Thursday, September 15, 2011

Infinite Jest on "Human Furniture"

One of my favorite passages from Infinite Jest. It paints a unsettling portrait of what terrors can arise from living a voiceless life. Everyone should read Wallace.

This is an excerpt from a scene where a recovering Demerol addict, Don Gately, is lying in a hospital bed, wounded from gunshots, and refusing to take any pain medication for his condition. He is visited by the ghost of James Incandenza (or Himself), whom he's never met. The ghost proceeds to tell Gately (not by voice, but by speaking his thoughts inside of Gatley's head) stories and events from his previous life.

   "And the wraith on the heart monitor looks pensivley down from upside-down and asks does Gately remember the myriad thespian extras for example his beloved 'Cheers!,' not the center-stage Sam and Carla and Nom, but the nameless patrons always at tables, filing out the bar's crowd, concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations; and their faces would animate and mouths move realistically, but without sound; only the name-stars at the bar itself could audibilize. The wraith says these fractional actors, human scenery, could be seen (but not heard) in most pieces of filmed entertainment. And Gatley remembers them, the extras in all public scenes, especially like bar and restaurant scenes, or rather remembers how he doesn't remember them, how it never stuck his addled mind as in fact surreal that their mouths moved but nothing emerged, and what a miserable fucking bottom-rung job that must be for an actor, to be sort of human furniture, figurants  the wraith says they're called, these surreally mute background presences whose presence really revealed the camera, like any eye, has a perceptual corner, a triage of who's important enough to be seen and heard v. just seen. A term from ballet, originally, figurant, the wraith explains. The wraith pushes his glasses up in the vaguely snivelling way of a kid that's just got slapped around on a playground and says he personally spent the vast bulk of his own former animate life as pretty much a figurant, furniture at the periphery of the very eyes closest to him, it turned out, and that it's one heck of a crummy way to try and live. Gately, whose increasing self-pity leaves little room or patience for anybody else's self-pity, tries to lift his left hand and wiggle his pinkie to indicate the world's smallest viola playing the theme from The Sorrow and the Pity, but even moving his left arm makes him almost faint. And either the wraith is saying or Gatley is realizing that you can't appreciate the dramatic pathos of a figurant until you realize how completely trapped and encaged he is in his mute peripheral status, because like say for example if one of 'Cheers!' 's bar's figurants suddenly decided he couldn't take it anymore and stood up and started shouting and gesturing around wildly in a bid for attention and nonperipheral status on the show, Gately realizes, all that would happen is that one of the audibilizing 'name' stars of the show would bolt over from stage-center and apply restraints or the Heineken Maneuver or CPR, figuring the silent gesturing figurant was choking on a beer-nut or something, and that then the whole rest of that episode of 'Cheers!' would be about jokes about the name star's life-saving heroics, or else his fuck-up in applying the Heineken Maneuver to somebody who wasn't choking on a nut. No way for the figurant to win. No possible voice or focus for the encaged figurant."