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Curating Infinite Jest — We’re All Solipsists Here

August 10, 2009

Photo by Flickr user Hryck, used under a Creative Commons license

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!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2009 8:51 pm

    Great post!

    You can find the review/article, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress'”
    (as well as links to many other uncollected DFW works) at the uncollected DFW page of my website, The Howling Fantods:

    (Most of these links point to The Know(e):DFW, the home of the exaustive DFW bibtex bibliography)


  2. August 11, 2009 8:19 pm

    Nice job; the horse is still squirming, I think, so long as you are getting more milage out of it.

    I like the notion that the curator is a sort of solipsist, creating meaning via connections that may or may not extend outside the world of that curator’s mind.

    However, while I tend not to write about my reading experience in the meta- way, I don’t Identify.

    I don’t find the book disjointed, only complicated and lengthy and compelling. Every time I come across another convexity or annularity or other repeating trope, I feel comforted that the IJ world has depth and systematicity. Marathe is my favorite literary character in a while. The ETA sections could go on for 50 pages, I wouldn’t flag for a moment. I’m in love with Joelle. I want to go to a meeting with Gately and meet the Crocs.

    I don’t expect a book to walk me through it, and the “work” at tracking it back and forth is not alienating. Nor do I expect the conclusion to be somehow available to me just midway through the book – or from its first page. Nor do I require every bit of humor to be the funniest thing in the world to me. After all, there will never be another Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so if someone’s looking for laughs, go back to that. I do, every few years.

    There’s been only one section I found difficult and/or annoying: The irish brogue that lasted all of about 3/4 of a page. I tried speaking it aloud, but couldn’t quite hit it right. Oh well, no biggie.

    (Do you know the book Dictionary of the Khazars? Comes in different versions, and can only be read via cross-referencing overlapping entries, so you don’t even know for sure the book is done when you’ve read them all. I’d love to see the whingeing that would produce!)

    (Do you know Simone de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others? One paragraph can morph from one conversation through to some internal narrated story to a conversation between two other people, all without a shift in tone or intake of breath or a new paragraph. So? Also in that book, there is a “present” event that is somewhat mysterious making up the first twelve or so pages, then the story that leads up to it, then the resolution. No big deal, keeps the pages turning.)

    I appreciate the constant joy I get from reading your work on this page; it makes reading a great book even more fun that it would be otherwise. If some connections are left untied at the end, well, that’s life.

  3. August 11, 2009 8:23 pm

    P.S. Tht last bit was supposed to indicate that if there is anything meta- about my reading, it is that it is the very opposite of solipsistic. You, Dan, Aaron, Paul, Daryl, Ray, Jeff, Stephanie, Gerry, Chris… Are we not imbricated in one another’s world, discovering new forms of co-subjectivity?

    • August 11, 2009 9:00 pm

      Thanks so much for these responses, which are as incredibly thoughtful as everything else I’ve seen you pour into I.S. so far. I hadn’t heard of either of those books you mentioned but they are now on my official “to-read” list.

      I didn’t mean any of the above post as a criticism of the book or Wallace’s technique. Wallace’s description of Kate made seemed like an apt description of what I’ve been up against as I’ve been reading and trying to tease out the connections in the book.

      Like you, I totally dig the depth and complexity of the work. But I find myself discomforted as I track all of these recurring tropes — all these patterns are emerging, but the problem for me is that I can’t discern what the significance of the patterns are. E.g., what was Wallace trying to say with the conspicuous use of the word ‘wobble’? What’s the thing with the triangles all about? &c.

      This significance-anxiety is probably one of those interpretive tics that says more about the reader than the book. And one of the things that drives me batshit, as a reader of this or any other book, is knowing where the line is between the connections and significances that inhere to the book itself, versus those that originate solely in my batshitty mind. In other words, how do I know when I’ve ceased to draw meaning out of the book, and am instead shoehorning extraneous meanings into the book?

      I know that with the ‘death of the author’ and all that good shit that this technically shouldn’t really even matter anymore. But I think it does matter, and it greatly colors how I approach things.

      I like what you said about how the work of trying to trace Wallace’s allusions is not alienating. In fact I find it the opposite of alienating, because as Daryl’s mentioned it encourages you to go out into the world and find out about things you otherwise wouldn’t know about. And, of course, to seek out other individuals and talk about the book and get yer’ imbrication on:)

      And dude: I loved the brogue section — “the tard practically had a poolse!” I tried reading it out loud but am not nearly Irish enough to pull it off, but it rang out crystal clear in my head.

    • Matt Evans permalink
      August 15, 2009 5:14 pm

      Infinitedetox and Infinitetasks: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts and comments over the last few months.

      This last P.S. sparked in me a desire to try to explain some of what this whole IS experience has meant to me. (Not that you asked, but this is something I’ve been kind of mulling over for a while and wanted to try to put into words.)

      “Are we not imbricated in one another’s world, discovering new forms of co-subjectivity?”

      I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of IS being the very opposite of solipsism. In fact, it seems to me that membership in this community of meaning we’ve created through our “[imbricated actions] in one another’s worlds” accesses or touches on or connects to a kind of beyond-the-referent capital-T truth that is at once deeply and experientially satisfying, and also oddly inexplicable.

      Or at the very least hard to explain. For me what’s hard to explain or conclusively identify is this tip-of-the-tongue grand Idea that IJ’s webs of connection seem to point toward. Toward a vision or experience of something that if fully comprehended or totally understood feels like it promises complete freedom, total ecstasy (which sounds Whitmanishly gushy or Thoreauishly earnest, but see that’s what it *feels* like to me, not necessarily what I feel comfortable conclusively identifying it as).

      It’s the idea of a “new form of co-subjectivity” that consists of the layering of multifarious subjective points-of-view all engaged in a concerted act of seeing; and the sum total of which I’d imagine represents some actual kind of Truth. Something real that each of us is only a fractional part of here; and something real that addiction only gives lip service to, that it promises to reveal and then ultimately steers its victim 180-degrees away from.

      Marina Grishakova describes the foregoing like this (in her essay, “Acts of Presence Negotiated: Towards the Semiotics of the Observer”):

      “As modernist painting explores means of representation of illusory depth of pictorial space, likewise modernist literature focuses on exploration of the illusory depth of the represented consciousness. Individual worlds of consciousness are opaque, inaccessible for the outside observer: the omniscient narrator’s direct intervention is rejected as an artificial device. Modernist literature plays
      up an insistent, almost paranoiac desire to know “what is inside”. It either hands the narration over to the suspicious narrator who attempts to imagine and prognosticate other people’s opinions and reactions or introduces multiple perspectives without a complete
      synthesis of auctorial omniscience. As if summarizing the modernist quest for the object of knowledge, M. Merleau-Ponty writes about a hypothetical ‘absolute object’ which ‘will have to consist of an infinite number of different perspectives compressed into a
      strict co-existence, and to be presented as it were to a host of eyes all engaged in one concerted act of seeing’ (Merleau-Ponty 1981(1945): 70).”

      What I take from that is the idea that in order to truly or completely know myself, I need to take upon or into myself multiple other points of view — the clearest of which points of view, I’d imagine, are those of people I trust, with whom I have intimate relationships, etc. I think here of Hal who, shortly after quitting his substance, begins to take on different points of view that reveal to him the beginnings of a type of affective disorder the appears to get worse over the subsequent year: his inside state doesn’t match his outside state.

      But it’s not like revealing your inner self to the outer world of objects is easy or safe or painless; quite the opposite, in my experience. Perhaps one of the reasons AA works so well is that its 12 steps are a kind of stepladder out of solipsism (if you believe as I do that the state of addiction is more or less symptomatic of an acutely solipsistic soul — and I say this as an addict myself) initially carried out among other, anonymous more or less solipsists; i.e., safe people.

      And then there’s the idea of each one of us serving as each other’s inner-experience author-of-understanding when we give feedback or comment on what one of his has posited or said about this or that in the broad objective field of IJ.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that IS on IJ feels like its own kind of AA-like society, minus the actual steps, so at least AA-like in spirit. And I think I’m just looking for someone to validate that their experience is like this, too, however otiose a motive I fear that it may seem to your objective eyes.

      • August 17, 2009 3:39 pm

        Hey Matt– Great post/comment! I really like the Merleau-Ponty quote about an “absolute object.” A caution, though, in identifying the absolute object with capital-T Truth, since that T always recedes at the end of a horizon. As co-subjects, we cannot, even together, move beyond that horizon without losing our sense of co-constitutive perception (that is, if we split up and take up every possible site of seeing, we won’t be able to see one another!). In my view, we can’t actually interrogate the Object, but only the Seeing-of.

        I think some others have also made comments alluding to the AA-like experience of IS; I like to stress the importance of the IS-related blogosphere (toot toot, goes my horn). Here, we look beyond plot devices or simply word meanings to investigate the connection between the IJ-cosmos and our own, finding huge fractal and annular connectivity. DFW’s world – filled as it with cartoonish hats bouncing on heads, perfect veiled women climbing down trees while Nuck vengeants become victim to an addicts high heels, cross-dressed Unspecified agents – is still the tissue of our very own.

        But more specifically on AA, here’s one possible difference. In AA, there’s a sense of pure Affirmation and Identification. But in this blogo-sphere, we also have Accountability to the Truths we are co-constituting. I haven’t seen that kind of thing in Gately’s presentation. We can clarify, qualify, doubt, modify, even reject, so long as we adhere to certain ethical standards of communication.

        Look forward to more of your comments!

  4. August 11, 2009 9:45 pm

    Yes, no misunderstanding there. The question of shoehorning vs. “intent” is subject to permanent undecidability, so there’s no harm either way, since a shoehorned meaning still has to have coherence and ultimately resonance.

    The recent proliferation of wobbles is pretty intense, and if you hadn’t pointed it out way back when, I don’t know where I’d be.

  5. June 4, 2012 1:54 am

    After I open up your Rss feed it appears to be to be a ton of junk, is the issue on my side?

  6. Max G permalink
    February 23, 2013 5:28 am

    I learned atomistic solipsism (and I didn’t before know there was an atomism solipsism), and I added that to my belief in atomism. So experience must be ultimately reducible to the combination of environmentally, randomly and genetically determined interactions of firing neurons and atomic collisions, and as a person sleeps, he or she, sometimes in strange countries sometimes has malfunctioning, misfiring neurons that clean house on break, so to speak, producing a nightmare, and causing images of scary things in dreams or hallucinations, even in the waking. Atomic collisions interact in the environment, in my family, and with other people as I consciously experience the world. The environment is not conscious, but unconscious. And languages can’t be understood by anyone since they can be interpreted uniquely by disperate people. This is a hypothesis, it’s not a refutation, but it’s obvious the firing neurons and atomic collisions are waves and particles, atoms being the latter.

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