For those of you who recognize the title of this week’s blog post, hang in there – I’m going to explain why I chose it in just a few moments. For those of you who don’t recognize the title of this week’s blog post, it is the first line of one of my favourite poems by e. e. cummings and I cannot recommend it enough. (In fact, if you’ve never read it and would like to do so, I thought I’d save you a Google search and link it here.)
That said, it’s time for me to explain what on earth my dear e. e. cummings has to do with anything.
Whenever someone asks me what it is that I love about that poem so much, all that comes to mind is how soft it is. That’s the word that pops into my head every time I return to it: soft. There is something just so excruciatingly gentle about it that I can’t read it without getting choked up. I seriously have no other explanation for why it touches me so deeply except that it is soft – perhaps the softest piece of writing I have ever read – and that softness never fails to move me.
Which brings me now to Infinite Jest.
There are long sections of the novel thus far that I have found hard. Not hard as in difficult to understand, but hard as in harsh, unforgiving, or (in a few instances) brutal. Despite the labyrinthine structure of IJ and the complexity of the world DFW has built, I haven’t yet found the story inaccessible. That’s not it at all. Instead, there have been a few instances where I’ve been put off by how hard some of the characters and their actions, interactions, or views on life have been. I think of Mario’s entertainment cartridge where he has Hal narrate the advice “[B]e no-one. It is easier that you think” (175); James Incandenza’s father warning his son that oversensitivity is “revolting” (161); or the entire section with yrstruly and C that features a near-rape and ends in (* SPOILER ALERT *) C being violently murdered.
And yet amid those hard attitudes and behaviours, I’m continuously touched by the moments of e. e. cummings-esque softness that Wallace manages to weave into the narrative. Of the various soft moments within IJ so far, the one that has impacted me the most is the small section beginning on page 200 comprised of aphoristic sentiments, or what the narrator calls “facts” (200). These facts range from the size of a chronic alcoholic’s heart to the nature of evil, but offer many hopeful observations. A few of my favourites?
- “That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” (203)
- “That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.” (204)
- “That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.” (205)
Like, dear God, David.* Just stab me in the soul. It would hurt less.
The sheer optimism in these quotations is so beautiful and, when I came across them for the first time, they made my heart soften immediately. There is something so pure in their simplicity and so brave in their vulnerability. If anything, it’s the glimpses of vulnerability throughout Infinite Jest that lend a humanizing kind of softness to the narrative and endear it to me again and again – bringing me back after I read through a particularly hard section that leaves me feeling unsettled and sometimes even alienated from the story.
The facts section is actually rife with vulnerability and is now among my top three favourite parts of IJ** because it seems to actively work at deconstructing some of the hard stances previously espoused by certain characters. I noted a couple of paragraphs ago how James Incandenza’s father demeans oversensitivity and essentially shames his son for showing emotion (161). The notion of hiding one’s feelings, or affecting apathy to survive has been an issue for nearly every character since the novel’s opening pages and it is only with the advent of the facts section that the narrator really speaks to how damaging that outlook can be.
“That, pace macho bullshit, public male weeping is not only plenty masculine,” the narrator assures the reader, “but can actually feel good (reportedly)” (201, original emphasis). This condemnation of the traditionally masculine aversion to tears is the perfect antidote to the section dedicated to James Incandenza’s father and his warnings against emotion nearly forty pages earlier. In fact, one of the things that I loved so much about the list of facts was the way in which it seemed to uphold values typically categorized as feminine like love, sensitivity, and communication. For example, the narrator reminds us that “sharing is talking” (201, original emphasis) and that “sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward” (205) – two sentiments that prioritize feelings and thus seem to align more with stereotypically female concerns.
Although Wallace presents these as facts, they are neither cold nor hard. Rather, they are warm and soft. And, if the remainder of Infinite Jest continues to feature moments like the ones found in the facts section, then I look forward to those little glimmers of sunshine amidst all the gloom.
As a matter of fact, I cannot seem to chase the feeling that this novel is about hope.
And, even if I’m wrong, well… I want to keep hoping.
F O O T N O T E S :
* Can I call DFW ‘David’? It feels right to me, but y’all are the experts.
** Allie’s Top Three Favourite Parts of IJ (So Far):
- The Kate Gompert Section
- The Facts Section
- The Patricia Montesian Transcripts Section
Runner-Up: The Madame Psychosis Section (Feat. Mario, Avril, and Hal)