‘I’m not denying anything. I’m simply asking you to define “alcoholic.” How can you ask me to attribute to myself a given term if you refuse to define the term’s meaning? I’ve been a reasonably successful personal-injury attorney for sixteen years, and except for that one ridiculous so-called seizure at the Bar Association dinner this spring and that clot of a judge banning me from his courtroom – and let me just say that I can support my contention that the man masturbates under his robe behind the bench with detailed corroboration from both colleagues and Circuit Court laundry personnel – with the exception of less than a handful of incidents I’ve held my liquor and my head as high as many a taller advocate. Believe you me. How old are you, young lady? I am not in denial so to speak about anything empirical and objective. Am I having pancreas problems? Yes. Do I have trouble recalling certain intervals in the Kemp and Limbaugh administrations? No contest. Is there a spot of domestic turbulence surrounding my intake? Why yes there is. Did I experience yes some formication in detox? I did. I have no problem forthrightly admitting things I can grasp. Formicate, with an m, yes. But what is this you demand I admit? Is it denial to delay signature until the vocabulary of the contract is clear to all parties so bound? Yes, yes, you don’t follow what I mean here, good! And you’re reluctant to proceed without clarification. I rest. I cannot deny what I don’t understand. This is my position.’ (Infinite Jest, 177)
This passage of dialogue, said by Tiny Ewell, is located within a larger section of the selected transcripts of the drop-in hours of Pat Montesian, the executive director of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Although Ewell does a good job of describing himself already (as evidenced above), it may jog your memory to add that he’s an “elf-sized U.S. male” who has come to the Ennet House after leaving detox and has an obsession with tattoos (85).
Within this section, we do not get full transcripts of the conversations. We get these large blocks of Ennet House residents’ dialogue, each giving more or less a vignette of the goings-on at the house. None of them are in dialogue with each other, directly, though certain plot threads merge as the section progresses. Each section, like the one I have chosen, can stand alone quite nicely. Given that we know Wallace was concerned about the inherent flaws in language and communication, what is he doing here?
There is no one physically prompting these questions in the text. (Wallace uses a similar structure in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.) While we know that it’s Pat asking Ewell a question because this transcript comes from her drop-in hours, and while we know that Ewell is talking to her and addresses her directly as “young lady,” a descriptor to validate that she’s there, why not just add a small dialogue tag that gives the exact phrasing she used? Wouldn’t that do something? Was it a simple “do you deny that you’re an alcoholic” or a more flowery (or aggressive) way to phrase it? What’s with the interruption of this sender/receiver relationship?
What I’m gleaning from the absence of a second voice in this passage is that Wallace is showing another problem with language: communication with the self. Ewell is having a conversation with himself here, is he not? He interrupts himself with that story about the masturbating judge. He asks himself questions about his health history, specifically about his pancreas and his memory. He’s talking to himself about himself. And in that instance, he not only treats Pat, the listener to his speaker, as a sort of object to talk at, but also renders her kind of irrelevant and substitutes her with himself. Wallace is demonstrating the solipsistic nature of communication in this passage’s narrative and linguistic structure.
But is anything actually, like, communicated to Ewell? Or, phrased differently, does Ewell show any true understanding of himself after he says all this? Is he exercising self-reflection? Do we believe him when he says he is “not denying anything” or even if he really wants a definition of what an “alcoholic” is? Even though the passage is purely dialogue with no accompanying actions, we can tell that he’s being intentionally obstinate by his emphasis on only answering what’s “empirical and objective.”
To put this in context again, Ewell is seeking recovery, which is in itself a very self-defined term. Recovery also starts with admitting that he has a problem, and in this case, Ewell does not want to admit that he is an alcoholic unless he’s given a valid, objective definition of what it is. Not a self-defined one, as the text suggests Pat is asking him to do. On this level, while Ewell is talking to himself, he’s also denying himself. Wallace, here, emphasizes the danger of relying solely on empirical, objective definitions for constructing self-image. Such a view has a very slippery nature of being ignorant to one’s own being, as Ewell demonstrates. And Ewell seems to be, on some level, proud of his ability to ignore and deny himself, as well as his inability to communicate with Pat, as evidenced by his (weird and sad) excitement in “yes, yes, you don’t follow what I mean here, good!”