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All the Apparatus of the Game

July 23, 2009
Eschaton! Photo via Wikimedia Commons


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
–The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats

The eschaton, the divinely ordained climax of history.
Parables of Kingdom, C.H. Dodd (quoted in OED II)

Behind the parable, or rather beside it, there is the kingdom which has broken into the midst, the eschaton which is here and now.
Scottish Jrnl. Theol. (quoted in OED II)

So: Eschaton. What the hell is this section of the book about, anyway? What’s the point of 21 pages (+ footnotes) of this baroquely-structured war game that spirals into chaos?

First, you could probably pull an undergraduate honors thesis’ worth of goodies from a straight-up exploration of how Eschaton is an illustration the famous first stanza of Yeats’ Second Coming, quoted above. What really clinches the comparison for me is the last two lines — for “the best” substitute Hal (in an apathetic Bob Hope paralysis), maybe Troeltsch (who tries to stop the mayhem but lets Pemulis tell him otherwise), maybe Lord as God (whose slack-wristed failure to maintain omniscient discipline makes the whole debacle possible). And let’s see for “worst,” candidates include Ingersoll (whom everyone seems to hate and who launches the first real-world attack), Kittenplan (‘roid-raged and all too happy to escalate things),  and Axford (who admits to the “dark thrill he felt watching Ingersoll get pummelled”).

Pemulis, though, complicates the bejeezus out of the above analysis. On the one hand he’s “full of passionate intensity” during this episode — he berates Penn and Ingersoll and Lord up and down,  and willfully prevents Troeltsch from putting a stop to things, saying “let them all lie in their own bed.” On the other, much of his “intensity” is funneled into a ferocious defense of the very rules that should have made the conflagration impossible. Wallace puts Pemulis in the strange position of delivering an impassioned and totally asshole-ish apologia for civility, rules and abstract thought. So, Yeats-wise, I’m not quite sure where he stands.

One last Yeats point — in Christian theology eschaton, “the divinely ordained climax of history,” occurs concurrent with or sometime after (depending on your interpretation) the second coming of Christ. As in The Second Coming. Cool, huh?

But beyond Yeats, there’s so much else going on in this episode. Chris Forster’s eschaton post is mind-blowingly brilliant. He gets deep into questions of authorship and narration raised by the episode and its footnotes. What really interests me, though, is the breakdown of the boundary between fiction and reality that Eschaton so vividly dramatizes.

Wallace, as you probably know, was obsessed with borders and boundaries. There was a whole lot of weird shit about “membranes” in Broom of the System that I didn’t get at all, despite reading the book twice. Also IIRC several stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men were entitled “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders.”

The Eschaton episode may be the mother of all such examples. Forster does such a bang-up job of summarizing the fiction/reality permeability that I’m just going to quote him:

How does the text relate to the world? The representation to reality? The “map” to the “territory”? What the Eschaton episode demonstrates is the difficulty of maintaining any hard and fast distinction between the world and the way we imagine it. For Pemulis, of course, such “delimiting boundaries . . . are Eschaton’s very life-blood” (335). But the things we use to represent the world are also part of the world; and it is sometimes hard to keep them apart. Such is the case of Ingersoll’s “launching” a “5-megaton thermonuclear weapon” at Ann Kittenplan (336). For Pemulis this is a ridiculous misconstrual of the game, of the “one ground-rule boundary that keep Eschaton from degenerating into chaos” (338)–of a rule so basic to the game that it is unwritten, a sort of preaxiom. But the joke here is on Pemulis and his fanatical, but ultimately doomed attempt, to keep the map and the territory separate. *

So. For a blow-by-blow summary of the events within the Eschaton game, to see how the reality/fiction dynamics that Forster is talking about actually play out in the Eschaton game, refer to Eschaton in Bullet Points. Once you’re ready to Wear the Beanie yourself, read on.

From the standpoint of reality-v.-fiction, what has happened here? On the one hand real-world savagery and self-interest completely overruns fiction (ie., the Eschaton game)  — the fictional game, with its complex system of internal logic, disintegrates as the players follow their real-world desires to inflict cruelties upon one another. But the contamination works both ways — recall that Ingersoll allowed fictional strategic interests within the game to dictate a certain action (launching a ball at Kittenplan’s head) whose effects were felt outside the game. Only then did the apocalyptic real-world counter-action become possible.

It’s almost like Wallace is portraying a world where reality and fiction are at war with each other. In Eschaton he has the two constantly jostling and encroaching on one another’s turf. What does this mean, more broadly, for Infinite Jest the fictional novel?

I have one idea to throw out there and then I’m done, seriously, because the circularity (annularity) of all this is making my head hurt. But: In Eschaton, we see how a tightly-constructed, elegantly-complex and strictly-delimited fiction (ie, Eschaton the game) can dissolve into chaos and uncontrolled mayhem under real-world pressures. But please recall that Infinite Jest, a tightly-constructed, elegantly-complex and strictly-delimited fiction, is structured like a Sierpinski gasket, itself a complex and strictly delimited fractal pattern that, in fact, can build itself out of chaos and randomness. Fiction can both dissolve into chaos (as in Eschaton) and generate itself out of chaos (as in the Sierpinski-structured Infinite Jest). It’s all kind of phoenix-like, I guess.

* One small question, here — is the joke on Pemulis, or is the joke on Lord, who’s pretty explicitly a stand-in for a God who’s neither Old Testamently wrathful or New Testamently benevolent, but instead post-modernly weak, flawed and ineffectual (cf., please, p. 140 and Hal’s essay on “post-modern hero” Capt. Frank Furillo of Hill Street blues, “with a genius for navigating cluttered fields… beset by petty distractions on all sides,” written when he (Hal) himself was of Eschaton age)”? (Answer: All of the above!)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2009 7:41 am

    Great connection with the Yeats poem. On my first reading of your post, my jaw dropped as I contemplated the possibility that Wallace may actually have described Pemulis as being (quote) “full of passionate intensity.” On a reread, I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Still, it’s a neat association. And do you know about Yeats’s wacky theory about how cyclical ( = annular) history is? I’m out of time to buttress my recollection of his argument by reading this long article, but you can get a look at his diagram of it all here.

  2. infinitedetox permalink*
    July 24, 2009 8:11 am

    I think I am saying that Wallace could be placing the Peemster under the “full of passionate intensity” category, along with the rest of the worst. But on the other hand, you could look at it the other way and say that he’s mounting a vigorous defense of rules and civility of order, which would put him in with the best. This dichotomy is probably too simple, and I think that if Wallace did have Yeats on his mind in this section the ambiguity is totally deliberate.

  3. July 24, 2009 7:05 pm

    Very interesting reflections. The question of with whom should we sympathize seems to connect to many of the larger questions raised by the novel.(Nice point as well about “Lord” playing the role of… well, “the Lord” in Eschaton)

    I think that Yeats’s contrast between the fanatical and the apathetic is also relevant more broadly to the novel as a whole. On one hand the novel offers completely passive loss of interest associated with “The Entertainment,” and on the other the highly regimented, almost self-abnegating life of the players at ETA (controlled by Schtitt, who in some interviews Wallace didn’t hesitate to describe as “fascistic”).

    Thanks for the references to some of Wallace’s other relevant work; “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders” sounds especially interesting.

    I’m tempted to agree with infinitedetox that Pem seems a bit like Yeats’s worst, “full of passionate intensity.” I’m tempted to defend Lord; rather than a figure of disengagement, he seems to take very his role as the game’s arbiter very seriously. And when Ingersoll makes the argument that his actions were permitted by the game’s rules, Lord seems to admirably attempt to cling to the letter of the law, rather than simply give in to Pemulis’s angry tirade. Indeed, Lord’s commitment to the rules puts him at odds with everyone. In this at least he is perhaps not apathetic, but rather self-less.

    (Oh, and thanks for the shout-out by the way.)

  4. Slyfield permalink
    August 12, 2009 7:52 pm

    Not sure where I saw this, perhaps in a link from Gerry Canavan’s site, but in some interview I recently came across Wallace labels Pemulis as IJ’s Antichrist. Which would thereby align him with Yeats’ worst, if I understand Uncle William’s verse correctly. In the same interview, Wallace also admits to being a Platonist. If you’re interested, or, “IYI” to use a DFW abbrev. from Everything and More (an oft-overlooked resource) I’ll find the interview again so that you can hear this prescient stuff from the horse’s mouth.

  5. August 13, 2009 7:43 am

    I know that interview you’re talking about — the one with Caleb Crain for the Boston Globe, right? The stuff about Pemulis didn’t make it into the actual interview but Crain blogged about it shortly after DFW’s death:

    Personally, I’ve never understood why Wallace judges the Peemster as hard as he does. I don’t know if this means my moral compass is totally out-of-whack or what.

  6. March 11, 2013 11:00 pm

    There is definately a great deal to know about this issue. I like all of the points you made.

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