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A Field Guide to Occurrences of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest

August 20, 2009

Spoiler Line: 742

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

I’ve been meaning to do this one for awhile.

Bernini’s statue The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is all over the place in Infinite Jest. Before I get into it I want to talk a little bit about this statue (it’s the one in the pretty pic above) to make sure we’re all on the same page.

St. Teresa of Avila was the founder of the Carmelite order of nuns. She was prone to mystical, visionary experiences, and wrote a lot about them. The most famous of her mystical experiences is the one immortalized in Bernini’s sculpture:

It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. They must be those who are called cherubim: they do not tell me their names but I am well aware that there is a great difference between certain angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it — indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience.

During the days that this continued, I went about as if in a stupor. I had no wish to see or speak with anyone, but only to hug my pain, which caused me greater bliss than any that can come from the whole of creation.

Pretty intense, huh? Critics from Teresa’s time onward saw something not-so-subtly sexual about all this talk of ecstasy and penetration. Bernini, for his part, certainly didn’t shy away from the sexy angle when he did his sculpture. I think the important take-home here is that this is a moment of profound and sublime ecstasy and self-transcendence. A union with the divine.

Keeping that in mind, let’s move on to IJ. I think the E. of St. T. first shows up in Himself’s filmography:

Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell. […] God and Satan play poker with Tarot cards for the soul of an alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman obsessed with Bernini’s ‘The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’ [988]

Not a lot to say yet except this: the title of the film is a riff on William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which opens up a Romantic/mystic rabbit-hole who’s depths I don’t have the gumption to plumb at the moment. Suffice it to say that in footnote 146 we learn that Himself’s movie was inspired by late-night drunken Blake marathons with Lyle, and that both Blake and the St. Teresa in question operated largely in a mystic/visionary register.

Next reference: Joelle’s having waaay Too Much Fun in Molly Notkin’s bathroom:

The ‘base frees and condenses, compresses the whole experience to the implosion of one terrible shattering spike in the graph, an afflated orgasm of the heart that makes her feel, truly, attractive, sheltered by limits, deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God. She always sees, after inhaling, right at the apex, at the graph’s spike’s tip, Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’ behind glass, at the Vittoria, for some reason, the saint recumbent, half-supine, her flowing stone robe lifted by the angel in whose other hand a bare arrow is raised for that best descent, the saint’s legs frozen in opening, the angel’s expression not charity but the perfect vice of barb-headed love. The stuff had been not just her encaging god but her lover, too, fiendish, angelic, of rock. [235]

Here Wallace is linking up the ecstatic experience of a visionary union with God to the ecstatic experience of a union with a Substance. Sex, drugs, religious ecstasy — I love how in Wallace’s hands all these things seem to come together at Bernini’s statue. Moments later, on p. 238, Joelle’s going through a life-flashing-before-your-eyes kind of thing and she notes that she’ll never actually get to see the real statue in Rome.

Here’s the next occurrence, in the story of the stripper who tries to ascribe a causality to her addictions. The statue goes unnamed but you can bet your ass it’s the same one:

Its facial expression [after being diddled by its father] was, in a word, the speaker says, unspeakably, unforgettably ghastly and horrid and scarring. It was also the exact same expression as the facial expression on the stone-robed lady’s face in this one untitled photo of some Catholic statue that hung (the photo) in the dysfunctional household’s parlor… this photo of a statue of a woman whose stone robes were half hiked up and wrinkled in the most godawfully sensually prurient way, the woman reclined against the uncut rock, her robes hiked and one stone foot hanging off the rock as her legs hung parted, with a grinning little totally psychotic-looking cherub-type angel standing on the lady’s open thighs and pointing a bare arrow at where the stone robe hid her cold tit, the woman’s face upturned and cocked and pinched into that exact same shuddering-protozoan look beyond pleasure or pain. The whacko foster mom knelt daily before that photo [and also required that It be hoisted up to do the same]. 373

Gately notes a few pages later that Joelle’s veil billows in and out with her breath as she’s listening to this story. Note that while the whacko mom reads the statue religiously, It seems to respond more to the sexuality of the statue.

The last reference, on p. 742, ties it back into Himself’s film.  Joelle’s thinking back on it:

Like e.g. the 240-second motionless low-angle shot of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa’… Joelle started to see the four-minute motionless shot as important for what was absent: the whole film was from the alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman’s POV… [the salesman’s head was on screen for the entire film] except for the four narrative minutes the alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman stood in the Vittorio’s Bernini room, and the climactic statue filled the screen and pressed against all four edges. The statue, the sensuous presence of the thing, let the alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman escape himself… the mediated transcendence of self was just what the apparently decadent statue of the orgasmic nun claimed for itself as subject… self-forgetting as the Grail [as you can see I’ve truncated this one big-time — it’s wicked long]

What does this all add up to? I think self-transcendence is the big ‘theme’ at work here. The statue stands at the nexus of many of the types of self-transcendence dealt with in the book — s.-t. via drugs (Joelle and her coke visions), sex (the orgasmic nature of the statue; the catatonic Its expression of diddled rapture); total self-forgetfulness via art (kind of a meta-theme of the whole book, if you ask me — one some level isn’t that what IJ is trying to do for the reader?); religious ecstasy (this inheres more in the statue itself than in the book). The statue, and the ecstatic transcendence it represents, is a kind of stand-in for all the forms of transcendence the book’s characters are seeking. It represents that lost infinite thing that Wallace speaks of in the Kenyon address. In her vision Teresa is both literally and metaphorically experiencing death (piercing of her heart and the pulling out of entrails) via pleasure. This is obviously analogous to the Entertainment and its effects on viewers, as well as the rats and their p-terminal stimulation.

Here’s another interesting thing: the narrator never gives the reader a direct, unmediated experience of the statue. Instead, the book’s characters are either describing the statue as seen via a pharmaco-religious vision (Joelle), a photograph (the stripper), or a film cartridge (Joelle again). Joelle, for her part, acknowledges the distance between herself and the statue when she realizes in Notkin’s bathroom that she’ll never get to see the real thing in Rome. The reader’s own experience of the statue is highly mediated through various representations of it. And of course, the statue is itself a representation of a woman’s written account of a visionary experience, which is itself a mediated representation of her actual experience! The actual transcendent experience, the thing itself as experienced by St. Teresa, the lost infinite thing that Wallace speaks of in his Kenyon address, that experience is enclosed, Russian-doll-style, by A) St. Teresa’s writing and then B) Bernini’s statuary interpretation of Teresa’s words and then C) Wallace’s character’s accounts of the statue and then D) Infinite Jest‘s accounts of its characters and then finally E) the reader’s understanding of Infinite Jest. Teresa’s true, transcendent, ecstatic and infinite thing is separated from us, the real-world readers, by layer upon layer of art and abstraction and representation.

I think this is fucking brilliant because Wallace, by assembling this literary Russian doll that in effect puts the reader at a distant remove from the unknown infinite thing that his characters strive for, Wallace is in effect enacting the very separation that is at the heart of the book!

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2009 9:08 pm

    Also, the statue’s arrow points to the next clue for Robert Langdon!

    Seriously, I’m glad you pulled all of this together. I’ve always kind of meant to try to synthesize all the references to the statue (I’m thinking it appears elsewhere in his work too, but I can’t for the life of me think of where, if it actually does at all — maybe in the title story of Oblivion?). Anyway, this is good stuff to read, and I especially like how you hit on the mediation aspect of it all. This nesting doll structure is something that appears everywhere in Wallace’s fiction, so it’s clearly of great importance to his larger project.

  2. August 21, 2009 9:48 am

    I can’t think of any other references in IJ (although that’s not to say I’m not forgetting some). There’s so much else you could do with it too — for instance, looking at the figures in the statue as metaphorical stand-ins for Orin and Joelle.

  3. August 21, 2009 10:13 am

    Great post; self-transcendence seems to be theme indeed. Though in Bernini (and in St. Teresa’s account) the experience of being penetrated seems key. In stressing this I’m less interested in the much-commented-upon obvious sexualization of religious experience, than the relationship to self that seems implied. Not simply transcendence, or even “self shattering,” but being violated by something other. St. Teresa’s ecstasy is a violent rending of the most basic boundary of the self.

    And as your catalog of St. Teresa’s appearance in IJ here suggests, though, the statue (like the Entertainment and so much else in IJ) this sort of violence is rather ambiguous. If the abused foster-daughter achieves a sort of “diddled rapture,” then maybe ecstasy-through-violation is not an unmitigated good, no? (Yet, of course, at other moments Wallace’s reference to the statue seem entirely in earnest).

    Thanks also for posting St. Teresa’s own account. Reading it, I was put reminded of poor Lucien, who was himself penetrated by a spear-like broom… (488)

  4. August 21, 2009 10:20 am

    I like that bit about penetration basically letting the other in. When St. T. gets pierced she experiences a union with God — “colloquies of love” and all that. It’s interesting to contrast this with when Joelle is freebasing in Molly Notkin’s bathroom. Joelle describes this not as “union” with God, but as if she were being “watched” by God. The self-gratifying drug-transcendence is a kind of scopophiliac echo of the true transcendence that comes from letting an other pierce your boundaries.

  5. Sarah permalink
    August 21, 2009 10:21 am

    I am really appreciative that you did this. It was at the back of my mind to look up St Teresa, but I never would have got round to it. And a dry entry in Wikipedia would not have greatly furthered my understanding in any case.

    The Russian doll analogy is brilliant. I like the way it picks up the fractal thing.

  6. August 21, 2009 10:31 am

    Wow awesome work tying it all together. Thanks!

  7. August 21, 2009 10:38 am

    Had to go to Wikipedia to keep up w/ you guys. Great discussion.

    Scopophilia or scoptophilia, from Latin “love of looking”, is deriving pleasure from looking.

    As an expression of sexuality, it refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at erotic objects: erotic photographs, pornography, naked bodies, etc.

    Alternatively, this term was used by cinema psychoanalysts of the 1970s to describe pleasures (often considered pathological[1]) and other unconscious processes occurring in spectators when they watch films. The term was borrowed from psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan.[2]

  8. August 21, 2009 11:07 am

    I should have known you’d already nailed that down every which way to sunday :) Thanks !

  9. August 21, 2009 11:20 am

    I found this description at http://www.smarthistory.org – another layer of mediation built into the chapel itself!

    “The first thing that we notice when we walk into the chapel is that we have the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in front of us, and on either side of us, on the side walls, we see what look like theater boxes. In the boxes, seated figures in appear to be talking and gesturing to each other. Perhaps they are kneeling in prayer as they watch the scene of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Who are these figures in the theater boxes? They are posthumous portraits of members of the Cornaro family (many of them were Cardinals). Behind them Bernini created a fabulous illusion of architecture—a coffered barrel vault, doorway and columns. And, if we follow the metaphor of a theater, it feels as though we’ve got 10th row center orchestra seats —the best seats in the house! And importantly, what’s happened is that we have immediately become a part of the work of art. It surrounds us, and we are literally inside of it. This is, as we have seen, a typical feature of Baroque art—breaking down the barrier between the work and the viewer, to involve us more.”

  10. August 21, 2009 11:41 am

    Beyond awesome. Thanks for digging that up! “We are literally inside of it” — love it!

  11. Joan permalink
    August 21, 2009 1:14 pm

    First let me say that I was a Classics undergrad focused on Roman art, then in grad school in Art History I had to take an entire class on Bernini and for the most part couldn’t stand the work! St. T always to me epitomized the excess of Baroque art that for whatever reasons I had a really hard time appreciating. Given that, you can imagine how I felt when she kept turning up in IJ!

    So, thank you so much for this post and helping me to understand her place in the novel! As usual, a fantastic job.

  12. itzadrag permalink
    August 23, 2009 6:14 pm

    Oh, my! I read the Field Guide of St. T a few days back, but had not read the comments; so, I may owe a belated note of thanks to Chris, who pointed out Lucien as an analog, around the same time. (What great conversation you have here). I had posted the below at infinitetasks.wordpress.com,in response to that wonderful site’s inquiry into “Scorn of Death.” Thought no one had discussed this Ecstasy parallel at the time.

    comment 1:

    The horrendous murder and conscious death experience of the mute, monkish Lucien Antitois was perhaps the most difficult passage in the entire novel for me, so I read it in a rather uncommitted way, averting my mindful eye. Oh, great! I thought, just when I had learned to overcome my prissiness about cursing and juvenile toilet humor, after surviving armageddon & the howling fantods of a cast of thousands– now this. A character as innocent as Mario tortured to a miserable and “inutile”end.

    Yet I’ve found myself recalling the transcendence L.A. experienced. Not a simple inverted medieval pike, this murderous tool, not one of the guilty heaped bodies at Hamlet’s close. More the cherub’s arrow piercing the very bowels of the disarmed and disrobed (”pants woppsed around his red woolen ankle”) saint. A veritable variation on the Ecstasy of St Teresa.

    The drapery stirs, “shafts of mirror-light gleam”, spikes of of light glint off the wheeled cherubim which surround him. The assassin in a Jesuitical collar caresses Lucien’s trembling, full lips; lips that quiver, in awe, to speak. After the dreadful, unspeakable pain of penetration, Lucien’s lids flutter, he has visions of his natal land, pure and bright. Shuddering through his transition, Lucien finally is free: transcends the constraints of physical existence and is “catapulted home… sounding a bell-clear” alar(u)m in the universal language. Gaudeamus Igitur, another sacred martyr constellation.

    If you haven’t yet, go read infinitedetox on: A Field Guide to Occurrences of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest.

    –end of first comment–

    and:
    Two more points about the ecstatic. It frightens me somewhat that our first viewer of the Entertainment was discovered in a rictus of ecstasy; is everyone to be so stricken? And, infinitedetox makes notable mention in his essay of immediate vs. mediated experiences of ecstasy in IJ– the “Russian doll” layers of reportage, art & abstraction through which the reader experiences a variety of Teresa’s famed rapture. Lucent Lucien’s transport is the nearest we have come (3rd level: rapture; writer; reader) to the occurrence itself. What can it mean that he is staked though to the floor at an angle like Mario’s police lock support? I fear to find out. (OK, that’s 3 things).

  13. Ant permalink
    November 21, 2011 8:01 pm

    where is the first text from ?? any reference ?? it pleased the lord…whole of creation

  14. Ant permalink
    November 21, 2011 8:01 pm

    where is the first text from ?? any reference ?? it pleased the lord…whole of creation

  15. March 15, 2013 2:44 pm

    “the narrator never gives the reader a direct, unmediated experience of the statue” This is pretty hilarious, given how the entire book is a composite of wraithly mediation, in multiple senses, from JOI to all characters to the narrator who is presumably Hal, to DFW as wraith (as all novelists writing in the 3rd omniscient person) to whichever real people in this world or another he imagined himself telepathically communicating with to every IJ reader. “Wallace is in effect enacting the very separation that is at the heart of the book!” And, may I humbly suggest, you have it exsctly backwards: IJ is the flaming spear-tip, plunged into our heart-brains. “I had no wish to see or speak with anyone, but only to hug my pain, which caused me greater bliss than any that can come from the whole of creation.” The heart of the book is to help reconcile us to the pains of life, to hug life, to treasure the thing itself, for what it is, but then not to keep that blissful epiphanic pain to ourselves, but to see that it exists also in others and to speak to others of our own, to yo man tell our stories of it, a la the sacrament of AA storytime, a la the potluck feast of mediated narratives in the novel, to not try to escape one cage by locking ourselves in another which then lo and behold only serves to transport us back to the first cage only now more claustrophobic, to not walk around in an uncomprehending solipsistic stupor upon closing the final page of the novel, to accept this strange world for what it is before it’s too late. Maybe, yeah?

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