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The Good Word — Phylactery(ish)

June 28, 2009

Pp. 46-47 (Orin’s dream of the Mom’s disembodied head attached face-to-face to his own): “In the dream, it’s understandably vital to Orin that he disengage his head from the phylacteryish bind of his mother’s disembodied head, and he cannot.”

Phy-what? This is one of those totally conspicuous words that sent me running straight for the OED. First of all it’s a slight neologism, a deliberately crude appendage of the “ish” to the word “phylactery.” Which means?


1. A small leathern box containing four texts of Scripture , Deut. vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21, Ex. xiii. 1-10, 11-16, written in Hebrew letters on vellum and, by a literal interpretation of the passages, worn by Jews during morning prayer on all days except the sabbath, as a reminder of the obligation to keep the law. Cf. Deut. xi. 18 ‘Ye shall bind them [my words] for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.’

b. fig. A reminder; a religious observance or profession of faith; an ostentatious or hypocritical display of piety or rectitude. Phrase: to make broad the phylactery, (from Matt. xxiii. 5), to vaunt ones righteousness.

2. An amulet worn upon the person, as a preservative against disease, etc.; also fig. a charm, safeguard.

3. A vessel or case containing a holy relic.

Where to begin! So the first meaning refers to a small box containing scripture passages worn as a reminder to keep the law. How would this translate to April’s head? What kind of smothering motherly law is Orin being reminded of here? Then there’s the second sense of a hypocritical display of piety.  I think this comes out more explicitly later in the book in a conversation between Orin and Hal, where Orin offers a damning assessment of the Moms’ momming and Hal calls Orin out on his (Orin’s) own similar shortcomings.

Then as an amulet or a safeguard? This is intriguing, but I can’t think of any explicit connection off the top of my head. And then finally, the sense of a phylactery as reliquary. What relic might be contained in the Moms’ head? Who else’s head have we heard of so far in the book, purportedly containing an insanely valuable relic that essentially drives the plot of the story? Himself, natch. But here Wallace almost seems to be toying with the idea that perhaps April’s head is the reliquary containing the master copy of the Entertainment. Crazy yes? Of course this is wayyy tenuous and I’m not prepared to argue that this is, in fact, the reading we’re supposed to make. But I can certainly imagine Wallace tracking down the different shades of meaning of this word and being tickled at the interpretive possibilities it opens up.

One final thing: Why “phylacteryish”? Surely Wallace must have known of the perfectly serviceable “phylacterian,” which would have achieved roughly the same effect.  Why the blatant and less-than-euphonious neologism? I’ve got nothing. Whatever the reason, Wallace’s construction is another typical marriage of the erudite and the colloquial.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Jacot de Boinod permalink
    August 13, 2009 3:55 am

    Dear Sir

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    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)


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  2. Sloan looney permalink
    November 20, 2012 5:26 am

    I think a phylactery is strapped to one’s head, so the first meaning is certainly the one DFW is using in this instance.

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