The Function of Art in Infinite Jest

A bit of a digression here, but something that piqued my interest: what is Wallace doing with all the art allusions? The word “baroque” comes up three times alone in the Boston AA chapter (344, 346, 359), and while of course Wallace isn’t referring to the actual art movement of 17th century Europe but rather to the adjectival term which has come to mean “extravagantly ornate, florid, and convoluted in character or style,” I still don’t think the term is accidental. Just to name a few instances where Wallace engages with a Baroque painter/sculptor (I think I missed some):

  • Titian (not Baroque, more involved in Mannerism, but heavily influential on the Baroque movement): U.S.S.M.K is describing her father’s fetishes and says he was “striking a pose from a rather well-known Titian oil in the Met’s High Renaissance Wing” (125). I thought this might be Titian’s Rape of Europa, but that’s located at a different collection.
  • Rubens: Hal tells Orin that Stice is a “Rubensophile” (1015), meaning he enjoys larger women, the type of figures Rubens painted. Rubens was fascinated with flesh and also made copies of Titian’s works.
  • El Greco: Hal says Pemulis looks like a “bad El Greco” (334) (El Greco painted some weeeird stuff, so I can’t imagine what this could look like).
  • Bernini: Bernini obviously plays the biggest role. Starting on 988, we get the description of James Incandenza’s Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell, which features “an alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman obsessed with Bernini’s ‘The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’” Moving on to Joelle’s attempted overdose: “She always sees, after inhaling, right at the apex, at the graph’s spike’s tip, Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’” (235). And then in the disturbing passage containing the story of the Boston AA stripper’s childhood, she describes her foster-sister’s expression after the foster-father’s nightly visits as being “the exact same expression as the facial expression on the stone-robed lady’s face in this one untitled photo of some Catholic statue that hung (the photo) in the dysfunctional household’s parlor” (373).

So, here’s a picture of the sculpture, which I am sure a lot of people have seen before, but this one is a little different than most of the pictures you’ll see because it actually gets the full scope of the sculpture:


This is largely considered to be the sculptural masterpiece of the Baroque period since it epitomizes the term bel composto, which means something like integrated art mediums or sublime wholeness, but basically the big thing about this is that it unifies architecture, sculpture, and painting in one amazing work. Something else to notice is that Bernini didn’t just stop at the sculpture depicting St. Teresa’s vision of religious ecstasy. He also included sculptures of the patron’s family to act as audience members, which you’ll see on the sides. He essentially made the sculpture into a live performance that will go on forever.

So how is this statue working in IJ? Could it be that Wallace wanted IJ to be his bel composto? Does the inclusion of an audience in this sculpture mirror the interactive nature Wallace wanted to achieve with his reader? Consider the three times it has come up so far: in a film as the object of “obsession,” during an attempted overdose as an image, and then after a rape (which is what’s really throwing me here). The idea that the sculpture represents some sort of transcendence attainable from obsessions, drugs, or sex (even unwilling??? and morally repugnant in every way???) has crossed my mind, but I’m still trying to figure out what Wallace is doing with it.

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3 Responses to The Function of Art in Infinite Jest

  1. You’ve brought up a number of really, really interesting things here, and I’m quite intrigued to see where people take this thread, but I will say that maybe one reason for the multiple references to the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is that perhaps something similarly ecstatic happens to viewers of The Entertainment.


  2. endorphinique says:

    This comment might turn into a digression of your “digression,” but thaaaaaaank you for opening up discussion on this front. I can now flood you with the scraps of knowledge I’ve retained from a History of Western Architecture course I took two years ago. (Though I’ll try to keep it to your Bernini/Baroque topic since I can fit Wallace’s modern/pomo architectural references like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and Brutalism and “form follows function” and all that stuff in another post.)

    This sculpture was the focal point of that course’s discussion on the Baroque period because of the reasons you’ve already stated. The room that the sculpture is in integrates various art forms to create an atmosphere that forces its inhabitants to think of religious transcendence. Bernini was a master at creating spaces like these, which is probably why he was hired to design St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. One interesting thing to note about it being the pinnacle of Baroque sculpture, aside from it being “extravagantly ornate, florid, and convoluted” (yes, very), is that the Baroque period was known for the art technique trompe-l’œil, or “deceive the eye,” a fancy way of saying that Baroque art was characterized by optical illusion. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa manipulates the room that it’s in, the elevation of the sculpture, and the materials and colors used throughout the room and in the sculpture to really make it seem actually divine, instead of just a representation of a religious scene. It’s sooo totally divine that Bernini put audience members in there to praise how divine it is. (Since The Ecstasy is all the way in Rome, a little Cathedral of Learning take on trompe-l’œil would be the Austrian Nationality Room’s ceiling trying to look higher than it really is. Look up at where the walls and the ceiling are supposed to meet.)

    The instinct I got when reading your list of the sculpture’s appearances was first that a parallel was being made between religion and addiction, due to each character in your list being tied to substance abuse in some way (as well as following class discussion of the ritual of addiction and the social element of it). But since the Baroque period, for me, has such heavy ties to artifice and manipulating perception and space, I feel like Wallace may also be doing something about the pretense of these obsessions.

    The rape is really throwing me off as well, but I hope the illusory nature of Baroque art adds something to however we’re trying to interpret these references.

    Liked by 2 people

    • mjp99 says:

      Perhaps if we consider transcendence and distortion together, but not explicitly as we think of them relative to Bernini – i.e. not thinking about transcendence “religiously” nor distortion literally, as Bernini literally utilizes optical illusion to distort the space – we might illuminate what is potentially at stake for Wallace behind these allusions.

      Consider Marathe’s example of a child who hasn’t learned she can’t eat candy constantly – a discussion about how too much fun is a bad thing and balance must be learned. The drive towards “fun” – or escape, addiction, sports, entertainment, moebius or onanistic intellectualizing – I see as a response to an inability to reconcile the self with the fundamental banalities of a mundane, human existence. In many ways this is heightened in Infinite Jest: the world is excessively vapid, shallow, ironic, to the point of being almost sadistic, full of contradiction and irreconcilable relationships, grief, loss, etc.. Take as axiomatic the Incandenzas – or Clipperton – or even just the fact that babies are being born without skulls…. that Canadian youths jump across train tracks to prove their will. No teleology or ontology can be conceived anymore – children play “Eschaton.”

      Naturally the individual desires to escape this world in any way she can. So addictions take shape as a way of numbing the stifling banality of the real. But instead of a striking a healthy balance to combat the terrifying world the characters inhabit, they fall victim to excess, and create an equally bad state of affairs for themselves through excessive pleasure to the point of literal stasis as we see with The Entertainment. I believe this is behind the “Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell” title and the striking contrast between the image of an alcoholic sandwich bag salesman (also huh?) and Bernini.

      Similarly, Joelle attempts to commit suicide through excess, through the only thing that makes her happy anymore. The end of life at its highest point, a maximum state of pleasure.

      The third allusion is harder to work through, but demands a little context about St. Teresa of Avila, instead of Bernini. She apparently would torture herself, and saw repeated visions of Christ embodied. Her own words on a vision that melds spiritual and physical pleasure, and pain, together:

      “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…”

      This resonates poignantly with the strippers account of her filial ritual, raising the “It” – her deformed sister who is raped nightly – to the image of Bernini’s sculpture and having the sister adopt the same pose as St. Teresa in her moment of bodily ecstasy of pain/pleasure turned spiritual transcendence of the flesh.

      I also am not exactly sure how to put this into conversation with addiction the way Kate Gompert sees it – not the longing to hurt herself but the desire to stop hurting – when this seems to drastically complicate or even encourage the numbing aspects of drug use and obsession. Perhaps it is precisely the disgust we feel at this attempted transcendence that Wallace wants us to experience – maybe he wants to drive home that the mundane, the banal, is inescapable and we just have to live with it the way AA members have to accept the fact that the only way to not be an addict is to not consume the substance, as shallow, simple, and cliched as that may sound to the intellect.

      Great post though! Really has got me thinking.. (as you can tell from this rant!)

      Liked by 2 people

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