Author Archives: Ryan

Bill Murray and the Wu-Tang Clan

“You know, before I gave [coffee] up, I used to drink it every night, every single night, up until it was time to go to sleep, just to make me dream faster. You know, like when they flash those cameras on those Indy 500 cars, and they just fwhoowishfwhoowishfwhoowishfwhoo. That’s how my dreams were, just whizzin’ by.” – GZA, from the “Delirium” section of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes”

Last post. Man, too much pressure.

I picked the above line for several reasons. One, Jim Jarmusch is awesome, and the movie is doubly awesome, and GZA and RZA drinking caffeine-free herbal tea while Bill Murray drinks coffee straight from the pot is more awesome still. But anyway. The other reason is because I’m kind of feeling like it’s all just blurred together, like an endless stream of cars passing you on the track. Blink, gone.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t learned a lot. There’s something particularly valuable about getting people together and just talking about literature – something I’ve sorely missed having. Even coming back to works I’ve read (more or less) in the past opens up bold new prospects. DFW is particularly good for this. I’ve discovered themes, plot points, and details in IJ that I’d never dreamed of noticing the previous time, and all of his works have expanded my view. It would be a rare day that I would come back from DFW class without my hand covered in brainstorms, sketchy ideas, or revelations to incorporate elsewhere in writing and life, and that’s pretty damn impressive for a class I almost didn’t end up discovering or getting into. Pretty damn impressive indeed.

And I can at least say to myself that I came close to the real thing. Part of the reason I came to the Claremont Colleges was because DFW taught just down the street, but I never had the chance to share the campus with him. It’s kind of painful, actually, to hear recollections from former students, envying them their experience while sympathizing with them for their true loss. It’s like the universe, fractured into an endless framework of coincidences, circumstances, split decisions, random occurrences, and opportunities, all collapsing and coalescing. The world out of control… it’s hard to deal with, lost time. But I digress.

I don’t think there’s much to be said, honestly. Ironically, there really seems to be little uncovered, unturned. All that’s left is time to say

Lobster

Two pieces of personal association on this one. Both will be brief.

First one: I love seafood, including lobster. My father’s family are all Northeaterners, and have given me a heritage of love for the sea and its delicacies. Second one: I acquired Consider the Lobster early September 2008, days after I arrived here. I had read IJ first, then ASFTINDA, which turned me on to his nonfiction. Obviously, this was pretty poor timing all things considered. So, when I finally got around to reading this essay in particular (on the recommendation of my next-door-neighbor, who’s a true literary junkie), I couldn’t avoid linking the two. This circumstance, combined with the power of DFW’s argument in Lobster, made me genuinely consider swearing off seafood. That’s how powerful the essay is.

This reading response is about lobster, in a tangential way. Specifically, relating DFW’s perceptions of the MLF and vacationing with lobster and its consumption. DFW believes that the tourism that the MLF epitomizes and capitalizes on is a rather dreary affair, in which those present have been brought to experience something. Obviously, there are several flaws with this conception of tourism. For one, there’s the fact that nothing is ever as beautiful as you might expect just by nature*; for the other, there’s the fact that tourism is corrosive to itself. As more people are drawn in by the allure of travel, the destination in question becomes increasingly more crowded, which in turn directs it ever further toward fulfilling the interests of the tourists, which makes it even more touristy. You can see how this becomes circular really fast. This is why DFW points out the problem with the perspective of the woman who reviewed the festival in previous years glowingly – not only was that perspective probably not representative of the true nature of the fair, it made it so such an abominable fate, an effectual “tourist overpopulation”, became inevitable, which is what is depicted by the scene in the Main Eating Tent, which is like hell’s cafeteria if hell’s cafeteria only served lobsters.

So why is lobster important? Well, it’s one of those examples of something attaining an exaggerated value to the point where one is consuming less the lobster than the inside of the idea. Lobsters are usually the main item of a major seafood chain, and for good reason. Why do you think it’s called Red Lobster? Because lobster, in the eyes of your average diner, is the, as DFW puts it, “seafood analog to steak” (238). Not even considering the fact that the lobster tank is frequently situated in the front of the restaurant as if daring children to order the dish to confront the mortality of food firsthand – to literally “meet the meat” – lobsters are idolized in dining. And this translates into exaggerated expectations. Lobsters aren’t my favorite kind of seafood, but my grandparents think I love it, in part because of this exaggerated status. Lobsters as a food are the equivalent of the MLF itself – a kind of ultra-delicacy. However, the consumer at either of these events isn’t consuming the item, but rather the concept of the item – an idealized lobster, or an idealized tourist attraction. Hence DFW’s criticism of the festival – it’s less something exciting than something to do because it’s exciting, or, worse, something to do because it’s depicted as exciting. This is why tourism is so caustic – because it’s removed from any kind of excitement at that point.

* My parents are fans of public television, which means I’ve watched a rather excessive amount of a program called “Rick Steves’ Travels in Europe”, which are a strange sight. At once, they’re really well-attuned to the beautiful things one can discover in travel, and Mr. Steves himself is quite good at getting his hands dirty, immersing himself in the local culture, etc. but at the same time, it’s almost too meta in its reflection of the travel experience. By attacking the conception of tourists-visiting-for-its-own-sake, programs like this that try to get the tourist to partake of the culture create their own layers of self-justification, in this case justification-of-the-culture-and-the-experience-of-such, which frequently is either hopelessly romanticized or itself an iteration of the tourist’s experience. This is getting convoluted. The point is that travel is a self-reinforcing process – as soon as one tries to get the best-of-both-worlds in travel by “acting like locals”, they reinforce the fact that travel is ultimately about going somewhere and doing something for no really good reason.

More on the Kenyon Speech

An essay on the Kenyon speech, from the NY Times Book Review.

Someone Wrote Something About DFW Audio

and I felt this deserved to be posted separately, because it’s so great.

This is DFW reading “Getting Away From Pretty Much Already Being Away From it All” (parts) and another piece.

The End

Some time this year, I made a joke on the internet about John Updike losing the contents of his bowels in response to someone’s prose. Three days later, Mr. Updike was dead. Oops.

I must say I’ve never been a real Updike person, or for that matter, cared about the group of American postmodernists – Roth, Mailer, and co. – who clearly influenced DFW and the writers of his generation. Maybe it’s a new postmodern boredom, a kind of rejection of the old hands in some fashionable spring cleaning (though I would note that this isn’t the kind of sheer hatred usually seen in this form, such as people hating on the Beatles for arbitrary reasons, though I do have a bone to pick with Bret Easton Ellis and the New Realists – another story). But that kind of apathy does put an interesting spin on “Certainly the End of Something or Other”, DFW’s review of Updike’s “ambitious departure” Toward the End of Time.

What interests me most about the review is how DFW effectively critiques Updike’s literary stagnation while singling out the characteristics of Updike’s work that are so powerful (in particular his prose). His approach is quite notable: he points out many of the same flaws as those people who refer to him as a “penis with a thesaurus” (52), such as how Updike spends 10.5 pages of his book on the aforementioned member, but at the same time draws attention to places in the book where Updike is at his best, such as in the “half-dozen little set pieces where Turnbull imagines himself inhabiting various historical figures” (56). In Wallace’s view, what really sets Updike apart is his control of language and his prose, and in spite of the fact that he invests that prose on what is effectively a book on The Tragedy of a Man Losing the Use of his Penis and how that serves as a suitable death for its protagonist, his work has a redemptive quality. This, I don’t think anyone really will deny. Updike, for his many unfortunate characteristics, does write a mean novel.

I do agree, however, with DFW when it comes to actually evaluating Updike’s work versus his skill. As he points out when he dissects the book to determine how many pages are spent on, say, the pseudo-futurist frame devices Updike uses to try to give his world a vaguely dystopian quality (and then promptly discards in favor of another good conversation with his member or a tree). Ultimately, there’s something kind of reductive about what Updike does, a major reason why I’ve never really gotten into him. I suppose I’m still one of those people who likes reading well-written books that also have interesting plots and dynamic characters. However, most John Updike books are the same: protagonist modeled strikingly after Updike himself bemoans his unhappiness etc. and buries himself in a pursuit of pleasure that is merely destructive. That’s a pretty good summary of the Rabbit series and most of Updike’s work, sadly. The man’s proficient, but he’s rather formulaic, and, as DFW underscores at the end, the protagonist-that’s-actually-Updike’s-alter-ego is usually a guy nobody could care about, and the linking of his fate to tragedy is doubly uninteresting because of it – on top of all narcissistic/misogynistic qualities one can pin on him.

But I’m straying. I’ve already hit my thesis: DFW defends Updike even as he tears apart TTEOT. There’s nothing more to be said.

Slavoj Zizek

Something interesting, especially considering the fundamental themes of Infinite Jest, I found while browsing the Net. It’s a film by everyone’s favorite turn-of-the-century psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, called “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”, which is roughly about major psychoanalytical themes analyzed in significant cinematic works. He samples from a lot of Lynch among others, and a lot of the things he talks about are related to the book in tangential ways. And the guy is just plain interesting (be forewarned: his accent is ridiculous).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-M2BQhaP8Q&feature=channel_page

Good Old Loneliness

“Good Old Neon” is a haunting piece, both from a personal perspective and from the perspective that knows full well what happens to its author. But what’s most interesting about the whole bit is the way that Wallace’s character compares himself to the imagined version of Neil, back in the day. He had imaged that Neil was “happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else” (181) and found himself (by comparison) forced to impersonate a normal person to cope. Of course, this latter part is ironic when considering Neil’s own feelings of fraudulence that lead to his own self-destruction. But what interests me most is the last part of that quote – David Wallace’s sensation that what he experienced happened to nobody else, a feeling of isolation.

What makes this so interesting is that he compares this state to a kind of reverse-solipsism, in which one is a “pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person” in comparison to all the real people around him. This, I think he’s trying to say, is the true face of “solipsism” as a personal state (and I wrote a paper about this, so I know the word is improperly used – I’m trying to reflect on that impropriety) – rather than existing in a world devoid of anything beyond the mind, this “solipsist” is instead nonexistent in comparison to everything else around them. Both of these positions are clearly the positions of a lonely person, and they’re both seemingly defense mechanisms – it’s hard to relate to anyone else if you, or anyone else, doesn’t exist. But the difference is that the latter is seemingly able to change, because, unlike in true solipsism, the mind is clearly capable of understanding itself in this “solipsism” – it’s just that everyone else is incapable of doing the same. Ironically, this state seems to be one of greater desperation, because there are no escapes and no ways to justify one’s state of being. It is a truly personal loneliness.

So consider the piece that comes up whenever solipsism is brought to the table – the Little Buddies passage in IJ. There, Arsalanian is clearly wrong when trying to call his status solipsism, because it’s clear that his audience exists. However, one can make a case for this reverse-solipsism being what truly afflicts the kids (correctly or otherwise, because it’s all a matter of perception). In effect, the kids are all incapable of feeling like anyone else understands them – but this is less a matter of their literal existence as their individual isolation. And the solution to this problem that Hal offers – the coaching staff giving the kids all something to gripe about – makes more sense for this reverse-solipsism. When considering literal solipsism, there are no solutions, for obvious reasons; but in reverse-solipsism, the problem is one of communication, and thus by giving the kids something to communicate about, the staff allows them all to reach out of their own holes to overcome their isolation.

So – what do you think?

A Post Whose Sole Intention is to Test-Run the Author’s Paper, Due Wednesday, Which He Has Not Thought Sufficiently About

Spoilers ahead, for those who haven’t finished the book.

Ahem.

One of the many themes at work in Infinite Jest is narcissism. However, this extends merely beyond the conventional definition. In Mary Holland’s article “‘The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest“, narcissism is equated with Freudian infantile sexuality. In essence, narcissism stems from desire for fulfillment of pleasure – what Holland refers to as “ego instincts” (224) – which is created, for the infant, by the mother, who provides for all needs, creating a cycle of need-fulfillment that makes the mother part of the infant. “In desiring the mother”, Holland writes, “the infant is simply desiring the self and existing in a closed loop of constant fulfillment that seems to flow from no external source.” (224) Holland goes on to connect this pleasure-as-narcissism cycle to the usual addiction themes in DFW’s work. However, there’s another connection to a major plot point and theme staring Holland’s theory in the face: the cartridge, the Entertainment, Infinite Jest V and Joelle and the final fulfillment of absolute pleasure. Indeed, the Entertainment promises nothing less than total and absolute pleasure.

To do this, we must fit another uneven piece into this puzzle. In “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest“, N. Katherine Hayles approaches addictiveness from the angle of autonomy. In a similar-but-not-exact fashion to Holland, Hayles argues that autonomy, stemming from individuality, is a true problem. As with the Holland article, this too is mostly a waste of time. We’re here instead to get an idea of why the Entertainment is so important to the conception of addiction. The Entertainment (here come those spoilers) consists of three sections, of which the latter two are of particular interest. Those latter two sections pose the theory that the woman that kills you becomes your mother in the next life, and then connects that to a woman apologizing to a “baby” (a wobbly blurred camera) – implicitly, for killing it (692). What’s so interesting about this whole child-mother dynamic is that it is at once a triumphant fulfillment and an ironic reversal of Freud’s vision of narcissism. In the Entertainment, one’s mother is a source of life, freeing one from a sort of purgatory – but only in a kind of redemption for an original act of violence. In essence, the narcissistic impulse is fulfilled, because the child and mother become entangled in a system of death and renewal, encapsulated best by the metaphor contained in the first part of the film, which features two people circling each other in a revolving door, never to meet, foreshadowing the endless renewal to follow. How fitting it is, then that this piece be “infinite” jest. The piece reduces, eternally, the viewer to a child, experiencing this eternal rebirth and murder in the infant’s narcissistic vision, thus validating its endlessness. Much in the same way that addiction is cyclical, the Entertainment perfectly encapsulates the narcissistic impulse to have every pleasure fulfilled – a return to the infantile, forever. In Holland’s view, that’s what pleasure is all about.

Eric Clipperton

Of the many passages of Infinite Jest that I enjoy reading, either for entertainment value or for thought-provoking content, the Eric Clipperton episodes are high up there in the latter category. I’ve even gone so far as to use E.C. in a philosophical debate, about which I have now forgotten. The concept of “Clipperton’s hostage” – this fear of causing death less out of respect to the victim and more out of psychological self-preservation – has always struck me as one of the most subtle and most awe-inspiring metaphors in literature, such that it’s inspired in its own way one of my writing projects. This post isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about the more-mundane topic: evaluating why E.C. does what he does.

What amuses me is that basically everyone who ever encountered E.C., as DFW repeatedly notes, are focused on his victories and believe that he derives some strange pleasure from his pseudo-victories (431 contains a good metaphor for this, in an anatomically-questionable act that drives the “pleasure” point home rather bluntly). The entire concept of E.C., to these kids who live tennis, is anomalous, which creates this sensation of hatred. And E.C. certainly didn’t make this any harder to handle, what with how he “always seemed so terrifically glum and withdrawn and made such a big deal out of materializing and dematerializing at tournaments” (431) – to reduce himself to the level of phantasm and thus strip away any sensation of reality.

However, I hesitate to follow prior writers and gesture toward Clipperton being either a genuine narcissist or an abrupt metaphor for the American Dream. There are several clues that give his story a greater depth, clues that really make the story so resonant in my mind.

For starters, consider Mario Incandenza, a character who at this point of the book hasn’t really been considered. Mario, while older than Hal, occasionally is portrayed as a rather innocent creature, despite his interest in Madame Psychosis’ shows, his penetrating cartridges, and ability to hit home at what is truly underlying the scenes around him. His association with Clipperton is important in that respect. Where everyone else treats E.C. and his gimmick as a joke or a travesty, Mario understands that E.C. is really just a very lonely teenager trying to make his tranqed-out and blind parents recognize his capabilities. He just did it in the most offensive way imaginable. But Clipperton’s home situation isn’t unlike that of Hal, whose parents are respectively [redacted for spoilers] (Avril) or pre-microwave lost in his head/post-microwave dead (Himself). And Mario recognizes this. See, for instance, Mario’s request that Himself not film E.C.’s funeral. Himself’s interest in E.C. is more of an aesthetic or perhaps merely archival. Which isn’t necessarily Himself’s fault, but certainly indicates how Mario related to E.C. In a sense, Mario was the closest thing E.C. had to a friend, and DFW emphasizes this to color Clipperton’s story. At the very least, it takes quite a bit of dedication to insist that you be the sole person to clean up the aftermath of someone eliminating their map*, especially in Mario’s condition.

The Hal-E.C. link is more than just a tenuous “have shitty families” association. Both of them are trying to actively escape their surroundings, both from their families and from their conditions. Hal feels dissociated from his success and his family, and is losing an ontological battle with himself, which he responds to with weed (and a lot of it – it’s mentioned that he smoked four times on Interdependence Day). Clipperton, meanwhile, is facing down a living situation with two basically nonexistent parents and little real potential to escape. Tennis to him provided an opportunity to get away from his circumstances, and succeeding gave him a glimmer of self-fulfillment. He’d never get invited to speak on Atlas Shrugged, for sure, but there’s something, if not admirable, at least a bit interesting about such a need to escape that he’d be willing to put his fate in the hands of people who clearly do not have his best interests at heart.

Clipperton’s story may be viewed as a cautionary tale, for sure, about letting success overwhelm better reason or taste, but I would hesitate to label E.C. himself so one-dimensionally. Clearly his final solution indicates that he wasn’t in it to win it – otherwise he probably would retire to perform the aforementioned anatomically-questionable act. Instead, E.C. represents something that defines and yet is anomalous in the sport of youth tennis: a kid, lost and incapable of coming to grips with a world that’s tearing at the edges.

* Which reminds me – I don’t know if anyone has mentioned “eliminating a map” as a strange choice of phrase in the book. It probably relates in some way to the US giving Canada toxic territory, but when I think this, I think of the Borges story about an empire with a map of the same size ª. Anyone else got an idea? I like the Borges story especially because it gives Pemulis’ “It’s snowing on the map, not the territory” bit a whole new level.
ª From Borges’ “On Exactitude In Science”:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Soma

We started talking about the nature of addiction at the end and whether there’s a positive aspect to it, but I don’t know if it was fully covered. So, let’s have ourselves a thought experiment:

A corporation produces a drug we’ll call soma after the Huxley product. However, this drug’s existence is free from the other bad things in Huxley’s novel. All that happens in this thought experiment is that the company produces the product and various governments subsidize the product so anyone can have it as much as they want for free. We’ll further imagine that any possible externalities from this (e.g. the governments withholding funding to screw the public/coerce the public, any tax problems, etc. etc. ad nauseam). All that’s happening is that the public has unlimited access to a drug with no side effects that creates a euphoric, psychedelic high.

The question is, is this a bad thing?

And, to add another comparative layer, if this drug had vicious withdrawal symptoms that wouldn’t kill but would force the person back into drug therapy, is that a bad thing?

And the third question is, how is this different than any other kind of addiction? Isn’t life, in that it’s a process designed to elicit pleasure from activity, an addictive process? And how do we escape this cycle of addiction?

That’s a lot to digest, I know. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.