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This past week was a vacation for all four guides at Infinite Summer, so they had some guests in, and I’ll tell you this for free: I like the way these new kids read and think about the book. I mean no discredit to any of the week’s other front-pagers (or any of the regular guides), but three of the posts in particular combine to make a lucid program for the kinds of reading that Infinite Jest demands.

Brittney Gilbert kicked the week off with a great post about, essentially, mindfulness. I love that she quotes Marathe in her post; I know the A.F.R. are terrorists and torturers and murderers, but I’ve been drawn since the first time I read this book to Marathe’s disquisitions to “Helen” Steeply. His philosophy doesn’t leave enough room for individual will, but I think up until a certain point, he’s got the right idea. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint just where it goes off the rails—that is, the disjunction between sensible Marathe and sociopathic Marathe seems to be a fuzzy one. He’s making sense, he’s making sense—you have to consciously choose what to dedicate your life to, it’s most fulfilling to choose something larger than yourself—I’m going along with him, and then somewhere it turns totally totalitarian—that something larger should be the state, which you then allow to make all your further choices. (This is where I mention DFW’s appearance on “Bookworm” again, this time with a link to a transcript. Particularly the part where Schtitt is “really the only one there who to me is saying anything that’s even remotely non-horrifying, except it is horrifying because he’s a fascist.”)

Right, but Brittney’s post. “I have chosen to care about this book,” she writes, “to give it a place in my life.”

In doing so I am rewarded with messages in IJ about the importance of being present. Of just breathing. Themes abound in IJ about focus, about choosing what it is that you pay attention to, and how crucial it is to do that with the utmost care. If only because our whole lives depend on it.

This is many kinds of right on. With regard to how crucial it is to choose what you pay attention to, check DFW’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, conveniently available in hard copy under the title This Is Water. That speech is entirely about how conscious choices of what to pay attention to constitute empathy, and empathy is the basic focus of Infinite Jest all the way through. (Hence all the emphasis on communication, which enables empathy by permitting an understanding of other people’s experiences.) Although Brittney’s approaching this aspect of the book more in terms of mindfulness, what she has hit on here is the very most important thing in IJ: actively choosing, and choosing connectedness. No one in the book knows how to do this properly. Don Gately realizes he has to learn how; Marathe has a twisted idea of how, that leads him into atrocity; Schtitt teaches the kids at E.T.A. the mechanics of choosing, but seems to think the choosing itself is all that matters (“Any something,” he says. “The what: this is more unimportant than that there is something.”). The whole book is a series of answers to the question “So yo then man what’s your story?” that we are invited to choose to pay attention to.

I also love Brittney’s assertion that she has chosen to care about the book, because that’s exactly what it’s like for me. Reading the book is obviously a commitment—1076 pages don’t just read themselves—but more than that, I have made the decision to let this book matter deeply to me. It speaks to issues that are paramount in life as I see it, and may well have helped form that viewpoint in the first place. It is one of the most ethically deliberate pieces of human work I have ever encountered, and the seriousness with which it takes the questions of how to properly be a member of the human race is humbling and uplifting. Engaging with IJ challenges me to examine my notions of how to be a better person, and to become that better person. I choose to make these things important to myself, and therefore to care about this book immensely.

The last point I want to make about Brittney’s post is to second her comments on the book’s continual assertion of its own materiality:

The non-linear (to say the least) structure, the constant change in voice, forced flipping, always flipping, to the back of the book for endnotes are elements that don’t allow you to get lost in a story. “You are reading a book,” you are often reminded.

She is absolutely correct that this is one of IJ’s (I hesitate to say “DFW’s,” because I try not to ascribe motivation, but the inference may be open) strategies for inculcating mindfulness: repeatedly reminding the reader of the present-tense, physical circumstances of their participation in the book. The reading experience is interrupted again and again by a loudspeaker blaring, “YOU ARE READING A BOOK RIGHT NOW,” and the reader is forced each time to decide how to read it.

Which incidentally makes a satisfactory transition (not at all tortured and freewheeling) to Nick Douglas’s post from Tuesday. This one’s all about reading attentively and making cross-connections between bits of the book. (Over and over, in dealing with Infinite Jest, I’m reminded of the great charge of Howards End: “Only connect.”) It’s a beautifully imaginative and engaged post, ending on a note of emotional attachment to the characters that has obviously enlivened Nick’s reading of the book. His focus on attending to repeated clues (“Since most of these thematic moments are so subtle, I’m sure we’re particularly required to remember the ones Wallace mentions twice, just as the Biblical God repeats his most important commands three times”) reminds me very much of some of the colloquy on the Urth List I mentioned in my last post, a mailing list dedicated to the work of Gene Wolfe.

I don’t want to get too much into Wolfe here, because my head is filled with things to say, but he’s a genius writer who is just as challenging in his ways as DFW is. The gauntlets Wolfe throws at the reader are narratorial rather than formal; the participatory reading his work requires involves determining what the narrators aren’t telling you by piecing together scattered clues to figure out the outlines of the holes you have to fill. The greatest difficulty in this is that Wolfe believes strongly in the intelligence of his readership, so he only gives a clue twice if it’s supremely important. That means you have to keep track of clues you’ve seen before, just the way Nick is talking about. (It looks like maybe my discussion of this post is more in the line of a confirmation of Dedalus’s insightful comment that certain books forever alter how we read every other book.)

Then came infinitedetox’s courageous post, which is one of the most powerful blog posts I’ve ever read. Just as a lurker at Infinite Summer, I feel honored that infinitedetox would trust the community enough to publish that post (never mind that detox has a place of their own where they’re just as candid). Not having any personal experience with the process of recovery, I have no idea whether detox’s plan is a viable one, but I sincerely hope it is, and I wish nothing but the best.

I want to tread carefully here, because I recognize that there’s a danger of commodifying detox’s very personal journey, or co-opting it as the keystone of a critical argument rather than respecting it as another human being’s lived experience. With that caveat always in hand, I’d like to look at the mechanism of reading IJ that led, in detox’s telling, to their current sobriety—because it amounts to choosing to read carefully and mindfully, and being open to the fruits of that reading. Infinitedetox writes:

You may not care about junior tennis or Quebecois separatism or avant-garde film or AA cliché-mongering, but if you’re going to make any sense of Infinite Jest you’re probably going to have to start caring, a lot. You’re going to have to accept that proto-fascist tennis instructors and disabled pistol-toting terrorists are capable of delivering frighteningly insightful critiques of U.S. culture. You’re going to have to lay aside your Irony Shields and believe, with all your heart, that clichés can be just as potent as Don Gately says they are. In other words, you’re going to have to surrender to the book.

Be careful not to confuse surrender with passivity. I’m talking about an active surrender here. The actively-surrendered reader will sift through reams of mathematical arcana in order to tease out the implications of an oblique reference, or follow an obscure narrative thread deep into the bowels of Greek mythology to flesh out the author’s hinted-at ideas. Surrendered readers develop an eye for the author’s shortcomings. They share in the author’s failings. They are engaged, but not encaged. It may be instructive to compare active surrender with the drooling, pants-soiling passivity of Substance abuse and Entertainment addiction as portrayed in IJ.

This is exactly the process that Brittney and Nick’s posts, read together, delineate. First you choose to care, and then you choose to read very carefully that which you care about. I love this idea of active surrender, of willfully giving yourself over to inhabiting and making sense of the world of the book.

Where infinitedetox’s post becomes truly impressive is when this method pays off in empathetic identification: “I signed some sort of metaphorical blood-oath committing myself to looking at the world through David Foster Wallace’s eyes. And what happened then was that I saw myself as DFW would have seen me, refracted through the wobbly nystagmic lens of Infinite Jest.” And that’s it right there. That is the entire point of this whole process, the choosing, the caring, the reading, the surrendering, all the work: seeing through someone else’s eyes. Anyone’s. This is empathy, and it is indispensable.

For infinitedetox, it has made sobriety possible (which seems a miracle in itself). For anyone who cultivates it, it is what allows fulfilling human relationships. It is how you comfort a grieving friend. It is how you know what expressions of love will brighten your spouse’s day and lighten their heart. It is how you turn an argument into a positive-sum scenario. It is how you take other people seriously, respect them as independent beings of immeasurable worth equal to yours. In short, it is the sine qua non of being a whole human being, and it is worth every ounce of effort.

3 Responses to “That Was the Week That Formerly Was”

Comments:

  1. Paris on July 30th, 2009 6:30 am

    Nice work on this! I love that it is a meta-blog, analyzing the IS blog, and even analyzing the “substitutes” for the normal blog “guides”.

    This is the first post that has made me really attend to the surrender part of the “why I’m reading IJ” question. I think a big part of what has kept me going is actually my blog itself, feeling like if I spent enough effort to start it up and help people to find it, I should press on through. Of course, the book is by no means a drudge, I’m just trying to reflect that surrender is present is so many types of readings.

    P.S. I haven’t read Wolfe, but your comments make me think he is required reading!

  2. Jeff on July 31st, 2009 11:03 am

    Thanks for the comment! I hadn’t thought about it those terms, but you’re right, this is pretty much a metapost. I was just really excited to see three posts in one week that identified what I see as the central effort of the book, theorized how to participate in that effort, and then illustrated what that effort can actually accomplish (and why it’s so important to the book—and to everyone, really—in the first place).

    To hit on Wolfe quickly: I would definitely recommend his work. I won’t say whether you’ll like him or not (that’s a tricky thing to try to predict), but I think you’ll certainly be interested. He generally writes what I might call theological SF; there’s often a concern with the proper relationship between worshipper and deity (a good shortish example is “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story,” which, miraculously, is entirely available on Google Books). On top of that, though, there’s a pervasive wrestling with ethical concerns that makes for surprisingly high stakes in reading.

    I kind of like that you’ve taken your blog as an obligation to folks who might read it. As you say, on the one hand that’s a surrender to…hm, externalities? Even though you’ve created them? But on the other hand, I think it also speaks to the notion of communal participation that underlies so much of IJ’s distant hopefulness—that whole ubuntu thing. It feels a little bit like, as a reader of your blog (now that I am one), I’m helping support your resolve to read the book, by taking part in one of the things that keeps you reading.

    Thanks for writing—both here and at your place!

  3. Infinite Tasks on July 31st, 2009 2:53 pm

    Great, thanks for the tip/pointer to Wolfe. I enjoyed the story, especially of course the dialogue between writer and character, and the twisty ending to express the writer’s concern over the fate of mistreated characters returning for revenge. I’ll look forward to more.