Transcendence in Infinite Jest


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. ↩︎