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The Good Word — Nystagmus, Nystagmic

July 22, 2009
Howls from the margin? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Howls from the margin? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

p. 983
“[Tenuate has] a discomfiting tendency to cause post-spike ocular nystagmus. Nystagmus or no nystagmus, Tenuate’s a particular favorite of Michael Pemulis.”

p. 1018
“The nystagmus makes the eye-rolling lurider. ‘Extenuations [i.e. Tenuate! Get it? -ed.]. We can get it all sorted out right later.”


From the OED II:


Path. [mod. L., ad. Gr. for nodding, drowsiness] …
2. An involuntary oscillation of the eyeball, usually lateral, but sometimes rotatory or vertical, especially common among miners.

So what is it, this nystagmus that afflicts Michael Pemulis and also, occasionally, Jim Troeltsch (cf. pp. 281 & 329)? It appears to be a sort of twitchy-eyeball syndrome linked to coming down off of Tenuate. ‘Nuff said. Which is fine, but let’s not forget how important eyeballs are in Infinite Jest (cf. Cage III and God-knows how many other references.

But there’s something else sneaky going on here. The word nystagmus is thematically linked to the word wobble. Cf.*, for instance, footnote 110:

Michael Pemulis cracks Hal’s door and slowly pokes his head and one shoulder in, saying nothing. He has showered but is still flushed, and his right eye gets wobbly in this certain way when two or three Tenuates are wearing off… His eyes, under the waning influence of P.M. stimulants, do not get mirthful or glazed. They just get tiny and lightless and even closer together in his narrow face, like a second set of nostrils. The right eye’s little wobble is out of sync with the pulse of his earring. **

For Wallace, then, nystagmus ends up being an ocular wobble left in the wake of departing stimulants. This is cool, right? But it’s not all, because wobble, as it turns out, is used almost Homerian-epithetically to describe The Entertainment. Cf.: “James had been driving to this very brownstone, to shoot Joelle in the weird wobble-lends maternal ‘I’m-so-terribly-sorry’ monologue-scene of the last thing he’d done” (p. 999); “[Joelle] doubts that any sum of scenes as pathologic as he’d stuck that long quartzy auto-wobbling lens on the camera and filmed her for…” [p. 228]; “There was nothing coherent in the mother-death-cosmology and apologies repeated over and over, inclined over that auto-wobbled lens propped up in the plaid-sided pram” [p.230].

In other words, what may in fact be the crowning special-effects achievement of Himself’s lethally entertaining Entertainment is a lens that replicates an ocular wobble, in other words a nystagmus, which nystagmus is also a key feature of the departure from the body of Michael Pemulis and Jim Troeltsch’s favorite stimulant, Tenuate. Which, if you ask me, upgrades the nystagmic wobble from a charmingly detailed descriptor to a Key Thematic Element.

Don’t even ask me to try and parse out the significance of this, though. All I can offer is that wobble and its variants end up appearing in IJ way more often than is explainable by coincidence (at least 37 times, by Amazon Book Search’s count). In fact, in the same footnote I block-quoted above, we learn that Hal got the afternoon off after his “match was truncated when C-squadder Hugh Pemberton took a ball in the eye up at net and began wandering the service box in wobbled circles.” And also that Hal apologizes to Orin for losing his temper, saying that “these tooth-episodes make me feel like that wobbled shrieking figure in that Munch lithograph.”

Reading up on The Scream is marginally helpful. Apparently Munch got the inspiration for the painting while walking with two friends and having a weird breakdown-type episode in which he “sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” In the painting, the “wobbled shrieking figure”‘s eyes appear to be a little nystagmic, perhaps. There’s obviously an element of pain or discomfort or distress in the painting, mirroring, perhaps, the distress of a beloved substance leaving the body, or the distress of that must accompany an endless maternal apology  of the kind recited by JvD in The Entertainment. Or, very simply, the total and complete existential despair of going through withdrawal, of losing a Substance.

It seems like the more you dig into this one the further from any central meaning you get, so I’ll leave it at this.

* Has it become apparent how much I love cf.? It may be the most useful blogging tool ever, because it spares you so much preposition-laden bullshitty writing.

** And not to be a spoiler-bear or anything, but if you remain unconvinced by this rest assured Wallace wraps this connection right up and puts a little red bow on it and hands it to you with a winning smile later in the book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2009 1:47 pm

    Great stuff. I had noticed the repetitive use of variants of “wobble” but hadn’t made the sorts of connections you’ve made here (you always tease out the coolest things). I suppose you know this already, but you see lots of wobbling (and I believe tottering) a few pages past this week’s milestone in the big section about AA meetings.

  2. July 22, 2009 9:10 pm

    Awesome work! I love reading this just after reading your reply on Inf. Zombies on how you focus your self in research mode when the going gets, well, boring. Not that you found this section boring, of course, but you have a total knack.

  3. August 7, 2009 7:43 am

    It occurs to me that the heading glyphs are wobbled circles.


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