Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’
You’ll have to forgive me for doing my best to make the David Foster Wallace Fortnight the most unaptly named event in Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun’s history. It’s been a busy week!
If we’re going to talk about Infinite Jest, we should probably talk about what the book is about in the first place. The thing is, as with many so-called postmodern novels, the plot is sort of besides the point. It’s not really what’s driving the book. And in fact, it’s so all over the place, I’m not even sure what to tell you the plot is.
Basically, Infinite Jest is a book, set in what in 1996 was the near future but today is sort of kind of the present, about a tennis academy in the fictional town of Enfield, Massachusetts. The academy’s founder, James Incandenza, deceased during the contemporary action of book, was an apres garde, anticonfluential filmmaker whose final, unreleased film, also called “Infinite Jest” (we’ll go with quotes around the movie so as not to confuse anyone), is said to be so compelling, so entertaining, so much fun, that anyone who watches it basically becomes a vegetable with no desire to do anything but continue to watch the movie. Consequently, the master tape of the film, alternately known as the Entertainment or the samizdat in the book, is an object much-coveted by the super-violent Quebecois separatist cell Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (or Wheelchair Assassins), who hope to use it to terrorize the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.; basically, an interdependent Canada, United States, and Mexico). The star of the Entertainment, Joelle Van Dyne, is a recovering cocaine addict in residence at Ennett House, a halfway house down the hill from the Enfield Tennis Academy. The novel follows (in the most non-linear way possible) the travails of the residents of the academy (notably James Incandenza’s son Hal), the residents of Ennett House (notably JVD and alum-cum-staffer Don Gately), and sundry other random characters.
What with all the non-linearity and, ahem, anticonfluentialism, one can be forgiven for thinking that there might be more at work here than baseline lobs and AA meetings and squeaky wheelchairs. So what IS Infinite Jest actually about? This is the part of the blog where I defer to people who are much smarter than me. Matthew Baldwin over at the Infinite Summer blog thinks that IJ is a novel about sincerity, and I’m apt to agree. Looked at the other way, it’s an assault on the sense of ironic, postmodern aloofness and detachment that, at least in Wallace’s eyes, gives us a means to not confront what is actually, and sometimes inconveniently, real. Baldwin points to this passage, written from the perspective of Hal Incandenza’s older brother Mario, from about 600ish pages in:
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. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head… And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.
I’ll go ahead and pick out my own passage, one of many in the book that addresses our inability to directly and honestly engage what’s true and important. From pp 694–5:
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 naive 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, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
Read enough of Infinite Jest, and it’s painfully apparent that Wallace believes that the ironic dismissal of sentiment and emotion that’s become second nature in the postmodern age is actually a denial of our first nature. But in a book so big (physically) and vast (thematically), how can I be so certain that sincerity/anti-irony is the aboutness of the whole thing?
Because the guy wouldn’t shut up about it!
I’m drawing a lot on an interview that DFW gave to Larry McCaffery in a 1993 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction. (Which you really MUST read. Please click through. I’ll wait.) Even though, when confronted with some quotes a decade later, Wallace admitted he sounded “dated,” the undercurrent of much of his oeuvre, from start to finish, is the perniciousness of irony. In the interview, Wallace talks about the legacy of the great postmodernists, and how today’s writers are forced to wrestle with it.
If I have a real enemy, a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon. Because, even though their self-consciousness and irony and anarchism served valuable purposes, were indispensable for their times, their aesthetic’s absorption by the U.S. commercial culture has had appalling consequences for writers and everyone else.
It’s not necessarily the postmodernists that Wallace has a bone to pick with. Rather, it’s the commodification of their movement by Hollywood and Madison Avenue (that’s just shorthand for the wider culture, guys. I know there are movies and ads made in other places). There was a time when irony and iconoclasm were powerful and necessary tools. DFW continues:
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. . . . Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.
Does this sort of thing sound familiar? I’ll now refer you to the scene from The Dark Knight, where the Joker is talking to Harvey Dent in the hospital after he’s been disfigured. The Joker says
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.
Now, I’m not saying that Jacques Derrida is the Joker or anything like that. Not in the least. But the postmodern writers and philosophers who in their day were doing important and world-changing work have sort of left us holding the bag. The binaries have been deconstructed. The authority figures have been undermined. The car has stopped. And what are we stuck with? Wallace says
The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.
I had a professor in college that used to say “we’re all babies of post-structuralism.” (And of course, there’s video of me at a party drunkenly reminding the camera that the center is a function, not a locus. Take that, future as a respectable thinker!) It’s true. In his interview, Wallace cited guys like David Letterman and Gary Shandling as practitioners of trendy, sardonic wit (it was the early 90s), and Rush Limbaugh as a peddler of “postmodern irony, hip cynicism, a hatred that winks and nudges you and pretends it’s just kidding.” (I think the only thing that changed is he stopped winking.) A decade later in an NPR interview, Wallace expressed his regard for The Simpsons as important art. However, comma, “It’s also, in my opinion, relentlessly corrosive to the soul. Everything is parodied, and everything is ridiculous. Maybe I’m old, but for my part, I can be steeped in about an hour of it, and then I have to walk away and look at a flower or something.” I’m not necessarily in agreement about the “corrosive to the soul” bit, but it’s undeniable that much of what passes for funny and entertaining these days is sarcastic lampoon and parody. Some of the more critically acclaimed comedies of the past few years (I’m thinking of Knocked Up and Superbad and Adventureland here) have been lauded for their forthright approach to genuine emotion. Whether this is the exception proving the rule or the start of a new trend is yet to be seen.
Even in your real life, think about how many times you’ve said something you didn’t really mean. Or not said something that you wish you did. How many times have you un-self-consciously told your mom or your brother or your best friend that you loved them? How many times have you felt like weeping but held it in to keep from looking lame? How many times have you sarcastically laughed off something you were really scared of? Think about how many situations where your first reaction is to make a snarky joke. I know it’s a sweeping generalization, but if Infinite Jest taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the sweeping generalizations are true. Back in that NPR interview, Wallace echoed his character Hal Incandenza when he spoke about the struggle that exists within all of us. “If there’s something to be talked about, that thing is this weird conflict between what my girlfriend calls the inner sap, the part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep, and the part of us that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people, and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people.”
From the perspective of the novel, things look pretty bleak. Infinite Jest is packed to the gills with addicts, alcoholics, degenerates, emotionally neutered head cases, freaks, psychopaths, and terrorists. It takes a lot of digging to find anyone that’s happy or living a life that has genuine meaning and fulfillment. So how do we proceed from here? Stay tuned!