The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Too Much

Posted: October 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, blogosphere, Culture, Infinite Summer, Literature | Tags: , | No Comments »

The contemporary literature world is abuzz with the news that David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, will be published–appropriately–on Tax Day 2011 (April 15th). This news has overshadowed the upcoming publication of Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, that will be released in December.

Here’s the description offered by Columbia UP, the publisher:

Long before he probed the workings of time, human choice, and human frailty in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism. In 1962, Taylor used six commonly accepted presuppositions to imply that humans have no control over the future. Not only did Wallace take issue with Taylor’s method, which, according to him, scrambled the relations of logic, language, and the physical world, but he also called out a semantic trick at the heart of Taylor’s argument.

Wallace was a great skeptic of abstract thinking made to function as a negation of something more genuine and real. He was especially suspicious of certain paradigms of thought-the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever gimmickry of postmodernism-that abandoned “the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.” As Wallace rises to meet the challenge to free will presented by Taylor (and a number of other philosophical heavyweights), we experience the developing perspective of this major novelist, along with the beginning of his lifelong struggle to establish solid logical ground for his soaring convictions. This volume reproduces Taylor’s original article and other works on fatalism cited by Wallace in his critique. James Ryerson, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, draws parallels in his introduction between Wallace’s early work in philosophy and the themes and explorations of his fiction.

The fact that this work was his undergraduate thesis is strangely absent from the publisher’s information. While DFW was an undeniably gifted author and thinker, publishing his undergraduate work (no matter how brilliant) seems a bit exploitative. As HTMLGIANT says, the cover alone seems overwhelming opportunistic–the efforts of a publisher to cash in on the untimely death of a brilliant author and, by all accounts, good person.

I can’t say for certain that I won’t buy and read this, The Howling Fantods notes that the thesis is particularly enlightening and informative, but I cannot help but have reservations. I shudder to think of anyone reading my work from undergrad–even the capstone project that I labored over for months. Sure, I’m no DFW, but the work of a 22 year old should not be considered part of his/her body of work unless he/she is living and assents to its inclusion.

(Thanks to The Millions for the reminder of its upcoming publication.)

The Music Must Change

Posted: July 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: blogosphere, Culture, Theology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

If you subscribe through a reader you may not have noticed, but there have been several theme changes as of late. The last theme (I Like Content) was nice but slow to load so I have switched to a cleaner, quicker theme appropriately named Clean Home. Though I may tinker with the colors and such (the orange is a bit much, no?) this theme may stay for awhile. The layout is very open and doesn’t crowd either the main text or the sidebar.

One of my favorite features of the theme is the blurb section just under the title. The plan is to occasionally switch it up and put different quotes or sayings that strike my fancy. Right now, as you can see above, it reads: “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The quote is taken from either Infinite Jest p. 445 or this speech given at Kenyon College’s 2005 Commencement or this WSJ article adapted from the commencement address.

The commencement address is the best graduation speech I have ever read (even better than Conan’s 2000 address at Harvard) and the WSJ adaptation is especially haunting after his death in 2008, but the occurrence in IJ struck me more than its other versions. Here’s the passage (Warning–Adult language ahead):

“This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.”1

On its own, this parable is fairly insightful meaning, of course, that the young fish are wholly unaware of the life-giving substance all around them. We, like the fish, are quick to ignore incredibly important and obvious elements in our lives because they are too obvious. In his speech, DFW uses the parable to encourage the graduating students to remain conscious in the real world. He admonishes them to, instead of taking the easy route and assuming they are the single most important part of their story, consider that others are important too; consider that the guy who cuts you off in traffic may have a very literal emergency that is causing him to drive maniacally. His point is potentially life-changing for many young people (my hand is raised here), but taken within the narrative of IJ, the parable takes on a new and–for me–more important meaning.

The context: Gately, an enormous recovering alcoholic/drug-abuser, is just slightly more than a year sober and growing more and more active with his AA group. While “getting active,”2 he confesses that he still cannot wrap his head around the concept of the higher power to whom he has been praying to for delivery from his addictions. On this outing, his group was speaking to the TSBYSCD Group.3 At the end of the meeting, a massive and tough-looking biker from the TSBYSCD Group called BOB DEATH wheels his motorcycle over and “tells Gately it was good to hear somebody new share from the heart about his struggles with the God component.” After brief chatter, BOB DEATH asks Gately if he had heard the one about the fish then goes on to tell the story.

At the risk of sounding like Jules Winnfield, let’s discuss who represents what in the parable. DFW is adamant in his graduation address that he, the speaker, is not the old fish and that the students are not the young fish. He is not there to dole out moral advice on what to do to be a good person. In the parable’s context in IJ, the fish represent people at various spiritual stages of development (or their place in the progression of AA) and the water that is so there that it is ignored must the presence of “the God Component.” The water of human existence is the ubiquitous spiritual component of our existence.

A spiritually searching character, such as Gately, is not surprising for DFW. Raised as an atheist, he had twice failed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in an effort to become a Catholic.4 The same interview reveals that he failed the second time because he made a reference to “the cult of personality surrounding Jesus” which, one can imagine, the priest did not cotton to.

As a doubter, perhaps David Foster Wallace would have identified with the prayer I have heard attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

“God, I don’t love you and I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you.”

This is water.

This is water.

[Image by Flickr user David Reece / Creative Commons licensed]

  1. Infinite Jest p. 445 []
  2. traveling from group to group in Boston sharing his story and identifying with their members []
  3. Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink []
  4. David Streitfeld, 1996 []

On Summer’s Progress

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Education, Infinite Summer, Literature | Tags: , , | No Comments »

A few months ago I laid out a fairly aggressive plan for summer reading. Since then, I have fallen woefully behind. The time set aside for reading has been devoted to packing, finding a new place to live, planning to move, preparing syllabi and course material for the coming semester, and generally trying to enjoy my last few months in the glorious northeast. As of now, I have only completed a little more than half of Infinite Jest though I should finish it before we head southward. August, then, can be devoted to Inherent Vice but it appears that Silko may get bumped to Christmas break.

Despite the slow pace, I have been loving IJ more this go-round. I don’t often laugh aloud while reading but it seems that every lengthy reading session elicits an audible chuckle. DFW has a gift for bringing levity to even the most serious passages. That skill gives me hope for his soon-to-be-published-but-not-quite-finished novel, The Pale King. He may be uniquely able to tackle a subject like incredible boredom in an entertaining fashion.

Though mine have faltered, how are your summer reading plans going?

David Foster Wallace, Reading, and Empathy

Posted: June 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Education, Literature | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

In 2003, David Foster Wallace sat for a lengthy interview with a journalist from the German television station ZDF. From what I can tell (read: after checking with Wikipedia) ZDF is similar to the American PBS in that it is a public service, arts oriented channel. The 84-minute interview covers topics ranging from American exceptionalism to the difficulty of literary translation. At the midpoint of the interview DFW is asked, “What is it that literature can do that other things can’t do?” and replies by forcing the question upon the interviewer. After some back and forth, the the interviewer raises the topic of loneliness and Wallace finally answers:

“Most of the friends I’ve got, and most of my friends don’t like to read, most of the friends I’ve got who don’t like to read find it A.) boring or B.) just kind of lonely and slow, and I just don’t get it. Because watching television for me, even although it’s easier, is much lonlier. Watching flat images on a flat screen, doing interesting things and often they’re very easy to look at, is very different from knowing what it’s like to be inside somebody else’s skin, or knowing what it’s like to be able to spend two hours with an author who somehow can make me feel like I know what it is. I mean, it just seems like a form of magic to me.” (53:15)

David Foster Wallace touches on the empathetic powers of literature which, he asserts, are unequaled in other forms of entertainment. The reader–unlike the television or film viewer–is able to experience unknown emotions by momentarily inhabiting the skin of the present characters. Because the reader must form a mental image of the characters and actions taking place in a novel, the people and emotions of the work become personal and individual. Even the best film directors and television producers cannot replicate the empathy experienced in the act of reading. (Video games may better illicit responses of empathy that traditional literature, but I am not prepared to dive into those water just yet. Going further, there are numerous examples of enhanced levels of participation in different forms of e-lit that would necessarily create new levels of experience and emotions)

Allen Bennett, English playwright and author of The History Boys for both the stage and screen voices a similar attitude toward the strength of literature (namely poetry) through the voice of his character Hector, an aging schoolteacher focusing on the humanities. In the most touching scene of the work, Hector has Posner–the gay, Jewish, outcast of the group of pupils–recite and explicate “Drummer Hodge” by Thomas Hardy then explains:

“The best moments in reading are those when you find a passage seems to have been written just for you. It’s as if a hand is reaching out and grabbing yours.”

For me, there is no greater image of the power of the written word: the author offers a hand of empathy, affording the knowledge that no pain or emotion is unique.

Summer time, and the reading is easy

Posted: May 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Academy, Education, Infinite Summer, Literature | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

For most in post-secondary education, summer has arrived. Finals have been taken and grades are posted. It’s now time to get down to reading, right? Many of the academic ilk spend their summer months trying to finish work they were too busy during the semester to complete–archive research, polishing articles, sleeping, etc.–and a few others use their summers to read, for once, for pleasure.

Besides editing my thesis down for potential publication and finding a teaching job and working my full-time day job (for the sake of this topic we’ll pretend these are small and easy matters), my summer holds little but time for pleasure reading.

The English faculty of the university the so kindly conferred my degree recently put together a summer reading suggestion and that inspired me to share my summer reading plans.

The plan:

Now that I have finished Ulysses (recap to come soon), I will devote my reading time to Infinite Jest. Last summer, I abandoned the text to focus on my thesis. This year, though, IJ (while no small task) will be easier than my last try because having made it through about half of it last summer, I am now prepared for the literary onslaught that is David Foster Wallace.

Once finished with Infinite Jest, I will finally get on to reading Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. The novel was released about this time last year and has been sitting on my shelf looking lonely since then. There’s nothing like a little detective fiction to make it feel like summer.

Finally, I’ll end the summer with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.

The reading list is rather ambitious, weighing in at 2211 pages in all, and that is without any of the theoretical texts to be read (Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, for the most part). No matter the number of pages, I’m looking forward to a little time to check off some works that have been sitting on my shelf, woefully unread, for months.

What are you reading this summer?