Before we get down to today’s order of business, I have to thank everyone first for their kind words on my post last week. It wasn’t easy to admit to not liking Infinite Jest and talk openly about my frustrations with the novel, but you were all very supportive and provided lots of comfort and encouragement – exactly what I needed to buoy my sinking spirits.
So, from me to you – yes, you! – thank you.
Thank you for listening and thank you for continuing to make my experience as one of your guides a fun and rewarding one. I really needed to get those feelings off my chest in order to move forward and, thanks to you, I was able to do so and return to you refreshed and ready to go for week ten of Infinite Summer!
(Side note: Does anyone else find it a bit crazy that there are only four weeks left until we read that final page? I can barely remember a time now when I wasn’t carrying around my Sticky-Noted copy of Infinite Jest everywhere… My God. What will it be like to read a book that weighs less than three pounds?)
Now, I don’t know if it’s because I finally decided to share my struggle with IJ last week or if this is a total coincidence, but I found this week’s assigned pages to be some of the most readable I’ve encountered thus far within the novel. We skipped between characters and story lines at a faster pace in chunks of text that were digestible and didn’t focus too much on peripheral details, or meander in a way that can become tedious. I feel like if this section were a chess move, it would be the queen coming out to play – a show of control on DFW’s part and a decisive push toward the end. I liked seeing all of the different narrative threads starting to come together to form something a bit more cohesive and I particularly liked seeing certain characters break out of what had become their routine in the last seven hundred pages (for instance, Marathe and Steeply FINALLY GETTING OFF THAT GODDAMN MOUNTAIN AND STARTING TO DO THEIR RESPECTIVE JOBS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE).
That being said, what I believe I enjoyed the most about this week’s reading is that it made me feel like perhaps Wallace and I are on more of the same page than I originally thought.
For awhile, it seemed as if my worldview just wasn’t aligning with his, which was making it difficult for me to connect with Infinite Jest. In the latest sections focused on Hal, however, I saw my theories about him confirmed and expanded upon in a way that made me feel for at least a brief instant like David and I were soul sisters.*
How, you ask? Well, for one, Wallace makes it clear once and for all in this week’s reading that he is, in fact, denouncing the kind of emotional detachment the majority of his characters strive to achieve and that contemporary society deems somehow hip. I honestly think my heart started doing the conga when I read this passage:
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and Unalone. (694)
If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s affected apathy. I’m a firm believer in loving something to the fullest and being unapologetically enthusiastic about it. While I know that some of my tastes and habits make me a part of hipster culture (i.e. wearing big glasses, frequenting coffee shops, owning a record player, etc.), I cannot fully ascribe to the hipster ethos because it’s one that prizes irony above all else. For example, the popular concept of “liking something ironically” is one that baffles me because it encourages people to distance themselves from things they actually enjoy. What’s the point of life if you don’t allow yourself to feel the joy something brings you – even if that something is the Twilight series or a One Direction album? If you love something, then go ahead and love it. Life’s too short to have “guilty” pleasures, or to like things “ironically.”
What Wallace speaks to in the above quotation – and, I guess, throughout the entirety of IJ – is how dangerous it is to buy into the kind of art that makes apathy look cool. After all, the kind of art we consume shapes who we are and our perception of the world. As a lovely follow-up to the passage I just highlighted, DFW writes:
The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assumer the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïvety. Sentiment equals naïvety on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). (694)
It was when I read this that I finally felt that important click with our friend David. It has always made me sad that sentiment is so often belittled and this passage made me feel like DFW feels the same. To be emotional and vulnerable is to be irrational and weak, or, in Wallace’s word, “naïve.” And, while this sentiment is present in our world, it is exaggeratedly so within the world of Infinite Jest with nearly all the characters spiralling into a self-destructive abyss in order to avoid feeling too much of anything.
We saw that this week with Hal who struggles to “look just as perfectly dead” on the tennis court as John Wayne, but who is “more vulnerable” and hence “susceptible to fluctuations. Discouragement. Set-long lapses in concentration” (682). Similarly, the narrator reveals that Hal loves the “unhip earnestness” of his father’s Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat, but outwardly “maintains it’s basically goo” to Mario (689). While Hal tries with all his might to attain the supposedly enviable state of apathy, he struggles with his emotions – particularly that of loneliness (694).
In fact, Hal indirectly confirms what I’ve theorized all along – that he admires Mario for how open he is with his feelings and how unafraid he is to feel. In a brilliant glimpse into Hal’s head, we learn that he believes “to be really human … is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic” and that, deep down, “he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Essentially, he’s making himself miserable in this limbo between annihilating all emotion and totally succumbing to it.
In short, this breakthrough moment was huge for me because I not only felt closer to Hal, but also to our friend David for giving me this moment of connection I was craving. If the novel is really all about encouraging its readers to live an open and engaged life full of the things that truly make us human (read: emotions), then maybe this is heading in a promising direction… In any case, I remain optimistic.
Until next week, dear readers. Cheers!
F O O T N O T E S :
* Further confirmation of our bond? David’s sly reference to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with Himself’s film The Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell (687). I know it was mentioned in that filmography footnote from way back when, but seeing the film referenced directly in the text made me smile. Blake is my fave cuckoo-clocks-crazy Romantic poet and I have to give David kudos for that little nod to one of Blake’s lesser known and tragically overlooked works.