Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review - Infinite Jest

Reviewing David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is impossible. As Dave Egger’s says in the foreword, the novel cannot be analysed; cannot be broken down into component parts. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It shouldn’t work – overlong storylines that seem to go nowhere, no overarching plot, characters heading towards confrontations that never happen, insane technical minutiae about drugs and medications, long stretches where nothing much happens, and a language/vocabulary all its own. But the novel does work and it’s clear that the writer was a genius: as Eggers says, “At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”
 
Infinite Jest is a reflection of life. This is alluded to in the Eschaton section with the meta-debate about maps and territories. As such, everyone who reads Infinite Jest will have a different interpretation. It can be about drugs, addiction, the American Dream, entertainment, the pursuit of happiness, solipsism, language, or tennis. Some claim that the book is structured like a Sierpinski Gasket

For me, Infinite Jest is about freedom. This is centred around Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty (or at least an idea very similar to it). Running through the book like a spine there is a discussion between a Canadian agent and an American agent that takes place on the side of a cliff over an entire night. At one point, Marathe – the Canadian – says:

“Again passing over the important. This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose – this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death… someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing… Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

Allowing someone to do whatever they want to do is ‘negative’ freedom according to Berlin and Marathe. ‘Positive’ freedom consists in discipline: in the education and maturity to independently choose what is important. America, in its pursuit of the former kind of freedom, has created a nation of children: people who would, of their own volition, watch a film so entertaining it would kill them. ; people who would solve the problem of waste by catapulting garbage into New England rather than reform their lives. 

The ‘positive’ kind of freedom is more existential: it is the discipline to make the right choice for you and the ability to free yourself from cages of which you weren’t (or aren’t) aware. These invisible cages may be social but are more often psychological. They are arbitrary limits on our behaviour or our actions that we impose without even realising we’re doing it. The crux of this point comes in Lyle’s conversation with LaMont Chu about LaMont’s “increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.”

“The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’ ‘Animal?’ ‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’ 

In particular, the book focuses on the invisible cage of irony. Wallace knew that his readers were postmodern, literary-types: the kind of post-university twenty-something young elites who reject the world’s values by adopting a veneer of irony; by layering every action with self-reference, self-deprecation, and a meta-appreciation of the ‘narrative’ of life. The teenagers of the Enfield Tennis Academy represent this attitude of intelligence and youth: they come up with ironic nicknames for one another, they have long discussions about life and philosophy, they play complex physical and psychological games. The antithesis of this attitude walks among them: the disabled and ‘immature’ Mario.

“It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. 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.”

By the end of Infinite Jest readers are at least aware, if not free, of the cage of irony around them. The novel promotes sincerity and real engagement with the world – with addiction, with drugs, with loneliness, with solipsism – rather than the ironic detachment characteristic of most educated twenty-somethings. The difficulty is remembering that the cage is there after the book has ended.
Anything I can write about this novel is surplus to the volumes that have already been written: the Infinite Summer website offers a window to this immense scholarship. I only wrote this so that I could re-inhabit the book again because, over 2 months after finishing it, I still think about it. And a book with that kind of power deserves a few words.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Achievement gap

There are several pervasive ideas floating around my consciousness which I have been unable to shake off despite their irrationality. One – shared by colleagues and respected polymaths – is the fear of being ‘found out’: exposed as an untalented fraud, my unintelligence revealed to the world, expulsion from the institutions and professions I aspire to. Another is an annoyingly illogical belief in destiny, fate, ka, predetermination, or whatever you want to call it. Then there is the idea of ultimate and final achievement. 

The idea is that there is a single achievement which will suddenly make life easier. J.R.R. Tolkien used the word ‘eucatastrophe’ to refer to the idea of a single moment in which everything is turned around: bad turns to good, defeat turns to victory, difficulty turns to ease. I’m haunted by the notion that the next achievement will be the one that makes me ‘set for life’: that one final achievement will allow me to stop working so hard because from that point on everything will be fine. This one achievement will lead to employers hiring me, colleagues respecting me, and success handed to me. 

Over the years there have been several such achievements that I thought would ‘set me up for life’. If I got good GCSE grades; if I got accepted to Cambridge University; if I got a First in my undergraduate degree; if I got short stories published; if I got a Masters degree; if I got the atypical post-library-qualification position of Assistant Librarian: if I could just achieve them, everything would be fine from then on. 

I achieved all of them (except Cambridge) and yet life struggles on. Clothes still need washing, books still need reading, blog posts still need writing. There will never be that final achievement that makes everything easier because each achievement opens the door to new achievements. There will never be a point where I can put my feet up and play video games guilt-free secure in the knowledge that I have achieved everything I can achieve. There is no final victory in life.

This is of course whiny self-indulgence and despite my seeming ingratitude I’m proud of everything I’ve done. Writing this post has been an act of catharsis. But it will not free me. I am unable to follow the sage advice of Alan Watts and dance to the music of life.


I’ll carry on marching to the implacable sound of distant drumming: the sound that in reality is the impatient tapping of my own fingers. I’ll keep working towards the nonexistent achievement that will finally give me peace.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Walking in a digital wonderland

Last week, I watched as the presenter of a Health and Safety briefing fumbled around trying to get his presentation up. We all know what it’s like to navigate a computer system while being watched: the pressure of opening the right folder, the agony of scrolling through a list of documents looking for the one that you ‘know was there when you looked earlier'.

It struck me that navigating virtual environments has become so commonplace as to be an irritation. Humans regularly navigate an ethereal world of electrical signals and incorporeal documents. With minimal physical interaction, we fly through these private worlds like gods – flitting between digital folders, changing what is presented as we see fit, and searching through billions of bytes of dynamically-updated data. This effortless engagement with a non-physical environment would have been inconceivable to people as recently as twenty years ago.

On one level, this demonstrates the human capacity to engage with analogy. It’s important to remember that lots of the words I’ve used so far are physical metaphors which we apply to virtual environments: ‘navigating’, ‘opening’, ‘flitting’. We describe virtual worlds through analogy with physical worlds to make them comprehensible. We evolved in a three-dimensional physical space and so have a natural understanding for physical terms and physical analogies. It is astounding how readily and how universally this great analogy is accepted: humans, young and old, play along with the metaphor and employ it everyday without a thought; our entire vocabulary for digital worlds is based upon it; rightly or wrongly, we even create legislation using it.

One of the reasons that humans have adapted to virtual environments so easily is its parallels with abstract environments. Since the advent of thought, abstract worlds have been represented through analogy with the physical environment. Plato’s Heaven is a prime example of using physical paradigms to represent an ethereal realm of ideas. Gilbert Ryle even created the term ‘category mistake’ to cover the misapplication of physical ideology to a theoretical construct: the classic example being Descartes’ use of the pineal gland as the point of interaction between the soul and the body (how could the incorporeal soul interact with the physical world at all?). Thoughts, ideas, the content of books, and – for anyone who has seen Inception – dreams are all represented through analogy with the physical. In a similar way to abstract environments, we apply physical paradigms to virtual environments to make them comprehensible.

It’s almost certainly fallacious to say that this represents an evolutionary advance. But the widespread, near-universal engagement with a non-physical interface represents something about the human species. Adaptability, flexibility, imagination, capacity for misdirection, propensity for category mistakes, or general desire to engage with something beyond the physical. It represents something and every so often it is important to remember how strange and interesting our everyday world is.

“...this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible ...the universe is wild and full of marvels.” – G. K. Chesterton.