February 21st is David Foster Wallace’s birthday. Today is February 22nd. I have no idea whose birthday it is today. This is my favorite passage from INFINITE JEST:
“The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores being slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radials blades of the sun found crevices between the Totolita’s peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There was the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.”
I celebrate few living humans’ birthdays, and I celebrate even fewer dead humans’ birthdays. Specifically, I celebrate two dead humans’ birthdays: David Foster Wallace’s and Johnny Carson’s. I celebrate Johnny Carson’s birthday because it is coincidentally my birthday, and my birthday is one I’m keen on celebrating regardless. I celebrate David Foster Wallace’s birthday because he wrote the words above.
What’s so significant about this excerpt specifically, though? Let’s “break it down.”
Sentence 1: The temperature had fallen with the sun.
Significance: This sentence does more, as most Wallace sentences do, than traffic in generalities. The key here, and everywhere, is movement, liveliness, the complex conveyed simply. He begins in a somatic and general mode (the temperature), modulates and specifies the generality (had fallen [become cold]), and then redefines the established subject by evoking a general visual image of warmth. In seven words, he has navigated you semantically from the subcutaneous to the interstellar, and he does so without wasting a letter.
Sentence 2: Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor.
Significance: Here Wallace spatially fixes the reader with Marathe. From there, the reader is given what Marathe hears (the cooler evening wind, rehashing sentence one’s sensory stuff), suddenly finds himself located in the sound, then that sound is attributed to the wind, and suddenly the reader finds himself located in the wind, moving across the incline (lateral and descendent movements) to the desert floor, the initial body becomes disembodied, a stationary man atop a mountain is suddenly an element in motion on the desert floor below.
Sentence 3: Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open.
Significance: This sentence thrusts the reader back to Marathe, conveys his confusion (“sense or feel,” which should, by now, mirror the reader’s) before moving into (note, too, the alliteration of “many million” to evoke plenty aurally) a more terrestrial, animate destination that reveals itself gradually. The reader begins with the abstract multitude, a largeness, is then presented with floral pores, which denote smallness, an intense, specific image of life divorced from Marathe, but not as much as the wind moving across the desert floor, making those flowers nod as we do (note, too, too: How these metaphors are slowly beginning to open).
Sentence 4: The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm.
Significance: From the nature on the microscopic level to man on the microscopic level. The scene’s other main character, Steeply, is introduced through evocation of the preceding smallness, but the preceding scenic descriptions are also employed to characterize the two characters. Unlike Marathe’s sentences, Steeply’s remain fixed in his person, and the reader can see his self-involvement, and Marathe’s being unlike that.
Sentence 5: Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Totolita’s peaks and probed at the roof of the sky.
Significance: Like sentence one, the reader moves from the passage’s most personally grounded moment to outer space, up the sun’s blades, back down to a specific mountain chain’s peaks, back up to the general sky (note, too, too, too, how inundated this sentence is with images of sharpness (tips, spikes, blades, peaks) and how those harken cognitively back to the scratch on Steeply’s arm).
Sentence 6: There were slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging.
Significance: Metaphor for every metaphor in the passage, metaphor for human existence as a whole.
Sentence 7: The sky was violet.
Significance: Let things be simple and simply beautiful when you can, when you’ve earned it.
As human beings with birthdays, it’s in our nature to distrust those whose thinking is fundamentally different than our own. Yet, on occasions few and far between, we are to recognize an individual who observes the world so differently, so profoundly the opposite of how we go about letting what’s out there into our eyes that our view cannot help but be changed, tinted slightly toward that individual’s way of seeing things, words, and ourselves. We cannot, and should not, help but love this person, to celebrate him, living or dead, on his birthday or not.