. The impression is indistinct, and while it may be the case that I am gradually making sense of the dissonance, momentary hallucination feels equally tenable. Unconsciously, I lean towards the window and bow my head a little, heightening my attention. The next beep is unenlightening, leaves me suspended, but I expect one more will do.

It does not arrive. The vehicle has relented; the music continues unbroken; the nature of their interference will not be resolved.

Further questions

I rejoin my previous train of thought: I hypothesize that I am more sensitive to musicality in languages I do not understand, where semantics have no chance to intervene. An analogy presents itself, between the character of a musical key or mode and distinctive demeanors that seem to surface in certain languages. I wonder about the language my parents grew up with, which I cannot speak and of which I understand only a fragment. I wonder whether, with less meaning in the way, something else filters in more easily, whether this might contribute, for example, to the funniness I experience in the language, which always feels irreducible and never translates.

My attention shifts back to the music. It is becoming more fragile, unwinding, softening, living, dying.

The space in the home had initially been empty, but a clutter accumulated over the years. Perhaps it was the bookshelves that were first installed: text required notation, hence required purchase. It did not take long for the collection to spill beyond the shelves. The desk was introduced when it was realized that some kind of office was needed in the home, to cordon off the working mind, and an additional lamp, chair, and couch then became necessary to enable shifts in disposition during rumination. The surface of the desk was scattered with coins of various currencies (future travel might have called on them), and the small closet gradually filled with notebooks gathering dust (any moment could have made one vital again). A disused rug slouched in a corner of the space, unkempt and insouciant. And a great deal else could be found, but further description here would continue to lend these things a significance or order that had eventually begun to feel unmerited, forged.

Indeed, at a point, it became clear that nothing in the space was needed, so it was emptied. The self-assembled furniture was disassembled and surrendered to the curb. Books were apportioned into cardboard boxes and hauled off to stores similar to those in which they had been found. The notebooks were despiraled and recycled. Et cetera. The satisfaction of emptying could not subdue entirely the tedium of these tasks, and they were thus carried out over the course of several weekends. Still, this measured far more abrupt than the accretion.

I stood before the opened expanse, and despite the space being only of a moderate size—after all, the home itself had not surpassed its original modesty—I felt utterly disoriented. Everywhere I looked I witnessed an ungraspable horizon. My body froze with terror, and my mind turned jagged with imaginings of rebuilding what had been lost.

The young man was at a party in a ballroom. He might still be. That’s the beginning and end of this story.

He wore a requisitely nice white shirt and black pants. A dark grey tie hung firmly around his neck and gleaming black shoes kept him just off the floor. He pulled off his suit jacket when he noticed he was warm, rolled and rumpled up his sleeves when later he began to sweat. The suit jacket now cloaks his empty seat.

The young man was appointed to table number fourteen, a circular table draped with white cloth, and, when he first sat, arranged consummately with nine salads on sparkling plates flanked by gorgeous silverware and crystal glasses, identical to the other twenty-nine tables at the party, all dotting the red carpeting around the outer portion of the ballroom like inverted pox, all surrounding the central lacquered-pine dance floor. At table fourteen, eight mouths shifted fluently between smiles and stories and laughter, sixteen eyebrows wriggling in and out of anticipation and mirth. The young man felt farther away, though, like table fourteen wasn’t quite circular, like he was at the corner of some nonconvexity. His smiles lagged behind the others and were uneven. A substance mediated between the table and him, refracting, lengthening, distorting.

He looked down and speared a cherry tomato with a single tine of his fork. He lifted it out of the salad, watched a bead of water run down its contour and felt a bead of sweat run down his nose. The cherry tomato burst in his mouth and he shivered. A kernel of uneasiness hovered in a lightless cavity inside him, swelling and contracting rhythmically but quite separate from and much smaller than his heart. Of course, these are not the words that came to him. He just felt uneasy and that maybe his head was throbbing the slightest bit and that things were tilted by like a sliverish fraction of a degree in some way. But in reality, there existed this pulsating kernel, whose swells were steadily growing and whose rhythm was steadily slowing.

Salads were eaten and dinners served and also eaten. The speakers stopped echoing eye-dampening speeches, started playing pop music, and thus white shirts, black pants, and colored dresses flooded the dance floor. The young man liked to dance, too, when the music was right. So although he thought that he should maybe stay seated tonight out of respect for the whole throbbing and tilting business, when the right music did come on a short while later, a serious dissonance formed within him. Yet the dissonance was resolved immediately and unseriously, his friends knowing very well that the music was right, and basically hurling him onto the dance floor. He barely resisted. The young man really did like to dance, and as his right shoe struck lacquered pine, any awareness of uneasiness—in fact any awareness of self at all—melted away into the music.

He snapped his fingers and his hips; he lunged forward and jerked back; let’s face it: he flailed; and halfway through the first song, in a fit of aliveness, he spun. This revolution is the turning point of the story, so to speak. After its completion, everything will have changed, will be stranger, perhaps beyond faithful description. One third of his way through the spin, the young man’s universe decelerated sharply. The final two thirds lasted about ten seconds, during which the room’s tilt intensified, and the surrounding whites and blacks and colors blurred together like an aesthetic unfocusing of his eyes. He heard the kernel inside him pound out distended time hard and slow. It was all very cinematic.

At 360 degrees everything indeed had changed, but the young man had lost the power to react. He was adrift in the music, believed that he was keeping on dancing, believed that he’d forever keep on dancing, gave himself up to the electric flow. The shades and colors swirled and swarmed in disks around him, gathered themselves up into contorted faces with mouths agape and eyebrows furrowed, dissolved back into unfocused overlapping disks as he felt himself being lifted and carried, in actuality by people really physically holding him up but in his mind by lush harmony as the disks coalesced into his mother’s head beside him and he heard behind the melody, That’s my son, What’s happening to my son, Please god please, but that too fades, dissolves away into the music with the colors strobing and swimming around the ballroom like the whole world is fragmented and refracted in a polychromatic disco ball and here we are back at the end now, the young man who might still be being carried away from the party in the ballroom. Gasp for air.

You’re on the Metro North Railroad, travelling from Grand Central Station to Stamford, CT, seated facing the rear of the train, neck twisted towards the window on your left. You slip in your earbuds and welcome that Irish genius’s crooning into your blood. Your eyes open and close as the old train wobbles leisurely out of the dim tunnel.

The darkness continues into the city air, the night creeping into day as summer tapers away. Out here the train accelerates and steadies, and two images alternatingly slide through the window: city streets run perpendicularly away from the tracks between slabs of apartment buildings facing each other across city streets between apartments across…. The streets are lined with lampposts and are bare but alive. Out of some unlit corners near the tracks pop bright red LED crosses and coffee cups and showtimes. And nailed high above everything is the moon, almost full, glowing softly behind invisibly thin clouds. The train accelerates again at the edge of the city, over the inky Harlem River. That Irish voice soars higher and higher and upon its wings something familiar rises up inside you.

Everything is very beautiful, you think. You should write it all down, you think, for remembering, for discovering a literary heaviness in it all to ground and guide you. But you get lost in it instead. You forget everything the moment you see it. You feel lighter and lighter and you rise and rise into it. Sprawl out on the moon and breathe it in before it’s all just emptiness and monsters again.

It’s two o’clock in the suburban afternoon. A grey sky hangs low outside, whispering in the back of everyone’s mind re looming rainfall. Miscellaneous questions are caught in the whispers and whirl forward into consciousness—Are the cushions on the patio chairs out? Does the garden need to be humanly watered?—landing one after another in a paralyzing mess—Should that errand be run now or postponed until the rain has passed?—like piles of crisp dead leaves you’ve tucked against the curb being scattered back over your lawn by gusts of wind. The rain looms forever ahead in possibility and everything is grey.

‘Do you want to go to Trader Joe’s?’

‘Yeah sure.’

The world beneath the pregnant sky is hung together in a delicate mechanical balance, everything in rigid expectation of broken water. We glide through it towards Trader Joe’s, trying to perturb nothing. One instant of the drive stands out from the rest: an insect touches down on our windshield, an anxious rain-sensing wiper flinches, and the poor insect is jettisoned the same moment it lands. But the wiper, realizing its error, quickly restores the balance, and the rain cordially holds off.

Rain finally begins to fall on the drive home.

‘What is this car doing?’

In the passenger seat, my eyes refocus and I see an old Mercedes sedan proceeding tortoise-like in front of us. The license plate has only five digits, prefixed by the letters ‘M.D.’ and hovering above the word ‘Physician’.

‘I guess it’s a super old doctor.’

‘Or his wife.’

‘Hey, the wife could be the doctor.’

‘That’s true. The hair is short though. Is it a man or a woman? I can’t tell. Can you see anything?’

‘No, the rain’s in the way.’

Hollows in the shape of the genderless M.D.’s identity are slowly bored into our minds as we’re (barely) led along this single-laned road. With each drawn out meter, the rain thickens and the hollows deepen. Things, and time, begin to feel more viscous.

The drive’s penultimate turn grants us at last a road with a second lane, though only briefly, the two lanes merging just past the final stoplight. We slide over from behind the tortoise into the other lane, hoping to pass it and discern the M.D. while the lanes merge. But we lose ground during the maneuver. At the red light, our car is third in its lane and the tortoise second in its.

‘I think we still can pass, right?’

‘It all depends on the car in front of us now, and it doesn’t look too good from the gap between it and the first car.’

Her assessment turns out to be accurate. Beneath the green light, in a terrible display of patience, the car in front of us allows the M.D. to pull ahead of it. The distance between our questions and their answers is measurably, palpably, hope-witheringly increased. I peer into the bottomless hollow and imagine a dry stone well. Is somebody down there? The darkness is impenetrable.

We make our way through the hilly stretch between that final stoplight and the final turn. In every moment, fresh grids of raindrops pack our windshield and are immediately jettisoned, between which we catch glimpses of the tortoise two cars away, still pulling us through mud. We roll down to a halt at the floor of the final valley. As we turn into our neighborhood, we watch the Mysterious Driver slip away into the grey, slow and steady amidst grids of rain, forever ahead in possibility.


One needs only reach the twelfth page of Infinite Jest1 to be confronted with philosophy: Hal’s very first utterances express his beliefs that “the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated”, that “Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror”, and “with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption”. It is my belief that these statements are not simply supercilious name-dropping (either on Hal’s or David Foster Wallace’s part), but serious hints that central aspects of the novel should be understood in a philosophical context. This essay works towards justifying this belief using (a few of) the remaining 1067 pages of the text, specifically focusing on this notion of transcendence which Hal immediately refers to.

The notion of transcendence takes on many forms throughout philosophy, but I think two are most relevant to understanding its form in the novel. First we have the transcendence of existential philosophy, in particular of Jean Paul Sartre, which is the human’s freedom and responsibility to actively relate to, rather than be passively determined by, its facticity, the physical, social, and historical facts which constitute it as an object in the world. Second we have transcendentalist philosophy, which stresses the power of the isolated individual to transcend the conformity of society, and is in part inspired by Immanuel Kant’s concept of the individual’s “transcendental” a priori knowledge.

In what follows I argue that we may understand Infinite Jest’s philosophy of transcendence through the concept’s existential and transcendental manifestations, and then apply this understanding to shed a bit of light on the mystery of two characters in the novel, Lyle and Hal.


To give grounds for the relevance of existential philosophy in the novel it suffices to consider the story at its highest level (both geographically and conceptually), namely in Marathe and Steeply’s discussion on America. At the center of their discourse is “freedom! … as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from … But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. … How for the person to freely choose?” (320). Marathe’s questions here fit very nicely into the framework of existentialism, articulating Sartre’s conception of transcendence, that human freedom is a responsibility, condition, and limitation in relating to the world.

We can interpret Marathe’s “freedom-from” the world as the simplest form of transcending facticity, understanding one’s right to choose. Then his “freedom-to” act, what he suggests is the far more critical and difficult aspect of freedom, can be interpreted as actually applying this right to relate with the facticity of the world. The novel depicts the result of only exercising the former, easier end of freedom as an ironic loss of freedom: addiction, either to drugs or the Entertainment. The viewers who become “stuck”, “trapped in some sort of middle”, “lost” (647) in the Entertainment forego their role as actors in the world, and hence are reduced to objects in the world, their facticity. This intimates one of Infinite Jest’s many double-binds: one cannot hide from the facticity of the world in transcending one’s facticity.

But the novel moreover suggests that solving this existential double-bind of transcendence lies in another form of transcendence, namely transcendence of the self. This is expressed most clearly by Schtitt’s basically fascist philosophy of tennis:

Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again. (84)

Here transcendence is positioned as antithetical to transcendentalism. The “limits” one must transcend do not come from society but from “within” the self. This opposition to transcendentalism is made explicit when Pemulis tries to convince Hal to take DMZ by saying that the “stuff’s original intent was to induce what they called quote transcendent experiences in get this chronic alcoholics”, and Hal asks in clarification, “Was it transcendent? The term in Struck’s literature? Or was it transcendental?” Pemulis shrugs off the difference but his next choice of words is: “some low-risk transcendentalism with me and the Human Hatchet could be…” (1064). This suggests that the novel attributes the degenerative spiral of addicted, “freedom-from” behavior into static facticity to a type of transcendentalist worship of the power and rights of the individual. Schtitt’s transcendence is instead about “vanquish[ing]” the boundaries of the individual, embracing the “freedom-to” give oneself up to “[s]omething bigger than the self”, as Marathe says (107).

Schtitt’s mention of the infinite and emphasis on the self as a limit indicate a crucial link between transcendence and infinity in the text. One such link is in the grammatical sense of the word infinite—as in a verb form not limited by tense, person, or number—which seems to reflect Schtitt’s notion of transcendence, of partaking in something that is not restricted by some specific subject or time, or that “outlives you” (107). Another link lies in Avril’s proposal that: “There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. Grief, regret, sadness. Sadness especially, perhaps. Dolores describes these persons as afraid of obliteration, emotional engulfment. As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them” (765). So perhaps Schtitt’s “human State” can be interpreted as simply the human state, i.e. the emotion and sentiment which connects one to others. This is reinforced by “Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theoriz[ing] privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool” (694–695). This last description immediately brings Mario to mind, which fits given Mario’s close relationship with Schtitt, complete devotion to and love of his family, and that he is “not exactly insensitive when it comes to people” (763).

The above evinces the following picture of transcendence in Infinite Jest: the self is a boundary between and limit of the infinity of sentiment within and the infinity of the world without, and true transcendence is the transcendence of this boundary, the ability to interface honestly with the world. This transcendence involves both recognizing the inner infinity—transcending one’s facticity as a human being with attitudes and feelings—and the outer infinity—turning one’s transcendence on the other facticities of the world, connecting to the human s/State. This sits in contradistinction to trascendentalism, which the novel depicts not as the erasure of this boundary or transcendence of this limit, but as a false, ironic rejection of the inner emotion and pure consumption (or ingestion) of the outer world.


While Infinite Jest’s philosophy of transcendence is best verbally expressed by Schtitt, I believe it is best embodied by Lyle, whose mystery is apparent from his first description:

An oiled guru sits in yogic full lotus in Spandex and tank top. He’s maybe forty. He’s in full lotus on top of the towel dispenser just above the shoulder-pull station in the weight room of the Enfield Tennis Academy, Enfield MA. … Nobody knows where he comes from or why he’s allowed to stay, but he’s always in there, sitting yogic about a meter off the rubberized floor of the weight room. His tank top says TRANSCEND in silkscreen; on the back it’s got DEUS PROVIDEBIT in Day-Glo orange. … This guru lives off the sweat of others. Literally. The fluids and salts and fatty acids. He’s like a beloved nut. He’s an E.T.A. institution.

If his tank top is not enough of a visual hint at his embodiment of transcendence, his being a yogic guru described as if floating in lotus position above the ground must be; and if it isn’t, the fact that he later literally “hovers cross-legged just a couple mm. above the top of the towel dispenser in the unlit weight room, eyes rolled up white” (700) undoubtedly is.

But his transcendence runs far deeper than these images. His entire role at E.T.A. is to connect with others: “Like all good listeners, he has a way of attending that is at once intense and assuasive: the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment. It’s like he’s working as hard as you. You both of you, briefly, feel unalone” (388). This precisely describes his ability to transcend the boundary between his self and his “supplicant”. He lives for and off of (the sweat of) the other. And most strikingly, he is not an individual, but an “institution”.

In light of this I want to interpret a couple of perplexing details about Lyle. The first is his advice to Ortho Stice: “Do not underestimate objects! Lyle says he finds it impossible to overstress this: do not underestimate objects” (394). This reflects the idea that in transcending one’s facticity, one must not disregard facticity all together; i.e. one must actively relate to the objects in the world to avoid getting lost in the self. This then supports the idea that the unexplained misplacement of objects in E.T.A., including Stice’s bed, are an attempt by James Incandenza to draw Hal out of his self, to have Hal actually open himself to the world and its objects. The second is the fact that the back of Lyle’s “TRANSCEND” tank top reads “DEUS PROVIDEBIT”, i.e. “GOD WILL PROVIDE”. This hints at the significance of faith and worship in the novel’s conception of transcendence. This is expressed by Marathe as well: “Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.” Lyle’s position as an essentially religious guru points at the idea that connection between one’s honest emotions and the infinity of the human s/State outside the self relies on an essentially religious faith in some sort of god.


Finally we turn to Hal. These days the term “existential angst” evokes the image of a clichéd sullen teenager lying in bed in a dark room, clichéd melancholy alternative rock drowning out clichéd parental yelling through the door. Maybe Hal isn’t so extremely clichéd but he’s still a teenager wrestling with the idea that “inside [him] there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows. His Moms Avril hears her own echoes inside him and thinks what she hears is him, and this makes Hal feel the one thing he feels to the limit, lately: he is lonely” (694). While it would be easy to cynically cast aside this emptiness and loneliness as teenage naivete, Infinite Jest suggests that “the cliché ‘I don’t know who I am’ unfortunately turns out to be more than a cliché” (204), and should be considered in the light of the serious philosophy from which existential angst originated.

Indeed, I claim that Hal’s driving struggle in the novel is the classic existential struggle of transcending one’s facticity. Hal specifically faces the facticity of genetics and authority: as a “lexical prodigy” he is simply an echo of his mother, and as “late-blooming prodigy and possible genius at tennis” he is simply an echo of his father. Rather than actively forming his identity he is “being encouraged to identify himself” through these echoes, acting apparently exclusively to make his mother and in fact “every authority-figure in his world and beyond very proud indeed” (155). Hal’s father (as the professional conversationalist) pleads that Hal “recognize the occasional vista beyond your own generous Mondragonoid nose’s fleshy tip” (31)—Mondragon being Avril’s maiden name—indicating that Hal only sees his mother in front of him, or perhaps only interacts with the world as filtered through his mother. This lack of identity is what gives truth for Hal to “the fact that that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self” (694); he perceives his self only as a cage of facticity which he is unable to break free of, transcend.

This is why the sudden shift from third- to first-person narration of Hal (851) is so pivotal; and why it is so important in the opening scene of the novel that Hal believes, “I am in here” (3); and why Hal is desperate to communicate:

I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex. … it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. … I’m not just a creātus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function. (11-12)

The mechanics and conditioning he “transcends” are precisely his facticity. The tragedy then is that, though he now “feel[s] and believe[s]” in his identity, he “cannot make himself understood” (10): “I look out. Directed my way is horror. … ‘I am not what you see and hear.'” (12–13). Given the analysis above, Hal’s inability to communicate his feelings with others indicates that he has not truly transcended. While Lyle is able to bridge the infinities within and without him, transcend himself to become an “institution” with which others honestly connect, Hal remains stuck in his finitude, unable to connect.

This is the real (but not unsatisfying) sense for me in which Infinite Jest does not finish: we are left with an incompletely transformed, untranscended Hal, one which reflects the deep loneliness in the incredible difficulty of both recognizing the infinity within the self and transcending the boundary (the self) between this infinity and the infinities of others.

Disclaimer (July 2022)

I (Arpon in 2022) feel more distant from the essay above (authored by Arpon in 2014) than the other material currently on this website. Nevertheless, I have chosen to keep it available here as it has been the occassion of a few kind messages sent to me by strangers, which I have appreciated, and with the hopes that a few more may find it valuable.

  1. All page references are to: David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Back Bay Books, 1996. ↩︎