Donning the Veil: U.H.I.D. Explained

“In other words you hide your hiding… U.H.I.D. allows members to be open about their essential need for concealment. In other words we don the veil. We don the veil and wear the veil proudly and stand very straight and walk briskly wherever we wish, veiled and hidden, but now completely up-front and unashamed about the fact that how we appear to others affects us deeply, about the fact that we want to be shielded from all sight. U.H.I.D. supports us in our decision to hide openly.” (535)

These words, spoken of course by the veiled Joelle van Dyne, occur within a conversation between her and Don Gately at Ennet House early in the morning on November 11th Y.D.A.U. This speech follows Gately’s request, “maybe tell me about this veil of yours, then, Joelle, if we’re talking about defied sense” (533). While I was reading this section, I found myself torn on determining the portrayal of communication. I half felt like we were getting a more positive take here, one that is at least markedly different from Hal’s interview or Randy Lenz’s coke-fueled tirade to Bruce Green. Indeed, some statements seem to indicate that this is an instance of two people truly absorbed in one another’s speech, like Joelle picking up on Gately’s intellectual insecurities and Gately expending a whole lot of his brain power to really try to understand Joelle’s explanation of the U.H.I.D. But upon closer inspection, I must conclude that Wallace is yet again questioning the effectiveness of communication. And I am particularly interested in the role of metafiction, paradox, and irony in Joelle’s description of the U.H.I.D. doctrine, and how these factors affect the experience of communication for U.H.I.D. members.

Because to “hide your hiding” sounds an awful lot like writing about writing – the crux of metafiction. Of course, we know that Wallace had some serious concerns about this form of writing, viewing it as inescapably solipsistic and incapable of producing any sort of human transaction. Metafiction coils back on itself so much that it ultimately has nothing to really say, or communicate to its reader. In hiding their hiding, the U.H.I.D. members actually get sucked into the same recursive loop of self-consciousness that writers of metafiction also find themselves trapped within.

And “to hide openly” is undoubtedly a contradiction, an outright paradox. Joelle insists that by donning the veil and concealing their deformities, U.H.I.D. members are being “completely up-front and unashamed,” allowing them a “connection to society” (534) their deformity would otherwise deny them. Do we buy this? Does Joelle even buy this? The mission of the U.H.I.D. seems inherently dissonant. Masking your own face undoubtedly hinders honest, 1:1 communication – consider the earlier videophony debacle with the masks (which Gately acutely brings up in this conversation). Joelle’s repetition of “in other words” indicates that we’re traveling down a rabbit-hole here where logic is going out the window as Joelle continuously attempts to justify the paradoxical nature of her group. U.H.I.D. is kind of the opposite of AA, but just as slippery to conceptualize. While AA explains itself through the terse clichés, the U.H.I.D. has to engage in these lengthy, circular explanations (Gately even entreats her to “use less words” (535)) in order to defend itself. And Wallace seems to be critiquing both these groups, on the opposite ends of the same spectrum, for their language games.

Mario, arguably the most sincere character of this novel, goes to no lengths to conceal his abnormalities (rather, he seems to accentuate them), and I would venture to guess that he functions as a foil for the U.H.I.D. members. If Mario embodies sincerity, this group represents pure irony. In being “veiled and hidden,” the deformed ironically draw further attention to their affliction. All that Gately, and anyone else interacting with them for that matter, wants to know is, what’s under the veil? Joelle dances the question, delving into this description of the U.H.I.D. instead. And when she finally does offer up an answer – “I am so beautiful I am deformed” (538) – is it at all sincere? Recall Joelle’s description of Orin as “dodger of flung acid extraordinaire” (223), a strange statement which would seem to imply that her real problem is a face marred by acid burns, not captivating beauty.

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2 Responses to Donning the Veil: U.H.I.D. Explained

  1. rdlebby says:

    I’m really interested in the contrast between Joelle hiding behind her veil and Mario acting in many ways oblivious to his differences. Although Wallace doesn’t necessarily come right out and say that one way or the other (or neither) is the proper way of handling things, both of the characters seem to experience the consequences of how they accept their deformities. We’re told multiple times of injuries Mario sustains because he doesn’t feel pain until a stimulus does intense damage. On a more psychological level, even Hal can treat Mario condescendingly:
    “…and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.” pg. 592.
    After Joelle embraces her deformity, appears to be treated normally. The excerpts of her social life after donning the veil that we see don’t show her being treated condescendingly or accidentally harming herself due to her disfigurement. Perhaps it’s another nod to the struggles of communicating that Joelle has to cover her face to be treated normally and have real conversations (something she struggled with even at Boston U).


  2. mattdice says:

    There is one striking parallel to Joelle in this book, which comes in the form of one of James’ films, the Odalisque vs. Medusa. Joelle is unambiguously the Odalisque, who is supposed to be the opposite of the Medusa, who has snakes for hair and is usually regarded as very disgusting. However, even though these two mythological characters appear very different, they are in essence the same. The Odalisque turns people into a diamond by her beauty, and Medusa turns people to stone via her own visage. While the Odalisque might be perceived as “better” since she is more attractive, the two characters in practice have the same deformity: they kill people who look at them. This reflects the reason that Joelle hides. She doesn’t like what her appearance does to other people. She explains that people in the UHID don’t like how others at a party have to act like they don’t notice any deformities and will act differently around her, paralyzed. The same thing happens with her, because no one would talk to her out of fear for her beauty. So, at least in Joelle’s case, she could choose not to hide her face and show off her beauty, or she could hide her face so that she doesn’t make others afraid. When she hides her face, she is kind of showing humility and sincerity that may even surpass Mario’s, since Mario’s genuineness may actually stem from unawareness (accented by his unawareness to pain).


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