Danse Macabre

InfiniteTasks writes this week of the Scorn of Death in Infinite Jest. I’ve been holding off for the milestone to write about the Gately showdown and hadn’t really planned to write about death. I wanted instead to write about dancing. First, of course, there’s this choreography of car movement, as people scuttle out to their cars at midnight to shift them to the other side of the street, engaging in a whole series of stylized movements — extend hand to door to insert key; swing door open, rotate down into seat, reach out to turn key, turn head to check over shoulder, swing arm out over back seat to back up if needed, twist arms about as you steer the car in a short arc across the street, then more or less reverse it all — so that their cars too can engage in the series of more or less synchronized, stylized movements of switching sides of the street. But Wallace takes it a little farther than that. Consider the following examples:

  • “Gately takes the arm and pirouettes around twisting the broken arm behind the guy’s back” (613)
  • “Gately feints and takes one giant step and gets all his weight into a Rockette kick that lands high up under the Nuck’s beard’s chin” (613)
  • “It’s impossible, outside choreographed entertainment, to fight two guys together at once” (613)
  • “he’s spun around on one knee” (613)
  • “the guy’s Item-hand’s arm still up in the air with Green’s arm like they’re dancing” (614)

And let’s not forget that the Nucks in question have just left a hula-type party, with its own dancerly associations. Given the fates of said Nucks, this dance really is a dance of death.

The danse macabre is

a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death unites all. La Danse Macabre consists of the personified death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave, typically with an emperor, king, youngster, and beautiful girl—all skeletal. They were produced to remind people of how fragile their lives and how vain the glories of earthly life were.

And while we don’t have a skeletal figure leading these poor Nucks off to the afterlife, this kind of representation of death does sort of resonate with a lot of what we see in Infinite Jest. I’ve long noted that Wallace adopts a pretty equal-opportunity attitude with respect to who’s likely to suffer from addiction (consider Erdedy and Joelle next to Poor Tony and yrstruly), much as death in this old allegory plays no favorites.

The problem InfiniteTasks grapples with is what he takes to be scorn of death, evidenced by a sort of derision or (in some cases) cartoonishness of depiction. What I’ve discovered with a little googling tonight is that even this cartoonishness is part of the pictorial tradition of the danse macabre. For example, there are a number of old engravings of the danse macabre in which death is gleefully tugging an acrobat from a tight-rope in a carnival atmosphere. There’s another of death dressed as a fool, tugging a fool by the hand. There’s one particularly nasty one that calls JOI’s Free Show to mind of death playing “tour guide to gullible fools in the catacombs.” And there are others of people killed by drink (poison or alcohol, take your pick), gluttony, suicide.

So I don’t know. Maybe there is something of scorn in the way Wallace writes of death. But maybe he’s just working within an old set of approaches to death, which is after all the final (and infinite, life springing from death) jester. Is there comfort in laughing right back at it?

9 thoughts on “Danse Macabre

  1. infinitedetox August 21, 2009 / 10:29 am

    Dude. I had been thinking about some of this too. There seems to be a lot of ballet-imagery associated with Don G. I think early on in the book, the narrator says that if Gately had ever been exposed to ballet he would have described the motions of the people waiting in line for the methadone clinic as balletic.

  2. Daryl Houston August 21, 2009 / 10:42 am

    Ah, yes, that’s ringing a bell. There’s also his name’s being a homophone of “gait,” which we typically think of as a style of walking but which in a broader sense has to do with foot movements. The thing about methadone addicts’ congregation seeming balletic also reminds me of the McCain piece, in which I think Wallace says that the reporters circling around in the lobby with their cell phones to their ears would have looked, from above, balletic.

  3. steven August 24, 2009 / 4:40 am

    This may be another example of How Wikipedia Explains the World, but unfortunately, old Wiki doesn’t do a very good job of explaining culture so if all Wallace intended by a Dance of Death was Gately’s balletic movement in a street brawl, it seems very superficial, you’d have to admit.

    In other words, there are no firsthand literary or musical examples in your explanation, there’s only Wikpedia’s three-paragraph definition, from which all these bizarre metaphorical connections derive.

    In the examples I’ve studied, the Devil is usually portrayed as a fiddler who’s playing a Mephisto Waltz which contains the infernal interval of a tritone in order to rouse the dead while the “Dies Irae” sounds in the background. Literally “Days of Wrath” (there are probably a dozen musical interpretations of the ancient poem on YouTube, from Mozart to the Matrix, my favorite), which would fit nicely with the “doom” theme of eschatology and the Apocalypse, unfortunately, there’s nothing like that is implied in Wallace’s supposed interpretation of the Totenkranz or Dance of Death.

    It usually involves a Faustian bargain as well, as in the legends that were used to explain Nikolai Paganini’s virtuosic technique on the violin, and even the musicianship of bluesman Robert Johnson, Hell Hounds on My Trail and all that. I don’t see any of those qualities in Gately. Isn’t it also the story behind Thomas Mann’s novel about a German composer named Leverkühn (which means something like “bold life,” a character who was supposedly based on a composer of that era whose name I’ve forgotten) and set against the Holocaust? I don’t know because I haven’t read it, but it sounds more “elegantly complex” than the Gately fight in Infinite Jest.

    One novel I have read which explores many of these ideas is “Canone Inverso” by Paulo Maurensig. It’s set in a Kafkaesque musical academy during the Holocaust and it involves a 17th century Hungarian violinist with an infernal technique and/or fiddle.

    Anyway, I found a link to the Andrei Codrescu essay about eschatology and the devil. It’s the first essay in the book, so if anyone’s interested, just click the arrows to turn the pages. On page 8 the different varieties of eschatologists — from militarists to environmentalists to religious fundamentalists are listed and classified.


  4. Daryl Houston August 24, 2009 / 9:28 am

    Uh oh, guess I’d better call the Contemporary Literary Criticism and put a cancel on my submission of this for publication. Yes, it’s a superficial connection to have made. I don’t think I claim to have done anything more in-depth than that. It’s just a blog, you know?

  5. Sarah August 25, 2009 / 5:13 pm

    Fantastic, Daryl! I just came here from Infinite Tasks, where I mentioned that the scene you describe reminded me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill. So I guess that was me picking up on the choreographed dance thing, (which makes me feel pretty happy, to not be out on a limb) but the Danse Macabre is a considerably more elegant comparison, with huge scope for interpretation.

    Enjoyed your post.

  6. Jared August 27, 2009 / 2:26 am

    Consider too, Odalisque v. Medusa from JOI’s filmography. Isn’t it described as the two combatants wheeling around the stage, performing elaborate acrobatics (the fight is necessarily a dance of avoidance, avoidance being a theme raised also in note 269.1 in regards to football) ducking the others’ gaze, all while petrifying the audience. Which naturally conjures Joelle’s role in the Entertainment: she is either Odalisque or Medusa, or one and the same.

  7. Jared August 27, 2009 / 2:32 am

    Sorry, I just strolled in without looking around and didn’t realize you were still reading the book. Wish I could delete the above comment; just consider this an apology and a spoiler alert.

  8. Daryl Houston August 27, 2009 / 8:16 am

    No worries, Jared. I’ve read the book a number of times, so there are no spoilers for me. In the interest preventing spoilage for any readers who haven’t finished yet (I am trying to stay at pace with the Infinite Summer spoiler line), I’ve edited your comment to remove the spoily bit.

    Regarding Joelle as either the Medusa or the Odalisque, we actually don’t know that she played such a role. The cast for that film is uncredited. I like the point you make regarding the film’s relationship to dance, however. I think there’s also some kind of funny stuff about hipster-style dance in the section about Molly Notkin’s party.

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