Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 7


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 7

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 3, Spring 2003: Special Conference Edition

‘The Unutterable Entertainments of Paradise’: The Landscape and Waste in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace

Ben Williamson
© Ben Williamson. All Rights Reserved

Terms such as wilderness, desert, and wasteland present some interesting semantic issues. In much American literature each one has been used to describe the landscape. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld the ‘waste business’ is envisioned as the ‘construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza … only twenty-five times bigger’, with ‘the towers of the World Trade Center … visible in the distance … a poetic balance between that idea and this one’. DeLillo’s wasteland is an ‘impressive and distressing’ [1] symbol of an urban metabolism both consuming and dumping its waste conspicuously. David Foster Wallace’s second novel, Infinite Jest, features a garbage dump—a wasteland—that is larger still: it entirely fills New England, and is so toxic that it has spawned ‘rapacious feral hamsters and insects of Volkswagen size and infantile giganticism’ [2]. The result, in the former and latter instances respectively, is of unwanted domestic pets and babies put out in the trash. This paper will consider the blurring in distinctions in definitions of American landscape, exploring first Puritan typologies of wilderness, landscape and providence, before proceeding to examine how these persist in David Foster Wallace’s representation of consumer culture waste.

Puritanism is a highly contested theological and critical field, and arguably interpretation of its tenets is clouded considerably by influential studies which themselves locate, or even construct, the hermeneutic framework by which Puritan writers are read. This paper examines three central Puritan concepts, exploring most crucially how John Calvin’s typological hermeneutics, that typology is the ‘handwriting of God’ [3], have been deployed in the writing of William Bradford, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. Typology, at its roots, is the ‘establishment of historical connexions between certain events, persons or things in the Old Testament [the type] and similar events, persons or things in the New Testament [the antitype]’. [4] Many New Testament writers themselves practised such typology. Within the Puritan framework, typology is evident in historical exegeses, wherein events are interpreted according to their ‘shadow’ in the Old Testament Scriptures, and also in the interpretation of ‘remarkable providences’ evident in nature and the land. The theory of predestination—that some are elected to Heaven and others passed over—is also important, especially here in relation to Puritan eschatology. Much Puritan thought is pervaded by millennial angst and a sense of impending apocalypse, and is concerned with the study of the final events of human history. The prophecies of the Book of Revelation, it was believed, would soon be realised, and only the ‘chosen remnant’ would experience eternal bliss in Heaven.

William Bradford (1590-1657) was of course one of the earliest Puritans to arrive in New England, aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and writes of a new England ‘wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men … the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue’. [5] For Bradford, America appeared wild and overrun with the savagery of both nature, and man and beast upon it. Subsequent settlers however configure this landscape as barren and arid. Edward Johnson (1598-1672) writes of the immigration of ‘the seed of man and beast to sow this yet untilled wilderness’ [6]. The American landscape is in fact rendered as the antitype to the type of the Biblical Wilderness to the south and east of Palestine—referring especially to those barren, desolate areas in which the Israelites wandered before entering the Promised Land; a type which underpinned much of the Puritan errand into the wilderness.

In Cotton Mather’s 1702 vision of the history of the Puritan settlement of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, the landscape is defined as an Indian wilderness that ‘His divine Providence hath irradiated’:

our Lord Jesus Christ carried some thousands of reformers into the retirements of an American desert on purpose that … he might there, to them first, and then by them, give a specimen of many good things which he would have his churches elsewhere aspire and arise unto. [7]

In Mather’s typology, the pre-Puritan landscape has been constructed as a Heathen ‘outer darkness’ that the providence of God, in bringing his Pilgrims to America bearing ‘golden candlesticks’, has irradiated in order to allow a new beginning—’here hath arisen light in darkness’. Elsewhere in Magnalia, William Bradford himself is singled out as a biblical analogue, or antitype, of Moses, the ‘leader of a People in a Wilderness’. [8] Mather’s vision of this history ignores the wildness and the horror that Bradford observed some seventy years earlier, and focuses instead on typologies of divine Providence, since ‘of all history it must be confessed that the palm is to be given unto church history, wherein the dignity, the suavity, and the utility of the subject is transcendent’. [9] Nature, in other words, concedes to the rule of the church. The original savage, natural horror of the wilderness had been anaesthetised, and rendered rather as an evil Biblical desert which the Puritan seed had begun to transform into a new Promised Land. Indeed, the wilderness itself was often regarded as the dwelling place of Satan, and many Puritan expeditions against the Indians were justified by ascribing to them Satanic influences. [10]

Primarily a conservative exegete reading history according to the ‘instituted scheme of type and antitype’, or the ‘Shadows of Good Things to Come’ as interpreted from the Scriptures, Mather also ‘attempted a reconciliation of the scriptural and natural’ [11], which is to be found more clearly in the texts of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Edwards’ ‘Miscellany 1069’ and his document Images and Shadows of Divine Things set his stall:

The things of the ceremonial law are not the only things, whereby God designedly shadowed forth spiritual things … very much the wisdom of God in the creation appears, in his so ordering things natural, that they livelily represent things divine and spiritual… [12]

… the whole outward creation, which is but shadows of His being, is so made as to represent spiritual things…. Spiritual things are the crown and glory, the head and soul, the very end, the alpha and omega of all other works. So what therefore can be more agreeable to wisdom than that they should be so made as to shadow them forth. And we know that this is according to God’s method, which His wisdom has chosen in other matters. [13]

Edwards argues that God has made the inferior, material world in imitation of the superior, spiritual one, ‘on purpose to have a resemblance and shadow of them’ [14]; thus it is that Edwards understands much of nature as the antitype of Heaven, whilst shying away from suggesting that the New World is in fact a new Heaven on Earth. Puritan writers thus increasingly read the landscape for signs of God’s wrath or pleasure, initiating the concept of what Brian Jarvis describes as ‘textualised spatiality’—a rhetorical trope that encodes geography with ‘political, economic and moral imperatives’. [15] Even William Bradford, whose Of Plymouth Plantation surveyed the hardness, bleakness and savagery of the New England landscape, provides a very different picture in Mourt’s Relation, co-authored with Edward Winslow, where the landscape and its resources are described as ‘so goodly’, ‘pleasant’, with ‘the greatest store’, and soil of ‘excellent black mould’. [16] Indeed, Bradford seems to see beyond his natural surroundings to Paradise in Heaven. As a separatist Puritan, his eschatological faith did in fact dictate that the Promised Land would not be earthly, whereas Mather and others believed they were working towards a Heaven on Earth. Nevertheless, this transcendence from the empirical is a major mark of Puritan thought, and demonstrates clearly the Puritans’s project of reforming the landscape to their own means and ends.

A great deal of David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (published 1987), is set in a synthetic desert wilderness, known as the Great Ohio Desert, or the G.O.D.:

‘A point of savage reference … A place to fear and love. A blasted region. Something to remind us of what we hewed out of … Desolation. A place for people to wander alone. To reflect … We’re going to hew a wilderness out of the soft underbelly of this state…. Ohio is a pretty white state … What better contrast than a hundred miles of black sand?’ [17]

Wallace suggests jokingly the return of the Puritans’ God to the desert, but it is enabled through a rigorously corporate rhetoric and ideology. Even so, the intentions behind the G.O.D., to provide a place of desolation and for reflection, maps fairly closely upon conceptions of wilderness and desert that hearken back to Puritanism. As Cecelia Tichi points out,

[William] Bradford, as well as the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay, understood not only the negative connotations of wilderness, those pertinent to death, chaos and punishment, but the existence of positive values of contemplation, insight, self-testing, sanctuary, and the promise of human fulfilment [18]

The G.O.D. may be regarded as a haven for redemption, for individual reflection, and escape from the shopping mall-culture of late twentieth century America, but John Miller argues,

[W]e revere only a fading memory, a ghostly presence of our rural past … We have architecturally, economically, and culturally connected much of the once physically isolated countryside to urban America by the indisputable umbilical cord of commercial development [19]

The G.O.D.’s commercially developed black sand in a white state inverts Mather’s typology of the Puritans with their ‘golden candlesticks’ bringing light into the darkness. Wallace suggests that American configurations of landscape have come full-circle in a cycle of creation and re-creation, bringing false light into a falsely-conceived darkness first, and now damping that false light with industrially-produced darkness. The black desert is a symbol for this cycle of human independence from natural landscape. The characters of Broom are compelled to stamp their human autonomy all over the land, investing it with symbolic meaning and even going so far as to engineer the associations that might be made through interaction with it. Thus, while ostensibly elevating wilderness as an instrument of social redemption, they are in actual fact downplaying the natural world that co-produced their culture in the first place—just as in Puritan historiography. Conceived in Puritan rhetoric as black, America became a whitened, enlightened European outpost, a New England. Miller describes the new American landscape as ‘Egotopia’—a reflection of modern, urban narcissism—and the chapter from which the above is drawn is entitled ‘Dark Satanic Malls’, evoking the Puritan fear of Satan in the wilderness. ‘Egotopia’ accurately describes Wallace’s fictional landscapes too, for these, like the Puritans’ landscapes, have been invested with meaning generated by the ruling hegemony of culture—all those media who daily inform viewers that they will be happier once they have purchased the relevant consumer items—which are issues explored more fully in Infinite Jest.

Despite the fact that the Puritan colonies were founded on the principles of a federal covenant, under which all members, as John Winthrop famously proclaimed, were ‘knitt together in this worke as one man’ [20], still it was ruled by a ‘visible elect’, those preachers and writers, Bradford and Mather among them, who interpreted God’s will through typology and directed the labours of their fellow men. Puritanism is underpinned by the theory of predestination: that one is either a member of the elect, chosen for salvation, or preterite, passed over, or refused entry to Heaven. No Puritans could know which group they belonged to, except by interpreting natural acts as signs of God working through or against them. Prosperity and plenty were the rewards for communities who behaved and worked as if members of the elect; thunderstorms, famines and floods were interpreted as symbols of God’s wrath if communities failed to perform. The Puritan attitude which elevates the position of elect over preterite indicates that the ‘refused’ preterite were in a sense the ‘refuse’ or the ‘waste’ of the elect, theoretically as dispensable as the ‘witches’ hanged in Salem or the Indian ‘savages’ whose wilderness the Puritans had colonised. The dispensing of this ‘waste’, of the refused or the ‘refuse’ of a culture, underlines the fact that during Puritan hegemony, human behaviour, like the landscape, was encoded and textualised according to church politics. Under the rule of Puritanism, even people could be seen as ‘refuse’, according to typological interpretation of the natural world.

Wallace’s fiction explores a similar theme—the ways in which experience is encoded with what Wallace describes in an interview with Larry McCaffery as ‘heavily mediated data’. [21] Infinite Jest (published 1996) takes as one of its key concerns waste and the toxins produced by waste. Set mainly in and around Boston in a near-future consumer-culture of excess, addictions to narcotics, alcohol, adrenaline sports and entertainment are rife. A mysterious film cartridge of a movie, also entitled ‘Infinite Jest’, which is said to be so entrancing that viewers die in an ecstatic trance while watching it, is the subject of an international conspiracy. Numeric years have been replaced by advertiser-subsidised time, so that portions of the novel occur not in 2015 or so (some critics’ estimate) but in the ‘Year of the Whopper’ and the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ (an American underwear brand). The two year names themselves are indicative of Wallace’s theme, with the Burger King Whopper as symbol of the tendency of American culture towards ‘junk’, and in which the undergarment, Catherine Nichols argues, ‘presents the ideal milieu for a culture where the ‘lower stratum’ of the body is emphasised’. [22] The novel is in short, concerned with consumption and evacuation.

The 1,079 page novel presents a waste problem that has escalated beyond the bounds of Underworld’s ‘three thousand acres of mountained garbage’. [23] Instead all waste is flung out of the major cities by giant catapult into a wasteland that entirely fills ‘what used to be’ New England. [24] Wallace seems to regard the natural landscape itself as somehow ‘trashed’ by the imperatives of the city, as if it too has become waste, not least because he has seen fit to fill the Puritans’ New England with the stuff.

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant outline of the anularly overfertilised forests of what used to be central Maine.

All these territories are now property of Canada [25]

Infinite Jest suggests the ways in which American wilderness has first been textualised—as exhibited through the typology and rhetoric of Bradford, Mather, and Edwards—commercialised, and then laid to waste. The original cartographic renderings of New England, of Central Maine, of Vermont, Presque Isle Maine and Loring, are all ‘what used to be’, not only recolonised by waste, but also ceded to Canada. In the articulation of ‘what used to be’ Wallace seems to echo John Miller’s statement that Americans, ‘revere only a fading memory, a ghostly presence of our rural past’. However, this ghostly presence of what used to be is itself some ungraspable entity, a textual construction whose origins may be traced back to the Puritan writers’ rhetorical constructions of the wilderness. In this way, the original savage wilderness itself has been wasted. For it has been ‘refused’, labelled Satanic, yet expropriated still for its valuable resources.

Thorstein Veblen argues in 1899’s The Theory of the Leisure Class that the ‘element of waste tends to predominate in articles of consumption … its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste’. [26] In common formulations, waste tends to be physical, visible; yet what is left out or refused is equally important: it too serves a visible role in its negation. In both senses waste is a further tool of consumption, another symbol for one’s wealth and leisure. In Wallace’s America the leisure class has become almost all-pervasive, as represented symbolically by the movie said to be so entertaining that viewers would rather soil themselves than turn it off, and then die still watching it. N. Katherine Hayles describes it as ‘a failure of cleanliness that recapitulates at a personal level the international failure of the US to take care of its messes’ [27], a notion reinforced in the novel through the ceding of US land to Canada, and then filling it with the nation’s rubbish. For the US, the rubbish dump is called the Great Concavity, for it represents a site where physical waste is hidden; but for the Canadians forced to accept these territories, the dump is a Great Convexity, highly visible rather than subterranean. In dispensing with waste, it becomes a negation to the self, just as wilderness was conceived as a negation under Puritanism. In Wallace’s fiction the natural landscape represents abandonment from the aesthetic comfort of entertainment and narcotics, from the satisfactions of a consuming culture secreting its waste products from the national gaze, away from its self, but highly visible to its neighbours as a sign of its wealth. To Puritans, the natural landscape was a godless desert lacking order that only church doctrine could contain, and convert into a Garden fit for the Lord. Within both cultures this wilderness has become the place to which ‘refuse’ is banished.

In renouncing the natural landscape and the wilderness, both Puritan theology and the culture Wallace presents exhibit tendencies towards Veblen’s theory of conspicuous waste. Luisa Villa argues that, ‘renunciation is a perfectly internalized version of conspicuous waste—a sacrificial ritual aimed at establishing the victory of the self over the world by displaying the luxury of consciousness and of its impractical objects’. [28] Therefore, in renouncing worldly enjoyments and demanding instead days of humility and thanksgiving to God, the Puritan leaders and writers sought to display their spiritual wealth over the decadent Europe they had left behind, one which, as John Winthrop so famously sermonised, would be watching them as a model of Christianity. Consciousness itself in this model becomes evidence of conspicuous waste, a display of one’s primacy over the world. The Puritan practice of typology exhibits such a tendency in its assumption that Providence underpins nature itself.

The new American landscape, Wallace and John Miller seem to agree, is also one of repudiation and renunciation—it belongs no more to nature but instead to ‘unapologetic commercialism and total dedication to utility … so disconnected from nature and history that it is essentially plastic in its potential to be created and re-created anew’. [29] The twentieth century, Wallace argues, features new typologies in which sexuality and the televisual world supersede understanding of the natural physical world. In Infinite Jest, the development of video telephony demonstrates a culture in which the value of personal appearance overwhelms nature to the point that many people wear ‘full-body video-phone-masks … sort of like the headless muscleman and bathing-beauty cutouts you could stand behind … for cheap photos at the beach, only … vastly more high-tech and convincing-looking’ simply to answer calls. [30] In this case, the callers are little more than antitypes to the types they have seen on television or other media, with the media shadowing good things to come for the happy consuming people of America.

The nature of this vacancy from reality, the donning of masks to hide one’s true self has some resemblance to Mather’s perception of man:

Quid sum? Nil. Quis sum? Nullus. Sed gratia Christi,
Quod sum, quod vivo, quodque laboro, facit.
[But what am I? Nothing. Who am I? No one. But the grace of Christ makes what I am, what I live, what I do.] [31]

Puritan writers such as Mather acknowledged this human ‘emptiness’, and invested human behaviour with the motivating spirit of Christ instead. Again, this renunciation of the body as merely a receptacle of God’s will serves to reveal the visible elect’s perceived mastery over the world, and the dominance of the spiritual rather than the empirical as an emblem of wealth. Characters in Infinite Jest are similarly empty; they too are ‘nothing’ and ‘no one’ without their entertainments and their addictions—the masks they wear to enhance their lives. Thus while the pursuits of these disparate cultures are in opposition—one renouncing the pursuit of enjoyment, the other indulging catastrophically in it—they are at root connected through the notion that man is incomplete, and that the world can be mastered if one accepts the ruling doctrines of either Providential intervention or wilful consumption. In both cases, the experience of consciousness is considered wealthier through belonging either to the covenant or to a culture of capitalist consumption.

Cotton Mather’s record of the scene of William Bradford on his deathbed is in fact one very near to the catatonic bliss experienced by viewers of Wallace’s lethal movie:

he fell into an indisposition of body, which rendered him unhealthy for a whole winter; and as the spring advanced, his health yet more declined … till one day; in the night after which, the God of heaven so filled his mind with ineffable consulations, that he seemed … rapt up unto the unutterable entertainments of Paradise … and on the day following he died [32]

… all were watching the recursive loop the medical attaché had rigged on the … viewer the night before, sitting and standing there very still and attentive, looking not one bit distressed or in any way displeased, even though the room smelled very bad indeed [33]

To Puritans, Paradise in Heaven was similar ‘entertainment’ to Wallace’s killer movie. In both, such entertainment is ‘unutterable’, being no less than death itself. For the Puritan imagination, death signalled the potential for salvation from this Earth; for the viewers of ‘Infinite Jest’, the movie offers the ultimate escapism from the empirical, and immersion in soothing, anaesthetic ‘happification’ [34]. The movie is, perhaps, the apocalyptic culmination of consumption and the pursuit of the American Dream, the point at which the viewer transcends the empirical and instead enters the blissful state of happiness and fulfilment. America’s inhabitants, the novel suggests, are as subject to corporate, consumer rhetoric as Puritans were to the sermons and tracts of the church, both of which distil the horror or the difficulty of the experiential into a textualised suppressant, in the process renouncing the world. The natural landscape has been supplanted in both cases by virtual landscapes whose cartography is mediated through the rhetoric of belonging. Those who do not ‘belong’ are thus banished, like refuse.

Wallace argues that the excessive consumption of America, and the resultant waste, produces toxins deadly to both man and land. The toxic dump that fills New England features giant fans blowing the fumes north, keeping them from re-entering US airspace. But, the fans cannot keep the waste out of America. A Canadian in Infinite Jest explains that,

‘It creeps back in. What goes around, it comes back around. This your nation refuses to learn. It will keep creeping back in. You cannot give away your filth and prevent all creepage, no. Filth by its very nature it is a thing that is creeping always back’ [35]

Wallace suggests not only that the US is dumping its waste conspicuously but that very same waste, which Julia Kristeva refers to as the abjected, ‘from its place of banishment … does not cease challenging its master’. [36] Wallace’s New England dump is in fact almost as terrifying as Bradford’s first sighting of the New England coast in 1620, with its ‘wild and savage hue’. Waste is treated in the dump through ‘a cycle of … waste-creation and –utilization’ […] ‘a type of fusion that can produce waste that’s fuel for a process whose waste is fuel for the fusion’ [37], another Veblen-esque manoeuvre in which waste and fuel become one. Wallace’s wasteland is a new wilderness in which the excesses of contemporary commercialism and consumption have mutated the natural order:

‘the resultant fusion turns out so greedily efficient that it sucks every last toxin and poison out of the surrounding ecosystem, all inhibitors to organic growth for hundreds of radial clicks in every direction…. You end up with a surrounding environment so furtilely lush it’s practically unlivable.’

‘A rainforest on sterebolic anoids.’ [38]

Wallace’s wasteland challenges more than just its master. Indeed, the catapulting of waste and the toxic fusion are so timed that the dump ‘goes from overgrown to wasteland to overgrown several times a month’ [39], representing a site of fertility as well as decay, in addition to a mutation of the temporal as well as the spatial.

It is in fact akin to Henri Lefebvre’s description of the mundus in The Production of Space:

a public rubbish dump. Into it were cast trash and filth of every kind, along with those condemned to death, and every newborn baby whose father declined to ‘raise’ it. … It connected the city, the space above ground … to the hidden, clandestine, subterranean spaces which were those of fertility and death … of birth and burial [40]

In Wallace own mundus, babies have indeed been dumped along with the trash, but crucially they have grown to gigantic proportions, fuelled by the wasteland. The word mundus itself has two distinct meanings, which in relation to Wallace seem interconnected. On the one hand, mundus means simply ‘the world’, but on the other, as Jean Robert explains, its etymology may be traced back to the Indoeuropean root meu-, which ‘meant originally humid, dirty liquid, and even urine, and that the inversion occurred thanks to the notion of ‘washing’ [41]. The mundus is therefore a clean and a dirty place, a place of fecundity and decay, and by association, so too the world; yet arguably it is founded on principles of waste, of soiling one’s self. In Wallace’s fictional world, the mundus is an ideal symbol for a culture that is consuming itself to death, in effect submitting to the demands of culture and finding the self both a product and a waste product:

Poor Tony flopped and gasped and pushed down inside and … felt a piece of nourishing and possibly even intoxicating meat in the back of his throat but elected not to swallow it but swallowed it anyway and was immediately sorry he did [42]

In swallowing his own tongue, Poor Tony exhibits the ways in which addiction becomes almost self-cannibalism—the corporeal submitting to the demands of the corporate body—as well as inducing speechlessness and silence. This theme is exemplified in The Broom of the System through the voracious appetite of millionaire businessman Mr Norman Bombardini, who near the beginning of the novel is merely eating multiple steaks for dinner, but who, by the end, is ‘talking with some earnestness about … consuming people’. [43] As a metaphor for the excesses of consumer culture, and a symbol of corporate greed, Bombardini demonstrates a process by which human agency becomes just food for a mass market.

Indeed, Infinite Jest’s characters frequently find themselves ‘swallowed’ by their culture, and the novel begins with an episode in which a key character, Hal Incandenza, struggling with an addiction to marijuana, finds himself unable to communicate—or, more accurately, to be heard, during an interview for college:

‘Excited, is all he gets, sometimes, an excitable kid, impressed with—‘
‘But the sounds he made.’
‘Like an animal.’
Subanimalistic noises and sounds.’
‘Nor let’s forget the gestures[44]

Hal is not silent (he is in fact a lexical and mathematical genius, though one with an addiction not just to marijuana, but also to the creeping about that accompanies its practise), but he cannot be heard or understood, as if he too is gagging around a swallowed tongue. If we accept Kristeva’s model that waste, the abjected, can be rubbish, trash, bodies, women, races, classes, it is crucial to recognise that Wallace’s project in Infinite Jest is to represent ‘all the unfiltered babble of the peripheral crowd’, as is explained in one of the novel’s more overtly meta-fictional episodes by avant-garde film-maker Jim Incandenza. Wallace’s concerns are for those in the margins whose stories are not heard, who counter the ruling hegemony and are as a result abjected. Wallace in fact attempts to rescue them from speechlessness, from the ‘refused’, preterite position of abjection.

The most potent symbol of this waste returning to counter the effects of a culture that emphasises the value of entertainment, of life within a virtual landscape, is the lethal movie. It’s directed by Jim Incandenza, shortly before he commits suicide by placing his head in a customised microwave oven (an apt symbol, perhaps, for the way ‘party-line entertainment’ fries the mind), whose own project is, like Wallace’s, to capture the ‘babble(/babel)’ [45] of those normally neglected from art, arguably the abjected. The movie is the subject of a Quebecois conspiracy to broadcast it publicly across America, sending the entire population into a catatonic trance and then death. It therefore represents a techno-cultural revenge strategy cultivated by the abjected, those whose lives have been nurtured in the mundus.

In fact, the movie may be described as a mundus of its own, a mundus imaginalis, to borrow Henri Corbin’s term. The mundus imaginalis, according to Corbin, is a visionary landscape, a ‘saving larger geography’ [46], existing outside of the bounds of ordinary experience, and has its roots in pre-Islamic lore. As a hermeneutic framework it has found some purchase in studies of the imagistic twentieth century, though as Ptolemy Tompkins argues,

the disembodied faces and figures that haunt our media, cinema, and most especially our cyber-worlds are no more than sad and homeless phantoms that … can do no more than beckon to us emptily…. The authentic visionary landscape nourished and strengthened those who gained momentary entrance into it because it offered not an ‘escape’ from regular human life but a larger perspective that made the burdens and disappointments of that life more bearable [47]

In Infinite Jest, Jim Incandenza admits that he made ‘Infinite Jest’ as an attempt at ‘saving’ his son Hal, recovering him from speechlessness and marginality. The movie itself is supposed to feature a twenty-minute shot of a mother figure repeating the phrase ‘I’m sorry’, as seen through a lens mimicking the vision of a young infant. The movie does not work as Incandenza planned, but is a potent symbol for both the image-addicted twentieth century, as well as a mundus imaginalis which elevates viewers beyond the disappointments and burdens of their lives—except in this case it strands them there. As a strategy seeking to rescue the peripheral crowd from marginality, the movie is a failure; but what it reinforces is the notion of toxicity on many levels within a consumer culture, particularly with reference to America’s entertainments.

These perils behind and within screens and images play a crucial role throughout Wallace’s fiction. In The Broom of the System, one character thinks he’s a talk show host, while a whole family acts out its domestic rituals in front of a television screen that itself shows an audience appreciatively applauding. More ominously, in Infinite Jest, the separatist Quebecois insurgents place vast mirrors across US highways so that drivers, travelling at night, are forced to play a ghastly game of ‘Chicken’ with themselves, one in which the outcome can only ever be tragedy. These mirror-billboards are in effect advertisements for the inexorable acceleration of American culture towards death. ‘Billboards will save the travelling public from going out of their minds,’ John Miller quotes a professor of advertising saying in the 1960s. ‘[T]housands, hundreds of thousands of highway travellers on our interstates are bored to death staring at nothing but nature … to the barren and unadorned earth’ [48]. Wallace, whose novel is concerned with the effects of commercialisation on both the ecosystem and on the human condition, reverses the principles demonstrated here. For the inhabitants of his near-future America are being entertained to death by the media, are finding their time and their ecosystems polluted by commercialism, are finding themselves the subjects in a hyperreal culture of excess, addiction and consumption, heading directly down the interstate towards collision with the effects of their own industry. The mundus imaginalis of Wallace’s culture is a communitarian one, a media-disseminated shadow that has led to human mimicry of media ideals and renunciation of the natural in pursuit of mastery of the self and the ego in the material world. Wallace, indeed, seems to share with his Puritan forebears an eschatology in which culture is drawing close to apocalyptic meltdown.

Arguably, the Puritan eschatological faith, and its associated promises of Heaven, its images of Gardens in the wilderness of America or beyond for the chosen remnant, is a mundus imaginalis, at once a world outside of this one, but also inextricably interwoven at the root with waste: a wasted wilderness renounced and refused as evil, Satanic, or unclean. By abrogating and negating wilderness, and replacing it with antitypes of the Garden or Heaven, Puritan writers elevated not only their errand but also the spiritual pursuits symbolised by the federal covenant. Likewise, to belong in Wallace’s America is to surrender to the addictions of entertainment and narcotics. The typologised and commercialised landscape is at once a soothing and virtual anaesthetic, but behind that corporate screen and rhetoric the babble/babel of American history’s peripheral crowd is fertilising in the waste.

University of the West of England, Bristol


[1] Don DeLillo, Underworld (London: Picador, 1998), 184, 185.

[2] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (London: Abacus, 1997), 573.

[3] Thomas M Davis, ‘The Traditions of Puritan Typology’, Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), Typology and Early American Literature (Cambridge, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), 40.

[4] G.W.H Lampe, ‘The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology’. Essays in Typology. Studies in Biblical Theology, 22, Naperville, Ill, (1957), 39.

[5] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Graham Clarke (ed.), The American Landscape: Literary Sources and Documents (Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd, 1993), 160-61.

[6] Edward Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Savior, Graham Clarke (ed.), The American Landscape: Literary Sources and Documents, (Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd, 1993), 167.

[7] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Graham Clarke (ed.), The American Landscape: Literary Sources and Documents (Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd, 1993),173-76.

[8] ibid., quoted in Mason I. Lowance, ‘Cotton Mather’s Magnalia and the Metaphors of Biblical History’, in Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), Typology and Early American Literature, 144.

[9] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 177.

[10] Mason Lowance, ‘Cotton Mather’s Magnalia’, 146.

[11] ibid., 141-42.

[12] Jonathan Edwards, ‘Miscellany 1069’, Quoted in Mason I. Lowance, ‘Images or Shadows of Divine Things’ in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards’, in Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), Typology and Early American Literature, 215.

[13] ibid., 225-26.

[14] ibid., 228.

[15] Brian Jarvis, Postmodern Cartographies (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 3.

[16] William Bradford & Winslow Edward, Mourt’s Relation in Cecelia Tichi, New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1979), 22.

[17] David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (London: Abacus, 1997), 54-55.

[18] Cecelia Tichi, New World, New Earth, 24.

[19] John Miller, Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 15.

[20] John Winthrop, in Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (London: Harvard University Press, 1953), 23.

[21] Larry McCaffery, ‘An Interview with David Foster Wallace’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13, (1993), 138

[22] Catherine Nichols, ‘Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 43.1, Fall (2001), 5.

[23] Don DeLillo, Underworld, 184.

[24] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 571.

[25] ibid., 93.

[26] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), 62.

[27] Katherine N Hayles, ‘The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest’, New Literary History, 30, (1999), 687.

[28] Luisa Villa, Esperienza e memoria: Saggio su Henry James (Genoa: Il Melangolo, 1989). Quoted in Donatello Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 220.

[29] John Miller, Egotopia, 17-18.

[30] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 149.

[31] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Graham Clarke (ed.), The American Landscape, 184.

[32] Cotton Mather, in 07/01/2003.

[33] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 87.

[34] ibid., 42.

[35] ibid., 233.

[36] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.

[37] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 571-72.

[38] ibid., 573.

[39] ibid., 573

[40] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Trans Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 242.

[41] Jean Robert, ‘A Sense of Place: Some Historical Symbols, Myths and Rituals of ‘Placeness’. Website 07/01/2003. Don DeLillo, Underworld, 6.

[42] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 305.

[43] David Foster Wallace, The Broom Of The System, 449.

[44] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 14.

[45] ibid., 836, 837.

[46] Ptolemy Tompkins, ‘Recovering a Visionary Geography: Henri Corbin and the Missing Ingredient in Our Culture of Images’. Originally appeared in Lapis Magazine. On the web at: 07/01/2003

[47] ibid.

[48] John Miller, Egotopia, 106-07.