Curating Infinite Jest — We’re All Solipsists Here
Allright: time to flog Wittgenstein’s dead horse again.* The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Wallace’s thoughts on Wittgenstein’s philosophy inform much of what he wrote in Infinite Jest.
I was struck by some lines on pp. 515-516 that describe the way Hal thinks about his family members:
Hal devoted an unusually small part of his brain and time ever thinking about people in his family qua family-members… it’s almost like some ponderous creaky machine has to get up and running for Hal even to think about members of his immediate family as standing in relation to himself. [emphasis mine]
This makes me think, again, of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus, which Wallace discussed at some length in the 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction interview. I’ve mentioned how, in Wallace’s view, one consequence of the philosophy espoused in the Tractatus is an extreme solipsism in which “the individual with her language is trapped in here, with the world out there, and never the twain shall meet.” But I want to focus on a different aspect of the Tractatus today, one which, fortunately, Wallace left us a good volume of writing on.
In the Summer 1990 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace penned a lengthy review (opens in PDF — thanks to Nick at The Howling Fantods and his bitchin’ Uncollected DFW page for the link! of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. As Wallace explains it, WM is “an imaginative portrait of what it would be like actually to live in the sort of world the logic & metaphysics of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus posits.” One of the consequences of Wittgenstein’s “logic & metaphysics,” in addition to solipsism, is an extreme form of atomism in which no fact of existence is intrinsically related to any other fact.** As Wallace puts it in his review, “the world is nothing but a huge mass of data, of logically discrete facts that have no intrinsic connection to one another.”
Keeping this in mind, re-read that block quote about Hal above. Hal has trouble thinking of his family members as having any intrinsic relationship to himself: could Hal be living, at least partially, in the kind of Tractatus-ized world that Wallace was describing in 1990, a world “of logically discrete facts that have no intrinsic connection to one another”? In Elegant Complexity, his study of Infinite Jest, Greg Carlisle notes right off the bat that isolation and missed connections are two of the major thematic elements of the book. Think of Hal completely divorced from his physical self in the first chapter or the book, or of the myriad communication problems within the Incandenza family. Think of things like the 50 people all waiting in one line for the methadone clinic and yet still managing to look completely isolated from one another, of the isolating effects of technology and E Unibus Pluram, of all the references to cages and heads and being trapped in one’s own head. Think of “anti-confluentialism” and narrative threads that never come together.
And lets go totally meta- with this: Reading Infinite Jest can be an experience similar to that of living in a Tractatus-ized world. All summer we’ve spoke of how “disjointed” and “fragmented” the book is. Think of the work we’ve all done chasing down references, looking up words and tracing thematic outlines, trying to find that “aha!” element that brings it all together. In his review of Markson’s book, Wallace writes about the main character Kate:
Kate’s textual obsession is simply to find connections between things, any strands that bind the historical facts & empirical data that are all her world comprises. And always–necessarily–genuine connections elude her. All she can find is an occasional synchronicity… [Kate] feels ‘as if I have been appointed the curator of all the world,’… The curator’s job–to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & only so communicate meaning–is marvelously synechdochic of the life of the solipsist.
Is this not a perfect description of the experience of reading Infinite Jest?
*Actually I fee like it’s more like Wittgenstein is mounted astride a huge bucking bronco that shoots fire from its nostrils and lasers from its eyes, and I’m standing here, in some sort of ridiculous clown-suit, lashing it with a wet noodle.
** I’m not even going to try to show the work behind this — for our purposes, the important thing is that this is the conclusion Wallace drew from Wittgenstein. If you’re interested, dig up Wallace’s RCF review. Anyone know if it’s available online anywhere? Howling Fantods Nick hooked us up — thanks Nick!