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Avery Edison Is My Hero — Seriously

August 1, 2009

You might try to just simply sit down at meetings and relax and take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth and shut the fuck up and just listen, for the first time perhaps in your life really listen, and maybe you’ll end up OK.
Ferocious Francis

Aww, geez. I wasn’t going to wade into these waters at all. Just wasn’t going to touch it. But Daryl over at Infinite Zombies had a nice thoughtful post about it, and it got me thinking.

There tends to be a lot of talk over at Infinite Summer and environs that’s kind of like meta-talk about the process of reading Infinite Jest, how goddamn long the book is, how a lot of it can be difficult and not particularly engaging, the mind games people play with themselves to make it through a section they’re having trouble with, &c. God knows I’ve done my share.

A certain amount of this type of talk is healthy and even necessary, right? But it seems like there’s an awful lot of it.*

Avery’s post over at IS may have — inadvertently? — become the apotheosis of this type of meta-thinking about Infinite Jest, judging by all the feedback it’s generated. But — I’m not trying to villainize her, and I’ll get back to her words in a sec. What’s troubling to me is the volume of comments Avery’s received along the lines of “Fuck it — not enjoying the book? Quit. Do something else.”

This line of reasoning is essentially an appeal to taste, right? The idea that there are certain things in life that will just not be to your taste, and nothing will change that, so spend your time doing something else. But here’s the thing — is it ever really enough to dismiss a work of art on the grounds of taste-incompatibility? I’m going to say no, because look — there are certain things in life that transcend personal taste, and yes, goddamn it, art is one of them.

Let me give an example. I kind of hate Thomas Pynchon. I find his writing glib and moronic, and I can’t make heads or tails of Gravity’s Rainbow. But I’ve come to recognize that this is my failure, not Pynchon’s. That there is a large group of reasonably intelligent people out there who have the highest opinion of Pynchon’s writing, and that rather than convincing myself that these people are all full of shit, my position is that I am somehow failing to do the work necessary to arrive at a robust understanding of Pynchon’s work. In short, that I’m going to sub-contract out the portion of my personal judgment that deals with Thomas Pynchon to others who know way more about him than I do until such time as I can sit down with these people (literally or figuratively) and listen to what they have to say and arrive at some sort of mutual understanding re: Pynchon.

A lot of the discussion around whether or not to ditch IJ is slouching toward a sort of anarchy of personal taste, where if it ain’t fun don’t bother and who’s to say what’s good literature and not, because it’s all a matter of personal preference. The danger is that this de-values art to the point where if taste is king then what’s wrong with ditching the concept of art entirely and vegging out to Dancing With the Stars 24/7?

This is an old, weary argument and I’m not going to get into it all here. The crowning irony of this entire discussion is that this notion of personal taste — personal happiness, if you will — elevated above all else is pretty much the intellectual crux of Infinite Jest. And so we have people using personal happiness as the primary criterium for deciding whether or not to read a book about the dangers of using personal happiness as a primary criterium for deciding things.

But I want to wrap this up by returning to Avery’s original post and explaining why she’s the hero, seriously, of this here post. It all boils down to one line she wrote: “Don’t get me wrong — I’m not going to quit. I’m going to read the whole thing and talk about it over the summer because I said I would.” I’m not going to quit. How important is this? How crucial is this that she’s setting aside her own will and her own likes/dislikes in order to engage with what is probably one of the more important works of art of the late 20th-century? On some level this is what Infinite Jest is all about, and quite frankly it’s what needs to continue to happen if the arts are to have any prayer in this country. Because it’s real easy to engage with and enthuse over a work of art that your personal taste pre-disposes you to, but it’s another kettle of fish entirely to do this with a work that your gut instinct is to not give a shit about. So rock on, Avery. I’m rooting for you.

* Isn’t this like a characteristically 21st-century American way of approaching a difficult work of art, where instead of dealing with the work qua art we end up spending all this time talking about the process of dealing with the work and how it makes us feel and blah blah blah, and by the end of it all the amazing and difficult work of art gets boiled down to an object that’s discussed basically as a kind of onerous accessory to our lives that has such-and-such a word count and so many pounds Amazon shipping weight, and Christ almighty have you even tried lugging this thing around on a day at the beach?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2009 1:22 am

    “Isn’t this like a characteristically 21st-century American way of approaching a difficult work of art, where instead of dealing with the work qua art we end up spending all this time talking about the process of dealing with the work and how it makes us feel and blah blah blah”

    I love Infinite Summer because it put the idea in my head to read Infinite Jest (this summer), but this encapsulates precisely why I’m completely fed up with IS columns. Solution: I’m going to start read your blog instead.

  2. August 1, 2009 5:04 am

    Yes; point taken. On the other hand, though, you do the work and then you reap the reward of doing it. If there’s really no reward for you, there isn’t any point in going on, maybe, and so to that extent the “go ahead and quit, Avery” contingent has got a point. Maybe she gets into it, eventually, though. The first time I read Infinite Jest I was kind of well, whatever, until I got about a hundred pages in, and then it became like waking up in a changed world.

    You’re quite right that there are things one really isn’t constituted to take in (the number of times I have tried to read Foucault springs to mind. And I do keep trying, now and then.) But I don’t think that it’s useful to see art as like bad-tasting medicine. Time is short, and you have seen how many books there are in the library. We’re only going to get to a very few.

    In the case of writers who haven’t given up an iota of their own sensibility in exchange for a shot at a wider audience (e.g. Proust, Anthony Powell, Joyce, Wallace, Pynchon) you’re necessarily at a disadvantage if you’re not the same age and from the same place as the author. Younger readers of Infinite Jest, even people just 20 years younger, are missing quite a bit I think. Example: it was really amazing to me how on the Twitter (#infsum) there was this revelation early in the book, when Orin is quoting the Beatles to Hal on the phone (‘I Want to Tell You’) and the various participants on Twitter were saying “good catch!”–when, to my generation and Wallace’s, those lyrics are so utterly seminal, bone-deep, we were so totally steeped in them … I mean it would be like saying, “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” and someone goes wow, hey that’s Radiohead! and everyone’s all “good catch!” so this really made me feel like even more of a dinosaur than usual.

    That is one tiny nuance and doesn’t seem to mean much, but the thing is, if anyone my age had quoted almost any Beatles lyrics in the mid-90s, it would have been completely taken for granted that the reference was common knowledge. That sort of thing always makes me think I must be missing a ton whenever I read something that was written outside the period of my own adulthood.

    Also, I love this blog.

  3. Tim permalink
    August 1, 2009 9:52 am

    Got here from IS. While I don’t totally agree with your main thesis, I have to 100% agree with your gripes about the meta-thinking going on in the posts over there. How after 5 weeks of reading this thing, we’re still talking about its length and “difficulty”, I cannot fathom. I’d probably put IJ somewhere in teens or twenties in terms of difficult books I’ve read over the years.

  4. August 1, 2009 10:12 am

    So I love to travel, but I’m really crap at making decisions and notoriously poor on follow-through generally. So I get a whim to go somewhere I’ve never visited before, and then before I’ve made any actual reservations–in fact, months before doing so would be prudent–I start telling my friends and family that I’m going to travel to X destination in Y month of Z year. Telling anyone who’ll listen, really. And guess what! I kind of have to go through with it, or risk looking like a puffed-up blowhard, like a phony. Which is way worse than maybe having a shitty vacation. Even if I’ve spent a few days looking over the travel advisories on the Department of State’s website (fun, actually!), making my chosen location out to be a war zone, a place where I definitely won’t have any fun, I have to go through with my plan, because I’ve made such a big deal out of telling everyone I’m going to do it.

    I hope you are getting my meaning, here.

    Which is why I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion about what was said over at IS. But it’s nice to read a well-reasoned defense in any case.

  5. infinitedetox permalink*
    August 1, 2009 10:14 am

    And let me clarify a bit — I’m seriously not trying to bash IS or anyone in particular here. I have a tendency to focus on ideas and lose track of the fact that ideas are generated by human beings who, in almost all instances, are acting in good faith. I should also say that I consistently fail to live up to the ideals I’ve outlined above. This is hard stuff, right? As DFW has said concentrating on anything for any length of time can be extremely difficult.

    The meta-thinking is kind of a natural reaction, I think, but it starts getting troublesome when it becomes an end unto itself. It’s something we all have to be careful of.

    And please don’t write off IS — there is some great cogitation going on over there (where else are you going to get a first-person account of the only known staging of IJ, for instance)? And the guides, because they’re acting as discussion leaders, are in a trickier situation than those of us blogging from the margins. There is a certain onus on them, after all, to empathize with the following that’s grown around them, to say things like “Look, I understand this can be tough, okay? It’s tough for me too.”

  6. August 1, 2009 10:33 am

    Nicely said! That’s the “Keep Coming” attitude. D.W.G. doesn’t believe in God, but gets on his knees every a.m./p.m. You don’t have to believe, you have to show up.

  7. August 1, 2009 11:58 am

    (Sorry this is so long; prb’bly should’ve responded on my own blog… oh well)

    Great post. (Though rereading this comment, I realize how far we are at this point from IJ itself…)

    I want to perhaps defend the notion of “taste” for a moment, not because I disagree with you at all in your larger point, but because I believe understanding the predicament of “Why read difficult books?” might be more easily understandable as a property of “taste” than of something called “art.” That is, I think you’re completely right but for somewhat different reasons.

    Taste, of course, is a metaphor derived form our experience of consuming food. It is worth remembering the culinary origins of this notion only so that we get can a handle on how genuinely relativistic taste is. We experience taste immediately and absolutely; nothing seems more “clear and distinct” than the visceral experience, “That is disgusting.” And yet, we understand that there is no real intellectual content behind this claim. I mean, are all those cultures that that only drink milk once its spoiled “wrong”? Do they just “not get it”? Yet, at the very same time, the intellectual recognition that taste is a product of culture doesn’t change the way I viscerally respond. Sour milk still smells disgusting, even if I know other people drink it that way.

    There is an entire category of foods that are unusual, that may challenge my palate, but that are still worth trying; the entire gamut of so-called “acquired tastes” fits snugly here (culturally variable though they may be). Taste is, in this sense, helpfully illustrative of the sort of basic relativism that undergirds even our most immediate visceral experience, and also gives a compelling reason to resist the immediate quasi-visceral respond we may have to certain objects.

    Taste, with respect to experiences of novels, includes a whole range of cultural experiences. Mario’s point about the Beatles allusion is relevant here; the novel (any novel) is indisocciably tied to the circumstances of its production/reception. We read from within a culutral context that governs our expectations; and while our response is not determined by this context, we cannot escape from it. To adapt Marx, we make our own readings, but not as we please; we read within contexts and genres already existing, transmitted from the past.

    In this sense, taste is helpfully illustrative of the sort of basic relativism that undergirds even our most basic experience. What we like is, in part, produced by what we have liked, with (thankfully) plenty of room for our conscious intervention. (Some disagree with this way of speaking; Adorno, for one, hated these sorts of metaphors, distancing any experience of genuine “art” from experience that was “merely culinary.”)

    My point, simply, is it may not be possible to “transcend” taste. Taste is not simply “personal” idiosyncrasy.

    Trying to expand one’s palate is perhaps a more helpful way of talking about how to deal with difficult works, if only because big terms like “art” sometimes have the effect of widening the divide between readers’ responses. Can we really recognize “art” immediately? You imply that we can unproblematically distinguish art from its others (for example, Dancing with the Stars). And while I don’t want to argue that Dancing with the Starts is “as important” as IJ, any such distinction is fraught, and possible only within a certain “horizon of expectation” (as they young kids are saying). Random, semi-relevant question: Would Plato have preferred IJ to Dancing with the Stars?

    (Even Mario’s description of “writers who haven’t given up an iota of their own sensibility” threatens to reify works like this within a Romantic framework, for which “personal vision,” “individual genius,” and sincerity/authenticity become the key terms. Do we really read just to see how some other individual sees the world? And is that “vision” entirely individual? Or is it not perhaps an intervention into the very context out of which it emerges?)

    The real point is that, in the end, the statement (Avery’s “confession”) “I am not having fun,” is not ever, in any clear way, connected to the very different claim, “I should not be doing this.” Or, at least, that isn’t the case in life generally (“no pain, no future surplus return on investment”–isn’t that what they say?). And, as you point out, the question of “entertainment value” is perhaps the question IJ seems most invested in asking.

  8. August 1, 2009 1:38 pm

    “Do we really read just to see how some other individual sees the world?”

    Hell yeah! Partly.

    Really excellent post, Chris Forster, v. thoughtprovoking esp. re: “entertainment.”

  9. infinitedetox permalink*
    August 1, 2009 11:14 pm

    Great comments all around.

    Chris: I generally dig what you have to say re: taste, how it’s highly relative and often culturally-defined. And certainly I’d have a heck of a time arguing for a notion of artistic merit that could transcend cultures. For the following let’s assume my argument is only applicable to what people call the Western literary tradition.

    Your question “Can we really recognize art immediately?” gets to the heart of what I was saying. It’s notoriously difficult to recognize great art immediately — hence the fun present-day critics often have of digging up negative contemporary reviews of say, Joyce or Hemingway.

    But, I do think that over time a critical consensus does begin to coalesce around certain works. And naturally this is a super, super-fuzzy process with all sorts of room for disagreement. But what I’m talking about here is basically a canon, right?

    I understand this is kind of a fraught term in certain quarters — academia in particular — but I’m willing to go with it. The thing I like about a canon is that it implies this broad group of people (I envision primarily academics and some James Wood-caliber feral critics) who’s job is to read a shitload of books and argue the hell out of them and somehow arrive at a consensus, however wobbly, of which books can rightly be called “art” and which can not. I’m comfortable ceding some of my own literary judgment to these people, because they’ve read an awful lot more than I have and thus are probably better-equipped to make informed decisions on certain literary matters than I am.

    I realize that the actual process, from canon-determining to my own judgment-ceding, is nowhere near this simple. But this is essentially the Platonic ideal of how I’d like these things to proceed.

    In the particular case of IJ, it seems that, regardless of whether the book ever gets “canonized” or not, there is a large group of very smart people, academics and non-academics alike, who would attest to the book’s status as art. And certainly for the purposes of Infinite Summer, we’re all digging into this book under the assumption that it is worth digging into, which means that a mini de-facto canonization has already occurred. And that if this is indeed the case we should just go with it — our own personal misgivings be damned. That we should cede some of our literary judgment over to people who know a lot more about the book than we do.

    But I’m in total agreement on your final point — that we shouldn’t be using how much “fun” we’re having as the main criterion for deciding whether to proceed. And whatever else one could say about Avery Edison’s initial post, I give her credit for deciding to stick with it.

    And finally, I heartily second Maria’s “Hell yeah!” re: why we read:)

  10. turaho permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:13 pm

    “Is it ever really enough to dismiss a work of art on the grounds of taste-incompatibility?”

    No, but it’s perfectly fine to not engage with a work of art on those same grounds.

  11. August 20, 2009 8:25 am

    Chris- those are interesting comments on the subject of taste, but I’m not sure I agree with the culinary metaphor. To drink sour milk is disgusting, but to will your mind to expand enough to try and grasp a new way of seing the world cannot help but benifit you in some way.

    I think your post relates to the points that DFW raises in his ‘This is Water’ essay, namely that given the limits of our conciousness, all we can do is remind ourselves that we are indeed limited, and that the possibility of enlarging our limited conciousness is one of the reasons that it’s worthwhile to make the effort involved in reading a difficult text.

    Or as some rationlist thinker once said (I forget who) “The mind, streched to the limits of a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

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