Language Loss

As we’ve witnessed in several of Wallace’s works, language is a frequently visited topic. Although, after finishing Oblivion I got the sense that Wallace altered his discussion of language. One of the issues that Wallace focuses a great deal on in Broom of The System is language as a source of definition and identity. He also emphasizes that language involves inevitable loss. With all that we’ve read by the author, I wasn’t surprised by Wallace’s return to this topic; however, I will admit I really enjoyed Wallace’s consistent use of withholding information because it provoked in me an awareness of the loss of linguistics. Literally, the word oblivion comes from the Latin for to forget, and this loss is experienced all over Oblivion, especially in a short paragraph from “Good Old Neon”:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are the ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.-and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. (150)

While Wallace’s metaphor of language as a charade is frustrating, the loss that he attributes to language recognizes that the human experience is just too “fast and huge and all interconnected” to be adequately described. Oblivion‘s structure and plot organization seem to identify this failure of language in a way that confused me greatly at first. This technique is used all over Oblivion, witnessed in the way that “Mister Squishy” withholds conclusions, in the way that “The Suffering Channel” uses the tragedy of 9/11 as a looming cloud, and in the way “Good Old Neon” literally communicates language’s inadequacy, knowledge only fully realized by someone who’s transcended language’s hegemony by entering the afterlife.

To go back to Wallace’s notion of language as a process of ‘going through the motions’, his writing style seems to gain a new self-consciousness in Oblivion. I got the sense after reading the collection that Wallace reached a point of exasperation, a final acceptance that the words he uses can never adequately communicate his experience, or provide true escape- this was a conclusion that really seemed true after finishing “Good Old Neon”. This sort of acceptance shows through in Wallace’s choice to withhold certain information, an act that to me says, ” If I’m writing these words just for something, some part of me, to be lost, why not save myself some of the effort?” Though this technique ultimately annoyed me and left me unsatisfied I felt myself beginning to identify on a smaller scale with the frustration and blinding awareness that Wallace must have struggled with for a significant portion of his life. My confusion and moments of dissatisfaction were a product of language’s loss, but it was something that I only really experienced after stumbling on the disconnects in Oblivion, and so I owe thanks to this work for opening my eyes.

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