A Field Guide to Occurrences of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest
Spoiler Line: 742
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.’ 
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. 
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!