A footnote to Infinite Jest

Is it possible that David Foster Wallace was reading The Martyrdom of Polycarp while writing Infinite Jest? For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t mention the specific scene I have in mind, but everyone who’s read it will recognize what I mean:

When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there. [emphasis added because people seem not to get what I’m talking about]

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14 Responses to “A footnote to Infinite Jest

  1. Hill Says:

    Seeing the categories “David Foster Wallace” and “Polycarp” reminded me again how much I appreciate this blog.

  2. Errataagain Says:

    The form of an arch is pervasive throughout Infinite Jest, and I had thought of something insightful to comment. However, got side tracked since I have not eaten lunch. Somehow ended up thinking of McDonalds and that Killdozer song, Hamburger Martyr. I don’t have the novel here beside me but think it might be a stretch. Has anyone done annotations?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was thinking of “Something smelled delicious!”

  4. Errataagain Says:

    That is it, indeed. The very passage. I got it. Spoiler: Delicious microwaved (I think it was) suicide of father, which Hal relates in therapy session. But there are so many things that book resonates with. I got the passage in Infinite Jest, and like that you connected it to Polycarp, and am inspired to re-read the novel reading this blog. But it is possible to make these connections all over the place with Infinite Jest. That is part of the fun. That is why I was wondering about annotations/ supporting evidence or is your supposition something that is just speculation? It is certainly possible. I type this hurriedly at work and have neither the time nor the resources to research this further at this point. I hope you did not add emphasis on my account.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, you weren’t the only person who didn’t catch the specific connection I meant. This doesn’t even reach the level of speculation — I just read the Polycarp passage and was amused by the parallel in IJ. I haven’t done any research, because I assume DFW wasn’t actually reading the Church Fathers.

  6. Errataagain Says:

    But I did catch it! I even tried to explain the whole suicide passage to my co-worker. Then made very cryptic stream of consciousness comment in jest, as it were, here. Which seems to have fallen flat.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    But seriously, how many texts can there be that don’t involve cannibalism but do comment on the pleasant aroma of burning human flesh? I’m starting to talk myself into the possibility of a real connection here. To Google!

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, next step: there’s no mention of the connection on the DFW Wiki for that page. But it’s, you know, a Wiki. This could be my big contribution to scholarship, like that guy who stumbled upon the trash memoir that turned out to be the source for the first few lines of The Waste Land.

  9. ben Says:

    how many texts can there be that don’t involve cannibalism but do comment on the pleasant aroma of burning human flesh?

    Is it still cannibalism if it’s a saint?

  10. Utisz Says:

    Cormac McCarthy’s The Road also contains a passage about ‘the pleasant aroma of burning human flesh’.

  11. myles Says:

    I have my classes read Polycarp when I teach Endo’s Silence, to contrast his depictions of martyrs vs. Polycarp’s more happy version.

  12. Hill Says:

    New mobile version?! Kind of cool!

  13. mike w Says:

    also the arch as a sail blowing in the wind brings to mind the church in IJ


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