The Umpire Whispers “Please Play” (David Foster Wallace)

Yesterday while sitting on top of the snowy cliffs of the Hudson river valley, my buddy Eric, one of the wiser people I know, related the following passage from David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”. The protagonist is relating “a really unpleasant dream that had been recurring nightly and waking me up in medias for weeks and was beginning to grind me down and to cause some slight deterioration in performance and rank. . . .

if only life were this simple

if only...

In this dream, which every now and then still recurs, I am standing publicly at the baseline of a gargantuan tennis court. I’m in a competitive match, clearly: there are spectators, offiials. The court is about the size of a football field, though, maybe, it seems. It’s hard to tell. But mainly the court’s complex. The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convolved as a sculpture of string. There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems: lines, corners, alleys, and angles deliquesce into a blur at the horizon of the distant net. I stand there tentatively. The whole thing is almost too involved to try to take in all at once. It’s simply huge. And it’s public. A silent crowd resolves itself at what may be the court’s periphery, dressed in summer’s citrus colors, motionless and highly attentive. A battalion of linesmen stand blandly alert in their blazers and safari hats, hands folded over their slacks’ flies. High overhead, near what might be a net-post, the umpire, blue-blazered, wired for amplification in his tall high-chair, whispers “Play.” The crowd is a tableau, motionless and attentive. I twirl my stick in my hand and bounce a fresh yellow ball and try to figure out where in all that mess of lines I’m supposed to direct service. I can make out in the stands stage-left the white sun-umbrella of the Moms; her height raises the white umbrella above her neighbors; she sits in her small circle of shadow, hair white and legs crossed and a delicate fist upraised and tight in total unconditional support.

The umpire whispers “Please Play.”

We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game.”

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