“Why am I watching so much shit? It’s not about the shit. It’s about me: Why am I doing it?”
– David Foster Wallace
What did I just read?
I dove into this monster because I found it on a list of “20 books you should read in a lifetime”. I had no idea what I was getting into, aside from a short description. After the first 200 of 1000 pages, disoriented and confused, I put the book down and started to research more about David Foster Wallace’s thoughts and life. I then picked up a companion book (Elegant Complexity), that helped me unpack each chapter as I read, and restarted my trek. Between all of the breaks, side research, re-reading of several pages, flipping back between chapters and footnotes, and intermittent reflection, it was a two year project to complete. At best, I took in 50% of all of the densely-packed detail.
After finishing, I spent a year soring my thoughts out. I was and am still fascinated how alive the internet communities are, picking apart every nook and cranny of this novel, DFW’s life, and all of his other projects prior to his unfortunate suicide in 2007 at age 46.
Below is what I took away from the experience. This was originally written for and posted to a Quora forum question asking “What’s so great about Infinite Jest”:
What’s So Great About Infinite Jest?
Infinite Jest is great because, at its core, it echoes a timeless conundrum: the propensity for humans to distract themselves, often mindlessly, from boredom and trauma of life. A long line of thinkers from past and present such as Pascal, Socrates, Nietzsche, James Hollis, Sam Harris, Yuval Noah Harari, and others, all similarly warn of our inclination to escape life with distraction. I can’t help but see one of IJ’s deepest themes as shining a spotlight on this – the traps of addiction, the absence of awareness, and the struggle to recognize and change what drives and animates oneself. Below are seven outside references that establish this theme, followed by how it connects back to David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest.
1) The french philosopher Blaise Pascal:
Pascal’s term for our continual need and almost addictive tendency to seek out mindless or soul-numbing forms of entertainment and amusement was “Divertissement”. Such “distractions” may sometimes involve behavior that is immoral or culpable, for example, prostitution, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, but more often take the form of habits and activities that are merely wasteful or self-indulgent. So are all luxuries, consumer goods, and worldly delights with which we proudly surround ourselves. According to Pascal, we use these goods and activities not, as we self-flatteringly suppose, to certify our achievements or add a touch of bonheur to our inner life. On the contrary, we use them mainly as a way of concealing our bleak inner reality from ourselves and from one another. They are a means of denying our own mortality and hollowness.
2) A quote from Socrates (referenced in an essay about David Foster Wallace):
“Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?”
3) A quote from Nietzsche:
“We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
4) A quote from Jungian analyst James Hollis:
“While it is easy to be intimidated by the largeness of life, seduced by lethargy, diverted by popular culture, and assimilated into collective fantasies that have little to do with our soul’s agenda, we still have to face ourselves in the end. The various ways we have to numb out, to flee into our work to avoid our real job, to get exercised over trivial issues, to rationalize our choices are virtually infinite.”
5) A quote from psychologist/author Josh Cohen:
“We’re living in a culture governed by a permanent compulsion towards frenetic activity or fevered distraction. Outside working hours, every pause seems almost reflexively to trigger a jolt of anxious guilt or shame that something – a laundry cycle, a tax return, a status update – remains undone. The effect of this permanent busyness is to leave us feeling that inactive states have no meaning or validity in themselves; that they exist only to be filled in with some content. Inactivity increasingly exists for us as the negative of our “real” lives of activity and purpose.”
6) A quote from neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris:
“We encounter boredom less and less. With all of our gadgets and the totality of human knowledge and artistic output always available to us. You can always hear your favorite song or watch a great film or read a great book or text a friend. Because you can do all of these things with a device you have at your side 24 hours a day, you might successfully avoid boredom for the rest of your life. But you might also never discover what’s on the other side of boredom. And you might not recognize the price you are paying for being compelled to distract yourself.”
7) A quote from philosopher/author Yuval Noah Harari:
“You don’t have to invite boredom, but don’t run away from it. You can’t really get anywhere interesting if you are constantly running away from boredom. In many cases boredom is like the first line of defense before you can get to the more interesting stuff. People that just constantly want excitement, they get entrapped inside a smaller and smaller cocoon of reality.”
To quote Wallace himself, in his well-known commencement speech:
“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. […] If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.”
And finally an excerpt from Infinite Jest, which Adam Kirsch flags as a thesis of the novel:
American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. [i.e. “recreational substances” or “pursuits”]
(I’ve been keeping track of additional references HERE)
In Wallace’s view, we possess an emptiness inside and are anxious to fill it whether we are conscious of it or not. Mindless distraction (“Infinite Jest”) is a hazard to human nature in this regard. In the novel, the apex of distraction is represented as a film (also titled, Infinite Jest) that, when watched, destroys the willpower of the viewer to do anything except watch it repeatedly, until they die. Certainly in the real world, there is no such distraction that literally kills us. Perhaps though, the death that occurs in real life is more psychological in nature? Perhaps distraction is a form of “philosophical suicide” – shutting oneself off from life’s deeper questions, a concept raised by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus.
In a speech delivered to graduating seniors of Kenyon college, David Foster Wallace implored us to become aware of our mind’s “default setting”, and to wake up to circumstances we inhabit (this is water). Infinite Jest portrays many characters who are struggling to (or will never) achieve this. They are driven by obsession, entertainment, addiction, narcissism, and past traumas from earlier in their lives. They are stuck in the ongoing crisis of their default setting. Individualism to the extreme. One of the key exceptions and arguably hero of the story is Don Gately, who after a long struggle has started to abandon his old self-centered ways (“my best thinking got me here” – to AA). He starts to explore a more intentionally lived life, have faith in something bigger than himself, and care for his community of fellow recovering addicts.
While there are several concurrent themes running through this book at a variety of depths (See Zachary Urbina’s Quora answer for an excellent overview of these), and thousands of intricate details that deserve recognition on their own, my impression is that DFW’s primary goal with this novel is to show us something about our nature. This one theme in particular — the idea that humans ought to understand themselves, and are so vulnerable to escaping life with distraction — is the one that is most profound to me, and is one of the reasons that makes Infinite Jest so “great”.
Does this suggest the next time you catch yourself down a youtube rabbit hole, you should throw your phone across the room in revolt? Or the next time you passively scroll instagram as an automatic response to idle time, you should quit social media? I think one-off diversions are only part of the concern here. Consider how ANY self-indulging habits might compound over weeks, months, and years… essentially squandering the blank canvas of your life among other consequences. Consider how our modern environment preys so ruthlessly on our attention – how digital products and services today are literally engineered to seize and profit from your focus. Consider that right now, you might be caught in some kind of self-soothing routine you’re not even aware you are in… Alcohol, drugs, extra time at work? Perhaps boredom or some other disturbance in your life compels you to aim your attention at something else rather than sit and reflect. Is this behavior nourishing your soul, or just numbing you for a while? Numbing you from what? These questions are worth sitting with.
“The plot motor is a movie called Infinite Jest, so soothing and perfect it’s impossible to switch off: You watch until you sink into your chair, spill your bladder, starve, die. “If the book’s about anything,” he said, “it’s about the question of why am I watching so much shit? It’s not about the shit. It’s about me: Why am I doing it? The original title was A Failed Entertainment, and the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn’t work” — characters developing and scattering, chapters disordered “because what entertainment ultimately leads to is ‘Infinite Jest,’ that’s the star it’s steering by.”
– David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone
“The novel Infinite Jest is, I believe, one of the great American works of fiction, a work of mind-boggling ambition and originality that depicts contemporary life as a surfeit of pleasures and indulgences that can make connection with other people lethally difficult.”
– Michael Pietsch
Follow-up entry with additional references to escapism, flight-from-boredom, and preoccupation with trivial, HERE.
(Inspired by DFW/Infinite Jest)