David Foster Wallace: Linking “Little Expressionless Animals” to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” through Convexity and Distortion
The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the way in which distortion, a key element to the convex image the painting presents, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The convexity of the mirror distorts the artist’s view of himself, and this distortion is further enhanced when the artist attempts to copy the image that he sees in the mirror. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that reliance on mechanisms such as mirrors to grasp one’s identity, as evidenced by the portrait artist’s attempt to capture himself from his image in a mirror, is a futile practice; humans lack the ability to completely asses their identities based upon subjective, distorted qualities such as those presented in a mirror.
David Foster Wallace introduces his short story “Little Expressionless Animals” with the explanation, “Part of ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ makes use of the third stanza of John Ashbury’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,” (Wallace 5). In attributing “Little Expressionless Animals” to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Wallace draws a direct link between the distortion created by the convex mirror in the painter’s self portrait and the distortion created by a misguided reliance on television and the media that permeates Wallace’s story. Wallace’s criticism of television’s impact on today’s American society stems from the sentiments he later expresses in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. In his essay Wallace attempts to provide the “comprehensive diagnosis” that television “fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people” (“An Interview with David Foster Wallace). Throughout “Little Expressionless Animals”, various characters wrestle to find peace with their identities. Many of these characters seek the comfort of television and mirrors, but their searches are in vain. Just as the self-portrait painter futilely struggles to accurately depict himself and his surroundings with the assistance of a convex mirror, so Wallace’s characters futilely struggle to achieve peace with the assistance of television and mirrors. The parallel between Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals” allows Wallace to cite Ashbury’s poem as inspiration for his own story.
The very nature of the television screen replicates the distortion that the convex mirror connotes. A screen in its original state is designed to conceal, protect, or shelter something from something else. In this manner, television screens conceal, protect, and shelter television viewers from reality. Television screens create a barrier that projects illusions realistic enough to prevent people from feeling entirely isolated, but the comfort television viewers receive stops short of guiding them to an enlightened, peace-laden sense of self. The shortcoming of television screens replicates the shortcoming of mirrors that is explained by the narrator in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (Ashbury). In these lines Ashbury’s narrator explains that though the convex mirror treats the soul “humanely”, it does not assist the soul in further advancing its vision of self. Thus, convex mirrors, like television, screen the viewer and prevent him or her from reaching complete understanding of self.
The reader is first confronted with television screens in “Little Expressionless Animals” when Wallace describes the eerie way that Julie’s mother attempts to find comfort at a movie theater, only to be struck with fear. The scene describes how the woman and her child sit watching the cartoon, and how the “child’s eyes enter the cartoon” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). While the child, Julie Smith, is blinded by the illusions created by cartoon television, a man sitting in the darkness behind them violates her mother by running his fingers through her hair. Wallace describes, “The cartoon’s reflected light makes faces in the audience flicker: the woman’s eyes are bright with fear,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). The television screen of the cinema thus acts as a screen separating Julie from her mother; because Julie is caught up in the distortion that is contemporary cartoons, she is unable to see the wrongs being committed right beside her. Her vision and perception is distorted by television. Television distracts Julie enough to completely miss the fact that her mother is in a state of intense fear. Conversely, Julie’s mother enters the movie theater in an attempt to forget her tumultuous life and throw her mind into the illusions of the cartoon word. However, the cartoon world is not powerful enough to assist Julie’s mother is forgetting her unfortunate realities. No cartoon can mask the fact that a man is physically running his fingers through one’s hair. In the initial television screen descriptions of his story, Wallace conveys to the reader that television lacks the ability to bring true inner peace to its viewers; Julie’s perception of her mother’s existence is distorted by the images on the screen, while Julie’s mother’s attempts to find peace are thwarted by her futile reliance on television for salvation.
Wallace presents television as a false companion, too often mistakenly relied upon by those seeking to forget their problems, in his portrayal not just of Julie’s mother, but also in his portrayal of Faye’s mother, Dee Goddard. Dee is a woman heartbroken over her divorce and her ex-husband’s subsequent remarriage to a mutual coworker of theirs. Essentially, Dee is a lonely, depressed woman overcome by her misfortunes. Wallace’s portrayal of television during the passages of his story in which he describes Dee demonstrates how many people falsely view television as a friend upon which to lean: “’Let’s all be there’, says the television. ‘Where else would I be?’ asks Dee Goddard… ‘We bring good things to life,’ says the television. ‘So did I,’ says Dee. ‘I did that. Just once’,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 11). The dialogue between Dee and the television personifies the television as a being capable of human interaction. The fact the Dee responds to that which the television says indicates that Dee has categorized the television as something to which she can relate. Thus, Dee feels that the television is a viable companion and legitimate replacement for her ex-husband. Dee’s relationship with her television exemplifies Wallace’s idea presented in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” that he happens “to know lonely people who regard television as a veritable deux ex machine for voyeurs,” (152). The fact that lonely Dee regards television as a replacement for her ex-husband is problematic because it does not truly solve the problem of her loneliness and soul searching. Dee drinks heavily, and her daughter Faye remarks that this drinking is “for the pain”. Dee’s feelings of pain indicate that though television can distort Dee’s thinking enough to allow her to superficially believe herself to be mentally sound, television cannot solve the deep-seated psychological issues that Dee faces due to her divorce. Thus, television, like the convex mirror, distorts human perception and prevents humans from achieving a true understanding of personal identity.
Scholar Aytemis Depici writes that Wallace’s work serves to present the criticism that “television serves to distract individuals from the real world and create blankness in their inner world which conveys a loss of self” (327). The “blankness” that Depici describes relates to Julie’s personality and inner turmoil. In “Little Expressionless Animals”, Wallace describes the transformation that Julie undergoes when the cameras are pointed towards her: “Faye and Dee watch Julie as the red lights and Trebek’s face falls into the worn creases of a professional smile. Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is gone. Every concavity in that person now looks to have come convex,” (20). The lack of expression in Julie’s off-camera stare parallels the “blankness” that Depici describes in his analysis. Furthermore, Wallace’s focus on the convex versus concave nature of Julie’s face again relates his story to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. The concavity of Julie’s off-camera person visually signifies her mental “blankness”. Conversely, the convexity of Julie’s on-camera person is a distortion created by the television screen. The television, like a convex mirror with the self-portrait artist, artificially fills out Julie’s concavities.
Wallace’s portrayal of the characters Julie’s mother, Dee Goddard, and Julie Smith herself reflect his view that television prevents people from achieving an enlightened sense of peace and true sense of identity. Julie hides herself in television’s distortion, allowing television to mask her tragically concave identity with its concavity. Dee Goddard attempts to find comfort in television, but her relationship with television does not remove her pain. Instead, television merely distorts Dee’s pain and masks it from both she and others. Because television cannot solve Dee’s psychological problems, Dee abuses alcohol in order to dull her pain. Julie’s mother also seeks to use television to forget her problems, and television’s inability to solve these problems is even more apparent that Dee’s situation: Julie’s mother never gains even temporary solace. Rather, Julie’s mother is perpetually afraid, fleeing from her problems with men. The distortion that television first creates and then encourages in “Little Expressionless Animals” parallels the distortion of the convex mirror in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in that both the television and the mirror prevent the viewer both from ascertaining his or her true identity and from achieving a peaceful sense of self. Wallace’s choice to draw inspiration from John Ashbury’s poem is successful in its ultimate portrayal that humans lack the ability to completely asses and come to terms with their identities due to their reliance upon subjective, distortion-creating, man-made mechanisms such as convex mirrors and television.
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