Tag Archives: self-consciousness

Octet- interhuman sameness or obscene secret shame?

In “Octet,” DFW claims that he wants his piece to do all these incredible things. I admire his ambition, but I’m not atr all sure he suceeds. I want him to suceed in producing “belletristic fiction” that “works,” but I really don’t know if “Octet” is anything more than some “mortal gymnastics equiptment” (156).

For starters, why doesn’t DFW actually just “ask the reader straight out whether she feels it, too, this queer nameless ambient urgent interhuman sameness” (157). Why does he create a barrier to that sameness he claims to so urgently feel by hiding behind this metafictional “you”? He claims that the “unfortunate fiction writer – will have to puncture the fourth wall” (157), but does he? He comes so close, and this is what frustrates me the most: he acknowledges, at length, exactly what he would have to do to puncture this fourth wall; he knows how to do it, but he can’t, and I think the big question, the one the stories in the octet and, perhaps more importantly, DFW’s seeming inability to actually come out and be honest, asks us is:

Can we ever transcend/stop hiding behind our own self-consciousness and become truly, genuinely “other-directed” (138)?

We are ashamed of our self-consciosness because it is a sign of self-involvement, but isn’t that shame just self-involved on a whole new level? I.e. if DFW just came out, unarmed, and said “‘Do you like me? Please like me‘” (154), would that be more, or less, self-involved? Is there any way to penetrate that wall? If “the idea of sayig this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene” (154), does that mean it actually is obscene? Is it obscene (improper, immoral, indecent, all those bad things) to be totally naked/unarmed? Isn’t it only obscene because we’re trapped in a fourth wall of post-lapsarian/post-modern cynical self-consciousness and “secret shame” (141)?

In Pop Quiz 6(A), “X’s secret conflict and corrosive shame finally wear him down so utterly and make him so miserable at work and catatonic at home that he finally swallows all pride and goes hat in hand to his trusted friend and colleague Y” (139). My Pop Quiz question for DFW (who I really think needs to be quizzed here) is why can he write characters who do this but never do it himself?

My question to you- do you think he succeeds? If so, WHY/HOW?

Appearance in “A Supposedly Fun Thing”

One of the things I found most interesting in the “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” essay was DFW’s almost neurotic attention to his own appearance as it is seen by the crew and his fellow cruisers on the cruise ship. It’s something we touched on in class for a moment but didn’t really discuss in detail.

The most obvious example of DFW’s concern over his own appearance is when he calls for room service in his cabin. He writes:

Usually what I do is spread out my notebooks and Fielding’s Guide to Worldwide Cruising 1995 and pens and various materials all over the bed, so when the Cabin Service guy appears at the door he’ll see all this belletristic material and figure I’m working really hard on something belletristic right here in the cabin and have doubtless been too busy to have hit all the public meals and am thus legitimately entitled to the indulgence of Cabin Service. (296)

DFW essentially creates a false image of himself in order to justify, to whoever will bring him his food, his need to order Cabin Service when there are so many other eating options available on the ship. He seems to have a fear of being judged. In this particular case, his need to create an outward appearance also stems from the guilt that he feels from indulging in such extravagant pampering. (This is connected to what we were talking about in class w/r/t DFW’s self-conscious hypocrisy of questioning the excessive pampering, but at the same time, indulging in it himself.) But, he ultimately creates a façade of himself in order to escape judgment or criticism from whomever he comes across.

Another example of DFW trying to control others’ judgment of him is in his relation to Captain Video: “Captain Video’s the only passenger besides me who I know for a fact is cruising without a relative or companion, and certain additional similarities between C.V. and me…tend to make me uncomfortable, and I try to avoid him as much as possible” (308). He deliberately avoids C.V. because he doesn’t want to be connected in any way to one of the ship’s “eccentrics.” He doesn’t want to be seen as weird or eccentric himself.

I have a feeling that both of these instances of DFW’s self-consciousness stem from his own dissection of everything and everyone around him. In his militant attention to detail, DFW makes very pointed and sometimes unflattering (though usually wonderfully funny) descriptions and critiques of those around him. And though all of the descriptions are truthful and probably unembellished, a lot of them are not particularly complimentary. When he first arrives at the pier and sees all the cruisers in their cruise-wear, he points out that “men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts…they legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy” (272). And when playing ping-pong with Winston, he also notes that “Winston also sometimes seemed to suffer from the verbal delusion that he was an urban black male…” (329). Now, both of theses comments aren’t necessarily mean or untrue, but they are delivered in a fairly critical way.

Because DFW notices and reports on all of the minute eccentricities and oddities of everyone around him, his own self-consciousness must stem from the fact that he doesn’t want to fall victim to any criticism himself. He seems to have a slight fear of being that person that he makes fun of or judges. So when he can, he tries to make himself seem as he wants others to see him, in order to avoid putting himself in a position that might allow others to scrutinize him in the same way he analyzes others. I don’t really think this means that DFW feels much guilt for his unflattering descriptions of people, for his descriptions are all truthful. But maybe this causes him to feel some pangs of self-reproach? I’m not sure.

In realizing that on the ship DFW creates appearances of himself, it makes more sense now to assume that the DFW-narrator that we get in the essay is also somewhat of an appearance, some type of persona. Not that the DFW-narrator is completely different from who DFW the author was, but what we see in the story is probably just a slight alteration of his actual character. Just as he does on the ship, in the essay he creates himself to be how he wants us to see him: funny, affable, insightful. And he is wildly successful.

A literary fall from grace?

While reading hannahm’s post, the idea of “the self-referential loop leading only to, according to him, ‘Armageddon'” made me reconceive the loop using a familiar Christian theme, namely Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and how post-modernism represents a literary fall. The post-modern attitude of hyper-self-awareness, unrelenting irony, and overbearing cynicism seems to mirror Adam and Eve’s post-lapsarian self-consciousness and the Christian attitude about sin and salvation.

It seems that post-modernism, as a fall, was rooted in a desire for knowledge. In a sense, authors seem to have plucked a forbidden fruit of knowledge when they started to examine structure, form, and their own embededness in not only litearture, but language itself. “If realism called it like it saw it” (EUP, 34), those authors could frolick in the garden and un-selfconsciously write earnest prose. Now, all too aware of literary nakedness, they are “oglers” who also “tend to dislike being objects of people’s attention” (E Unibus Pluram, 21). We cannot escape the notion that we our embeded in language and (re)meditate our worlds through various lens. This knowledge makes us feel naked and vulnerable. It leads to “this very personal axiety about our prettiness” and so we clothe that nakedness in grogeous swaths of irony and intelligence. DFW says: “we all recognize the [pop] reference [but are] all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference” (EUP, 42). In a way, we all make crude jokes about each other’s nakedness, but are uneasy about the fact that we even see that nakedness.

When DFW calls for Anti-Rebels to “risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs” (EUP, 81), etc., he is calling for them to appear completely naked in the public eye. However, it seems like we will never be able return to a time when we were unaware of our literary nakedness, and so maybe it’s impossible for these Anti-Rebels to truly expose themselves without any sort of discomfort and self-consciousness. DFW himself seems to try to bare himself, but ends up using irony anyway. He aches to expose his soul, but cannot bear the public eye.

Is true love possible in a world where our acute awareness of nakedness makes us distinguish between Self and Other?

All the world’s a stage

If fiction can be reduced to the attempt to represent the world, the main dilemmas facing a fiction writer can be simplified to the following: 1) what is the world like? 2) how best to represent the world through the medium of language? There is a fine line between constructing and depicting; in fact, the current consensus seems to be that it is necessarily construction–even history–the real question is what types of lenses are these construction mediated by (Marxist, Colonial, Diasporic, Oedipal etc.)? Perhaps it is the positing of these lenses that partly motivates the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of postmodern fiction. James Wood, the literary critic, has criticized Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace for their brand of fiction that he labels “hysterical realism.” (His views and the following quotes are obtained from a review of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” that can be found here: http://www.powells.com/review/2001_08_30.html) He describes the “big contemporary novel” as

A perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs… …Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish…what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness.

Interestingly, Wood’s diagnosis (“An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack”) points to a similar preoccupation that DFW voiced in the McCaffery interview (“That lack is the human”). Wood’s criticism (“Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.”) can then be seen as stemming from an inability to come to grips with current reality, for the character today is inextricably linked to a surfeit of information. Hysterical realism is Realism in the modern era. Wood’s distinction between “a picture of life” and a “spectacle” is not as clear-cut as his old school narrow-mindedness might conceive it to be.

I think an interesting comparison might be draw between the works of DFW and the likes, and that of Cormac McCarthy–a living writer perhaps generationally distinct (20 years?) from the contemporary writers Wood criticizes. He is considered an heir to Faulkner, on the surface a very different type of writer compared to DFW, but who was himself no stranger to unconventional narrative techniques (As I Lay Dying). In this essay on McCarthy (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/17/specials/mccarthy-venom.html?_r=3&oref=slogin), his style is characterized as diametrically opposite to the profuseness Wood finds so misguided: “minimally punctuated, without quotation marks, avoiding apostrophes, colons or semicolons — has a stylized spareness that magnifies the force and precision of his words.” I wonder if this might be a product of a difference in attitude towards the enterprise of writing–a lack of self-consciousness that pervades the work of contemporary writers. Note this excerpt:

McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein — anything — than himself or his books. “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t,” he growls. “Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.”

This stands in contrast to DFW and Jonathan Franzen, who seem fixated with writing as an enterprise. I think contemporary writers seem to be much more acutely aware of their audience, and hence fiction becomes a kind of product–it has to fulfill certain self-imposed criteria according to what the real world is perceived as needing or desiring. Given the vast amount of fiction already written, the product has to meet demand in the face of competition from the canon. Since good fiction deals with what it is to be human, how to say what has surely already been said a million times before in a new and meaningful way? Perhaps it is this question that motivates DFW’s obsession with the execution of his writing. The impetus behind McCarthy’s writing seems significantly less burdened by such anxieties; he almost never grants interviews and does not feel any need to make himself accessible to his readers via the media. He takes it to be a fact the “the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written”, rather than a source of struggle one must contrive to overcome. Yet, fundamentally, we see the familiar basic criteria of good writing: “deal(ing) with issues of life and death.” McCarthy doesn’t consider Proust and Henry James good writers: “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Indeed, it is curious that James often favors circumlocution (i.e. the excess of words) to depict an impoverished reality, marked by the inability to feel and love. Is this strangeness a failure of the reader or writer? If we want to say the latter, are we necessarily guilty of committing the intentional fallacy?

Meta-fiction in the System

After reading all about [meta-] meta-fiction and [post-] postmodernism, I’m not going to lie, my brain felt a little twisted out of whack. But I went into The Broom of the System with an eye out for what I might find along these lines in Wallace’s fiction writing.

What I first stumbled upon were the stories Rick Vigorous tells Lenore. In the first one we read, it is unclear who is talking; all we know is that two people are involved and one of them is telling a story. With the characters seeming to be unimportant, it appears that Wallace is using them even more obviously than the average author in getting his own message across through a character’s words (the importance of who the character is is greatly diminished). But the character is not speaking morals or such serious things, the character is telling a story. Wallace has written a character who tells a story. Why include the character at all? Why not just tell the story? Alternatively, why have the character tell a story instead of living his life and teaching the reader something through his dialogue and actions? Why, in other words, have meta-fiction?

For one thing, it makes the reader conscious that what she is reading is, in fact, a story. The stories Rick tells Lenore are, broadly speaking, just condensed versions of what Wallace tells us. In the end, we are not reading an account of real people; these are characters who only live and talk and act as they do because that is how someone wrote them to be. Lenore says about one of the women in one of Rick’s stories, “She’s exactly what’s said about her, right? Nothing more at all” (119). In a way, Lenore is right. A character does nothing, is nothing, except what the author writes and the audience then reads. All of a character’s thoughts are on the page for us to read, all her actions are defined for us explicitly. A reader may wonder about what goes on in a character’s life between the passages and chronological breaks, but the truth is, nothing does. The character is not actually a living human being. She has no life but what the author gives her. This may seem obvious, but as an avid reader, I know people tend to forget it.

With the above quotation, meta-fiction also enters because Lenore is really referring to herself. “No, she simply felt . . . as if she had no real existence, except for what she said and did and perceived and et cetera, and that these were, it seemed at such times, not really under her control. There was nothing pure” (66). She is worried (and as any reader knows, for good reason) that she is simply a character in a story and therefore is not in control of anything she thinks or does, nor can she escape. She is, as she fears, simply being used for some purpose that has nothing to do with her happiness or well-being. And Wallace wrote her in such a way that this character, unlike most characters, is actually worried she is a character. So she truthfully fears she is no more important than to be used for some unknown purpose, and we know that for some unknown purpose Wallace created her so that she would fear this. Well, what is this purpose?

Trick question: intentional fallacy!

Okay, just kidding. But it is difficult to come up with a definite answer. The first thing I always wonder when reading something like this is if I, myself, am actually a character in a story; that someone in a much larger universe than the one of my story is currently reading about me. It’s like those sets of mirrors, where “reality” just repeats over and over and over. . . . In a more metaphorical sense, perhaps Wallace is saying that in a way, we actually are just characters in society. We have been written, put together, created by the world that surrounds us, and the trick is to find our own purpose. Maybe it’s not a bad thing if I choose to follow the path that seems to already have been chosen for me. Does it really change how I act if I know I don’t have complete autonomy? Probably not. But then why prompt readers to acquire this self-consciousness? What good is it? It seems we’re all stuck in the loop anyway.

I don’t have an answer. Anyone else have any ideas?