Break out your wigs and ball tape: Season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race starts tonight! I was turned onto the show during season one by Tom and Lorenzo, may the most flattering light shine upon their cheekbones forever, and it may well be one of the most fantastic things ever made in the history of television.

You should imagine me typing that with entirely straight-faced fingers, depending on how you think I mean “fantastic” (read: fabulous). The show is outright ridiculous, in very many ways; take the premise, for instance: Nine drag queens compete to be “America’s next drag superstar,” which title they must earn through a series of Project Runway– and America’s Next Top Model–style challenges. (Isn’t that how everyone becomes one of America’s drag superstars?) RuPaul, in male and female drag, is both mentor and host (respectively), shot with the most lovingly Vaseline-slathered lens you’ve ever encountered in a nonmedical context. In each episode, after he gives the girls (even in interviews, out of drag, they refer to each other by their drag names and female pronouns; it’s delightfully disorienting) their challenge, he reminds them of the scoring rubric. They are judged on:

  • Charisma;
  • Uniqueness;
  • Nerve; and
  • Talent.

Then he tells them not to fuck it up. (I’m quoting.) At each judging, the bottom two are required to lip-sync for their lives, and then one receives Ru’s benediction (“Shantay, you stay”) while the other has to “sashay away.” The guests and guest judges are amazing—Bob Mackie, Michelle Williams (who cried watching drag queens lip-sync her song “We Break the Dawn,” and not in the bad way), Jenny Shimizu, Lucy Lawless, Charo.

To me, the show is plainly wonderful. But when I tried to describe it to a friend of mine, he nearly had an allergic reaction. (He can’t handle Beyoncé either, who is, let’s face it, a female drag queen.) And that’s when I remembered Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

By my lights, Sontag’s essay is not a triumph. It’s generally conclusory throughout (“Life is not stylish.” Well, says you), and where it attempts to reason, it is often either offensive or wrong. Or both. What’s most frustrating for me about the essay, then, is its quicksilver flashes of brilliance, the bits where Sontag succeeds in “getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.” When she talks about camp’s attention to “the degree of artifice, of stylization,” that rings a bell. “The great stylists of temperament and mannerism” sounds exactly right. And most of all, camp “understand[s] Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” These notes I recognize from my own experience; and taken out of context like I’m doing here, they could be from a magazine profile of a drag queen. These truths about camp exactly describe drag (which must be, I suppose, the ultimate enactment of camp—even though Sontag seems to suggest that intentional camp can’t be good, before she contradicts herself). So if she understands it so well, at least in some parts, how does Sontag miss the point so badly in others?

If you watch the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’ll see just how wrong Sontag is when she calls camp “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” You’ll see her error in basing camp in a “psychopathology of affluence.” You’ll understand the deep misprision in her bare assertion that camp is a “solvent of morality,” propounded by gays to make us more acceptable in a consequently less-moral world. This will all be clear to you because you’ll see actual drag queens doing drag.

The contestants cover a wide variety of approaches to drag. Porkchop and Tammy, for example, are comics; Ongina is a genderqueer warrior; Shannel is a showgirl; Rebecca is a tired little Latin boy in dress; and Bebe and Nina are creatures not of this world. Bebe and Nina give the lie to Sontag’s disparagements through their approach to drag, which is dignified and powerful. They cast a remarkable spell, and I think I’ve worked out how they do it. I don’t mean the makeup-and-artifice part—you can look that stuff up—but the way they hold their audiences in thrall. It’s a combination of glamour and guts.

The widespread gender norms we are mostly all embedded in make a man in a dress a figure of mockery. He is a ridiculous person, suitable for laughing at. Bebe and Nina know this, but through the force of their wills they are able to persuade the audience to forget. They wear their vulnerability like couture, and radiate such an honest refusal to be afraid, such a “state of continual incandescence” (Sontag again), that it doesn’t occur to the audience to take them as anything other than what they present themselves as. Which, importantly, is never real women. They do not seek to be mistaken for actual women, though it is of course a compliment to their technique if someone is fooled. Instead, they present themselves as men creating the illusion of female personae, an illusion that requires the audience’s collaboration if it is to stand up. Their special power is inducing the audience to collaborate in this way, and that power comes from the strength of will involved in unreservedly exposing themselves to ridicule. The show of vulnerability demonstrates a strength that the audience can’t help but respect.

Which is why I thought it was so outrageous that Rebecca made it to the final three with Bebe and Nina. Those two are true gender-performance artists, whereas Rebecca couldn’t even be bothered to blend her blush. Her goal was to be girl-sexy, which is a fine thing, and an impressive accomplishment for a man, but it doesn’t hold up to the amazing projection of the other two. Girl was outclassed, and she knew it the whole time.

I’ve had great fun with Infinite Summer. I mean, any time with Infinite Jest is well spent, as far as I’m concerned, but the IS community made it a new experience all over again, and added so much to my reading (and future rereadings) of the book. I think this whole project might actually have been something like the apotheosis of reading IJ, the ultimate Aufhebung (I’m treading deep water here, and may end up over my head) of the solitary experience of reading a novel so sincerely concerned that people only connect. The guides at IS brought various perspectives, the forums really opened things up, and the bloggers did some fantastic detailed work to enrich the reading; I particularly want to thank Daryl, Jeffrey, and Aaron for their dedication and insight.

What I’ve been less pleased with is my own participation here. My posts have, overall, been somewhat shallower and more disjointed than I was hoping for when I undertook to blog along with IS. Now that I don’t feel the constraint of the spoiler line, and won’t have the “news cycle” of the week’s reading schedule to write against, I want to rectify that. So I’m going to finish up my own Infinite Summer this fall with a few more posts on some things I didn’t get to. First up: Eschaton.

Yesterday, in reading decisions of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, I learned a new word: ubuntu. Might have saved me some trouble at the end of my last post.

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.

I see the NY Phil is likely to visit Cuba this fall. Good for them. I was fortunate enough to take a similar trip with the Oakland Youth Orchestra when I was in high school, and Havana was one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been to. (As for that photo… Yikes. I plead adolescence in the late ’90s as my excuse, and beg the court’s mercy.)

Looking back, it’s strange for me to realize that I was almost 17 and had no idea about any of the political or humanitarian aspects of the trip. I was too busy being a teenager, taking my second international tour with a music group, strategizing how to turn a flirty friendship into a real-life boyfriend situation, worrying about hitting that F-sharp in the second-movement solo of Brahms’s First Racket, spending two weeks away from parental supervision—I’m saying I had lots of other things on my mind. Even so, it seems like I should have understood some kind of message from the orchestra administration’s request that we fill any extra space in our luggage with things like aspirin and toilet paper and strings. I’m pretty sure they even told us outright that one of the purposes of going to Cuba was to give our host orchestra things they didn’t have enough of, things that we took for granted—like aspirin and toilet paper and strings for instruments. We changed our money for special Cuban money that exchanged at a 1:1 ratio with U.S. American currency, that we could only use in certain places (where actual Cubans were generally prohibited from shopping or eating). For goodness’ sake, we even went to a beach in Cuba that we were told Cubans weren’t permitted to go to. But little of that seems to have sunk in. I left Cuba pretty much just as entitled and clueless as I was when I arrived.

What did stick with me was an impression of Havana as beautiful and old, tropical, decaying, and generous. We were only there for two and a half days or so, and it was over a decade ago, so some of my memory is spotty or gone, but what remains is vivid. We stayed in a magnificent colonial hotel, genteel and welcoming, with high-walled rooms and a beautiful atrium. It was the most elegant place I had ever been in my life. In the morning we walked through the steaming air down the Paseo de Prado, toward the Gran Teatro, for rehearsal. The buildings all looked at least vaguely crumbling, and the scent of the city’s surrender to permanent humidity hung in the air. It certainly didn’t smell fresh, but it was somehow pleasant. Even more pleasant were the Habaneros we passed in the street. Almost to a person, they were outgoing, friendly, always interested in however much conversation we could manage between English and Cuban Spanish. More than one was willing to interrupt their morning business and follow along with our convoy, curious about who we were, where we were from, what we were there for. (I’d like to think some of the folks we met on our walks to and from the hotel ended up at the concert—it sold out, after all—but I’m not sure what kinds of rules were set about who got to attend.) Who knows how much our interactions with people in Havana were stage-managed by chaperones or functionaries; what I know is that I don’t recall a single rude encounter. I don’t remember anyone ever being less than polite, and in fact I remember lots of people being warm and open and friendly. The audience at our joint concert with the Amadeo Roldán Youth Orchestra was perhaps the most enthusiastic I’ve ever played for.

And hardly anyone I know has had the opportunity I had to meet these large-hearted people, because of el bloqueo. I’m glad to see the embargo softening, and I’m thrilled for the NY Phil. They’re going to meet some wonderful new friends on this tour.