somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

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.

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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):

  1. The Kate Gompert Section
  2. The Facts Section
  3. The Patricia Montesian Transcripts Section

Runner-Up: The Madame Psychosis Section (Feat. Mario, Avril, and Hal)

Just come to read the meter, Love

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Wowowow! What a week of readings this has been in the wild world of Infinite Jest. Again, I’m finding myself hard pressed to pick a thing to talk about with so much going on and (approximately) a hundred thousand different things to choose from.

And but so,

(for the purpose of organizing [yeah,right…] and parsing through the many different thoughts that occurred to me over this round, maybe a little quick and dirty plot summary is in order…)

*Laugh track*

–quick and dirty, he said. It will be fast, he said.

This week, we got a look inside the ETA locker rooms and culture after a round of punishing drills, returned to the mountain top with our good ol’ pals Marathe and Steeply for a discourse on existentialism, sat in on the big buddy sessions being held by various big brothers (Hal, Pemulis, Struck, Troeltsch, and Wayne) at ETA, went on a “romantic” rendezvous with super Mario, (discovering a conspicuously placed camera in the woods…who put that there and for what reason?), met the vaguely creepy but ultimately (we’re told) harmless guru, Lyle, who licks sweat off of foreheads like sacred nectar of the gods, were shocked (at least I was) by the ultra-violence and shift in narrative voice in the yrstruly section, listened in on a conversation with Orin and Hal where they fail to communicate (but sense) each other’s psychic pains, are introduced to the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (when footnote 49 hilariously announces that the name’s “redundancy” is “sic”), got a look at Doony Glynn’s unfortunate construction accident, read Hal’s essay on the notion of American heroism across the 70’s and 80’s as well as Steeply’s article detailing Poor Tony’s accidental theft of an artificial heart stashed in an unsuspecting victim’s purse, learned about the doomed trajectory of video-calling, laughed along with Pemulis and Struck’s “Urine Trouble” business, (deep breath)…

ANNNNNNND, got our first glimpse into the childhood of James Orin Incandenza (AKA Himself, AKA the Stork, AKA Jim) via the ramblings of his guilt ridden, resentful, abusive, creepy, drunken, and rambling father (feel free to insert any other adjectives here that I missed).

Sweet Jesus, that’s quite a tall order.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed both the yrstruly and JOI as a boy sections (I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it). The shift away from the “proper” academic-ish narrative voice of the ETA and Marathe and Steeply sections into a more conversational style with less punctuation was striking and highly effective. Plus, I found it a ton of fun to read both of these sections (as ultra-violent and sad as they are…the yrstruly bit being both, and the JOI as a boy part being just plain sad).

For brevity’s sake, I’ll just deal with the yrstruly part:

I found it fun to follow the thoughts of yrstruly and to play the game of attempting to decode the vernacular of these characters that are clearly of a different social stratum than those we have encountered to this point. Trying to figure out what was meant by words like “eat cheese”, “crew”, “the virus”, “works”, (and so on and so forth), was half of the fun of reading through this part (the only thing is that you have to have a strong stomach for all of the grit that is crumbling off of the pages). Not for the faint of heart.

I can’t remember who mentioned this, but I recall someone talking about how the contrast between the suffering endured by the kids at ETA is purposefully contrasted with that of Poor Tony, yrstruly and his crew (let’s call them the people addicted to heroin). I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

I think that on one hand, it’s a social critique of the spoiled-ness/privilege of the ETA kids. It’s darkly funny how Struck addresses his group of little buddies as “me droogies”— a possible nod to the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange. In referencing this movie, Struck suggests that they live in a world where violence is the norm (a dystopic alternate reality, maybe?!). This might just be adolescent naivety, but it sure does seem silly when a few pages later, with yrstruly, we see real ultra-violence, and we see that Struck’s (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) notion of ETA as a world of unrelenting cruelty might be just a little off base.

On the other hand, I think Wallace might mean to draw attention to the similarities of these two worlds as well (as per the distorted Sierpinski gasket/fractal structure of the novel). Google’s “define:” function describes fractals as things “in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.” I’m a scholar, so I use Google to define my terms. Pay attention to these repeating structures, because they are everywhere in Infinite Jest and one of the many fun games that you can play with it while reading through.

So just how are they similar then? Are they just similar? Similar but different, maybe?

Well, I think that if you look at the ETA world and the yrstruly street-addicts sections together, you can see the fractal structure at play. All of the people in these worlds are dealing with some form of suffering. They do a thing in order to make themselves feel good/happy/fulfilled. I think Wallace is perhaps asking us to question just how different each of these worlds actually are at their core: like, sure the people that inhabit these different social groups might use different language, and their struggles may seem worlds apart, but when you get down to it, aren’t they all constantly striving to reach ultimate self-obliteration or an end to suffering by giving up or in to something?

For the kids at ETA, they are questing to achieve mindlessness through the teachings (drills, classes, physical hardship) of the ETA, while the people addicted to heroin are barrelling toward the same via the mainline. Both pursuits seem destined to cause more and more suffering. It’s a perpetual loop that can never be escaped: pursue the thing that makes you happy until you reach a plateau, then pursue more of the same thing that is supposed to make you happier still, and repeat, repeat, repeat, all the while suffering.

I guess that begs the question: does it really matter what you give yourself up to? Does your choice really make a difference, or are we bound to end up in some sort of endless loop of pleasure/plateau/suffer regardless of individual choice of what Marathe would call “the temple of fanaticism”? Does it all just lead to sadness and feelings of unfulfillment regardless of success?

I’m not sure any of that really makes any sense, because God, this stuff is hard to talk about in any coherent manner.

Just imagine how Wallace might have felt writing it!

I need a drink.

Machine Language of Love

This might be a depressing post, but hey, we’re reading Infinite Jest, and there’s a reason I come back to this book, and to you all!*

When Marathe talks about the importance of choosing what to worship/devote oneself to, and when the E.T.A kids are working on repetitive exercises so that learning them becomes “machine language,” I think they’re both doing/talking about something quite similar, even though Marathe talks about being aware about choices, and E.T.A kids work to become less aware and less self-aware in their game/s.

Marathe’s devotions to his wife and Quebec, and the E.T.A. kids playing tennis both require them to “reach down into parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and get down in there and live inside these parts. And the only way to get to them: sacrifice. Suffer. Deny. What are you willing to give.” (119)

Sure, sounds heroic and thought-out, especially in Marathe’s case. But here’s the question that’s always been on my mind: Is Marathe devoting himself to his cause out of love, a sense of devotion to something supposedly bigger than himself, as he says?

Is sacrificing, suffering, denying part of the definition of “love?” I think it is, for Marathe, and perhaps something we generally think of as having to do with “love,” too.

But, what if Marathe’s devotion is just like the E.T.A. kids who successfully learn “machine language” to play tennis, and excel at it? And isn’t this “machine language” the same as Lyle’s chilling out and mindfulness and meditation — doesn’t meditating work the same way? Then, if we think about Ennet Housers and Poor Tony, “machine language” is certainly how addiction works.

What if Marathe’s fixation with what to worship and devote himself to is a way to justify his own situation? What if it’s an illusion of choice? Is this why he pretends to pretend to pretend so much?

Ludwiggy reminds us that not everything can be grasped in words.

“Not and never love, which kills what it needs” is a sentence that appears much later in Infinite Jest, and that I hope motivates you to continue reading (as happily depressing as that is in itself).

In other IJ niceties, last year I noticed that Hal submitted his paper on “anything even remotely filmic” on the same date as real-life DFW’s birthday.

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Somewhere in this week’s reading there was a line about Lyle licking the salt off E.T.A kids(?!). It reminded me of Star Trek, one of the first episodes from the original 1968 series in which there is an ET lifeform that feeds on the salt in humans to survive. Now that I think of Star Trek, temporal flux and alternate timelines could be quite relevant… As well, the Borg queen’s floating head is floating me into J.O.I’s headspace and the dreams we read about earlier.

Before I go, I must nudge you towards Philip K. Dick and Linklater; videophony-ish, and definitely a go-to for Pemulis-level paranoia.

I shall stop now.

*It most definitely has something to do with love

Suffering and that so-90s tech

By the time you are reading this, I’ll probably be in Quebec. I’ll let you know if Infinite Jest reads any different in that Québecois air. Maybe I’ll play a game with trains or something if I find myself bored.

Congrats! We have made it over a hundred pages. Not without some frustration and confusion, but also not without a few laughs, but also not without a lot of suffering. But we made it! Continue reading “Suffering and that so-90s tech”