Friday, April 29, 2005


I thought I'd mention that I finally get poetry. Not that I fully understand all the subtle nuances (or even the unsubtle ones), but I finally understand the appeal.

For a while, I read T.S. Eliot exclusively, and by that I mean I simply read The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock over and over again. Which is a fabulous poem, of course, but there are definitely more poets out there. POETRY magazine demonstrated this to me.

So now I have a little ritual, where everyday I take a poem to school, something to pull out during dull moments. Some of them are better than others, but they're all strangely calming and equilibrating, most of all the ones that send your emotions for a thrill. For a while I brought Frank O'Hara's For Grace, After a Party, then e. e. cummings's since feeling is first, and right now I'm in the middle of Dylan Thomas's oddly lilting Under Milk Wood. Love poetry I like better than most, but I'm gradually growing to appreciate nature/people poems too - although I'm not sure I'll ever learn to enjoy Stephen-Crane-type war poems.
I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crépon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.
Nevertheless, it's nice to exit a stuffy classroom, lean out of a bathroom window, and exclaim to the parking lot.



Push/Pull Factors

To further refine my thesis question: "According to IJ, How do we get past the loneliness of our addictions and connect to other people?"

So, reading the text with this specific question in mind (and I'm only on page 140 so we'll see what happens), it seems like thus far DFW's presented two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) alternatives:

1. On page 111, right after everyone's just spent like an hour sitting in the locker room and complaining about how difficult/tiring the tennis life is. Hal's talking with his Big Buddy group, and Kent Blott asks him what the point of it all is, if everyone at the ETA is so miserable. And Hal says "The point is it's ritualistic. The bitching and moaning. Even assuming they feel the way they say when they get together, the point is notice we were all sitting there all feeling the same way together."

So the fact that everybody is lonely and alienated conversely gives us something to share and a level to connect on. Maybe Wallace is saying we should just continue being lonely and trying/pretending to connect (just like the people in AA just go through the motions and say the cliches even if they don't believe in them), and through this we one day actually will.

2. On pages 127-128 we first get introduced to Lyle, who, along with Mario and Don Gately, seems like one of the only people in IJ that isn't debilitatingly addicted in some form or another. Near the end there's his saying of "And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight." And a kid that ignores him and piles on the weight "finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself." I think it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to connect this to the idea of an addiction - when you're addicted, you keep trying to get more and more of what you're addicted to until you've gotten too much and it pulls you in/controls you.
But here's the key: When this happens, Lyle doesn't smirk or laugh or shake his head sagely. He just sits and waits, supremely indifferent, "able to sit quietly and pull life toward [him]."

So the two are definitely connected. They're both passive ways of dealing - just sit and be patient and do what you can. And my mentor for my paper is this crazy man who knows everything, and he drew some really interesting parallels between what DFW seems to be saying and Buddhism. There's the idea that Gately, Mario, and Lyle are able to be so passive because they've been "enlightened," but at what price? Gately I'm not sure about, but both Mario and Lyle are even more alienated from others than say Hal or Orin, perhaps because they lack that inner loneliness that allows people to connect. So is reaching inner peace more important than reaching out to others?

Maybe Gately is the key because he's been through hell and back, while Mario and Lyle haven't.

(this and subsequent posts are all made with the help of significant input from Scott.)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Babies can't talk.

Here is my considerably-less-well-conceived reply to his email:

From: Debbie
To: Scott Esposito
Date: 24-Apr-2005 19:19
Subject: Re: infinite jest


Thanks for your comments - sorry it took me a while to reply, but I had to chew on what you said for a while.

re: adult infantilization. It's funny that infants, because they can't speak English, are literally unable to communicate -> thus, while we generally perceive babies as being open and unself-conscious, they're actually (through no fault of their own) really private. I'm reminded of the last story in Brief Interviews, where the dad talks about his infant son being just this incredibly narcissistic, repellent, and manipulative thing, but everyone fails to see it but himself. Although it's made pretty clear by the end that the dad was basically transferring all the characteristics he hated about himself onto his infant son, the possibility is still raised: perhaps infants aren't as cute and cuddly as we think. Or, because they can't communicate, most of our perceptions of babies come from within ourselves.

And on a larger scale, even our perceptions of other people that can talk are largely skewed by our own biases because talking is such a limited/impossible activity. (e.g. pg. 956 where Himself is trying to convince Orin not to watch the porno because Orin should "wait until he'd experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be." Orin finds this talk moving because Himself assumed that Orin was still a virgin. Hal disparages Orin because that wasn't the point at all.)

It also ties into this transcending/defeating cycle that is addiction, where adults try to reach their inner children because they think it will "Fulfill Those Needs" when all it does is add to their loneliness.

Also, none of the characters were really allowed to have childhoods; many of them ended up parenting their parents (Joelle had to fend off her dad's advances - like a reverse Oedipus complex, Gately had to monitor his alcoholic mom).

There also seems to be a lot of this idea of opposites being the same thing (adults = infants); the whole two sides of the same coin idea. E.g., A lot of the characters try not to be like their parents (Orin and Avril), but they end up at the same place (satyriasis). Hal's overabundant vocabulary is the same as Hal not being able to talk at all. The ambiguity w/r/t Joelle - is she hideous or pretty, or both?

So those are the things I thought about. But I'm still not quite able to answer the main question raised by your email: If Gately's figured out a way to overcome his addiction in a satisfying way, then what's his secret, and what prevents everyone else from doing the same thing?

I'm tempted to say that maybe the answer is that people should simply stop trying to "transcend and vanquish the limited self...," but that sounds an awful lot like giving up/killing yourself. And anyway, Gately's battle with his addiction is also a battle to transcend/vanquish his self, except this is a healthy battle, unlike addictions, which are unhealthy. So what's the difference?

- Debbie



Adult Infantilization

Scott sent me a really interesting email a couple days ago; I'm reposting it here.

From: Scott Esposito
Date: 21-Apr-2005 17:51
Subject: infinite jest

Your comments field wasn't working so I'm e-mailing you direct.

It all has to do with need fulfillment. There's a pretty strong "adult infantalization" theme running through the book (e.g. the book is mostly set in the "Year of the Depends Adult Undergarmet" -- if that isn't a sign of adult infantalization, I don't know what is). You can see this most clearly in the latter 1/3 -- for instance, that weird AA session Hal ends up at by mistake where the grown men are holding the teddy bears and changing "Fulfill Those Needs". Also, Gately in the hospital bed is pretty blantantly infantile (shit, he's having fantasies back to when he was in his crib, the nurse is pulling shits out of his ass for him, he can't talk).

I think the thing Wallace is going toward is that our capitalist society makes us all like this. We're all on that viscious infinite circle where we "seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place." Whatever it is -- tennis, drugs, TV -- we keep trying to get to that place where we're finally 100% satisfied, but of course that's impossible to reach (and if we ever did reach it we'd be bored as hell), so instead we get these addictions.

Gately is the key character here, because he's virtually the only one who's figured out how to overcome his addiction, but in a way that's not going to collapse from dissatisfaction. It's also no coincidence that he's about the best communicator in the entire book. Note that a lot of the "successful" characters -- Hal's father, the tennis coaches, Hal's mother -- are pretty shitty communicators and are all pretty strange in ways that relate directly to their addictions.

Of course, you can tie this all in to the Entertainment, that functions as a nice little combination metaphor. On the one hand, it's addiction taken to the highest plane possible. On the other, it's a really great satire of the ways our culture pulls us in, pretty much from birth, into this whole incredibly addictive, immersive entertainment system.


Monday, April 18, 2005

Means to an Ends

So I might have alluded to the fact that I'm writing a pretty big (i.e. 12 pages, which, okay isn't that big) paper on Infinite Jest, so expect this blog to be living and breathing that book for the next few months. Tentative thesis question: What are the implications of the inability of the characters to interact and communicate -> i.e. if everything that the characters (thus implying people in general) do is masturbatory, where do we go from there?

Things I wish to discuss:

1. The word "interface."
Instead of "communicate" or "interact," David Foster Wallace uses this cold technological term. Which, not to go all dictionary on you (because we all know quoting dictionaries is lame), but the word means sharing a boundary. It's a rather unsettling idea, but that's really all communication seems to be in IJ, what with the long Orin/Hal or Hal/Mario conversations that always end up being divergent monologues, or Hal's inability to communicate to his father/his father's inabiltiy to listen, or even the Entertainment itself, which is perhaps his father's attempt to communicate with his son, even though entertainment is essentially a one-sided affair.

2. The means becoming the ends, i.e. addiction
Almost every activity in IJ - tennis, drug-use, tv-watching, &c. - ends up becoming addictive. And by addictive DFW seems to mean that the original ends towards which the activity was performed (e.g. tennis was played to win to feel success, drugs were used to get high to feel pleasure) sort of drops out of the equation altogether and the activity becomes an ends unto itself. Like Hal doesn't smoke pot in secret to get high to feel pleasure anymore - he's stopped caring about the pleasure, about the getting high, about the pot; all he cares about is the secrecy. But it's not always a negative thing; like how Schtitt says that in tennis
You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. (84)
Which is still sort of forgetting or bracketing off the commonly-perceived goal (beating your opponent) and returning to a more fundamental goal (transcending yourself).

3. The ultimate loneliness/one-sidedness of everything.
All the things that are normally seen as interactive, social events become really lonely in IJ. Communication, as we've already discussed. Sex - Orin has sex to feel connections that he instantly breaks the next morning, and because his "Subjects" are usually single mothers, he probably also breaks other connections such as the ones between a mother and her son. Television/movies are such a solitary and passive enterprise; each person has his own private experience when watching it.

So the idea is that the articulation of these ideas will (hopefully) foment further thought, and everything will eventually cohere.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mrs. Dalloway

So I lied. I'm not actually reading Malcolm Lowry. I meant to, but then I finished Mrs. Dalloway and found myself starting it all over again. It's odd how a book that you don't understand can compel you, or perhaps that's what makes it compelling.

Take, for example, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus. They're obviously meant to be juxtaposed or compared or paralleled in some way. But how? He hates outside stimulae and dwells in his own created reality, while Clarissa thrives on superficial pleasures - a party, a walk in the park.
She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment (78).
So who here is really the coward? Septimus, for fleeing from reality, or Clarissa, for fleeing from the truth?

But it's not even that. Because all through the book Clarissa is criticized, by Peter and by the original Sally, for her vanities and petty pleasures. What's odd is the wistful undertone that their criticism often carries. This quote is from Peter's POV -
Beneath, she was very shrewd - a far better judge of character than Sally, for instance... [She had] that extraordinary gift, that woman's gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. (75-76)
So while they (Peter and Sally) clearly condescend on people like Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread, who are shallow and silly, their attitude towards Clarissa is more ambiguous. Perhaps it's because Clarissa herself is more ambiguous - clearly, she is capable of ascending to a more meaningful level; she simply chooses not to. Again from Peter's POV:
Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met... possibly she said to herself, as we are doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favorite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.
Is this to be admired or frowned upon? If it's a bad thing, is it worse than Richard/Hugh's unknowing shallowness?

But then to add a further layer, there is the hypocrisy of Peter and Sally, Clarissa's best friends/harshest detractors. We find the sophisticated Peter returned from India in a sorry state, getting ready to marry an already-married woman that he's not in love with, prepared to ask Richard for a government job. Sally has married a rich man, a Lord Rosseter. She lives in a mansion, and at the party, she brags about her main accomplishment: "I have five enormous boys. (171)" Oh how the mighty have fallen; how the people of depth have have ended up floating to the surface, too shamefaced to acknowledge their shamefacedness. For all their lofty ideals, they've both ended up becoming (or in Peter's case, on the brink of becoming) the very people they grew up criticizing. Maybe this is what makes Clarissa the heroine of the story - Hugh and Richard never knew anything else, and Peter and Sally were dragged there, but Clarissa is the only one who chose her lifestyle, empty and bland though it may be.

w/r/t Septimus (spoiler?): Perhaps he is the other extreme; he's rejected life entirely. In a way, this is what Sally and Peter originally strived for. Where they ended up, as well as Septimus's demise, seem to suggest what Ms. Woolf thinks of their idealism - pretty, but otiose.

Unrelated: There's something revealing about this book's statistically improbable phrase: "solitary traveller."

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Valve

I find the recently-established The Valve to be endlessly interesting.
Recall Kierkegaard’s metaphor (paraphrased from memory): today we are in the position of a man who is starving to death because his mouth is so full he cannot swallow. Feeding this man would paradoxically consist in removing food from his mouth.

Saturday, April 09, 2005


From The Young Hegelian:
...the attitude proper for the philosopher is a state of wonder.

Plato it was who in the Thaetetus has Socrates say that the experience of "wonder" (Thaumazein) is "very much that of a philosopher". The idea is take up in Aristotle who rehearses it in the Metaphysics: philosophy, Aristotle tells us, "begins in wonder". A wonder at the world, at the order and the meaning which seems to inhere in that which exists, ta onta.
This very clearly corresponds with Proust's view of adolescence, a view that I mostly agree with but that I still can't help finding a bit hypocritical and unrealistic. The hypocritical part being that the very philosophers that advocated "wonder" were also the ones that had their own philosophical doctrines about how things were and how they should be seen. In other words, I hear a hint of "you should be open-minded... to my ideas." Not to mention the problem that liberals and other purportedly forward-looking idealists run into all the time - viz., you should wonder about everything except whether or not you should wonder about everything.

All of which, whatever. The more difficult part to swallow is the idea that progress comes from wonder. Because it doesn't. Ultimately, wonder is passive.

Sample Thoughts from People Who Wonder

It's these latter two that Proust et al seize upon, saying hey, look, this is where progress comes from. Questioning norms, but in an objective way - bracketing off value judgments, which modernity sees as the devil.

But that's all it does. As soon as you start to answer these questions, you leave the realm of wonder and enter dogmatism. You adopt your own viewpoint and set up a system of beliefs. And it's not like it's a bad thing because this is where progress comes from. Progress comes from people with firm ideologies, people that don't wonder or pause to long to consider dissenting viewpoints.

Initially, philosophers ought to question things. Dip their toe in everybody's bathwater. But once they've found a pool of ideas they like, they should completely immerse themselves, develop their theories and ideas as far as they can. Produce something for the next generation to wonder at, then stop wondering at. The new generation can be the judge of whether or not a philosophy is valid or to what extent, and they can use it to branch off into their own ideologies. It just seems like, if people keep on trying (futilely, because at some point you're just too entangled in history and culture) to be open-minded, nothing will ever get done. Stop trying to guess whether there's a cliff at the end of the path and ride that horse. If you fall, at least I'll benefit.

EDIT: Mr. Waggish does his own take, relating this to the idea of linguistic maturity.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Poetry magazine

Many, many months ago, I signed up for a promotion that Poetry magazine was doing - all book clubs could get free March issues to be used for discussion. Since we have a modest little pseudo-club at our school, I went to the dinky little website (this was before the classy remodel), signed up for it and that was that.

They came two weeks ago and well but oooh, aren't they gems. We discussed them at our club last week, selecting poems almost at random to read aloud. Unsettling how high-caliber and absorbing all the poems were, even to our untrained ears. Billy Collins is amazing, as are J. Allyn Rosser, A.E. Stallings, Dean Young, and Averill Curdy.

There was also a rather interesting series of essays about the relationship between the poet and his audience. Which I have nothing of note to add to, but you should read about anyway.

Blah. The reason I haven't blogged because I've been reading rather passively for the past week. We'll see if things pick up.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Two Anticlimactic Books

1. Homeland, by Sam Lipsyte.
Dick-lit. At least now I know why his interviews are so funny*.

2. Ishmael, by David Quinn.
It was The Matrix, replete with a shaky premise, one-dimensional characters, and stilted dialogue. Recommended earnestly by a certain snide English teacher, but recommended wrong.

I think I've overdosed a bit on contemporary fiction. Luckily, Virginia Woolf is here to save the day.

*...inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. - Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray