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?