Friday, October 13, 2017

Infinite Regress: David Foster Wallace & Writing About Writing and Not Writing

David Foster Wallace giving a reading at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006 (photo by Steve Rhodes)

It has recently come to my attention that the meaning of life can be found in the 1996 novel by the late American author David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. I can indeed confirm this, even though it is a delayed realization of some fifteen perplexed years. There are a number of explanations for why it took so long to realize that the meaning of life is easily found in Infinite Jest (page 492, to be exact) but those would not add anything salient to this basic empirical fact. The meaning of life recurs on page 997, as if for some sort of echo effect that manages to reassure the astute reader that, indeed, he or she is on the right track after all. But just where does that track lead? Did DFW find out? If so, after visiting us from 1962 to 2008, he is regrettably no longer able to file his remarkable reports from the front. Or has he only gone on to the actual front? “One never knew, after all, now did one now, did one now did one,” as he himself said in the “radically condensed history of post-industrial life” from his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, 2007. Late late Wallace.

If one could envisage a large balcony jutting off a big old ornate building somewhere in the Swiss Alps (SA in Wallace-speak), with obscurely wounded inmates lounging on large deck chairs bundled in thick blankets and conversing about the meaning of life in their own distinct accents or dialects, then one could probably see that Harry Haller is there from the novel Steppenwolf, Hans Castorp is there from The Magic Mountain (he is their genial host, in fact), Ulrich is there from The Man Without Qualities, Gwyon is there from The Recognitions, Benny Profane is there from Pynchon's Should Salinger or . . . God, no, who wants to listen to Holden with his constant cringing and whining? Certainly not gentlemen of the caliber of Haller, Castorp and Ulrich. Old-world, you know. He could always sit with Profane, I suppose. After all, it’s a community of shadows of their former selves, or of their creative authors. And Wallace’s Hal Incandenza IJ character is sitting there quietly in the corner, seemingly lost in a private reverie, or maybe he’s just pouting, thinking about Norman Mailer.

He looks tired. And why not?  His was one hell of a ride. Blood-shot eyes that only his loving dogs Jeeves and Drone truly understand. His own personal V. was the under-read and over-written gem The Broom of the System in 1987, with Infinite Jest being an apparently obvious Gravity’s Rainbow-scale achievement. At first glance. But the remarkable thing is that the hyper-intelligent DFW, whose frenetic literary voice is already sorely missed, was not quite ever able to do what even a brilliant genius-thug like Mailer was able to do: follow up the first astonishing salvo with a second barrage of brilliance; or in his case, pull off the great second follow-up novel and then hit the jackpot with a third that surpasses it as well. Surpass Infinite Jest, though? It has to be Infinite Jest that is considered DFW’s The Naked and the Dead. Because The Broom of The System was nowhere near as gigantic a household name as IJ (incredibly enough given its girth), and since it went by relatively unnoticed by the mass reading audience, it was not something to even be surpassed. Therein lies the dilemma. Which is why such an effort on DFW’s part invariably leads to infinite regress: that foggy cul de sac in the overcrowded city of thoughts devoted to searching for origins and authenticity. Where there is none. Perfect for the math-sodden wretch who wrote Everything and More. Though at least in deference to his considerable and profound gifts, we can certainly say that he did manage to produce a whirlwind of non-novelistic writings that remain equally incandescent (pun intended), so-called non-fiction essays that stand in counterbalance to his two and a half novels.

There have been some excellent appreciations of this talented writer’s work, the most notable of which was David Lipsky’s remarkable Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, but there is something missing in the portrait that unfolds itself through his shimmering conversations with the late author while on a book publicity tour. If I knew what was missing, then it wouldn’t be so missing. But even though something is missing in it, Lipsky’s book is still a marvelous evocation of that novel’s celebration and its author’s surprising (surely especially to him) lionization by the international literary community. His glorious exchanges with DFW were originally printed in Rolling Stone in 2008, as The Lost Years and Last Days of. It has now become part of his received legend that DFW was the designated depressed person. His dispatches about his and our inner demons and his and our human frailties were delivered with deceptive clarity and tenderness by this hulking tender beast of a brilliant writer. In fact, in Brief Interviews from 1999, he veered perilously close to all-out aberrant self-revelation (his usual modus operandi, after all) in the second story, titled, with appropriate irony, “The Depressed Person,” as per: "The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” Fulfilled-dream syndrome: Mailer had it too, and Fitzgerald and Capote, and Toole, and Hemingway.

But hold the phone: this particular depressed person was able to not only share and articulate but also diagnose and nearly heal, upon reading and laughing with involuntary amazement, the many illusory and real sufferings to which humans are inclined. His was a voice that worked, outwardly at least, the kind of voice that materializes once in a rare while. Richard Brautigan was such a voice from a generation earlier, and one who also succumbed to the same misinterpretation of the consequences of his own insights, with the same dark, self-homicidal results. Perhaps John Kennedy Toole, he of the posthumous Pulitzer for his lost A Confederacy of Dunces . . . oops, he was yet another one of the early check-outs in the existential express lane with a minimum number of life experiences to bag. Lipsky identified the check-out effect as one that has event gravity.


And at 31, Toole was even worse (as in sadder) than DFW at 46. At least DFW managed to cram a whole literary life into his short corporeal one. While rhapsodizing about isolation, he has managed to produce a body of work that is scarily unified in its persistently blurred voices in the dark night of the soul. He was always telling us in the most upfront manner possible that he was not long for these climes. Maybe life is just an accumulation of flukes after all, all misinterpreted. As, for example, when he explains (again in "The Depressed Person"), “Despairing then of describing the emotional pain or expressing its utter-ness to those around her, the depressed person instead described circumstances, both past and ongoing, which were somehow related to the pain, to its etiology and cause, hoping at least to be able to express to others something of the pain’s context, its – as it were –shape and texture.” Isolation? But the System anointed him a Genius with its huge Macarthur Foundation Caress! For some strange reason, DFW succumbed to an often-entertained cultural contest between fiction and non-fiction which has historically focused erroneously on the notion that the meaning of life is supposedly being conveyed more effectively through fiction, rather than through anything that is other than fiction. This, of course, is but another cul de sac. Blame Cervantes, perhaps. In visual art, this contest was also being played out as the wrestling match between drawing and colour for aesthetic supremacy. It’s a mug’s game. His life had already been embedded in his fiction, and his style was already opaquely memorial.

It’s a pity he had to pit himself against this bipolar gods of fiction versus fact, considering how blisteringly brilliant his so-called non-fiction is (such as, of course, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again 1997, his first post-IJ work, or Consider The Lobster, 2005). When he’s in his element he delivers top-drawer personal journalism at the solo-ipsis archetypal level of Capote, Mailer, Updike, Cheever, Roth et al. Not to mention Hunter Thompson . . . oops, another one bites the destiny. Given the authorial roots of style on display by DFW all along, which originate as far back as Laurence Sterne, for instance, and whose work when it is finished is so quintessentially unfinished anyway, à la 1759's Tristram Shandy, for example, it thus makes perfect sense to approach and review The Pale King even before it is released in its prematurely skeletal form. Perhaps especially since the meaning of life was already clearly embedded in pages 492 and 997 of Infinite Jest.
After the swampy depths of delirium so expertly explored in Girl With The Curious Hair, his second book in 1989, after which he checked himself voluntarily into a protective custody ward where they conducted ongoing suicide watches, boredom may be an improvement of sorts. Indeed, it does contain some of his most disturbing and disturbed writing. Kafka, Beckett, Céline, Burroughs, Kerouac, Barth, Hawkes, Robbe-Grillet . . . it’s a crowded and nightmarish alley. But it’s still one just chock-filled with yucks and boffos, even after all these years. He was in such good company in his own territory, once he had staked it out.

As a matter of fact, since poor DFW is now a ghost, or a fictional character, he could even himself join that little gathering on the balcony, and with red bandanna in hand (in preparation for any untoward perspiration) he could hold forth while all the gentleman in question bring to bear on the question of the particular perspective of their own personal authorial creators. Here then, the question, as Antonin A. used to intone it. All along, DFW was writing his eulogy right in front of our (very) eyes. Only Nietzsche self-eulogized more than either DFW or Mailer, for god’s sake. And all I’m asking for is an explanation, after all, as someone who seems to have developed a bit of an appetite for the strangely spiced dish he specializes in concocting. Just a simple explanation. I’m less interested in analyzing or discussing how and why DFW wrote, since I also never analyze the sacred solos of either Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, and they likewise just happened perfectly all by themselves, just as DFW’s most poetic prose does, such as his Mailer-like assessment of the time of his own time (1999) in On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand: “Do not consign me. Be my bell. Unworthy life for all thee. Beg. Not to die in this appalling silence. This charged and pregnant vacuum all around. This wet and open sucking hole beneath that eye. That terrible eye impending. Such silence.” Why did DFW stop writing? He didn’t. Writing stopped him. Soon after he stopped taking a certain anti-depressant called Nardil. In many respects that wall-hitting was also most similar to another large scale American male-liver/writer/dier, now Grandpapa Hemingway, in his own time quite a radical literary voice, and still utterly unique.

He too was stopped by writing. In fact, the number of writers who are stopped by writing and who eliminate their own actual characters is/was quite vertiginous: Zweig, Woolf, Thompson, Sexton, Kosinksi, Levi, Brautigan, de Nerval, Crane, Crevel, Crosby, Hemingway, Debord, Koestler, Inge, Mann, Mishima, Plath. What is writer’s block, after all, but disenchantment with the process of being written by the books you claim to write? If you have a friend on the AD’s, tell them to continue on, no matter what. And since we will now no longer be receiving any further reports from DFW's stilled voice, some people believe that it’s fit and proper to release as much of what we already have but have not yet read as possible. I’m not so sure. But what are we able to learn from DFW in his short 46-year sojourn amongst us? We learn that often, rumination causes in us a humorous sadness. Musing on works after the physical, the metaphysical, induces an amusing melancholy. The meta-world just past the edge of the physical (about which he now knows a few things he didn’t before), and about which much can be surmised but little can be confirmed, while being excessively tantalizing though unyielding in its stubborn silence, remains a mere emblem of the enigma. There are, of course, many emblems of the enigma but there is only one enigma. DFW’s notions about the meta-novel are now quite relevant to his current experiences in the metaphysical realms. I hope he brought his notebook along with him.The nutshell story of this gifted nutcase is tenderly expressed by his sister Amy Wallace, and even more succinctly than Lipsky’s guy-pal version: “Interviewers were coming asking what David was like. But the questions always circled back to the same anxious ground. His phobias and low points. My own anxieties are many. My brother was a hilarious guy, a quirky generous spirit, who happened to be a genius and also suffer from depression.” She also suggests that he may have kissed his dogs on the mouth and said he was sorry before hanging himself.

The meaning of life is that it ends. But the purpose of life is not to let it, or perhaps to make of its impermanence something meaningful. A sudden ray of light emerges from the gloom: life is thematic; it isn’t really chronological at all. And so is DFW’s big book, Infinite Jest. This is one of the secrets the book reveals. It has a section at the back which outlines the chapters chronologically, if so desired, but the book itself proceeds according to thematic segments. The way real life does. The book flows according to procedures for a well-timed ending. Just the way DFW’s own story flowed, as it turns out. The Obtuse Ovid does it again! John Updike, one of the elder statesmen in the difficult and demanding field with DFW, and one who, like Roth and Mailer, was able to keep on writing book after book long after his initial early-celebrity binge, has commented somewhere that the fact that things are brief, temporary, conditional, provisional or contingent shouldn’t necessarily disqualify them. It’s the same with great writers. Sometimes, there’s just something missing.

Infinite Regress. The ancients defined knowledge as justified true belief. Justification was providing some reasons, a rational explanation for the belief. True opinion accompanied by reason is knowledge. The infinite regress arises when we ask what are the justifications for the reasons themselves. If the reasons count as knowledge, they must be justified with reasons for the reasons, and reasons for those reasons. This leads the skeptic to suspension of judgment. Skeptics hand down two other modes leading to suspension of judgment. Since every object of apprehension seems to be apprehended either through itself or through another object, by showing that nothing is apprehended either through itself or through another thing, they introduce doubt, as they suppose, about everything. That nothing is apprehended through itself is plain, they say, from the controversy which exists amongst the physicists regarding, I imagine, all things, both sensibles and intelligibles; which controversy admits of no settlement because we can employ neither a sensible nor an intelligible criterion, since every criterion we may adopt is controverted and therefore discredited. And the reason why they do not allow that anything is apprehended through something else is this: if that through which an object is apprehended must always itself be apprehended through some other thing, one is involved in a process of circular reasoning or in regress ad infinitum.


The whole historical phenomenon of infinite regress is ideally suited to the barely-hidden mathematical genius of DFW in every aspect of his novelistic and journalistic observations. That is his special gift: having this astonishing power of observation and this amazing power of description, rarely combined in one writer, living or dead. We ourselves also have something missing. We identify. They are our surrogates living at the edges of emotional extremis. They cater our dreams and nightmares. They tell us the stories that we would have discovered for ourselves if only we had been brave enough or smart enough to do so. This is, of course, as brilliant as it is poignant. Hemingway took his life. Virginia Woolf took her life. I believe their books took their lives. They took back their lives, but only after first giving them to us through their works. Similar ventures into the realm of dark laughter are, of course, legion, from Swift and Sterne onward but perhaps especially so in post-war American fiction. John Hawkes, one of the writers, along with Bill Gaddis, who most resonate through the crystalline vernacular voice of DFW, was engaged in a similar tag-team wrestling match with the history of literature and the history of doubt. And, of course, all of them toil in the huge modernist shadow cast by Joyce and others of his scope and scale. They are born ambitious, apparently.

Leslie A. Fiedler was one of the great advocates for both modernist literature and the importance of literature in life generally, and in his prime he explored the precursors and their inheritors with an acute sense that the generation of writers that followed by modernists would be even more demanding and challenging. He was, of course, both prescient and correct. In his masterful 1960 opus Love and Death in The American Novel, he managed to isolate and analyze several of the key subjects and issues inherent to the American literary voice, with particular emphasis on the curious obsession with depression and death that seems to haunt the American idiom. The same kind of dark comedy explored by Wallace and attracting a massive accidentally mainstream popular audience, something inconceivable for a Hawkes, or even a Pynchon. And what is contained in what he left us? His journalistic essays often reveal it even more incisively than his quirky fictional stories and novels. A cautionary tale warning against the dangers of literary solipsism, among other things, and, for that matter, existential solipsism in everyday life, to which the author eventually surrendered. This position is most often confused with those Faustian themes that fuel most modernist styles as well as those that emerged afterward and needed to disguise themselves in something slightly more diverse and less monolithic. In “The Power of Blackness: Faustian Man and the Cult of Violence,” from Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler discussed the idea of despair in Melville's works, asserting that Melville's style changed from Gothic to romantic as his career progressed. He asserted that the reality of damnation he never denied; but the meaning of it, for one committed to a skeptical and secular view, he questioned. Especially in his later works, he presented the “mystery of iniquity” in such complexly ironical contexts that the wariest of readers is occasionally baffled. That is precisely the bargain that David Foster Wallace made with his readers, and with himself, and which, while attempting to finish The Pale King in 2008, he lost.

Nevertheless, he kept faith throughout his captivating writing, not only with the Gothic vision in general, but with that Faustian theme. Wallace would embrace damnation and the doom of a dark tragicomedy and move from postmodern angst to a neo-baroque style while also exploring complexly ironical context which, needless to say, still often baffles his readers. Or perhaps he only baffles people before they become his readers, since, as in most aspects of life, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy DFW and those who do not. Of course, there are also two other kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is divided into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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