Sunday, October 6, 2013

David Foster Wallace: A Lament in D Minor

Well if you talk to a fiction writer you are going to get a prejudiced view. There is something magical to me about literature and fiction and I think it can do things not only that pop culture cannot do but that are urgent now: One is that by creating a character in a work of fiction you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self and to allow him to imagine himself not only somewhere else but someone else in a way that television and movies, in a way that no other form can do. I think people are essentially lonely and alone and frightened of being alone.” -David Foster Wallace BBC Radio 3 Interview from 1995

Analysis of David Foster Wallace Documentary presented by Professor Geoff Ward:

Key Points from the Documentary:

The documentary glosses over Wallace's first two works and focuses on, what many consider to be Wallace's masterwork, Infinite Jest, which is set in a Capitalist dystopia.

dys·to·pi·a  (ds-tp-)
1. An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.
2. A work describing such a place or state: 

Infinite Jest
Somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the screwed-up residents of Ennet House, a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts, and students at the Enfield Tennis Academy search for the master copy of a movie so dangerously entertaining that its viewers die in a state of catatonic bliss. Explores essential questions about what entertainment is, why we need it, and what it says about who we are

BBC commentary about Infinite Jest:

In Infinite Jest, Wallace attempted nothing less than to survey the addictions of an entire culture to television, to alcohol, and to prescribed and non prescribed pharmaceuticals of every variety. Above all Wallace addressed his main theme the self consuming solipsism of a culture crying out for community. 

: a theory in philosophy that your own existence is the only thing that is real or that can be known

The documentary next uses this quote from the book to illustrate this theme:

Infinite Tasks of Philosophy - Nothing Left Inside Hal

[W]hat passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic [...]. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what he is really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia. (p. 695)

an·he·do·ni·a  (nh-dn-)

Anhedonia is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD). It is the loss of interest in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities. People suffering from clinical depression lose interest in hobbies, friends, work--even food and sex. It's as if the brain's pleasure circuits shut down or short out--but do they? Some experts define hedonic function as the total amount of pleasure that it's possible to gain from a single activity. Perhaps depression reduces that hedonic capacity.

Geoff Ward's BBC commentary about David Wallace's singular style:

A combination of streetwise slacker-ese and with arcane references and scholary appendages, recursive loops and linguistic curlicues all buttressed by his signature footnotes.

The documentary then includes some additional commentary from Rick Moody regarding Wallace's use of footnotes:

There is always a way in Wallace to take whatever has just been said and kind of subdivide in an probe at the fragments that are sort of underneath and to me that that is what the footnoting is about. No thought is complete until eight more subheadings are appended to it in some way.

Missing from the above commentary is the actual reason behind Wallace's extensive use of footnotes was his history of plagiarism, which Wallace attributed to lapses caused by his drug abuse, and fear of lawsuits by his publishers. Here is more on this subject from D. T. Max's biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story:

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story - D. T. Max

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story - D. T. Max

The next section in the documentary examines various influence on Wallace's writing including the Midwest where he grew up, the fact that both of his parents were academics and the depression that afflicted him. Here is a round up of articles and stories written by Wallace that cover these areas:

Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern boyhood - Harpers Magazine (1991)

Slate - Philosophical Sweep, To understand the fiction of David Foster Wallace, it helps to have a little Wittgenstein.

The Depressed Person - Harpers Magazine (1998)

Here Geoff Ward interviews Mark Costello, one of Wallace's best friends from Amherst on the link between depression and Wallace's artistry:

MC: The two things are related. Dave wanted to be many things other than an artist. I think that it was something that was forced on him at some level because, you know, he had some collapses and he had to build a new way out of it. So they were closely related: He would have a breakdown and then he would have an explosive jump forward.

GW: ...and he also begins to mine depression as a subject doesn't he? It gives him something at the same time that it shuts him down in another way.

MC: Warily, yes. I mean he was terrified of it as a swallowing subject. He wrote a story called the depressed person. Which I am sure you know is almost pole like in its circularity and its closed-off-ness. While at the same time, it is Dave's voice, so it offers this sense as with Joyce that languate can be infinite that it can do anything and, yet, this story is a tightly constructed space that you cannot get out of. You know, I think he did not have much choice but to write about it by I think that he was scared of it as a subject because its swallowing quality.

GW: So you knew him at the time of his first novel, his first stories. Now he subsequently would run that early work down, dismiss it but to me it seems like all the gifts are there at the outset, particularly the stories.

MC: I couldn't agree with you more. The book that is hardest for me to touch is Girl with Curious Hair in light of Dave's suicide. I think when people go back a hundred years from now and talk about a generation of writers that they are going to go to that collection the same way that they go to Tales of the Jass Age by Fitzgerald.

Westward, the Course of Empire, takes its way, it is a novella really in a collection of stories. Its key line is: You are loved. It is an incredibly an incredibly tender story. People think of him as a brain writer, a smart writer, which he absolutely was, but, to me, the big moves in Dave, the things that he matures to is he is talking about why we cannot live alone, as much as it pains us to be together, we can't be alone.

GW: So this intentional movement, perhaps, in all his work between the rock style inovation and experimentation and the love for people that directs emotion.

MC: Absolutely, you know, you can pick one of those famous 75 word sentences and there's ten different tonalities in those sentences. He invites great readings because it is almost like you are going along the wall taping it with a hammer to find the hollow spots and its in one sentence.

Halfway House

Searching for a connection to others as a way of battling addictions used to compensate for ones natural solipsism.

David Wallace quote:

“We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. That only we need the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.” -David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Call it Something I Ate: language-games, addiction, and dialogic possibility in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Wallace's vision of the future may be punctuated by humor, but it is essentially tragic. Infinite Jest is a profoundly sad book, a study of addiction, the pyrrhic-at-best search for spirituality and a palliative for existential loneliness that invariably is a drug. It explores the void in every one of us that must be filled by a substance and then filled again and again. This void is something we cannot know - to know it or to make peace with it is to die. There are many simultaneous projects in Infinite Jest, and the construction and exploration of void is one of them that this thesis will explore.

Wikipedia - Subject–object problem
Wikipedia - Epistemological Solipsism

The Howling Fantods - The Limits of the Infinite: The Use of Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest as a Narrative Solution after Postmodernism

“I” and the “Other” The relevance of Wittgenstein, Buber and Levinas for an understanding of AA’s Recovery Program in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest by Petrus van Ewijk University of Antwerp

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the presence of Alcoholics Anonymous can be considered as an attempt to come up with a solution for both the addic- tion and the solipsism of the characters. AA tries to accomplish this by recon- necting the addict with the “Other”. The assimilation of the “Other” by the totalizing tendency of the self is dropped in favor of an earnest connection. This article focuses on the similarities between AA’s methods, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of the language-game, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of the “Other” and Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

Recovery Life History Narratives

Stinkin' Thinkin' - The Conversion Narrative

AAs are very specific about the definition of “real alcoholics.” The bona fide alcoholics are the ones for whom AA works, and who would die in a gutter without it. Thus, the drunkalog is about survival and salvation, as much as any redemption narrative is. It’s a way of proving one’s bona fides, a way of justifying one’s survival outside the fold. Get the drunkalog right and the community embraces you. Get it wrong, and you will be pitied, patronized, frozen out – and if you are a “real alcoholic,” being frozen out is a death sentence.

Irony as the Enemy

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. … Most likely, I think today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’ Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is tyranny. - David Foster Wallace

Unlikely Radical - How irony is the enemy of a risk-filled life

The New York Times recently ran a great article about hipsterdom and irony, which is a central toolkit in the hipster’s arsenal. The piece is generally spot on, but more importantly, it showcases what I feel is the central danger in taking a permanently ironic stance in one’s personality: irony negates the risk of being criticized.

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