If you are a fan of DFW, or a close-reader of Infinite Jest, I would wager that one of these statements contains a ring of the familiar:
- A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.
- Something experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.
- Victims can develop anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame and self-doubt.
- Sufferers tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others.
All these statements describe a common condition called impostor syndrome. Who among us doesn’t feel inadequate? Who doesn’t harbor a low-level anxiety and major degree of self-doubt?
Life is full of paradoxes. Even when others congratulate us on our successes, it can be hard to feel or accept anything but ambivalence or maybe even fear, stress, and embarrassment. Better to avoid looking smugly satisfied and aim for the self-deprecating remark, right? Even if we pretend to feel inadequate in order to seem comfortable, we avoid the truth.
There is a lot of seeming and pretending in Infinite Jest. And there are several actual impostors in the book, most notably Marathe who is pretending to be a double agent, and also a triple agent: he is actually a quadruple agent. He famously says “I merely pretended to pretend to pretend to betray.” This level of inverted posturing symbolizes an insecurity (albeit in a funny way) that many people use to project a different self than they truly feel inside—a self that they might pretend to pretend is not the real self they are trying to portray.
But Marathe is confident in his pretending to be a triple agent. Espionage is about concealment after all. Impostor syndrome is something more insidious than pure deception. It is a weakness of the soul. It’s a symptom of the self that is, deep down, afraid.
Late in his long interview with David Lipsky, Wallace said “For me, as an American male, the face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff.” But then he immediately turns around and says this fear is likely assuageable by internal means and that the way out has something to do with, well, “the pop-psych phrase is loving yourself.” A lot of the literature about impostor syndrome points to “mindfulness” as one aid to escape feelings of fraudulence and I think it’s no coincidence that Wallace himself became very interested in meditation and Buddhism. Self-care and a healthy maintenance of the mind are also good antidotes to some of the other diseases Wallace highlights throughout his fiction: narcissism, solipsism, and equivocation.
After he finished Infinite Jest, Wallace wrote the most in-depth fictional exploration of impostor syndrome heretofore published. “Good Old Neon” first appeared in Conjunctions magazine in November 2001. It opens with the line, “My whole life I’ve been a fraud” and the narrator then elaborates on the concept, “Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it, it’s to be liked, loved.”
The narrator also explains a complicating factor of impostor syndrome which he calls the “fraudulence paradox.” The paradox is that “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” And this effort, this trying, creates a vicious cycle wherein “the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were.” It seems to follow that a person who can logically understand this paradox would stop the cycle and “just settle for being himself” but in fact, this first paradox just spawns another higher-order paradox that reinforces how he/she has always been a fraud and yet has been unable to stop doing so.
And here I think of Hal, he of the exceptional athletic ability and eidetic memory, who has no authentic way to be himself. He smokes pot to fit in with the other ETA students and to have an escape route back into his loneliness (and though others in his cadre know that he gets high, he is obsessed with getting high without their knowledge). Can he ever be happy and proud of his abilities? What does a mentally healthy Hal look like?
It’s easy to point to the hole in Hal’s life caused by his father’s suicide (compounded by the fact Hal is the one who discovered the body), but Hal isn’t comfortable in his own skin and that’s got more to do with a low-level fear and anxiety than any one traumatic event. Impostor syndrome tells him that there will always be someone with more athletic talent, someone better academically, a better son than him, someone more successful in love. Could he really match his father’s brilliance? He tries to reassure the Deans in the opening pages of the novel, “I’m complex . . . I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. . . I feel and believe. I have opinions.” But of course he can’t communicate his true self and attempting to do so corresponds with his horrific meltdown.
Impostor syndrome is ultimately about truth. If things are not what they appear to be, how are we to know what is real and what is true? We know we can hide our real selves and pretend to be something we are not. In “Good Old Neon,” the narrator tells us “Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. . . But it wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.” To acknowledge one’s limitations while silencing the inner critic calls to mind the ETA motto—not JOI’s Latin motto about them eating you, but the treacly one Tavis replaced it with: THE MAN WHO KNOWS HIS LIMITATIONS HAS NONE.