How Time Narrows Life’s Sumptuous Branching Complexity

David Foster Wallace with bare lamp

Read on it’s own, the following passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” may sound pessimistic, fatalistic, oppressive. Read in context, I laughed so long and so hard that my face began to hurt. It is, nonetheless, a painful truth:

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable — If I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.

For a sense of how funny this essay is, Mr. Wallace reads an excerpt here starting at 10:00 minutes in (the preceding story about the baton twirlers at the Illinois State Fair is better read here at the Harper’s Magazine 150th Anniversary on 25 May 2000).

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV, Mr. Henry's, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., 6 August 2009

6 August 2009, Mr. Henry’s, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV to discuss David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Clockwise from 12:00: typicalsquirrel, Miruna Stanica / Rrose Selavy, Daniel Ginsberg / NemaVeze, the photographer (off frame), Sarah Webster, Quinn Norton (blog | twitter | Wikipedia), Matt Dickerson / piscivorous. Oh, that’s right, piscivorous, you weren’t there.

Our Odyssey

Countdown to launch of Apollo 11, Firing Room 1, Kennedy Space Flight Center, 16 July 1969

NASA is currently streaming the complete mission recording of Apollo 11 in real time in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing.

It feels appropriate to listen to an Apollo 11 cycle, so to speak. This is a performance of an incredible history and a true adventure. This is our Odyssey. The Iliad and the Odyssey were typically performed over three nights. Apollo 11 was four days from launch to touchdown on the Moon (16-20 July 1969; splashdown back on Earth 24 July). John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, Neil Armstrong are our Homer, Agamemnon, Akhilleus and Priam.

I have heard it explained that part of the reason that Joyce’s Ulysses is such a pastiche is that he was trying to cram all the language of Dublin into a single work. Similarly, this week I was talking with some people about the way that David Foster Wallace appropriated the languages of commercial communication, technical writing, bureaucratic memoranda or the casual writing of e-mail to the purpose of literature. The language of our Odyssey is not Dublin bar talk, lyrical poetry or bard’s tale, but bureaucratese, engineering-speak: gage readings, mission book codes, equipment test reports, pre-burn checklists. Instead of the lyre and drum, we have the harmonics of white noise — a combination of the cosmic background radiation and electromagnetic interference of the communication and recording gear itself — and the synthetic electronic beeps of computers.

David Foster Wallace and Allen Ginsberg

There’s this big challenge amid Infinite Summer to try to characterize David Foster Wallace by ostension, or to try to best capture his project comparatively, preferably in twos. For instance, Paul Melancon tweets (1 July 2009), rather cleverly, I think, that David Foster Wallace is “like Proust and Philip K. Dick’s love-child.” The thing that I keep on thinking about as I read Infinite Jest is stanzas 14-19 from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,

lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,

whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,

Of course Ginsberg is about as New York as they come (come on, make Newark and other territories west of the Hudson boroughs already), whereas David Foster Wallace is Illinois corn fields. Still, the whole passage is all David Foster Wallace: the madness, the drugs, the intellectual nomadism, the schizoid schemata, the words, words, words. But the line that describes Infinite Jest to me more than any other is “whole intellects disgorged in total recall.” So far I am reading Infinite Jest after Annie Lowrey (“Inaugural Infinite Post,” A Supposedly Fun Blog, 29 June 2009): “It reads a bit like novel-as-mental-upload.” Infinite Jest is a 1,000-page brain dump of a man deeply in the throes of depression.

Ultimately the best comparison is that the first line of the poem is “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” Could there be anything more fitting to David Foster Wallace? I stopped at “destroyed by madness”, but the temptation to continue quoting (“starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters …”) is hard to resist.

The thing about Ginsberg is that he’s telling a gigantic inside joke of a grand circle — the Beats — comparable to earlier such groups: the Vienna Circle, Bloomsbury, the Algonquin Roundtable, Partisan Review, et cetera. For all of its counter-culture, there’s still something — or maybe only something in retrospect — élite about Howl. Infinite Jest is very inside-jokey too, or “highly colloquial,” as David Foster characterizes the Wallace family penchant for language in footnote three of “Tense Present” (“Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” Harper’s, April 2001, pp. 39-58). Infinite Jest may be formally avant garde, but its content is a bunch of anonymous nobodies. There’s a proletariat spirit to David Foster Wallace that Ginsberg aimed for, and perhaps hit in his time, but that has since rubbed off.

Update, 15 July 2009: Compare:

‘E.T.A.’s best minds on the problem. Whole thesauruses digested, analyzed.’ (Infinite Jest, p. 101)

It’s also worth nothing that after the sections waxing fantastic about tennis, Infinite Jest seems a lot less proletariat. But maybe that’s just me: I almost can’t walk past a tennis court without making a snide remark.


10 June 2009, 34th birthday, spent in my cubical

I’m 34 today.

I intended to take the day off and do some biking around like I did last year, but the project that I’m working on was presented to the client and the COO of the company today, so office birthday it was. During the run through yesterday we discovered a show-stopping system flaw and I spent one of the most stressful days of my career in a panicked flurry of debugging and emergency releases. I’m giving myself an IOU on birthday. gave me a birthday present by delivering a copy of Infinite Jest two days in advance of their estimate (their logistics people are geniuses). Between the book, my twitter and this blog I’m all geared up for Infinite Summer.

Consider the Hermit Crab

À la David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster” — published in Gourmet of all places (August 2004) — new research shows that hermit crabs experience pain, remember it, can recognize and take steps to avoid future encounters of a similar kind (“Crabs ‘Sense and Remember Pain’,” BBC, 27 March 2009). The full research report is:

Elwood, Bob and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behaviour, vol. 77, no. 5, May 2009, pp. TBD, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.01.028.

I’m a vegetarian so of course I find the practice of boiling crustaceans alive disturbing — and have since the first time I witnessed the gruesome spectacle at about the age of eight or ten. Nevertheless, I find Professor Elwood’s characterization of the practice as “potentially very large problem” to be bizarre. “Problems” have no objective existence. A “problem” is an issue of perspective. It would seem that, say, 5,000 years and trillions of boiled crustaceans into the practice of cooking arthropods alive, it’s a little late to declare it a “potentially very large problem.” An ethical lapse is only “a problem” if the perpetrator runs afoul someone who objects and is in sufficient a position of power to do something about it. Unless we wake up in the antechamber of the afterlife and it turns out that the correct answer was Hinduism, or unless it turns out that Yahweh takes seriously that bit in Isaiah about wolves and lambs lying down together (11:6-9), or unless we vegetarians establish a GULAG and declare universal jurisdiction for crims against animals then there is no problem here — at least not for the humans.