Thursday, October 8, 2009

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

I had a variant of this conversation with a friend yesterday after a class in which the professor claimed that "David Foster Wallace" was the moral position she would like to claim as her own. While we didn't refer back to that remark, we discussed the role of hyperbole in talking about books. For many (though not, or at least very rarely, for me), hyperbole seems to be the only adequate mode for describing one's feelings about a small set of books which one feels must be lifted out from the basic continuum of comparison and evaluation. These are the books which "change one's life."

That locution—"that book changed my life"—has always puzzled me, as its literal meanings seem generally dubious. If I were, however, to assume that a literal meaning is possible, it seems like it could mean all kinds of things: my behavior changed after I read it (I began recycling more, I watched television less, I became a vegetarian); the way I perceived things changed (I became cynical, or religious, or existential); I felt older or more mature or wiser; or (perhaps as a subset of one or more of these) my ideas of what fiction can be or what fiction is changed. I'm not sure the last would count for everybody as a life-changing event, but for "serious" readers, I think it probably does.

Or, more likely, the book happened into our hand at a moment when we were already re-directing our steps slightly, and we conveniently use that coincidence to narrate and make more definite our account of ourselves. "Life-changing" is less a property of the book than of time, of the narrative of maturation, Bildung, disenchantment, etc. The Catcher in the Rye doesn't make you a nihilistic smartass; you just recognized that you were one after you read it, and you remembered it as a cause, not as a coincidence.

I'm quite skeptical of the other possible meanings for "that book changed my life." Feeling older or more mature or wiser because you read a book is probably somewhat valid, but again, I'd argue it's less a causal relationship and more of a correlation: you simply find the reading of a book a convenient milestone for marking your maturation, not an actual producer of more mature feelings or ideas. Books, like poetry, make nothing happen; they confirm what has happened or what we think has happened, in us as much as in the world.

I imagine there are cases of sustained self-induced behavioral modification that have been caused by reading, but the key word there is "sustained." Who doesn't stay away from McDonalds for a few months after reading Fast Food Nation? But if fast food was a solid part of your life before the book, it probably will be again, and if it wasn't—if you already did not eat fast food often, can your new resolution not to eat it at all be said to be life-changing? Similarly, I find it likely that if L'Étranger turned you into an existentialist, then something else will soon turn you into a nihilist, and Brideshead Revisited will probably Catholicize you if you read it when you're old (and not when you're young and just think rich British people of any religious persuasion are awesome). A convert is rarely a convert to just one thing.

Similarly, reactions to a book which could be described (in a not entirely pathologizing manner) as 'obsessive' strike me as unlikely to form without a supporting structure in place. In the linked example, Greg Carlisle describes his experience of reading Infinite Jest as the cause of his writing Elegant Complexity, a guide to Infinite Jest, and to his further reading of Vollmann, Barth, Gaddis, and Pynchon. The hyperbolic narrative Carlisle gives is that this prolonged activity is the consequence of reading Infinite Jest, as if the chance encounter with the novel which he describes contained within it the entire complex of motivations, energy, and even education necessary for the production of his guide and his further reading—it taught him about and impelled him toward all these other things. In fact, we can see in his account the outlines of some deeper motivations (dissatisfaction with his job and his location, positive reinforcement from fellow Wallace fans) that might provide the necessary grounds for sustaining a form of activity of this duration and intensity.

But what about the last possibility: that a book alters what we think of as the bounds of fiction: what it can do or what it is. I think this possibility is more likely, but it may mean something different from what we habitually mean when we say it. Given that few readers—even few serious readers—have explicitly articulated conceptions of what fiction can do and what it is, I think we have to acknowledge that the reaction "this book changed my idea of what fiction can do/is" would be more accurately re-phrased as "I hadn't thought of fiction as connected to that realm of experience." When we say our idea of fiction has been changed, we mean that we find fiction standing suddenly between us and some aspect of the world that we were either unused to interacting with in the first place or were used to interacting with in a manner unmediated by fiction.

Some of the reactions in the Infinite Summer wrap-up post demonstrate this sense pretty well: Avery Edison notes her sudden interest in tennis and her sudden disinterest in caffeine; Eden Kennedy simply says, "I’m certain little connections between the book and my life will continue to click together over time" and flags a particular interaction with her dentist which was mediated by IJ; Kevin Guilfoile (and Avery and Eden as well) speaks to the way IJ has entered his thoughts about time management and attention. (Matthew Baldwin doesn't so much affirm that IJ changed his life as admit that he can understand why people would say that sincerely.) In each case, Infinite Jest has newly stepped between an aspect of experience and the reader, and it is this new experience of mediation that counts as "life-changing."

Yet this mediation effect (which I find the most compelling description of the actual experience of having one's life or concept of fiction changed by a book) is so much less dramatic than the forms of expression it commonly takes that I feel there must be something other than the real intensity of the experience which necessitates hyperbole. That is, if what we actually feel about a "life-changing" book is that it has suddenly come to stand in between us and a realm (or more than one realm) of experience previously unknown or unmediated, this feeling seems insufficiently powerful to justify the expression "life-changing." Hyperbole is employed because it seems like it is the best approximation of the feeling of excess, effusion, effervescence that characterizes our full experience, and I have trouble finding that effervescence in my account.

My speculation is simply that this effervescence is provided by the desire to have one's life changed by a book, the desire to be a person whose life/identity/consciousness might actually be altered in a sustained and concrete way by a totally private experience. The hyperbolic expression "this book changed my life" is little more than a declaration of independence: I can change my life on my own; what I have inside me needs only the right key for its fulfillment. The frequency with which people (like Carlisle) avow the contingency of their encounter with the "life-changing" book is a strategy of minimizing the determinative structures which have brought you into contact with the book at all. Carlisle emphasizes the casualness with which Infinite Jest first came to him by his friend's recommendation, but this hides the fact that most people don't have friends who recommend Infinite Jest to them; being a person who does is not random or insignificant.

I imagine that all of the above may be considered a giant case of "missing the point," and I sympathize with that view to some extent. There is a communicative value to statements like "this book changed my life"—they are meant, I think, as sincere efforts to share something of the self with others; they are offers of a type of exchange which is intended as more than book-chat. The fact that this exchange is meant to reinforce the idea of an autonomous, largely self-forming self may, in the end, be somewhat incidental; so many of our activities, particularly our intellectual activities, are meant to reinforce the very same idea that perhaps it would be best to pass over this one, in the future at least. While I doubt I'll ever express myself in this hyperbolic manner, I certainly won't repeat this lecture if someone else does.


Lee said...

What I find most interesting about this post is that "Infinite Jest" is -- perhaps more than any other novel I've read -- the book that strives hardest to "change your life." It is a book about a work of art (the video cartridge "Infinite Jest") designed to punch through the anhedonic barriers of a life-inured tennis prodigy, a video that -- destructively -- changes the life of anyone who watches it. Wallace is sort of wondering via fiction whether it's possible for anyone to have his/her life changed by a book. That wondering is the central theme of almost everything he's written, in fact. Not to have your life changed by the book gets positioned as a betrayal of its theme.

Nick said...

Wait, what? Andrew, when did you get your degree in philosophy? This post is too juicy to ignore. Okay, I'll bite. Let's dissect this part:

"More likely, the book happened into our hand at a moment when we were already re-directing our steps slightly, and we conveniently use that coincidence to narrate and make more definite our account of ourselves."

Okay. Let's assume that the experience of reading the book just reaffirmed what you already felt, and was not a motivating factor. Then what were the motivating factors? What things do motivate people to "change your life"? Later, you write:

"...we can see in his account the outlines of some deeper motivations (dissatisfaction with his job and his location, positive reinforcement from fellow Wallace fans) that might provide the necessary grounds for sustaining a form of activity of this duration and intensity."

Here, you seem to imply that there's a bright line between "deep" experiences, and shallow experiences, and only "deep" experiences can "provide necessary grounds for ... intensity". Is that what you mean here? Do you feel that social experiences (like friends and jobs) are powerful motivators, while private experiences (reading a book) are not? Or do you just think that your personality and motivations are pre-destined, and so unlikely to be effected* by a book?

Different philosophers would say different things about this, and I'm curious where you're coming from.

* PS -- I'm so proud! It's not every day that I get to use effect as a verb!

Andrew Seal said...

Well, in the limited terms of the mediation effect I described, IJ "changed my life." It's not as if I haven't thought about it since, or that I think it will fade away from my thoughts. It holds a very substantial position in the way that I think about late 20th century literature (which is, after all, a large part of my life and thoughts), and it will certainly remain as a mediator between me and any thoughts I have of tennis, and that is even despite my years of playing in high school.

But I don't think that's what you mean. I would say, however, that I don't believe I have betrayed the theme by not affirming that my life has been changed in a more hyperbolic way; what would betray the theme is refusing to believe that this is a question that the novel asks. Obviously, my response indicates that it was a rather central concern for me about the novel, and I don't see how that is a betrayal. Asking what we mean when we say "this book changed my life" and how that matches up to what actually happens to us internally and externally--that was meant as an attempt to take this question seriously.

I don't think that anything is predestined in some metaphysical sense, or even in a more mundane sense. What I mean is that I am skeptical that private experiences are rarely necessary and sufficient conditions for an attempt to change one's behavior, condition, or perspective to succeed in any long- or even medium-term sense. That is, without some structural support--some amenable conditions like dissatisfaction with your job or sufficient funds or strong and useful interpersonal connections--I can't see how most people's attempts at "changing their lives" will last, will work.

I mean, I wrote my thesis on Saul Bellow, but despite the numerous hours I put into that sucker and its (for that moment of my life) disproportionate weight in my life, I would not say that it changed me or my life. That is, I would have written a thesis about something; reading Bellow may have inspired the particular product I turned out, but he did not inspire me to write a thesis. Something was going to fill that spot in my life--if not Bellow, then some other writer. And that, in general, is what I mean. The structure for writing a thesis was in place, and it was well-supported by many other things in my life. Was Bellow inspiring? Did he become a mediator for a hell of a lot of things in my life--history, philosophy, literature, modernism, postmodernism, gender, religion, intellectualism--why, of course! But he's certainly not the only mediator of these things for me, and I can't affirm that reading him was solely determinative on any score.

Lee said...

Just to be clear, I wasn't making an accusation that you were or weren't betraying the book or anything like that--just that Wallace sets up non-life-changing *as* a betrayal.

My reaction to the book when I first read it was very similar to yours, and I largely agree with the different levels of life-changing you describe, though I guess the distinction between levels sort of begs some questions: if literature can't change our lives in a strong sense what can other than permanent bodily injury?

What was interesting to me is that Wallace is interested in literature's capacity to change lives along the hyperbolic lines you described in your post. His career-wide denigration of irony is based on an idea that we've become so reflexively and postmodernly ironic that we're unable to experience our emotional lives sincerely, unless we're like Mario. Wallace might diagnose our inability to be hyperbolically changed by books as a symptom of our immersion in an ironic/postmodern worldview.

I would disagree with his analysis, of course. There is no such thing as a hermetic and homogeneous era-specific worldview in the way Wallace imagines, I think.

Nick said...

Seal, that's what I thought you probably meant. There's definitely a B.F. Skinner-esque argument here that only external forces can affect your behavior, and reading a book is too much of an interior activity to do that.

Also, +1 to Lee's analysis, though I have to think a bit more about whether I agree with Wallace, and to what degree.

Andrew Seal said...

I must not have explained myself very well, because I certainly did not mean to come off as a Skinnerite or a behaviorist. I believe in the reality of private experiences and in the reality of their ability to provoke us into action or change. What I don't believe in is their sole efficacy in sustaining individual action (much less collective action) over any significant period of time. Furthermore, I want to emphasize that the factors which lead to our ability to have private experiences of the richness that can actually produce a provocation toward action or change--these factors are much less romantic and less random than we often affirm them to be.

What I'm arguing for is simply that there is a gap that exists between the way we talk about books and the actual effects they have on behavior, perspective, or condition, and that we may account for this gap by looking at the particular rhetoric employed as a claim for a stronger agency than is actually possessed, and that we do this because it makes for a more coherent narrative of our lives. That is not to say that there is no agency, nor to define the width of the gap between rhetoric and reality. It's not that only external forces can affect you, just that running a gamut of multiple countervailing external forces often defeats the internal motivations we muster.

I wonder how much of this all actually rests on books, though. I mean, there is "E Unibus Pluram," but how many characters actually in Infinite Jest have their lives affected profoundly by a book or even just by reading something? The only one I can recall (and I'm sure I'm missing some) is Lenz, who uses a book mainly for something other than reading. Even in ETA, the reading that happens is fairly utilitarian: learning about drugs and their effects, plagiarizing in order to pass a class--these to me don't seem like arguments for books über alles as the privileged vector for self-transformation. Yes, obviously the vector DFW chooses for trying to encourage people toward a self-transformation is a book, but there seems to me to be a massive disconnect between the medium and the message, and Wallace doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would rely on the glibness of the obvious McLuhan retort, that the medium is the message and that is sufficient.

So I mean, I'm definitely with you that Wallace wants us first of all to recognize that postmodern irony has brought us to a point where we can't experience our emotional lives sincerely, and then wants to try to punch through that irony in order to kickstart our ability to do so (if that's a decent paraphrase of your argument), but I don't feel comfortable resting that argument on the book or on reading as a privileged vector for breaking into our awareness as Wallace wants to do. Gately, for instance, is practically illiterate; his transformation is almost entirely a product of orality, and not textuality.

George said...

You said:
I believe in the reality of private experiences and in the reality of their ability to provoke us into action or change. What I don't believe in is their sole efficacy in sustaining individual action (much less collective action) over any significant period of time. Furthermore, I want to emphasize that the factors which lead to our ability to have private experiences of the richness that can actually produce a provocation toward action or change--these factors are much less romantic and less random than we often affirm them to be.

I think you're starting to get a sense of the semantics behind "that book changed my life." It's a shorthand way of saying what you take whole paragraphs to detail: I understood a new subjective perspective on the world, I resolved to change my behavior, I finally understood my own subconscious fears, and the like. Yes, it's imprecise, as all shorthand is, but it serves the purpose in our cultural milieu of tagging the book as strongly associated with a crux in one's perception of one's own life.

Had I never read Infinite Jest, I might have still discovered and understood, by some other method, all that it illuminated about the human soul and the millenial-U.S. circumstances it describes, and might have still resolved to think long and hard about my own patterns of thinking, ambition, chosen methods of escape, and the like, but the book seriously affected my thinking in those days. It "changed my life," in our common cultural understanding of the phrase.

LML said...

I absolutely, for better or worse and with no concern for its literary merits, maintain that I avoided becoming a lawyer because I read Siddhartha in the eleventh grade and understood--really for the first time--that I had to choose a life that felt "right" to me.

This is silly, of course, totally trivial and unintersting to anyone but me. But it happened. To say that it would have happened regardless, that I was looking for a way to rationalize myself into a less practical life and something else would have sufficed, is really speculative and in no way takes into account the enormous impact that the timing of our choices has. In fact I'd argue that Hesse's exact concoction of simple narrative and easy mysticism (if I'm remembering it correctly) was exactly what was called for at exactly that moment. There were many other influences moving in the other direction. I needed that crack of dumb light.

Perhaps less trivially, I am not an African-American. Books like Black Boy and Invisible Man and The Bluest Eye brought me into very vivid contact with realities that had until then been mostly abstract to me. These books were absolutely vital to the development of my ethical sense (such as it is), and they also informed, in a pretty unsubtle and concrete way, my developing view of American history, politics, etc.

Possibly I was just a limited and defective person prior to my contact with Siddhartha, Black Boy, Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, but that doesn't seem relevant, really. And maybe you weren't talking about young, unformed people. So I'll admit that, yeah, the "changes" that books bring about in me now are a bit more rarefied and precious. But so is my daily life. So, I would say, are the lives of most people who deal with literature full- or even half-time.

So, speaking of DFW, I'll say that it was his prose style that changed my life--his rhythms and his searching intelligence and his simultaneous nakedness and knowingness--and just the experience of being caught up in the linguistic nets he builds, far more than anything he told me about the external world. The things he "told" me often felt a little cartoonish or shrill or half-baked, in fact. This is less true of his nonfiction. But his prose, in his fiction and his nonfiction, changed the way I experience language. There hadn't been a voice like his before, and I began to crave the texture of that voice. DFW widened my aesthetic sense, made me a better reader, built new little rooms in my head that continue to cry out for furnishing.

I don't expect this sort of thing to feel important to anyone else, and maybe it's an inferior kind of "change" to the kind that a Noam Chomsky book might induce in the reader. But I read those kinds of books too. And they change my life, too.

Andrew Seal said...

I actually had a formative experience with Siddhartha too--and, in fact, it was pretty much identical to yours. I also thought I had to be a lawyer, and after reading Hesse's novel, I gave up the idea that I "had to" do any one specific thing.

But speaking just from my experience, I find that the factors which drove me to feel like a career as a lawyer was being forced on me (parents were lawyers, most of their friends were lawyers, it was easy to confuse "growing up" with earning a law degree) are probably more salient in determining my eventual course than was Siddhartha's vision of self-fulfillment as the primary objective of life. I was also reading David Copperfield at the same time, and the idea that I could be the hero of my own life was massively (but probably overweeningly) empowering. But 'empowering' is importantly different from 'life-changing' or 'altering,' and I don't think the difference is entirely semantic.

At any rate, I would feel more comfortable using an idiom of "empowerment" than of "alteration"--I already had reasons for not wanting to be a lawyer, for being the 'hero of my own life,' etc.--those novels just told me that these reasons were good.

I feel ashamed, though, that I hadn't considered the type of experience you describe w/r/t Black Boy, et al. Certainly, I should have included ethical awakening as an independent category for what "this book changed my life" could mean--it should probably be handled differently from what I said about books which supposedly change our behavior or the way we perceive things. I will have to think on that some more.

Lee said...

"I wonder how much of this all actually rests on books, though."

I agree completely that Wallace's characters don't often (if ever) have epiphanic experiences with books. For Wallace, the relevant vector isn't "books" per se but art, and specifically art in one lineage of the avant-garde that he finds he is part of and wants to modify. His trying to connect with readers via books is an accident of history. I presume your argument about life-changing can very directly apply to art in any medium. Can a painting change our lives?