Symptom or Cure?

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Incandenza Festival

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play that gives Infinite Jest its title (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” [Act V, Scene 1]) and some of its structure, opens with the dead father’s ghost. In David Foster Wallace’s novel, however, the ex-king’s “wraith” waits over 800 pages before showing up (and when he finally does, the references to Hamlet pile up: “LAERTES [. . . ] POOR YORICK” [832]). Moreover, he appears not to his son but to the semi-conscious Don Gately, former burglar and current staff-member at Ennet House, who is confined to a hospital bed following a tremendous bust-up with three armed and angry Canadians (long story; literally). He features in one of Gately’s many (relatively non-medicated) dreams, as a “ghostish figure [. . .] of a very tall sunken-chested man in black-frame glasses and a sweatshirt with old stained chinos, leaning back sort of casually [. . .] resting its tailbone against the window sill’s ventilator’s whispering grille” (829). As so often in this novel, the reader has some work cut out to identify the figure, who isn’t explicitly named, but the allusions start coming thick and fast: “The wraith says that he, himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges” (835); “The wraith says [. . .] they’d thought all his agitation meant was that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time” (838). What other Wild Turkey-drinking entertainment-makers have we met?

So we prick up our ears when the ghost tells us that in life his aim was above all to communicate with a reclusive son whom he feared was “experimenting with Substances” (838). Is this then the key to the “Entertainment”? The desire “to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. [. . .] His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (838-39). There is, after all, an echo here of the diagnosis applied to Hal, currently in withdrawal from his marijuana addiction: a “hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Yet Hal has apparently never seen the video, and is one of the few characters who still seem to be utterly unaware of its very existence. Indeed, if the wraith is even now, from the afterlife, trying to communicate with the boy, he’s making rather a mistake by appearing instead to Gately, who can make little sense of the vision: unlike the young Incandenza, who’s memorized half the OED, he barely understands half the vocabulary that crops up in his dream, which is described as a “lexical rape”: “terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (832). And at this stage, he and Hal have yet to meet, or even to become aware of each other’s existence, as the boy’s one visit to Ennet House comes only after Don is already hospitalized. In other ways, however, the burly ex-burglar’s plight reminds us of Hal’s own situation in the novel’s opening scene: both find themselves strangely inarticulate, their attempts to speak mysteriously short-circuited as they can frustratingly utter only grunts or animal noises. In Gately’s case, the sounds that emerge resemble “a runover kitten” or at best a cow (823; 828): “something in his raped throat won’t let whatever’s supposed to vibrate to speak vibrate” (813). There are here layers upon layers of failures to communicate, that entangle even the misguided ghost.

Moreover, the film that the wraith claims to have made also surely misses its mark, and not merely because it remains unseen by its intended viewer. For the paradox is that the movie that Quebecois terrorists and US secret services alike are desperately trying to track down because of the deadly threat it is thought to pose to the US body politic, was (we are now told) devised as a cure for the country’s malaise. After all, “ennui and jaded irony” are presented as diseases afflicting an entire generation, sadly celebrated when they should be fought: “It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. [. . .] Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human” (694-95). The “Entertainment” was contrived as a means to shake its viewers into life, to dispel all cynicism, as “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh” (839). And yet there is surely something ambivalent if not directly counter-productive about a would-be tonic that is also seen as the apotheosis of a mind-numbing popular culture that turns its viewers into inhuman zombies, pale shadows of their former selves.

Given that the cryptic cartridge and the novel in which it features both (it’s now confirmed by film scholar and Joelle van Dyne’s friend, Molly Notkin [788]) share the same title–Infinite Jest–we’re forced to consider the relation between the two works, the one fictive and the other solidly material, all 1079 pages of it. Does the ambivalence and counter-productivity of the one infect also the other? Should Foster Wallace’s novel be envisaged as a cure for the malaise that afflicts us (if indeed we agree with his diagnosis) or as more of the same, if not worse? For now, as we enter the book’s final hundred pages, I think that the jury’s still out. In some ways it surely is a deeply impassioned (and deeply moralistic) cri de couer against inauthenticity, cynicism, and the myriad forces of desubjectation that surround us. In some ways, in short, it is a strangely nostalgic, even modernist novel. But in other ways, it continues and even exaggerates characteristic tics of literary postmodernism–the footnotes, the allusive cleverness, the play and endless deferral–that make it part of the problem (again, if problem it is), perhaps in fact its most hysterical symptom.

Only Disconnect!

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test].

Infinite Jest is a book of both set pieces and discontinuous strands. On the one hand, there are relatively self-contained episodes: the opening scene of Hal’s inquisition by the college authorities, for instance; or the Eschaton game, or Joelle van Dyne’s (attempted?) suicide, or some of the tennis matches, such as the exhibition put on between Hal and Ortho Stice. These stories-within-stories have their own narrative arcs, their own climaxes and dénouements, and they leaven the strain of having to keep tabs on the novel’s broader, ongoing plot (or plots). On the other hand, there are many intervening strands (which sometimes break up the set pieces themselves) that recur without necessarily seeming to take us anywhere in particular, but that occasionally unfold snippets of information or otherwise resonate with what is happening elsewhere, at another point in the broader narrative.

Marathe and Steeply

Perhaps the most notable and peculiar of these strands is the long conversation between Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (triple? quadruple?) agent, and Hugh/Helen Steeply, transvestite operative for the United States “Office of Unspecified Services” and would-be seducer/seducee of Hal’s brother, Orin. For almost six hundred pages (so far) we have periodically returned to Marathe and Steeply as they perch on a mountain ledge high above Tucson, Arizona, talking through the night, neither daring to doze for lack of trust in the other. Here, there is no climax, just the long, more or less patient wait for dawn to come while the two men chat, sometimes friendly or curious, more often guarded and suspicious. Their talk turns increasingly to the “Entertainment,” but in some ways there is little less entertaining than this encounter in which, quite literally, almost nothing ever happens. Something is going on down at the valley floor, but they are (here at least) only spectators who can but dimly discern the main action.

As the book proceeds, these various disparate elements gradually start to contaminate each other, or to reveal the ways in which they are already mutually contaminated. We learn, for instance, that the figure dimly spotted at the edge of the Eschaton disaster, lurking in a Ford sedan by the dumpsters, is Helen Steeply herself, posing as a journalist for Moment magazine who is writing a “soft” profile of Orin Incandenza. The tennis academy staff are wary of giving her the access she wants to what the narrator calls (highlighting the real reasons for her visit) “the samizdat Entertainment director’s other son” (675), but she is permitted to sit in on Hal’s match with “The Darkness” Stice, at which she hears a long disquisition on what makes one tennis player better than any other. It’s all about having a “complete game.” For the boys have “different strengths, areas of the game they’re better at” (679), and for instance “Hal can’t lob half as good as even Possalthwaite, and compared to Ortho or Mike his net-play’s pedestrian” (679-80). But what makes the younger Incandenza a bright hope for the professional “Show” is that his “strengths have started to fit together” (680). And so perhaps it is for the novel at this point: it is starting to fit together.

“Only connect” is the motto that E M Forster used as the epigraph for Howard’s End. This is shorthand for the idea that, even in a modern society torn apart by industrial change, demographic mobility, and the loss of master narratives, it was still possible (perhaps heroically) to envisage at least the shadow of an over-arching totality. Or as Forster expands upon this theme, via his character Margaret Schlegel: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” By contrast, what often distinguishes postmodern writers such as David Foster Wallace (but also Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy, say) is the more cynical notion that of course, like it or not, everything is always already connected–by money, or power, or some strange subterranean conspiracy–and that tracing the webs of influence or intrigue leads not to exaltation, transcendence, and love, but to a disenchanted (one might add, posthegemonic) understanding of the way the world really works.

It would be a surprise were Infinite Jest to be leading to a sense of “human love [. . .] at its height.” Its very title suggests otherwise. Indeed, there’s little in the way of any kind of love to be found here: relationships are more likely to follow what, in the case of Orin’s multiple hook-ups with “subjects” (who in fact are treated as anything but), is described as “the Excitement-Hope-Acquisition-Contempt cycle of seduction” (574). Moreover, the image we are given of family lives is almost always of silence and abandonment, atomization if not outright abuse. Steeply’s conversation with Marathe, for instance, ends with a long semi-confessional disquisition on the part of the US agent, in which he describes how his own father gradually became a recluse, obsessed by “M*A*S*H” in a manner that anticipates the devastation allegedly wrought by Jim Incandenza’s “Entertainment”: “every night late at night, for the nightly hour, the old man too wide awake, and hunched over weirdly, head out, as if pulled toward the screen” (640).

So everything is connected, the game is finally coming together, but it appears to be a game nobody can win, or one in which winning is only another form of losing. The best we can expect, and the mission of the tennis academy, Steeply is told, is “self-transcendence through pain. These kids [. . .] they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. [. . .] To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them” (660). As with the (hideously) beautiful Joelle van Dyne, the challenge is to become invisible, to ward off the gaze and disappear. A more suitable motto than Forster’s, then, might be the (perhaps equally heroic) exhortation: “Only Disconnect!”

Capital Fictions

Capital Fictions

Compare two snippets of prose. First: “Secluded by the shade of gauze and lace, the warm light of the lamp fell in a circle over the crimson velvet of the tablecloth [and] lit up the three china cups…” Second: “The felt drapery embroidered with gold fell over a sheer curtain, filtering the light absorbed by the deep tone of the furniture’s brocade, the opaque wood of the piano…” Which is the opening of a modernist novel, and which comes from an advertisement for a nineteenth-century luxury goods store? In fact, the second is the advert, and the first is the novel, but it is hard to tell between them because the novel (like the advert) revels in the objects that it is describing, highlighting their interplay of textures in a vaguely mysterious interior space. And the advert (like the novel) gives life to these objects by establishing and narrating the relations between them so as to create, as Ericka Beckman notes in Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age, “an ambient effect that is more powerful than any one of its single elements” (64).

It so happens that novel and advertisement alike have the same author: the Colombian José Asunción Silva, who was both “a key proponent of art for art’s sake” and “a tireless promoter of luxury import consumption”; both a novelist and poet and a merchant “selling the most sumptuous goods to an elite enriched by burgeoning coffee exports” (61). But Silva’s business did not prosper. Heavily indebted, ultimately he committed suicide, at the age of thirty-one: beside his body, a wallet containing his last ten-peso note. The novel quoted above, De sobremesa (After-Dinner Conversation), was published only after his death.

For many, this tragic fate of the poet laid low by bankruptcy is understood in terms of a tension if not contradiction between economics and art. Quite the contrary, says Beckman. Silva’s life and death, and his work as writer of literary and economic fictions alike, demonstrate her fundamental point that “the story of literature [. . .] is wrapped up in the story of economics, even–especially–when it claims the contrary” (128). Indeed, it is the assertion of a fundamental breach between art and finance that is the most basic fiction here, providing art with the consoling thought that it is untainted by filthy lucre, and giving finance the equally comforting notion that it is driven by reason alone.

In a final irony, the disavowed collusion between culture and currency becomes visible again when the Bank of Colombia picks none other than Silva to illustrate its five-thousand-peso note in 1996, the hundredth anniversary of his death. The poet’s bearded, slightly wistful visage is featured on the front; on the back, an urn on which his one of his more famous odes, “Nocturno,” is inscribed. “Money and art are separated,” Beckman argues, “so that they might come together in a stabilized relation on the banknote” (156). But this stability is belied not only by the always slippery signifier of the written word, but also by the long and cyclical history of financial speculation and disaster, economic boom and bust, for which Silva’s own suicide provides still further testament.

Beckman’s fine and fascinating book traces the complex complicities between fiction and finance in Latin America’s “export age” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It examines the “export reverie” of texts that preached economic progress, conjuring up “liberal fantasies” that had real effects in “creating the conditions of possibility under which social and natural landscapes might be altered” (20) to bring plantations and railways, mines and music halls to the region. It proceeds with a critique of modernismo and its “import catalogues” whereby European luxury goods are praised for their (supposedly) intrinsic beauty, but mystified as a site of refuge from the ordinary and everyday. Beckman suggests that (ironically enough) a rather prosaic commodity fetishism underlies the modernistas’ claims to poetic autonomy. The book then turns to the stock market fictions that emerge in the wake of financial turbulence and the novels of decadence and bankruptcy that follow on. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which comprises a reading of José Eustasio Rivera’s classic La vorágine (The Vortex) as a narrative of resource extraction that tests the limits of aesthetic and economic representation.

Beckman argues for the resonances between the late nineteenth century and the present. We see today for instance “a resurgence of export-elite opulence” premised on booms in commodities such as narcotics and a re-intensified mining and extractive sector. I am not sure that literature has quite the same function these days (though TV and YouTube offer their own, updated import catalogues). Does anyone really believe in liberal versions of progress these days, or is the point that we are told there is simply no alternative? And in fact I wonder how much belief was really at issue even a hundred years ago. But for the most part, Beckman’s insights are convincing, her readings are compelling, and her writing commendably clear.

The Waste Land

The Waste LandThe final stanza of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land encapsulates much of what has gone before. It comprises four languages, multiple allusions, abrupt transitions and changes in register and tone:

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
–O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata

Shantih shantih shantih

What is this, then? A monument to erudition and scholarship, that only the elite could (or should) decode? Or a cry of despair and doubt that contemporary culture will ever cohere again? In truth, it is both: Eliot claims to diagnose the crisis of an entire civilization, and also (hesitantly perhaps) to offer some kind of solution, drawn from the long history of that culture itself. The fear, however, is that the cure is simply a repetition of the initial disease. For what difference is there really between the “ruins” that litter the “waste land” and the “fragments” that Eliot wishes to “shore[] against” them? What keeps a fragment from becoming a ruin? Indeed, is Eliot not complicit in the ruination he laments? As Maud Ellmann eloquently puts it: “Because the poem can only abject writing with more writing, it catches the infection that it tries to purge, and implodes like an obsessive ceremonial under the pressure of its own contradictions” (273).

So for all that the poem apparently concludes with the calm of quiet benediction–Eliot gives “The Peace which passeth understanding” as a translation for the Sanskrit incantation that makes up its final line (26)–something of the stench of decay and corruption, dismay and disillusion, lives on. Indeed, the fear is that the text has only accelerated the process that it sets out to delay if not reverse. The three “shantihs” cannot prevent London Bridge’s thrice-announced “falling down” of a few lines earlier. Or is it that something more sinister is at work? Does Eliot not so secretly welcome the ruination of London Bridge, on which he has earlier noted crowds of somnolent and short-sighted commuters, who for all intents and purposes have already given up on life: “I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (7). Isn’t it worth an apocalypse, laying waste to this banal and meaningless excuse for an existence so as perhaps to start all over again? For Eliot surely speaks also through the voice of the pub landlord whose invocation “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” becomes less of a warning and more of a threat with every iteration (10).

It may merely be a matter of what we want from the text–any text, no doubt, but perhaps this text more obviously than most. Ultimately, it’s up to us how (or even if) we read The Waste Land today. Lawrence Rainey has a quite marvelous essay about the poem’s publication history that ends up with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the most faithful approach to the poem doesn’t get caught up in the intricacies of the text itself. Noting that “generations of students have been exhorted to look closely at the poem,” he articulates by contrast what he calls “the modernist principle of reading,” that “the best reading of a work is often that which does not read it at all” (111). Close reading, he tells us, is merely one approach among many–and if anything a sign of the way in which modernism has been hi-jacked by the academy, turned into a sport for professors.

But Eliot’s poem anticipates this question of the reader’s desire. The line “Why then Ile fit you” comes from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, where it is a response to the request for some amusing entertainment for the king: “I’ll give you something that will suit your wishes,” is how our editor glosses its meaning (64). Poetry is endlessly malleable, a mere transient representation, it is implied, as though to get the poet off the hook for any offence (or ruination) he or she may cause. We get what we want out of literature: if we want to see it as a puzzle to be deciphered, then so be it; but if (à la Ellmann) we now prefer to think of it as a “sphinx without a secret,” then that is fine, too. We can take the fragments that language offers us and turn them to our advantage; we can play among the ruins. Isn’t this the shift from Eliot’s time to our own? The fragmentation that modernism saw in anguished terms has simply become our everyday reality, our happily postmodern condition. The twist, however, is that in The Spanish Tragedie a staged drama (a play within the play) becomes deadly as it turns out to be all too real: amid the “meere confusion” of its polyglot “unknowne languages” (63) it serves as cover for a revenge plot whereby the maddened Hieronymo kills the men who have murdered his son, and then kills himself, too. Is there something similarly suicidally murderous in The Waste Land? And if so, should we take the affects that literature provokes a little more seriously, and perhaps its talk of ruins more literally (if less literarily)?


[This is a response to Timothy Brennan’s keynote presentation, “The Problem of Unevenness: Peripheral Aesthetics and Imperial Form,” presented at the “Negative Cosmopolitanisms: Abjection, Power, and Biopolitics” conference, Edmonton, Alberta, October 2012.]

“Peripheral Modernism. A Response to Tim Brennan”

Tim Brennan provides us with a provocative, forthright, and challenging presentation. Indeed, though one hesitates to call it “ironic,” given the rather critical things that Brennan himself has to say about irony (which he claims “is based on the subject setting itself up as supreme”), it is notable that a paper that opens by excoriating a “combat mode” of theory is itself strikingly combative. Brennan takes shots at entire swathes of the contemporary Humanities: at the “graduate students and young professors” who mistake theory for combat, but also at those who prefer a “radical indecisionism” that is either complementary to or indistinguishable from (or perhaps merely “athwart”) the pseudo-radicalism of their colleagues. He goes on to argue that “a kind of neo-Socratic position […] is everywhere around us today in the academy,” a stance that is in fact not a stance but is rather designed only to “establish [the speaker’s] superiority over the supposedly rough, impetuous, and naïve adherents to actual positions.”

Everywhere Brennan sees what he terms “louche” theorizing: “an intentionally cloudy, squint-eyed perspective […] secretive writing, words intended for initiates and hidden from the vulgar public.” No names are provided, but apparently Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory is a hotbed for this stuff: a mere “simulacrum of revolution”; “a romance with death”; Humanists who are “against humans”; “conservatives of modernist literary cast.” It’s worth unpacking this last very condensed series of epithets: it’s not enough to say that they (we?) are (secretly, unbeknownst even to ourselves) conservatives; we are also unoriginally “cast” from a single mold whose deformity can be traced back to the pernicious influence of both modernism and literature. By contrast, then, Brennan offers us idiosyncrasy and originality (“it has not generally been recognized […] it has gone completely unremarked”) that is saved from quirkiness or the pernicious conformity of mere novelty by its steadfast refusal of both modernism and the literary “double-entendre.” Brennan calls on distinguished forbears–the Marxist intellectuals of the interwar period, above all–in order to break free from the “irony” that, he alleges, “inhibit[s] our ability to make sense of the imperialist common sense of the present.” He proposes instead an anti-imperialist common sense that has no truck with the “effeteness of literary modernism.” In brief, I don’t think that an “anti-imperialist” common sense is much improvement on an imperialist one; and I’m suspicious of all homilies, and suggest that you should be, too. But back to Brennan’s project: naturally enough, cosmopolitanism is out (being merely the “literary ethos” appropriate to “the imperial aspects of globalization”). Again, however, it is surely ironic that he marshals in support of this anti-cosmopolitan, anti-literary, anti-elitism a “who’s who” of third-world literary intellectuals, practically all of whom are male, middle-class, and ethnically privileged, from Chinua Achebe to César Vallejo, Alejo Carpentier to Mo Yan.

Read more… (pdf file)