We learn on page 516 that Dr. Rusk “always wants to probe [Hal] on issues of space and self-definition and something she keeps calling the ‘Coatlicue Complex.'” This latter term has an end note reading “No clue,” which pretty much screams “go look it up.” Of course never until this read has it occurred to me to actually look it up. Courtesy of wikipedia, I’ve learned that Coatlicue is the following things:

  • the mother of gods
  • the one with the skirt of serpents
  • “Goddess of Fire and Fertility”
  • “Goddess of Life, Death and Rebirth”
  • “Mother of the Southern Stars”
  • she wore a pendant made of human hearts (calls to mind Poor Tony’s victim), hands, and skulls (alas, poor Yorick)
  • She represents the devouring mother, in whom both the womb and the grave exist.
  • According to Aztec legend, she was once magically impregnated by a ball of feathers that fell on her while she was sweeping a temple (she was rewarded for this ignominious begetting with a plot by daughter Coyolxauhqui to murder her, which plot was foiled by son Huitzilopochtli who sprang fully formed from the womb to kill his sister and prevent the murder)
  • the mother of Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl and Huitzilopochtli (among many others)
  • generally sort of a motherhood goddess, and a patron of mothers who die in childbirth
  • She’s also known as or associated with Toci, who is generally considered to be old but “is not always shown with specific markers of great age”
  • “Mother Goddess of the Earth who gives birth to all celestial things”

This makes me think of Avril’s (= April = spring = a time of fertility and rebirth) green thumb. She’s also the mother to a southern (football) star, and the notion of Avril as a devouring mother resonates with some of the ways in which she is so needy of her sons, but in a way that makes it obvious that she’s trying not to come off as needy — how she wants to seem as if she’s supportive almost more than she actually wants to be supportive and nonjudgmental. Orin describes her as “The Black Hole of Human Attention” (521); black holes are all-devouring. Orin has bird associations (I think I wrote something brief about this in a prior post), and Coatlicue has the whole impregnated-by-a-ball-of-feathers thing.

Which brings me to Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent deity who is often depicted with his beak-like mask insignia. Worship of Quetzalcoatl sometimes included animal sacrifice. His was a virgin birth. Orin’s birth may have been one of expediency (so not a virgin birth, but not quite a wholly wanted or optimal birth). He sacrifices the roaches that he finds in his bathroom. And he is feathered (playing for the Cardinals, sometimes literally feathered during pre-game antics) and is, with respect to his Subjects, sneaky and snake-like. He wears a helmet with a (vaguely) beak-like face mask.

Of course, then there’s another son, Huitzilopochtli, represented in iconography as a hummingbird with feathers only on his left side (isn’t Orin left-handed?), with a black face (“Orin” is an anagram of “noir”) and holding a snake-like scepter and a mirror (consider Orin’s fascination with watching Joelle’s short videos of himself).

Now consider Xolotl, a god (twin brother to Quetzalcoatl) of lightning (Incandenza = incandescent?) and death (Hal discovers his father’s body). In art, Xolotl was often depicted with reversed feet (Hal and the bad ankle?). He was the patron of the Mesoamerican ballgame, which resembled something like a cross between hip-volleyball and basketball but which had ritual associations (Eschaton, anyone?) and sometimes resulted in human sacrifice (Penn and Lord?). Of course, with Pemulis’s knowledge of optics (lightning = light) and his presiding over Eschaton, perhaps it’s less of a stretch to associate him with Xolotl than to associate Hal with the god.

Still, we know that Hal has indigenous American type heritage via a Pima-tribe great-grandmother (p. 101), and this, paired with the Coatlicue reference suggests that there may be something of good old native American mythology (versus the more obvious European mythology in evidence throughout the book) behind parts of this great American novel. The details could probably inform a pretty substantial master’s thesis in the hands of somebody with a better grounding in indigenous American culture than I have (meaning somebody who at minimum doesn’t have to go to wikipedia for recall of the stories behind even the most familiar deity names).

Getting back to the context for this tangent, what exactly does Rusk mean by a Coatlicue Complex? Hal sort of clings to the hem of Avril’s skirt (so to speak), and Coatlicue has a skirt of snakes, which calls to mind the Medusa myth. Yet Avril is no hag; a looker, she bears greater resemblance to the Canadian Odalisque variation on the myth. Hal, the hero (?) of stasis (like the hero he writes of in an essay within the book and of which somebody blogged about on one of the prominent Infinite Summer blogs, but I forget who and where) is ultimately rendered effectively stone-/gem-like. But Rusk of course has no idea about this future outcome. Maybe Rusk is getting at Hal’s habit of defining himself in terms of his mother’s all-devouring expectations of him. Or maybe this is just another, more American, way of saying Hal has something of an Oedipal complex.

19 thoughts on “Coatlicue

  1. steven August 10, 2009 / 10:07 am

    Yeah, and Coatlicue, being an anagram for “acute coil,” qualifies as a compound allusion since it refers to Coatlicue’s alter ego Cihuacoatl (“the lady of the serpent”) and also contains a homophone for Coatlicue’s daughter Coyolxauhqui (“Coyol”-xauhqui), which is an anagram for “Ouch! Lax IQ you! But interestingly the name Cihuacoatl is an anagram for both “A chic. A lout.” (which could refer to Pemulis’s loutish behavior in electrifying the chic Dr. Rusk’s doornknob with a Delco battery, resulting in serious injury to the poor cleaning lady) and “chaotic ‘aul'” (‘awil’ in Turkic] being a type of fortified village found throughout the Caucusus mountains (an obvious allusion to Enfield Tennis Academy, itself a kind of fortified village located on a mountain. Okay, hill.) Which ties in nicely with Coatlicue’s other offspring Huitzilopchtli, the god of the sun and war, whose name is an anagram for “It itch uphill. Zoo.” (the uphill zoo obviously E.T.A., while the itch might refer to Avril in some way. The term “the seven year itch” has been used by psychologists to describe a declining interest in monogamous relationships after seven years of marriage. Since Avril’s husband kills himself in The Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and the current scene takes place in The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, it’s possibly some sort of reverse five year itch.

    Avril, French for April, is also a French name: think of Avril Lavigne (which, anglicized, might be “April Levine”). The fact that Avril’s hair has prematurely turned “vividly white” is probably an intended irony. Avril Incandenza is Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Females at E.T.A. Dr. Dolores Rusk is a psychological counselor at E.T.A. Dolores means sorrow (or as George and Ira have written, “More skies of gray than any Russian play could guarantee”). If, like Avril, she were Dean of something, the name “Dean Rusk” would work nicely in a political allegory or satire, since Rusk was Secretary of State under JFK and LBJ who is largely responsible for US policy in the Vietnam War. The name Rusk may still have some meaning in that context but I can’t tell yet. Probably not.

    One of Wallace’s literary forebears who is discussed in the KCRW Bookworm interview is John Barth, whose 1966 novel “Giles Goat Boy” contains a layer of political satire that I wasn’t even aware of when I read it, so I was quite surprised when I read somewhere that various characters represented political figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. I just looked it up online and found out that the character Lucius Rexford, a.k.a. “Lucky” represents John F. Kennedy.

    Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” contains a level of political satire that’s coded, I guess you’d say. For example, biographer Andrew Delbanco points out details like the wigwam set up on the deck of the Pequod by Peleg and Bildad (the “fighting Quakers” on the crew) which was the symbol of the Democrat’s New York headquarters, Tammany Hall. When the wood of Ahab’s harpoon
    (Chapter 113) is said to be “hickory, with the bark still investing it,” he was apparently referring to the ceremonial hickory pole held aloft by party stalwarts at political parades, the symbol of continuity from Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) to James K. Polk (“Young Hickory”).

    An entertainer or celebrity as President of the US (like “Infinite Jest”‘s Johnny Gentle and Rush Limbaugh) is fairly common in fiction. All I can think of right now is the former male model Dean Clift who’s President in Ishmael Reed’s “The Terrible Twos” (1982).

    The name Orin still has some conservative political overtones for me. Orin represents the fluke of a former tennis player who adapts to a professional career in another sport. Track athletes, because of their speed, sometimes have successful second careers in football, and there are athletes like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and Danny Ainge, who are good enough to play in two professional leagues. But Orin’s “talent” for kicking is not realism. It reminds me of the coin-flip in Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” which miraculously lands in the coin slot of the pinball machine. It represents chance.

    • stephanie August 10, 2009 / 12:09 pm

      I’m not trying to be combative here at all, so please don’t misinterpret, but I’m slightly confused as to whether or not this comment was made in serious, specifically the anagrams. Are you suggesting that DFW chose characters from mythology based on the anagrams he could form from their names and loosely applied that to the characters in the book?

      • Daryl Houston August 10, 2009 / 1:19 pm

        I took the anagram stuff to be (good-natured?) ribbing at the sort of outlandish associations I mentioned, and I’m ok with that.

      • infinitetasks August 10, 2009 / 9:53 pm

        I’m with Stephanie here, but… I still thought the Huitzilopochtli = Orin part to be a stimulating coincidence: the left-handedness, the anagram “Noir,” and the self-reflection. Xolotl and the relation to “Mr. consciousness of ankle Hal Incandenza” is also cool. But where’s Mario? Well, who is Mario’s dad, anyway? Does he have one? Quetzalcoatl has the virgin birth. Does he wear a police lock?

        Great job on this post. It’s great that you and Detox were working in parallel.

      • Daryl Houston August 10, 2009 / 10:05 pm

        Hmm, infinitetasks — I don’t know if Quetzalcoatl had a police lock, but there’s a clear association of Lucien Antitoi and Mario with the police lock thing, so maybe I’ll fabricate some Quetzalcoatl/Lucien ties and be done with it. 😉

        This is at least the second or third time I’ve had parallel thought/discovery with somebody or another. I swear I’m not just copying people. Parallel work is validating, though.

  2. Maria Bustillos August 10, 2009 / 12:01 pm

    Wow Daryl Houston. Eye-popping stuff, just excellent.

    The disconnect between Avril’s apparent soullessness and her smothering-motherhood. In my experience the smothering mother seems to suffer from a surfeit of soul rather than the reverse–too much affect, I mean, too much emotion. Plus if Avril is an agent of the AFR and her marriage to JOI was something of a setup–?? What effect does that have on her relationship with her sons? What is her relationship with Luria et al.?? In case there are Infinite Summer guys here I won’t get into the “end” but that has always nagged at me.

    I’m behind you guys with this read, but hope to catch up soon. Thanks so much for this awesome post.

    • Daryl Houston August 10, 2009 / 1:21 pm

      Thanks, Maria. I’m actually going to the library tonight to see if I can find any decent reference material that’ll help me flesh this stuff out into something of greater depth and breadth. Here’s hoping I can beat those queued-up master’s students to the punch.

  3. stephanie August 10, 2009 / 12:14 pm

    Oh, and I forgot to mention – re: the original post itself: thanks for looking this up! I make notes of things to Google when I’m near a computer but then always forget to. The “devouring mother” idea sheds a lot of light on Avril’s relationships with her sons.

    I’m not totally sure that I agree about the connection between Quetzalcoatl, Xolotl, Huitzilopochtli and the Incandenza boys, but it’s certainly good food for thought. I just noticed that I have a tendency to overanalyze some of DFW’s text, since he’s so deliberate and the book is loaded with direct references. But I think sometimes I can read too much into that and start finding connections in anything, nearly arbitrarily. So while I appreciate keeping it all in mind, I sort of keep it at arms length at the same time, if that makes sense.

    • Daryl Houston August 10, 2009 / 1:23 pm

      I agree re the Quetzalcoatl (et al) associations. There are things you an pick out that seem to sort of line up, but hey, throw a dart at any mythology book and see if you can’t justify some kind of connection between the character it lands on and some IJ character. It was fun to try to connect some of the lines, but I’m not sure I’d go out on a very long limb to defend any of the particulars re the three sons (of Coatlicue). This does get me thinking in a little different context, though, and that’s fun.

  4. ray gunn August 10, 2009 / 1:01 pm

    Dude, this is some mighty fabulous stuff you’ve got here! But to address only one tiny fraction of the material, I would say that the Medusa is in the eye of the beholder in this book, so in one sense the snakes theme is consistent: While Avril is time and again referred to as quite the looker, especially for a woman of some years, Medusa vs. Odalisque was JOI’s invention, and round about that time he would have been dealing with the fact that his wife was unfaithful. Infidelity can turn even the prettiest person into an ugly hag. Compare/contrast with Joelle, who is so beautiful she’s actually terrifying. I don’t think it’s accidental that there’s some conflation/overlap between the two central female characters. I think we are invited to question the duality of mother/destroyer and beautiful/monstrous as they apply to Avril and Joelle, especially when considered in light of Jim’s relationship to them.

    • Daryl Houston August 10, 2009 / 1:24 pm

      Very well put, ray gunn, and much appreciated.

  5. Heather Ann August 20, 2009 / 9:13 am

    “son Huitzilopochtli who sprang fully formed from the womb”

    Wouldn’t this be Mario, who Avril didn’t know she was pregnant with until she was in labour?

    • Daryl Houston August 20, 2009 / 9:32 am

      Possibly, though Mario is anything but a fully-formed warrior type. 🙂

  6. Andrew Wood October 9, 2015 / 1:54 am

    This is really terrific, thank you!

    Also, re: Orin and birds: what about the bird that falls into the hot tub?

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