Infinite Jest: Putting the ‘a’ in ‘a priori’

David Foster WallaceThe truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.  David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace, widely considered one of the greatest American writers, hanged himself in his garage on September 12th 2008 after suffering for years from severe depression. Not caring for fame or prestigious book prizes, though he won his fair share, Wallace spent his life eager to write what he called ‘morally passionate’ fiction, which he believed at its core is ‘about what it is to be a fucking human being’, helping readers ‘become less alone inside.’ He believed with an old school teacher of his that the purpose of fiction is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ Unlike George Orwell or Arundhati Roy, Wallace wrote more with sorrow than anger, but this is by no means a bad thing. Like Wallace, James Joyce, a writer he shared much in common with, was never willing to sacrifice literary merit for a just cause (ever), unlike his contemporary Bertrand Russell. In his later years, Joyce became close friends with Samuel Beckett, as his biographer Richard Ellmann records: ‘Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.’ Oscar Wilde, too, was described by his one-time attempted collaborator Thomas Bell as ‘too much concerned with aesthetics to concern himself with economics, too full of wit to deal seriously at any length with any social question.’ Still, these thoughts hardly detract from the importance and insight of Ulysses, De Profundis, or Wallace’s most successful and impressive novel, Infinite Jest.

Published nearly two decades ago, Wallace’s novel is set in the not-too-distant future and attempts to satirise virtually everything about American culture with malarial intensity (think Grand Theft Auto on steroids). Even the names of the years have been corporatized, with the action taking place predominantly in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. If corporations can buy obscene amounts of ad space, infiltrate schools and businesses and hospitals, what’s to stop them eliminating the weak and defenceless number ‘2014’ and replacing it with ‘Year of Microsoft’ or ‘Year of GlaxoSmithKline’? The narrative takes place partly in a distinguished tennis academy, partly in an addict’s recovery house, and its basic challenge to the reader is: Are you willing to indulge in the increasing number of pleasures your culture spoon feeds you at the risk of becoming so passive that even your fingers wander the TV remote in what the prosecution lawyer would call an intensely leisurely pace?

The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist questions some similar, deep-seated assumptions in his study The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World: ‘Although it might seem that we overvalue the body and physical existence in general, that is not what I deduce from our preoccupation with exercise, health and diet, with “lifestyles,” concerned though this is with the body and its needs and desires. Nor does it follow from the fact that the body was never so much on display, here or in cyberspace. The body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system. That mechanistic view derives from the nineteenth-century scientific world picture, which has lingered with us longer in biology and the life sciences that in physics. The body has become an object in the world like other objects, as Merleau-Ponty feared. The left hemisphere’s world is ultimately narcissistic, in the sense that is sees the world “out there” as no more than a reflection of itself: the body becomes just the first thing we see out there, and we feel impelled to shape it to our sense of how it “should” be.’

Like Joyce, Wallace combined comedy and sorrow in usually provocative ways. Infinite Jest contains some of the most carefully crafted comic lines of all American literature. Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s central protagonists, confesses that ‘I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” ’ Hal also has ‘an almost obsessive dislike for deLint, whom he tells Mario he sometimes cannot quite believe is even real, and tries to get to the side of to see whether deLint has a true z coordinate or is just a cutout or projection.’ The face of a doll ‘looked post-coital sort of the way you’d imagine the vacuole and optica of a protozoan looking post-coital after it’s shuddered and shot its mono-cellular load into the cold waters of some really old sea.’ In school, Don Gately played American football and was ‘fullback on offense, outside linebacker on D. He was big enough for the line, but his speed would have been wasted there. Already carrying 230 pounds and bench-pressing well over that, Gately clocked a 4.4 40 in 7th grade, and the legend is that the Beverly Middle School coach ran even faster than that into the locker room to jack off over the stopwatch.’

One of the book’s major themes is the need to connect to some sort of higher power, to give oneself away to something in the service of self-fulfilment. Towards the end of the novel we find glimpses of Hal’s account of his days at the Enfield Tennis Academy: ‘It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging into. Flight from exactly what?’

Disappointment with adulthood is also a major theme in Lemony Snickett’s books. One of his most recent novels, When Did You See Her Last?, revolves around a handful of children trying to save a once thriving but now virtually abandoned seaside town. One of the children, Chloe Knight, happens to know a formula which can produce invisible ink, something which would save the town’s ink firm, if only the grown-ups weren’t so apathetic: ‘ “I’ve got to get that formula finished,” she said. “It’s a puzzle, but I’ve got to solve it. Invisible ink that actually works could make Ink Inc. a successful company again. We could save this town from all the people who want to destroy us. I’ve got to do it myself. I told my mother and father that, in my note. I love them, but my parents have given up making things better.” “So have mine,” Jake said, and the Bellerophon brothers nodded too. Even Moxie nodded in agreement.’

The culture Wallace identifies in his novel is the vaguely ‘modern consumerist’-type of the kind Bret Easton Ellis also parodied in American Psycho and Less Than Zero, which explore ‘boredom, excessive consumption, lack of certainty and lack of meaning’, as the distinguished literary scholar Thomas Ferry recently pointed out. George Monbiot painted a stark picture of this in January: ‘Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves?’

In Infinite Jest, this culture is associated not with childlike curiosity and innocence, but with the cynicism and irony and values of the corporate ‘entertainment’ empire, along with the lack of emotional maturity it encourages in its younger audiences: ‘The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability.’

Even terms like ‘atheist’, which reject something (something apparently worthy of rejection to begin with) instead of promoting something, are understood by Wallace to be in some special sense intellectually insipid: ‘[Orin Incandenza] studied for almost eighteen years at the feet of the most consummate mind-fucker I have ever met, and even now he remains so flummoxed he thinks the way to escape that person’s influence is through renunciation and hatred of that person. Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn’t it? I certainly think so. And men who believe they hate what they really fear they need are of limited interest, I find.’

Despite this, Wallace puts irony to good use throughout the novel: ‘Orin did a long impression of late pop-astronomer Carl Sagan expressing televisual awe at the cosmos’ scale. “Billions and billions,” he said. … “The universe:” – Orin continued long after the wit had worn thin – “cold, immense, incredibly universal.” ’ Wallace later pokes fun at a side character described as a Jesuit and ‘a pious and contemplative and big-hearted kid, brimming over with abstract love and an innate faith in the indwelling goodness of all men’s souls.’ One of ETA’s students, Michael Pemulis, also engages in an acerbic discussion of mathematics with his classmates: ‘Take a breather, Keith. Todd, trust math. As in Matics, Math E. First-order predicate logic. Never fail you. Quantifiers and their relation. Rates of change. The vital statistics of God or equivalent. When all else fails. When the boulder’s slid all the way back down to the bottom. When the headless are blaming. When you do not know your way about. You can fall back and regroup around math. Whose truth is deductive truth. Independent of sense of emotionality. The syllogism. The identity. Modus Tollens. Transitivity. Heaven’s theme song. The nightlight on life’s dark wall, late at night. Heaven’s recipe book. The hydrogen spiral. The methane, ammonia, H2O. Nucleic acids. A and G, T and C. The creeping inevitability. Caius is mortal. Math is not mortal. What it is is: listen: it’s true.’

For Pemulis, this smooth summary of mathematical knowledge ‘puts the a in a priori’ (a line reflecting Wallace’s philosophical interests as an undergraduate), and if the philosopher Galen Strawson is right in claiming that the most appropriate definition of a priori knowledge is when ‘you can see that it is true just lying on your couch’, the wisdom of Wallace’s novel becomes even easier to digest. Another point of ironic departure is found when Don Gately, counsellor at Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House and ex-addict, experiences ‘Memories of good old Demerol … clamouring to be Entertained. The thing in Boston AA is they try to teach you to accept occasional cravings, the sudden thoughts of the Substance; they tell you that sudden Substance-cravings will rise unbidden in a true addict’s mind like bubbles in a toddler’s bath. It’s a lifelong Disease: you can’t keep the thoughts from popping in there. The thing they try to teach you is just to Let Them Go, the thoughts. Let them come as they will, but do not Entertain them. No need to invite a Substance-thought or -memory in, offer it a tonic and your favourite chair, and chat with it about old times.’

Orin and Mario’s brother, Hal, ‘who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin.’ In one the novel’s hundreds of endnotes, we learn that ‘one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions’ was ‘That we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense.’

Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at UCL, has over a long career developed a sophisticated and original body of work on the history of art, with one lecture developing a connection – backed up with generous evidence – between the intensity of an individual’s concepts in their mind, the level of disappointment which results when they fail to find physical correlates of their concepts out in the world, and the heights of artistic creativity which can result. Dante, Michelangelo and Wagner all shared Romantic visions of nature, society and love, and Zeki shows how their disappointment with the world pushed them up into their attics to re-direct their conceptual powers to write, paint and compose their eventual masterpieces. Not all artistic and scientific genius springs from this disappointment, but it’s beyond doubt been a contributing factor throughout the centuries. We are all disappointed with the world to some extent, but some are more disappointed than others.

Wallace noted similar links between a rejection of selfhood and the external world on the one hand and emotional fragility on the other, and we can easily picture Wallace sitting in a Harvard Square cafe planning his novel, looking out at the passer-bys, wondering whether they existed or not. The following line from Infinite Jest seems to characterize its author well: ‘This man who was very quiet and broken-seeming and fatherly and strange. There was this kind of broken authority about him.’ Wallace writes in his short story ‘Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI)’: ‘I’m incredibly conscious of my eyesight and my eyes and how good it is to be able to see colors and people’s faces and to know exactly where I am, and of how fragile it all is, the human eye mechanism and the ability to see, how easily it could be lost, how I’m always seeing blind people around with their canes and strange-looking faces and am always just thinking of them as interesting to spend a couple of seconds looking at and never thinking they had anything to do with me or my eyes, and how it’s really just a lucky coincidence that I can see instead of being one of those blind people I see on the subway.’

Similar thoughts appear early in Infinite Jest, when Wallace goes heavy on the complementizer phrases: ‘That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis. … That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good. Then that this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind. In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.’

At one point the novel asks, as Snickett’s young protagonists may well have asked themselves, ‘Why do many parents who seem relentlessly bent on producing children who feel they are good persons deserving of love produce children who grow to feel they are hideous persons not deserving of love who just happen to have lucked into having parents so marvelous that the parents love them even though they are hideous?’ Likewise, when Orin does an impression of his mother, Avril, ‘what he will do is assume an enormous warm and loving smile and move steadily toward you until he is in so close that his face is spread up flat against your own face and your breaths mingle. If you can get to experience it – the impression – which will seem worse to you: the smothering proximity, or the unimpeachable warmth and love with which it’s effected? For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed.’ Throughout Hal’s infancy and childhood, he had ‘continually been held and dandled and told at high volume that he was loved, and he feels like he could have told [his friend] K. Bain’s Inner Infant that getting held and told you were loved didn’t automatically seem like it rendered you emotionally whole or Substance-free. Hal finds he rather envies a man who feels he has something to explain his being fucked up, parents to blame it on.’

Wilde similarly detected in charity a vicious circle. In his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ he had a hope of living not in a richly charitable world, but rather in a world in which charity was unnecessary (hence why many anarchist groups and autonomous spaces refuse to accept tips): ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.’ He also wrote a perceptive essay on Chuang Tzu, assessing the ancient philosopher in the following, approving way: ‘[T]his curious thinker looked back with a sign of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome education systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one’s duty to one’s neighbor, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it … In an evil moment the Philanthropist made his appearance, and brought with him the mischievous idea of Government.’

Infinite Jest is named after a fatally entertaining film in the novel, called simply the Entertainment, which sends the viewer into a state of bliss so overwhelming they’d die. The film ‘features Madame Psychosis [a radio show host] as some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure Death, sitting naked, corporeally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant, her hideously deformed face either veiled or blanked out by undulating computer-generated squares of color or anamorphosized into unrecognizability as any kind of face by the camera’s apparently very strange and novel lens, sitting there nude, explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal. I.e. that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.’ Madame Psychosis is ‘explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this was why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly, and yet somehow narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember.’

To the sagely Harold’s Bloom condemnation of Wallace as an incompetent writer, there is almost too much evidence in the novel to prove Bloom wrong, but one particularly poignant scene is indicative of Wallace’s aggressively unpretentious imagination. A suicidal character ‘is knelt vomiting over the lip of the cool blue tub, gouges on the tub’s lip revealing sandy white gritty stuff below the lacquer and porcelain, vomiting muddy juice and blue smoke and dots of mercuric red into the claw-footed trough, and can hear again and seems to see, against the fire of her closed lids’ blood, bladed vessels aloft in the night to monitor flow, searchlit helicopters, fat fingers of blue light from one sky, searching.’ It’s the image of a body struggling to keep itself alive against a mind that doesn’t want to, with the novel regarding human evolution in the following terms: ‘That at some point in the first trimester we lose our gills but are now still now little more than a bladdery sac of spinal fluid and rudimentary tail and hair-follicles and little microchips of vestigial talon and horn.’ Later, as a broom handle is shoved down the throat of a video store owner, his throat produces ‘small natal cries escaping around the brown-glazed shaft, the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream.’

This ‘biological law vs. free choice’ dichotomy, whilst naturalistically dubious, is put to good dramatic use in the novel. Wallace writes that ‘almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.’ It’s for similar reasons that Wallace seems to reject the notion, so common amongst pop-psychologists and self-helpers, that we can lean over and peer directly into our emotional states whenever we please with the help of groups ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to religious prayer sessions. Such ideas fail to respect the ‘biological law’ side of the dichotomy. On the well-worn phrase ‘Getting in touch with your feelings’, the novel comments that ‘A more abstract but truer epigram that White Flaggers with a lot of sober time sometimes change this to goes something like: “Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings, they’ll get in touch with you.” ’ In summary, ‘It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.’

A final question which crops up very often in Infinite Jest, as Hal hinted at above, is ‘Why do we write and read novels in the first place?’ This question is so troublesome that not even Bertrand Russell, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, could figure it out, though in a letter to Robert Nichols on June 17th 1923 he gave it a shot: ‘As to the functions of the artist and the scientist: the scientist is concerned only with knowledge, which is valuable chiefly as a means. As an end, it has some value, but only as one among ends. As ends, the artist’s ends seem better. Blake, of course, is a moralist as well as an artist, which complicates matters. It is clear that to command an ethic successfully, artistic gifts are required; but that is outside the value of art as such. In literature, Shakespeare is almost the best instance. Why was it worth while to write “Come unto these yellow sands” or “A great while ago the world began with heigh-ho the wind and rain” or “Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind”? I don’t know; but I find a quality of magic or enchantment which seems to flood the world with golden sunlight, and “gild pale streams with heavenly alchemy” … This is all very vague, but it is the best I can do.’

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