Thursday, January 9, 2014

Infinite Jest


              I just finished Infinite Jest. I was impressed by David Foster Wallace's imagination, story-telling ability, and his (realized) ambition to write something that would be noticed and remarked on by nearly everyone. But, ultimately, as Dave Eggers claims in the Foreword few people would do, I want to "shrug and say, 'Eh.'" Wallace didn't succeed in doing what I consider most important in fiction, that is, he didn't succeed in bringing the reader to a transcendent moment that takes him out of this reality.

            It is almost as if he had written an amazing novel, complete with transporting the reader to another time and place, to involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous that seems real in every way, a great main character (Don Gately) that seems to live and breathe and a conflict for this character with an ending that advances the cause of believing in something fiercely and to the very end -- and then purposely destroyed this novel with pages upon pages of extraneous information and (admittedly hilarious) irrelevant stories.

          There are two possibilities for why he would have ruined this novel-within-a-novel:
To create something new and experimental in order that it would be remarked on for that reason (and he, the author, would naturally be praised as the most daring writer of his generation), or
To actually do something new and experimental in order to advance the art of fiction.

         I'll try to be charitable and assume he did it all for art.

        Wallace is a genius at telling disgusting, juvenile, "gag" stories that are simultaneously hilarious and sad. I really mean that he is a genius at this. If he could have somehow built upon this, he might have been able to create something timeless with it. There was a lot of potential there.

        He has started with an intriguing setting: the United States about twenty years in the future from the time he was writing (so, set in about the time I am writing this, but in a very interesting alternate world). This world is obsessed with the concept of optics in a way similar to the way the world of Nabokov's Ada is obsessed with water, and in both novels the borders of the United States are changed. Ada is also set in an alternate reality, but in the same time and place as the writer. I love how both authors use our ignorance of the world they have created as a literary device - it's mostly familiar to us and the narrator refers to strange aspects of this world as if we know them intimately - creating a uncomfortable, constant, "on your guard" feeling in the reader.

        I love the idea of "wheelchair assassins," handicapped killers from Quebec, and I think it's hilarious and good that Wallace's French is so terrible. The romantic description of people organizing a dangerous new sport (playing chicken with an oncoming train), and the fact that this is well-hidden in the footnotes, is like the great, crazy writing in the footnotes of Pale Fire.

        But he's really no Nabokov. What I consider to be Nabokov's signature device, a metaphor or turn of phrase so opaque it takes you a while to get it, but when you do the thing described comes to you vividly (giving you the intimate feeling of a secret code only you and he understand) [1], was rarely used. Here is one excellent example, though: "The lit windows make slender rectangles of light out across the yard, which the yard is a sty." But the major difference between Nabokov and Wallace is philosophical.

         There's a terrible problem with the concept of Infinite Jest: an video that makes you as happy as the most transcendent of any artistic or spiritual experience is likened to an addictive drug:

         "But, Rémy, apparently the purest, most refined pleasure imaginable. The neural distillate of, say, orgasm, religious enlightenment, ecstatic drugs, shiatsu, a crackling fire on a winter night-- the sum of all possible pleasures refined into pure current and deliverable at the flip of a hand-held lever."

        The problem is that Wallace doesn't seem to understand why a transcendent artwork is transcendent - and why it can never be like a drug. To posit a world in which it can is very strange -- and illogical -- and ruins the entire thing because Wallace is unable to explain how, in his fictional world, Truth doesn't work the way it does in the real world. I suspect he is unable to explain this because he doesn't understand (or believe) how Truth works in our own world (and he thinks it really works the way he describes in his novel). If he had skirted the issue, he could have created a good novel (about Gately), but Wallace confronts it head-on; he clearly wants us to know his philosophical views and to discuss them. So here goes.

            I confess that I held a grudge against Wallace ever since I read his description of a hero of mine, Kurt Gödel:

           "He is the devil, for math. After Gödel, the idea that mathematics was not just a language of God but a language we could decode to understand the universe and understand everything -- that doesn't work any more. It's part of the great postmodern uncertainty that we live in."

           I think this results from a misunderstanding of Gödel. When I was trying to pin down exactly how Wallace misunderstands Gödel, I found Wallace, in interviews recorded at about the same time, saying two opposite things about his belief in the existence of Truth (the main philosophical issue that leads to a misunderstanding of Gödel). Well, here are the offending quotes: 

          From an October 2003 interview: "Personally, yeah, I'm a Platonist. I think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics."

          From a 2004 interview : "One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is that it's not at all clear anymore that there's some kind of platonic truth that rests behind people's interpretations of the truth."

(A Platonist, by the way, is someone who believes that there is a truth that rests behind people's interpretations of the truth.)

            If you contradict yourself in this grievous of a manner, you are either purposefully lying (to create a certain image of yourself as intelligent and very erudite, I suppose) or you are just not smart enough to understand you are contradicting yourself. I don't think I'll ever know for sure which of these Wallace is doing, but I don't think it really matters which it is. Either way, there's not much point in arguing about David Wallace's philosophy: when a system contradicts itself, it loses all logic and it is a waste of time to discuss it; you will get nowhere. [2]

           I suppose I wanted to point this out to all the David Foster Wallace fanatics out there in the hopes that they would recognize the contradiction in Wallace's conception of reality, and will discuss these ideas in a more logical way than Wallace could.

 1. All of Nabokov's novels are inscribed, "To Vera." Not "For"; "To." In his memoir, he once uses the word "You" in speaking to the reader, revealing in that sentence -- well, I won't spoil it for you.

2. Gödel pointed out that the system of mathematics contradicts itself, but he was not suggesting that math was therefore useless, for this reason: Math was otherworldly, with its roots in a realm that human beings can only partially understand and describe. It is too perfect to be pinned down (in a complete mathematical system) by the imperfect brains of humans. Far from meaning the death of Mathematics, as Wallace believed, Gödel's Incompleteness Proof suggests the eternal existence of mathematical Truth -- and the importance of constantly stretching our brains to understand a truth we will never be able to fully explicate with either words or mathematical formulae. Gödel's problem was that understanding what (he thought) his Proof proved required a leap of faith, one that Wallace (and the majority of 20th century intellectuals, actually) were not willing to take. In general, though, Wallace is right in suggesting that something that contradicts itself is not worth talking about: you can't argue that Wallace himself, even though his philosophy is contradictory, is an embodiment of Truth that requires blind faith in Him (like some sort of demi-God). If you want to learn more about Gödel (and why Wallace is wrong about him), read this book. If you want to borrow it from me, let me know.

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