Baco, Invisible

The Foreword to Jérôme Baco’s elegant new book, Invisible, tells us that what follows will be split: between “deliberately propagandistic imagery [and] texts of absurd realism”; between “portraits of revolutionaries [. . .] disembodied and dehumanized” and “the human, simple, obvious the one we glance furtively at each morning in the mirror and hasten to make disappear” (17). One might add that it is also split, for instance, between languages, as each individual text is offered successively in French, Spanish, and English. Moreover, the book offers us nothing like a linear, coherent narrative. What we get are fragments, chronologically and spatially unmoored, from what appear to be many positions, a multitude of perspectives, albeit all cast in terms of a shifting first-person subject: a “moi confundu” or “confused I”; a “confusión pronominal” or a “mistaken pronoun” (19, 20). So if this is what we see when we glance in the mirror, then it’s a cracked glass indeed, and perhaps the result is less “simple” or “obvious” (even less “human”?) than it may seem.

First, the images. These are forty-one black-and-white portraits of revolutionaries or radicals, who range from the familiar (Che Guevara; Nelson Mandela) to the relatively obscure (Mélida Anaya Montes; Ali Shariati). Almost always these figures are portrayed head and shoulders, from the front or very slightly to one side. They are abstracted from any social context or interaction: there is no visual background, and the only information provided about them–in two indexes, at the back of the book–is their names (“qui/quien/who” [183]) and their countries of origin (“où/dónde/where” [185]). Otherwise they are, almost quite literarily, icons: both in the sense that they are images that are to stand in for and simplify a much more complex reality; and in that they acquire a quasi-religious aura, inviting a kind of supplication. This feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every image is in some way distressed, as though many hands (or lips) had already touched their surface and worn them down. In sum, though the figures they portray end up appearing distant, even inaccessible, the pictures themselves remain tactile and convey a sense of their own materiality. We are never led to confuse the signifier with the signified, the icon with the saint. As with (say) Andy Warhol’s screenprints, what comes to the fore is the iconography, the ways in which the image ultimately acquires a life of its own.

But what the book’s title suggests is that the hyper-visibility of these images, precisely the ways in which they call attention to themselves, obscures something else. And perhaps that something else surfaces in the texts that surround them, texts whose connection to the portraits is seldom if ever obvious, though may do make us think in new ways about the icons they accompany. Opposite Che’s image, for instance, is a reflection on “the immortal” that becomes a meditation on suicide (64). And the portrait of Mother Teresa follows what is effectively a miniature story or micronarrative entitled “The Little Thief of the Poor,” in which the discovery of a “vaccine against poverty” enrages the average Leftist: “How could they do this, to him! He who never stopped talking about social justice!” (88). And in the end it is unclear how much this is a critique of those who venerate charity, or just as much of those who work for charity themselves. Equally, the brief fable that goes with the picture of Martin Luther King plays on the notion of kingship (“the king of the what” who wants “the what to be king”) and ends “speechless” (160). Is this an alternative King to the one who looks out on the facing page, or just another way to tell the same story of the charismatic leader who goes “to the mountaintop” but is denied the promised land?

So it is not exactly as though the texts render visible in any precise way what is obscured in and through the icons. Rather, perhaps, it is in the fractures and folds themselves–between propaganda and realism, between languages, between word and image, between times and places–that the invisible can be not so much seen as dimly perceived, viscerally sensed, irredeemably insurgent.

The Eye of the Beholder

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Madame Psychosis

“Of particular interest are the eyes” (299). Though this is a book with much to say about language and words (not least in the fact that Hal has apparently memorized much of the Oxford English Dictionary; so perhaps has Wallace), it also focuses particular interest on vision and the visual. Hal’s father, James, is after all a film-maker of some sort, who spends ever more of his time shooting and editing avant-garde movies rather than attending to the tennis academy that he founded. And his son Mario, Hal’s elder brother, has also taken up some of this cinematographic obsession with his cinema verité-style documentaries of the academy’s activities. Apparently unconcerned with the competitive sport that dominates the other boys’ lives, his perspective on what goes on around him is frequently mediated through thoughts of its technical reproducibility. As a player about to go on court is retching uncontrollably into a bucket, “Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march behind an indoor tarp” (265).

But rather than the technicalities of mediation, for Wallace, or for his characters, vision seems on the whole to promise a dangerous immediacy. This surely is the threat of what looks like being one of the novel’s crucial plot points: the “Entertainment,” the unmarked video cartridge that apparently immobilizes all who watch it. It has even been suggested that this video is part of a clandestine plot launched by Quebecois separatists against the Organization of North American Nations: “The local constabulary were shall we say unprepared for an Entertainment like this” (90). And now it appears that this could be a film shot by Jim Incandenza himself, maybe the last film he ever made: a film whose title and status is unclear, but which may be the fifth iteration of a work called (yes) Infinite Jest. In Incandenza’s filmography, increasingly dominated by unfinished and unreleased films (Too Much Fun; Sorry All Over the Place), Infinite Jest (V?) is described as put out by “Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited,” starring “Madame Psychosis.” But it has “no other definitive data”: we are told that “no other scholarly synopsis or report of viewing exists” and “all other comprehensive filmographies have the film either unfinished or UNRELEASED, its Master cartridge either destroyed or vaulted sui testator” (993).

This fatal film, fatal perhaps both to its viewer and its maker, further seems connected to the (attempted?) suicide in some way of its star, a character whose importance to the plot (or what there is of a plot) is slowly being revealed, in fits and starts. For Madame Psychosis is the pseudonym of the mysterious DJ who slips into the radio studio at the dead of night without allowing anyone to see her face: “She is hidden from all view by a jointed triptych screen of cream chiffon that glows red and green in the lights of the phone bank and the cueing panel’s dials and frames her silhouette” (183). And this Madame Psychosis is later identified with Joelle van Dyne, whose most notable quirk is that she goes about with a full veil, and who we see (or don’t exactly see) as she takes an overdose in a friend’s bathroom during a party full of hipster film students and scholars. Throughout the laborious process of cooking up the drugs, she is thinking about her suicidal process as “Too Much Fun” and also casting her mind back to the movies: the films she grew up seeing with her “her own personal Daddy” (237) and the film made by another father figure, Jim Incandenza, that for some reason he had never screened: “Had he even cut the tape into something coherent? [. . .] He never let her see it, not even the dailies. He killed himself less than ninety days later. Fewer than ninety days?” (230).

Psychosis/Joelle is coming to appear central in other ways, too: she is the reason why Hal’s eldest brother, Orin, shifted from tennis to American Football when he saw her (then still unveiled) as a college cheerleader. Transfixed by the sight, he and his room-mate nickname her the “P.G.O.A.T” or “Prettiest Girl Of All Time” (290). They instantly think that she must be out of their league, but it turns out that this is what everyone thinks: her looks are a in fact a curse, and provoke in heterosexual males “a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty” (290). Is this also then the curse that seems to be encoded in Infinite Jest, a fatal visual contact with the aesthetic sublime?* Does this indeed account for the simultaneous, if rather different, anxiety about language and words? Note that, even in her determined preparation for suicide, Joelle’s train of thought is apparently derailed as she hesitates between the grammatical issue of whether it’s right to say “less” or “fewer.” For words in this novel are less about communication and the transmission of experience than they are vehicles of prevarication and denial. And that includes the word “denial” itself, which is lambasted as one of the many clichés that abound in the half-way house for recovering addicts that is emerging as a major locale for much of the novel’s (in)action. If the danger of the visual image seems to be the prospect of its overwhelming intensity, that it is “too much,” even perhaps “too much fun,” the danger of words is that they are quickly deadened and indeed deadening, turning those that utter them into little more than zombies: “I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés” (271).

And yet the deadening effect of words is also their salvation. There is nothing more frightening for Hal than the prospect of a “conversation” offered him by a therapist who may in fact be his father in disguise. Hal’s response is to debate lexicology: “Implore’s a regular verb, transitive: to call upon, or for, in supplication; to pray to, or for, earnestly; to beseech; to entreat” (28). The whole point of such heart-felt supplications is lost precisely as the meaning of the term is dissected. Likewise, when Hal again faces a therapist, this time demanding that he grieve for his father’s death, his response is to go to a library (“the nearest library with a cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” [255]) so as to bone up on the requisite (clichéd?) responses required of him in the therapeutic situation. Words, (mis)used well, can stave off the threat of emotion and intensity. By contrast, it is suggested, we have little such protection against the image, beyond a clumsy veil.

*Here, a (perhaps apposite) footnote, in that Joelle seems to be suggesting that by the time of her suicide attempt, at least, she is no longer insufferably pretty, but rather insufferably ugly. But the point may turn out to be that extreme beauty is itself a form of extreme ugliness. Or, as the cliché has it, that beauty is always only in the eye of the beholder.