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An excerpt from “Reading to not Find Yourself” — for wallace-l

“’Do not confuse sympathy for the subject and empathy with it – one of the two is bad.’” — “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” David Foster Wallace

My objective thus far outlined in this essay: to allay Holland’s argument that art maroons its reader in her own skull, with the claim that art gives imaginative access to other selves, is a goal that I share with (and in this sentence, paraphrase from) author David Foster Wallace’s own ambitions for his fiction (McCaffrey 127). Like I claim that art does much more than gratify the desires of an isolated viewer, the above epigraph is from a novella in which Wallace tried to “reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans” (McCaffrey 142). This tension between being stuck within the static confines of your own person, and leaping over the wall of self (Moody et al.) to connect with others, surrounds David Foster Wallace’s best-known book, Infinite Jest, cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English novels of the last 90 years (Grossman and Lacayo).

The novel (at least partly) oscillates around a character named

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, [who] theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear [A1] of being really human, since to be human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 695).

Hal is empty because he wears a “hip empty mask,” yet he is “not dumb” enough to ignore the lively cost of such a voguish choice. Hal’s advanced intellectual awareness [A2] leaves him “seeing ’full and fleshy’ concepts like happiness and love as stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas,” simultaneously, his self-criticality leads him to hate this anhedonic conclusion, which Hal considers as the deduction of a mechanized subhuman entity (Boswell 156). With disdain, he recognizes that he is emotionally void, that “in fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all.” But at the same time, he alone cannot simply choose to transform weightless concepts into nourishing vacuum-filling experiences, because “he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 694-695). To accept the emotional interchanges he craves, Hal needs to become the-being-that-needs (emotional contact), which on his working theoretical plane (i.e. the only mode of thinking he knows), sounds disgustingly[1] inefficient. However, the feeling-and-believing real human being that is endowed with an emotional input jack is present, albeit is buried deeply, inside Hal. Without help though, he is in solitary confinement with only “the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never met,” (that is, the feeling-and-believing render of himself[2]) (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 1053 n281).

The solution to Hal’s problem, the McGuffin of the novel Infinite Jest, is a video called “Infinite Jest” that will jolt Hal out of the hyper-self-consciousness that is so dangerously self-reflexive that it precludes an otherwise basic capability[3] of his body: empathy (the root of all inter-mammalian emotional [A3] communication). The creator of Hal’s antidote is his own father, known primarily as “Himself,” a director (at least partly) known for his filmography’s ability to offer “freedom from one’s own head, one’s inescapable P.O.V” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 742). Himself confesses[4] that the film “Infinite Jest” was similarly meant to provide an accessible acclivity from Hal’s lonely cage[5] to ascend, to be

“a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. […] Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out — even if it was only to ask for more. Games hadn’t done it, professionals hadn’t done it, impersonation of professionals hadn’t done it. 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. 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. To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used both ways” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 2448ebook).

The film, in short, will provide Hal with a birth[6] into the human world economy of receiving from others, and therefore desiring others. It will accomplish this by simulating for Hal the most desirable thing[7] a human being can wish for, something so enticing that it will destroy his wish for self-sufficiency and facilitate his irreversible “escape from ‘annular’ self-consciousness, from ‘thought helixes’ and ‘analysis paralysis’” (Boswell 164).

Would Holland say that the film “Infinite Jest,” that provides a permanent eschewal of self, is good art for Hal? Would he agree with Wallace that “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR […] to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human” (McCaffrey 131)? “Infinite Jest” of course does not make [Hal] form “expectations [that] draw on [his] experience” and “enabl[e] [him] to project [his] own wish-fulfilling fantasies into it” so that he “end[s] by taking pleasure in something whose gratifications are only imaginary” (Holland Literature and the Brain 350, 346). Holland’s introspective fantasization theory cannot account for the film’s resolve to correct Hal’s emotional deficiencies; its intention to force him to look outside of his own identity to learn and share the desires of others. But, just as easily as “Infinite Jest” could be the shot of adrenaline that gets Hal moving to de-atrophy, it can be “configured for a recursive loop,” engrossing and tying down its viewer like some ineluctable IV transfusion station (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 166.4ebook). Curiously, “Infinite Jest” shifts from anti- to pro-Holland when the un-sickly abuse the anhedonic anti-serum.

It is important to remember the film’s intended and limited audience, i.e. those who haven’t yet “had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 694). The film may provide a light at the end of the tunnel for anhedonics who have been sheathed in gloom all their lives, by proving the possibility for human life to be effulgent, but the film is not necessary for normal people who already know how to desire something outside of themselves. The film would in fact have the opposite of the intended effect on hedonists[A4] : instead of injecting a person with hopeful gregarious impulses, the film would make them more reticent, willing to “die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 318). Now, the addictive qualities of the film “Infinite Jest” start to echo Holland’s earlier comparisons of art with drugs. For a normal viewer, “Infinite Jest” is “a glorified daydream, a mild[8] narcotic, or an illusion offering an escape from reality into fantasy” just like Holland prizes (Holland Literature and the Brain 345). And unlike the demanding task of self-improvement it prompts Hal[9] with, for healthy viewers, since “Infinite Jest” “cannot train [their] brains for life,” they “agree just to take pleasure in it” (Holland Literature and the Brain 342, 344).

The two antagonistic effects of “Infinite Jest” are the same as the two versions of art experience (that is, aesthetic experience) that are pit against one another in this essay. On the one hand, there is the original intention of “Infinite Jest:” to teach Hal an “important kind of freedom[, which] involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them. […] The alternative is unconsciousness” (Wallace and Kenyon) as a result of abusing “Infinite Jest,” which then “can’t help but render […] reality less attractive” than the fantasy it enables (Wallace “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” 188). In Holland’s words: “Infinite Jest” is both the “seeking” to inspire you to “seek,” and the “seeking” to end all “seeking.” And in my words: art can either destroy solipsism[10] by revealing other people’s desires and the pleasures of those desires being met, or art can imprison[11] by immersing you in the pleasures of your own desires being met.

[1] ”Are not the very most natural things in life often the most terrifying?” David Foster Wallace, “Order and Flux in Northampton,” Love Is Strange : Stories of Postmodern Romance, eds. Joel Rose and Catherine Texier (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993).

[2] Wordplay discussions could start where “himself” could mean Hal’s father, though he has certainly met him. In this case I mean Hal’s own real self. This is also reminiscent of the

[3] It is the lack of this capability that strands Hal as an “in-bent figurant of a boy,” that is, a boy so introspective that he cannot be classified as a boy, only as a non-participatory actor playing the superfluous role of yet another boy standing on the stage of life (2449.4ebook).

[4] After Himself’s death, his “wraith” confesses this.

[5] Himself continuously remade two particular films over his career, one was “Infinite Jest” and the other was “Cage” (both were made five times). Both seem to address situations where inter-human communication is impossible (Cage II is about a prison cell containing two convicts: one a blind man, the other deaf-mute) (2888 ebook n24).

[6] Whether this means Hal was a misbirth, not corporally but spiritually, is not certain. Though this would thematically fit in with the other birth oddity characters: Gately’s huge head, the crack addict’s stillbirth that she pretended was alive, Mario, Marathe’s wife born without a skull…(Not to mention the growth defects caused by the Great Concavity)

[7] A veiled woman saying “at least twenty minutes of permutations of ‘I’m sorry’” while the camera’s “point of view was from [a] crib,” with “a ball-and-socket joint behind the mount that made the lens wobble” in order “to reproduce an infantile visual field” (2743ebook). This (somehow) related to when “Death says [to Gately that] the woman who either knowingly or involuntarily kills you is always someone you love, and she’s always your next life’s mother. This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, […] [because they’re] trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (2483ebook) also (Boswell 127, 131).

[8] Or in this case, not so much mild as perfect.

[9] Who does not have human fantasies before watching the film, since he is not human until (hypothetically) after he has watched the film.

[10] “If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters’ pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside” (McCaffrey 127).

[11] “Art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art” (McCaffrey 130).

 [A1]Should I mention how this is also buried within him? Unconscious…

 [A2]Is this awareness or self awareness?

 [A3]Do I need this word?

 [A4]Should I pull a DFW and say “not-anhedonics” ?



A link to my bibliography in progress:


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