Monthly Archives: April 2009

Narration and Tennis

This is my second time reading Infinite Jest, and my second time being relatively confused by the ending. I have to say that the second reading is much easier than the first, and that you really do pick up a lot more details and make more connections the second time around.

One thing I didn’t pay too much attention to on my first reading, but that I noticed this time (partly due to our class discussions) was the use of the first-person narrative throughout the course of Infinite Jest. Or rather, the lack thereof. As we discussed in class, most of the novel is written in the third person; in the first 700 or so pages, there are only a few spots where that breaks and the story is told in the first-person. In the last 200+ pages, however, Hal’s story begins to be told in the first-person, yielding some interesting thoughts and results. One particular insight that I found interesting was Hal’s acknowledgement that “I didn’t want to play [tennis] this afternoon, even if some sort of indoor exhibition-meet came off. Not even neutral, I realized. I would on the whole have preferred not to play” (954). Throughout the last few Hal-related scenes in the book, we start to see his destruction that becomes painfully evident in the first scene of the book, which is the last chronologically. My main question about this passage is, what do you do at a tennis academy when you no longer have the drive to play? It’s clear that Hal still plays tennis at the end (or really, the beginning) of the book, because he’s being recruited for college-level play. So this desire to not play appears to be a problem in Hal’s mind, not one that he actually physically goes through with.

In fact, Hal doesn’t want to play so badly that he contemplates injuring himself so he is taken out for the day. But he goes one step further in his mind, stating that he could “fall so carefully badly I’d take out all the ankle’s ligaments and never play again. Never have to, never get to. I could be the faultless victim of a freak accident and be knocked from the game while still on the ascendant. Becoming the object of compassionate sorrow rather than disappointed sorrow” (954-955).   The phrase “never have to, never get to” seems to be quite indicative of Hal’s state of mind: in one respect he feels almost compelled by some force to play (“have to”), but on the other hand it’s something he chooses to do on his own (“get to”). His fear of disappointment if he can’t compete at the top levels of play-which he worries about after almost being beaten in a match by Ortho Stice-is evident, but even Hal is confused about who he is afraid to disappoint: “I couldn’t stay with this fantastic line of thought long enough to parse out whose disappointment I was willing to cripple myself to avoid (or forgo)” (955). This line of thought is particularly interesting given that it comes in the middle of several paragraphs of Hal talking about both the Moms and Himself; yet the Moms is adamant about not being disappointed by anything her children do or don’t do, and Himself is dead. So who is Hal afraid of disappointing? My guess is, himself. I think that this apathy is so unlike Hal that his contemplations of self-injury seem frightening and disappointing to himself, but he is so out of sorts that he doesn’t notice that he might disappoint himself. Does anyone have any other ideas of who he might be afraid to disappoint? Or why he doesn’t want to play anymore? Is it just fear of losing, or is it something more-DMZ-related, perhaps?

Did You Know…

…that “onanism” means masturbation according to the OED?   I didn’t.   That puts a new spin on O.N.A.N.   Or maybe it’s just DFW jokes for joking’s sake.

On Hope and Cynicism

It seems important to recognize a few things about cynicism. Firstly, that cynicism needn’t necessarily be expressed humbly, or doubtfully. A good way to think about this distinction is to compare David Foster Wallace’s cynicism in Up Simba, to John Ziegler’s cynicism on his radio show. Ziegler is dogmatically cynical, self righteously cynical and what this dogmatism amounts to is the belief that there is no choice but to be cynical, that cynicism is reality. In fact of course we can choose, we can choose to believe OJ was innocent, and that McCain had only Chris Duren in mind during his phone call. In Up Simba, David Foster Wallace is at least partially pointing out that cynicism is interpretation, editorializing so to speak, and that what makes or breaks any Anti-candidate is whether he’s able to convince us to choose not to be cynical. But what exactly goes into this decision?

If John Ziegler’s case can be extrapolated, I think we can probably see cynicism as the product of a kind of embattled fatigue. Ziegler’s cyncism about the innerworkings of commercial talk radio seems totally justified by his experience there. You get the feeling from Ziegler’s professional narrative that those hosts who choose not to be cynical about the talk radio industry do not survive in it. Wallace seems to see Ziegler’s universal cynicism as an extension of his justified and pragmatic cynicism w/r/t talk radio. Wallace doesn’t see this extension as justified, and I think most of us would agree, I think most of us see the world and everybody in it as basically too big for any answer to the question ‘should I be cynical.’ Most of us figure that there’s at least a possibility that people are basically good, and that we just can never know enough not to doubt our cynicism w/r/t the world at large,

It is this doubt that must be capitalized on by the anti-candidate, and one of the things that made Obama so amazing earlier this year is that in the 2008 election we voters probably had less of this doubt than at any other point in US political history. Eight years of Bush has left most Americans feeling about Politics the way John Ziegler feels about the talk radio industry: totally, justifiably cynical. When people talk about Bush’s splitting america and intensifying partisanship, what they’re really saying Bush did is make Americans less doubtful of their cynicism, on both sides of the aisle. The Idea of the anti-candidate is to bypass people’s dogmatically ingrained political cynicism by appealing to their still hopeful belief in sincerity’s existence in the world at all, to present their candidate as a person before a politician because Americans feel they can still trust people even if they feel they can no longer trust politicians.

The danger of the anti-candidate is that by capitalizing on our doubt that we should be cynical about everything and everyone, it forces us, political cynics all, to be cynical about where such a feeling of doubt comes from. We become worried that this doubt is not justified by the vastness of the world but cultivated by strategists for political interests, and this worry is deeply, philosophically troubling. Cynicism about campaign slogans becomes a heavy heavy thing when the slogans in question are “hope” and “change.” What’s so problematic about the anti-candidate is that if we can’t believe in him, it seems like we can’t believe in anything, so we believe in him, fervently, even though we know we probably shouldn’t.

Considering the lobster

After the usual hyper-observational riffs on the Maine Lobster Festival, DFW asks the question that sets the piece apart from most food/gourmet journalism: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (243) This seems to be the most salient question, and is often referred to in books reviews that attempt to summarize “Consider The Lobster” or point out what makes it special. But DFW goes on to ask a set of related questions: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?” (243)

The last of the related question seems to engage in ethical theory: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience”. This led me to wonder what the immorality of boiling the lobsters consists in–that there is something intrinsically wrong in the act–as well as whether this vague sense of moral discomfort has to do more with how squeamish it makes us feel (individual conscience). The latter prompts (at least) two further questions: 1) Why does it makes us squeamish to think about what goes on when we boil lobsters? Is it because we feel pain and can therefore imagine how torturous it would be by projecting ourselves to be in a similar scenario? 2) What if someone is simply quite unperturbed and possesses an extremely limited capacity for such squeamishness? What if a lengthy explication on animal rights and the neural make-up of lobsters is met with a blank countenance and a “so what”? Thinking such a person to be morally regrettable would seem to blame the person for having a limited capacity for such moral squeamishness, but can someone be blamed for such a thing?

One of the reasons for abstaining from inflicting harm on others and to treat all other humans as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end is that we all share the capacity for rational thought. It is this rational nature that distinguishes us from animals. The importance of this fundamental similarity is that it provides us with a reason to treat others as we would want others to treat ourselves. Our rational nature affords us dignity and thereby forms the basis on which all human actions have to take as the supreme limiting condition. But I don’t think most of us would consider a lobster rational. What then, would the Archimedan point be, that would enable us to convince a blank-faced-shrug-of-the shoulders-lobster-afiocionado that there is indeed something morally repugnant about boiling a lobster in a pot? Or is there nothing intrinsically wrong about the act itself? Is it that all we can do is to express our distaste for such as act, which would then render PETA and the like sententious and even self-righteous for thinking something subjective to be objective, and wanting to impose (forcefully) what is essentially nothing more than an opinion on others?

Authority and the Usage…

“Authority and American Usage” was to me, one of the funniest stories in Consider The Lobster. The snoot of a character that we are presented with was comical in the way he expressed his love for language. Statements such as his dislike for “people who use dialogue as a verb” made him look as a very nit-picky character who is obsessed with using language correctly. We get the sense that he is snobby, and even though he was funny, he was also an unlike able character because he made me feel like he was talking down to me. On the other hand, there was also a great respect for someone who cared so much about language, and using it properly.

The splurge David Foster Wallace gives in pages 108 and 109 about SWE (standard written/white language) was one of the best aspects of this essay. While giving a talk to students he states his purpose in his course and the need for good writing. Wallace says that “–it’s not that you’re a bad writers, it’s that you haven’t learned the special rules of the dialect they want you to write in.” Who is “they” though? Professors teaching English? Dictionary makers? The fact of the matter is that there is a Standard Written Way of writing, it’s why we have professors grade our papers and mark down it down for syntax, diction, etc. And if we do not follow the standards of swe then we fail (or at the very least get a 0 on a Spanish paper for 5 mistakes on accents).

I was outraged by some of the things he was saying, and I did think to myself how can he say that these are the way things are that we have to conform, especially when in past works we have read Wallace has said that in order to get out of the loop writers are in now they have to write about what they truly think, not what writers think the public will like. But right after that he says something that made me forgive Wallace.

“This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them” (109).

This I think is his response to acknowledging the way English exists now a days. There is a standard way of writing and it may be bias and racist and whatever else you may choose to call it, but if we ever want to change the standard of writing then we first have to acknowledge it. Which does make sense, in order to solve a problem, you have to understand what is the problem before you can go about changing it. But what Wallace doesn’t answer is HOW exactly we are supposed to go about that change. Ideas?

A Matter of Preference

Lobsters? Lobsters. David Wallace sure knows how to pick them. In the namesake essay “Consider The Lobster”, Wallace’s journalistic style drifts back to land after spending sometime away on the Nadir of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, and reaches the annual Maine Lobster Festival among feverish carnivores prepared to inhale upwards of 25,000 pounds of lobster flesh. The MLF understandably falls into opposition with PETA proponents, or those who find the ‘Being Boiled Hurts’ view of a higher ethicality. Like all of the other pieces of nonfiction Wallace has been recruited to write, “Consider The Lobster” focuses a great deal on the ethical implications of human consumption. In the end, Wallace’s journalistic endeavor turns into a discussion of personal ethics and presence/lack of thought that goes into eating another sentient life form. Though, I found “Consider The Lobster” to differ from Wallace’s previous topics. One way this piece differs is in the way he specifies his discussion. Instead of focusing solely on consumption or tourism, “Consider The Lobster” seeks to understand the ways in which awareness and thoughtfulness factor into the act of consumption.

One of the ways in which he specifies his discussion is in his choice to focus on the lobster as an instrument of consumption. Lobster is a delicacy, a product of the sea harvested for the human palette to enjoy. While Illinois fair junk food and cruise ship buffets are certainly interesting sites of people eating food, there’s something comparatively profounder about Wallace’s choice to focus on this particular gentrified crustacean. And so, Wallace’s personal preference in a lot of ways mirrors the preference that’s at the heart of the troubling questions that “arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride” at the MLF (253). Wallace writes, “the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s uncomfortable. It is at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling” (246). I found this passage to be really interesting because it not only acknowledges the discomfort that arises out of our preference over what we consume, but Wallace also lets us know that he himself is uncomfortable even talking about it.

Wallace continues to provide us with personal information as he talks about his approach when it comes to this whole ‘animal-cruelty-and-eating issue’. Wallace prefers to “avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing” (246). Moreover, he defends his own carnivorous behavior on the grounds that he has self interest in mind and has failed to work out “any sort of personal ethic system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient” (253). Wallace makes his personal preference and the reasoning behind it clear. I found that a lot of what Wallace chooses to expose complements the presence of the PETA proponents and in a way softens the details of the all the “other ways to kill your lobster on-site” (249).

The series of questions Wallace finishes with managed to summarize a lot of the questions I had in mind as I read “Consider The Lobster”. For me, he manages to turn a cultural gathering into a site of ethical debate into a platform for cerebral inquiry when he poses questions such as, “is your refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that you don’t want to think about it?” (254). In the end, I felt as if Wallace manages to expose the connection between preference and the factors of conscious/unconscious thought. Though this connection isn’t one every really reconciled of fully understood, it boils down to matter of preference.

Thoughts on Up, Simba

As I was reading this story, I couldn’t help but think “what would he say now?” Towards the end of this essay, DFW dwells upon the difficulties of a being a young voter in todays world, that is, how we as a generation are so used to being sold to, that we can’t really believe in anything anymore. This thought process is a constant theme in Wallace’s work of what’s gone wrong in today’s TV obsessed, irony saturated youth culture, that being that we don’t believe in anything anymore. So much of political campaigns is tied up in getting people to believe in a candidate, not so much to believe what they say. Reconciling that goal with today’s culture where supposedly nothing can be said with sincerity is what makes this article so interesting.

Much like after reading “E Unibus Pluram” we discussed what Wallace would say today about TV and fiction writing, what now would Wallace say about youth involvement in politics about the great Obama campaign of 2008. He dwells in “Up, Simba” about how young Americans would simply roll their eyes at the famous JFK musing; “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country!” yet we saw very little eye rolling at Obama’s Grant Park speech in November claiming “Yes we can!”

Does this mean that the cynical age is over, and we as Americans are ready to “suck it up” and believe in a politician or even just another human being again? The overarching theme I found in this essay collection is simply the Wallace yearned for the world of yesterday where people had ideals and morals and codes, and while at times it seems that we are as far away from that as ever, occasionally we can see glimpses of a simpler time. A time where people don’t role their eyes at an inspirational speech, where the media circus around a politician is there to make sure we believe in him, not just sit by as we are sold to his politics.

In short, this post is just simply here to ask exactly what you guys think Wallace would say if he wrote a similar article about Campaign 2008. Are we as Americans ready to drop the cynicism?

a quote and questions.

“I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

I was going to write a blog post on something we’d just read, but this sentence scared me so much that I could only really focus on what it means.   It’s a piece of the Kenyon speak that DFW made and it’s quoted in a recent article on,  Sorry there are so many questions in my post.

First, I appreciate the bluntness of this statement.   Wallace lays it out like he sees it.   He’s not trying to comfort us in the least, and his statement gives an air of urgency- if we don’t “get” this liberal arts education, are we doomed for life?   Will we forever be “imperially alone”?   And conversely, is the liberal arts education the only thing that can free us from being slaves to our heads?   Sometimes it seems to me that we end up being slaves to our heads in a different, conscious way, because we learn to examine and analyze so thoroughly.   Wallace’s statement is all about consciousness and being able to step out of our comfortable ways of thinking.   But how does this make us less alone?

I’m wondering if I need to take this whole liberal arts thing more seriously.  Wallace is pretty honest and serious himself here- liberal arts just might be our savior from being trapped in our own heads forever…?  So really, this whole thing is supposed to bring me to a place where I can escape loneliness?

Throughout the course of all these readings, I have struggled to understand whether Wallace really believes we can be free.   Unalone.   Somehow connected with the rest of the world.   I see a straining and a hope for connection, and I see Wallace encourage readers to look beyond themselves.   I see Wallace analyze and criticize just what it is about people today that makes it so difficult to not feel alone.   But is there really, truly a way out of this solipsism?   Can we eliminate it just by figuring out why it’s there in the first place?

Perhaps education is a solution, but I’m unsure whether simply learning how to think differently can change our degree of loneliness.   This is what our education is “supposed” to be about, but just how successful is it?   Often it seems that Wallace comes to the conclusion that we might be trapped in this box.   How specifically do his characters end up being free from the constraints of language and selfishness?

-Choosing not to let that questioning side take hold.   In “Good Old Neon,” this David Wallace character must quiet the dark part of him that contemplates suicide.

-Finding other lines of communication.   People find connection physically, without words or language (think BOTS)


Considering the Lesser Known

One commonality among Big Red Son, The View from Mrs. Thompson’s, Up, Simba, Host, a lot of the stories in the “Brief Interviews” parts of Brief Interviews, Michael Joyce, David Lynch, Getting Away, and a Supposedly Fun Thing and perhaps most importantly the vast majority of Infinite Jest, including just about every character’s story except James Incandenza’s, Orin Incandenza’s, Johnny Gentle’s et al., and the AFR/USOUS folks’, is that they all center around the lesser known, the marginal.   This is at once very significant and very suspicious to me.

By the marginal I mean that the real main characters in each of these stories are not those who would otherwise receive attention.   In fact, they are often the players who usher the main characters to the attention they receive.   A very clear example of this is the tech crew in Up, Simba, about which I’m ready to fight anyone who doesn’t believe they are the heart of the story.   Consider the title, consider the time Wallace spent with them on the Trail, and consider the importance he gave to their political advice.

A medium-clarity example of Wallace’s interest in the lesser known is the David Lynch piece.   The obvious counterargument that I’m fibbing or just wrong is that the David Lynch piece was assigned to Wallace by ritzy Premiere Magazine, and so there’s some obvious sense that if Lynch was in fact lesser known he wouldn’t be getting all this press coverage.   But I argue that first of all Lynch is lesser known, which is why 95% of our class had no clue who David Lynch was before reading that piece.   Second, even while Wallace was using a lot of page space to talk about Lynchian theory, what he was really focused on was the extraordinarily bizarre, not-quite-human humanity of a man who piqued Premiere’s interest (I’m guessing) not because of his dressing habits but because of what he makes come out of expensive cameras.   Wallace, while deeply interested in that element of David Lynch, was clearly also interested in what it was about Lynch that allowed him to “keep his head,” the backstage David Lynch that allowed the avant-garde, attention-grabbing director David Lynch to get his limelight.

A low-clarity example, which compared to that last example might be either medium-clarity, or I overestimated the clarity of the last example: the washroom attendant in “Brief Interviews” in Brief Interviews.   Because it’s fiction, we can’t be sure whether Wallace spent time getting into the psyche of any life-time washroom attendants, but the fact that Wallace wanted to is important on its own.   And while the washroom attendant doesn’t do the dirty work (pun intended) so that the attendees can receive the washroom spotlight (not quite sure what that would even entail), he does remain behind the scenes to help usher the attendees through the less glorious tasks in their day, allowing them to focus instead on what gets them attention.   In one sense the washroom attendant is an almost parodic(al) metonym for all the characters I listed at the beginning of this post–he suffers quietly so that others don’t have to.

The significant thing about DFW’s voice-giving to the oft voiceless is that, according to the people that mattered to him on a personal level, it came straight from his anguished heart.     A long quote from Dave’s editor Michael Pietsch in his eulogy of Wallace, all of which I think is important and as primary as a secondary source can be in understanding why Wallace might have been interested in the conventionally uninteresting:

“I don’t want to be a hidden person, or a hidden writer: it is lonely,” [Dave] said in another letter [to Pietsch].   He shied from being known in a public way, but he worked hard not to be hidden from the people he encountered in person. He wanted them to know him himself, not some caricature or idea of him.   One way David endeavored to be known was by endeavoring to know others.   His solicitousness was legendary.   In one note he asked me to remind a new mother in the office that it was time to switch from skim milk to 2% or whole milk.   He wrote thank-you notes not just to the copy editor who worked on Consider the Lobster but also to the supervisor who had assigned the job to so talented a copy ediotr, and he offered to pay a bonus out of his own pocket to the designer who wrestled down a particularly gnarly layout.”

Pietsch goes on to detail other ways in which Dave was an extraordinarily kind and solicitous man, but I think this is enough to get at what I’m trying to suggest in this post, which is quite simply that I would like to believe that David Foster Wallace did not use people like the salesmen/politician-types in Up, Simba use lines to sell a product, he treated them each as carriers of a special humanity he could only glimpse by just like, listening.

Sensitivity in Infinite Jest

A few of you have already written blog posts on Wallace’s style in Infinite Jest; nonetheless, the singularity of his style deserves yet another post. I just finished re-reading jtlax45’s post on the maximalist style of Wallace’s prose. I had not heard of the term maximalism in a literary context before (and I failed to find anything relevant when I googled the term), but if we take jtlax45’s definition of maximalism-“a deep and sometimes frivolous-feeling exploration of the minute details”-then that sounds about right in characterizing Wallace’s style in Infinite Jest (as well as his other works). In this post, I would like to expand on Wallace’s detail-driven style with special attention to the sensitivity and control Wallace exerts in his writing, focusing on this week’s segment of Infinite Jest.

One instance of the sensitivity ingrained Wallace’s writing occurs when the three White Flaggers visit Gately:   “The three all pause, and then Jack J. puts the back of his hand to his brow and flutters his lashes martyrishly at the drop-ceiling. They all three of them laugh. They have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures” (844). The writing is sensitive because Wallace does not only depict what happens but also what does not happen-the non-events, the silence, the omissions, the what-might-have-happened-but-does-not-actually-happen-moments. In other words, the writing is sensitive in that it is aware of so much more than the plot that it describes; the writing notices even the elements that the plot excludes. In fact, the writing almost emphasizes the elements that the plot excludes by eliciting an awareness of these elements.

For example, by including the pause of the three visitors, the text draws attention to a moment of silence, which is in a way a moment of non-occurrence, non-plot. By informing the reader that “they have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures,” the text gives the reader access to information apart from and outside of the plot. The text reveals its awareness of everything-the events that occur and those that do not. By including those details and elements of non-plot, Infinite Jest exudes a rare level of sensitivity-one often absent from other works of fiction.

Not only is the text itself sensitive to its milieu, almost every single character in the text displays an uncommon level of sensitivity. Earlier in the novel, we witness that even the despicable Randy Lenz is more sensitive than the average human being when he conducts an internal debate over how to tell Green to stop following him and “still have Green know he thinks he’s OK?” Lenz worries about every detail, from “where the fuck is he supposed to look when he says it” to the “voltage or energy there, hanging between you” (554-555). In this segment of the reading, we see Gately’s sensitivity, as an eight or nine year-old child. When Mrs. Waite brings a birthday cake, the narrator tells us, “Mrs. Waite had spared Gately the humiliation of putting just his name on the cake as if the cake was especially for him. But it was. Mrs. Waite had saved up for a long time to afford to make the cake, Gately knew” (848-849). These passages and many others imbue an unparalleled quality of sensitivity in the characters.

The passage about the M.P.’s fly-whacking style reminds me precisely of Wallace’s own style-not that Wallace’s style is as cruel as the fly-whacking style, but that Wallace’s style seems just as controlled and meticulous as the M.P.’s style. Wallace’s description of the manner in which the M.P. whacks flies creates an almost perfect mirror image of his own style. He expounds that the M.P. hits flies-

in a controlled way. Not hard enough to kill them. He was very controlled and intent about it. He’d whack them just hard enough to disable them. Then he’d pick them up real precisely and remove either a wing or like a leg, something important to the fly. He’d take the wing or leg over to the beige kitchen wastebasket and very deliberately hike the lid with the foot-pedal and deposit the tiny wing or leg in the wastebasket, bending at the waist. (842)

Like the way in which the M.P. smacks flies, Wallace’s writing peels apart each character carefully to his or her bare personality and inner sensitivity (in his non-fiction, Wallace’s writing peels apart issues such as the morality of cooking lobsters and the wars over usage in an equally exceptional and meticulous way). Every word and sentence and phrase in the text seems as deliberate and controlled and carefully selected and architected as this nasty, yet subtly similar scene of fly-parsing.