This is my position(?): Tiny Ewell and the problem of talking to yourself

‘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!”

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7 Responses to This is my position(?): Tiny Ewell and the problem of talking to yourself

  1. 1ady1azarus says:

    I really like the idea that this section, Pat’s drop-in hours, represents “an interruption of the sender/receiver relationship” in communication, especially because I think it’s so easily overlooked. This section, to me, is an example of how Wallace’s humor can actually blind you to what he’s really saying: because it is so consistently funny, I barreled through this part for the laughs and neglected to analyze it within the context of communication, which is ridiculous because, as you pointed out, it’s a section filled with nothing but disembodied speech. It practically begs to be interpreted within the frame of problematic communication. So it’s interesting how Wallace’s humor can actually get in the way of communicating his message… which is about the difficulties of communicating a message… okay, I’ll stop now.
    Your reading of Tiny Ewell’s rambling as someone communicating to himself and treating the second speaker like an object, something to be talked AT, takes me back to the section concerning the decline of videophony. You remember the “videophonic stress” (146) that results from the realization that your interface partner is (and has always been), just like you, idly playing with his own shoelaces or involved in some other self-grooming ritual, which shatters the fantasy of you having ever commanded someone’s attention in conversation. But these drop-in hours should be different. They’re face-to-face, pure, real life word exchanges, with no phones, no cameras, no mediums to go through. And yet it’s the same thing. Communication comes out as ultimately solipsistic and dishonest.
    I wonder what to make of Ewell’s question, “Is it denial to delay signature until the vocabulary of the contract is clear to all parties so bound?” I find the metaphor of communication as a verbal contract between two parties intriguing. A legal contract has two crucial requirements: mutual understanding and transparency. As you’ve demonstrated, these are the exact elements that Tiny Ewell’s speech lacks.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Steph Roman says:

    To piggyback off of 1ady1azarus above, I definitely had to stop, laugh, and reread the “Did I experience yes some formication in detox?” bit again. Wallace perhaps further undermines the issue of communication (already noted in the original post as a one-way transmission and problematically so) by draping it in humor. But humor on its own is another form of communication, with a complex and meticulous construction and methodology. One question I’m currently working through is, “Does Wallace’s humor merely shield readers from what he’s really saying, or is humor (one of) the message(s) itself?”


  3. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    I think your assertion that Ewell is communicating with himself is spot-on. I read this passage as Ewell getting his story straight. He’s basically repeating everything he has ever told himself to convince himself that he’s not an alcoholic, but that he still has a problem. This distinction is difficult to make, but I think it is still possible to discern.

    I don’t believe Ewell comes to any epiphanies during his monologue. He goes to Pat’s drop-in hours because he feels the need to talk at someone, instead of only talking to himself. I think the distinction between talking AT someone and talking TO someone is important to make. In this passage, Ewell appears to be talking AT Pat because of her non-response in the text. However, Ewell appears to be talking TO himself because of the responses he makes to his own words.


  4. mer95 says:

    I think the particular moment you point to here is an interesting choice to prove that a character is “only conversing with themselves”, when this exchange seems a lot more two-sided than many other occasions in the novel when a character is speaking but really only speaking to themselves. While I do agree with you that this is really what he is doing, I think there are several passages that show this idea more outright, for example:
    • All of the AA stories told in first person
    • Orin’s Phone calls to Hal, specifically the toenail scene where Hal is ignoring Orin to talk about his superstitions
    • Mario talking to Hal before sleep (39)
    • The exchanges between Marathe and Steeply when they each break off to wax philosophical
    • JOIS’s monologue to JOIJ (157)
    • The entire hour of the Madame Psychosis radio program
    • Geoffrey Day, in general (270)
    Characters advising or speaking to themselves under the guise of speaking to another present character seems to be a pretty prominent motif so far into the novel, and I feel as though you have hit on something that we will be seeing again and again over the course of 1079 pages.


    • endorphinique says:

      I don’t doubt that there are many other moments that could equally portray characters talking to themselves, though I would encourage you to challenge some of the examples you bring up as being “more outright” and how they differ from the solipsism and dishonesty that is reflected in this particular passage.

      For instance, in Orin’s phone call to Hal, Hal may be talking to himself at points about breaking the toenail-clipping spell, but he is also validating Orin in his theories on why these extremist Quebecois groups are targeting certain missions and operations in the US.

      An expansion on the Mario example would be helpful, since class discussion today seemed to lean towards Mario being a large outlier in the story in terms of his lack of addiction and other more innocent characteristics of him. Perhaps I’m reading the section on p.39 wrong, but I also cannot find any particular line in which Mario is speaking to himself–rather, he seems to really want to engage with Hal, however trivially he goes about doing that.

      While Marathe and Steeply do often seem to talk at each other instead of to each other in that stereotypical you-silly-American-pig-dogs and you-angry-Francophones sort of way, their responses aren’t pulled out of thin air (the way Ewell brings up his history as a lawyer and his pancreas). Marathe and Steeply may not be seeing eye-to-eye and that shows in their responses, but I feel like that’s a far cry from talking to themselves about the state of O.N.A.N.-ite issues and such. If anything, it seems like a regular C-SPAN debate on the Senate floor.

      Madame Psychosis’s program is not so much talking to herself as she is talking to an audience, performing an already written script that does not reflect on her own individual self (like, her list of physical and mental problems with people does not actually say anything about her as a person).

      There’s also the distillation of Ewell’s, and other Ennet House residents’, transcripts here. While most of the other sections you bring up tend to be written in a more narratively traditional sense (for lack of a better term w/r/t Wallace’s prose), the narrative structure of this entire section rests solely on dialogue itself, removed from being actual continuous conversations, pointing themselves out as language in use.

      That said, I believe a good, more outright example in showing the way in which people talk to themselves by talking at other people (and the way in which this emphasizes a solipsism and denial in communication) has already been illuminated in a previous comment: videophonic stress and that industry’s decline demonstrate a very intriguing dilemma in terms of self-perception.


  5. das196 says:

    Reading this passage I think it’s important to make the connection between the round about way in which Ewell speaks and the recursive nature of addiction. The syntax of this passage is very deliberate in its context. Ewell asks no one in particular, as Ewell is not actually engaging in dialogue with Pat, what’s an alcoholic. The passage consist of recollections, pauses to justify his addictive behavior, and illogically concluding that he is simply not an addict. Overall, the back and forth dialogue he engages in with himself can be assimilated to Erdedy’s self-perpetuating cycle of needing to concede to marijuana. Within Erdedy’s cycle of indulgence are the traces of denial and evidence that Erdedy’s “insufficiently committed to the course of action that would be required to remove substances from his lifestyle” (Wallace 20). While Erdedy acknowledges his addiction and would characterize himself as an addict, he’s in denial about how to get sober. Ewell is also in denial and is indulging in self-perpetuating behavior by even contending to justify his addictive behavior. Ewell can openly discuss his addictive tendencies but there remains a disconnect between these attributes and alcoholism. The passage also resonates with a recurring theme in the novel–disconnect between the mind and the body. In both cases, the mind puts forth one idea but the body engages and desires something different.


  6. mdr50 says:

    I agree that this paragraph is a great example of solipsistic communication. There seems to be little doubt that Ewell is talking with himself in this particular passage, or at least that he is not talking to anyone because he is interested in a response. I believe Ewell only wanted to speak in Pat’s presence in order to give his dialogue an extra cathartic quality for himself that could not be achieved in Pat’s absence. I think Wallace may using Ewell to describe the typical mode of thinking for an addict and that it is easier for one to be self absorbed and to convince oneself that he or she is not an addict than it is to admit that one is completely dependent on drugs.


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