White and Red With a Dash of Blue Steel
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Though I hate personally doing this, I want to warn the reader that this review has information which may “spoil” the ending of Twin Peaks for the reader. If you have not seen the ending, and do not wish to know it, please do not read any further. However, if you do not care, progress slowly. The path is strange and wonderful.
Mysteries precede humankind, envelop us and draw us forward into exploration and wonder. Secrets are the work of humankind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power. Do not confuse the pursuit of one with the manipulation of the other.
–The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost
It may seem a cliché, but really and truly, I have to drink coffee while I write. Ever since I’ve lost my taste for beer, coffee has stepped in and replaced that precious elixir which supports my spirit after a day, or really evening, of work at the library. And that idea of spirit is everything as I approach the impossible and write about Twin Peaks, because as I leave the town for the first time, I wonder at the experience because, much like wonderful oddities that appear in the show, the appearance of the program seems to come out of nowhere, and nothing of what I remember is what it seems.
To be honest, I can’t even trace my awareness to any solid origin other than my friend Michael. As I’ve mentioned, some might argue too much, I’m part of a bi-weekly Graphic Novel Book Club and it’s through these meetings that I have managed to become exposed to some books, movies, and materials I almost certainly would never have been exposed to on my own. Part of that is simply the diversity of the company of the group, the other is the fact that I’m a fucking social recluse who would probably never leave his house given the option. It was through these meetings though that I first heard the term Twin Peaks, and initially I treated it the way most people treat friend’s pictures of their children: I nodded and smiled understanding that this show meant a great deal to my friends, but I honestly didn’t give a shit about it because it had nothing to do with me.
That, and I was still going through grad school and planning on becoming a teacher. Words like “the black lodge” or “Agent Dale Cooper” or “The owls are not what they seem” were words and nothing but that.
But one day, after a meeting, I asked Michael about Twin peaks. I think part of it was that I had written a review of David Foster Wallace’s essay David Lynch Keeps his Head(which I’ll get to in just a moment). Michael had offered some thoughts about Lynch as a director, informed me that I had to see Twin Peaks to understand why the man was brilliant, and then another friend of mine (also named Michael) shared a gif (jif?) of Kyle MacLachlan drinking coffee.
I stopped drinking beer, and one night, while looking through Netflix I saw the word again. It was like the scene in Muholland Drive when the blue box opens. I was drawn in and found a new world.
That, and I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the taste of damn good coffee.
This essay is a difficult task because I’m not entirely sure how best to approach it. Reacting intellectually to the show is a dubious proposition because how the flippity fuck do you react intellectually to a show that seems to constantly try to avoid any clear explanation. The alternative is to react emotionally and I worry about this because when it comes to the world of Twin Peaks (especially in the aftermath of Fire Walk with Me) there is already a great number of people offering up their emotions. And this also creates a conflict because there are people who have waited 25 years for the conclusion, or at least continuation) of the show, and in that time mountains of fan fiction, fan theories, and fan-based analysis has been generated.
What am I? A mere flea that’s just hopped on the back of a big dog’s ass. Yet here I stand willing to offer up my voice terrified of what I shall wrought. But as a great man so beautifully expressed:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
My own intellectual conclusion after finishing the series is that in its own right it is complete. I hear the objection immediately. You haven’t even seen Fire Walk With Me, and there’s a new season coming out in May, how could you possibly argue that it is complete.
To this objection I simply state that I’m looking at the television show alone. This may be performing some blasphemy on my part, but again this is just reflection, not outright critical declaration.
Now Let’s Rock.
To the reader who’s never watched the show, Twin Peaks takes place in a small logging town in Washington and begins when a young woman named Laura Palmer is found murdered and wrapped in plastic beside the river. From there any and all kind of clear plot narrative is difficult because rather quickly the show becomes a surreal melodrama about the lives of the various characters that inhabit the town of Twin Peaks, and an FBI agent assigned to the town named Agent Dale Cooper.
On one side note there is also a gay porn-star named Dale Cooper who is kind of dreamy. I have no idea if this is his real name or else if he chose that as his porn name because of Twin Peaks, this aside is really just a warning to some Twin Peaks fans who might stumble upon this while googling pictures of Kyle MacLachlan.*
Twin Peaks follows the creative trend of David Lynch which is the corruption found within the supposed innocence of small-town America, and while some would argue that this is a cliché, I would remind that David Lynch helped make this trope in the first place. If you’re the first person to do something it isn’t cliché, it’s simply foundational. Agent Cooper discovers quickly that Twin Peaks is another world, a small community that revitalizes his spirit, and not just because the Double R Diner has the best Cheery Pie in the world. As Cooper works alongside Sherriff Harry Truman, Deputy Andy Brennan, Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill, and receptionist Lucy Moran, he discovers that the small town is hiding more than just local political and economic corruption. There is, as Sherrif Truman states clearly, “Evil in the woods.” And this is where ultimately the show Twin Peaks made its mark.
On the one hand this evil is manifest in the fact that characters have secret lives that sometimes involve crime, over time the supernatural powers that live and exist and manipulate the people of Twin Peaks become more and more apparent. A being known as Bob becomes the figure responsible for the death of Laura Palmer, however it’s revealed eventually that Laura Palmer’s father Leland was possessed by this creature and forced to rape and murder Laura.
Watching the scene when Leland/Bob confesses remains one of the most horrific and dramatic scenes in television, if not cinematic history ,largely because of the way Lynch establishes his universe. The question at first appears, is Leland really crazy or is there actually a creature named Bob controlling him. As this is being discussed Leland bellows out a passage that appeared once before in a dream Agent Cooper’s had not long after arriving in Twin Peaks:
Leland Palmer: Through the darkness of future past / The magician longs to see / One chants out between two worlds / Fire walk with me. I’ll catch you with my death bag. You may think I’ve gone insane, but I promise I will kill again!
At this point I wholly accepted the fact that Bob was real, but part of that conclusion was because of David Foster Wallace. If the reader has never heard that name he’s the author who wrote such books as Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He’s also known for several non-fiction books such as Consider the Lobster, This is Water, Both Flesh and Not, and finally A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which contains a vital read for Lynch fans called David Lynch Keeps his Head(Told you I’d get to it, and you doubted me).
My reader may wonder what this has to do with Twin Peaks. I promise there’s a message here, just be patient. The essay was an assignment for a magazine in which Wallace received the opportunity to be on set during the filming of Lost Highway. While at first the essay is mostly Wallace talking about the actual filming, as it continues he manages to break-down the creative structure of Lynch’s movies and tries to define the term Lynchian. There’s long passages full of insightful commentary but my focus is Twin Peaks and so one passage in particular seems terribly important.
Wallace discusses the idea of evil in Lynch films and how it manifests. He writes:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
Reading this passage, especially after finishing Twin Peaks, and taking the time to watch Blue Velvet not long thereafter, I confess I had an “aha!” moment for everything seemed to fall into place. Rather than treat evil as a kind of abstract force that is inherent to the human condition, Lynch’s films seem to attack the viewer in a way so that it’s impossible to escape from evil and the way it can impact the people that suffer from it, and The Black Lodge seems to embody this idea perfectly. As Cooper enters it, trying to save Annie he finds himself at the mercy of the very idea of evil, and ultimately succumbs to it.
Watching the last episode of Twin Peaks, and watching Bob/Coop chuckle I confess that I was grabbing my laptop and screaming “No! No! No fuck no! That can’t be it!” The rage inspired by the idea that that could possibly be the end, that the hero and purely good hero at that, could succumb to the evil’s found in the Black Lodge disturbed me. I felt that there had to be a resolving, or a redemption in which the figure who seemed to embody so much strength could not possibly fall to evil.
But that confession reveals everything.
Again, looking at Wallace’s commentary, I realize that what keeps Lynch so interesting is the fact that he seems to recognize that evil is a force, that even if it is spawned within ourselves, it can still work outwardly as a force which can compel and destroy people. Leland Palmer was a good man, or at least he seemed to be a good man, that outward surface mirrors the reality of true life. When you remember that most rape victims tend to suffer under the hands of people close to them (usually family members) rather than outside strangers, the idea that Leland could do that to his daughter is more plausible, but nonetheless still retains its horror. Likewise, with the character Dale Cooper, who, over the course of the series, becomes some kind of extension of the viewer. As I watched Twin Peaks I identified more and more with Coop. Part of this is simply because I’ve always wanted to be intelligent and charming and charismatic, but also because he was a genuinely good person.
He also gave me the greatest lesson in life:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.
This man would eventually fall prey and fail against the pure forces of darkness. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen. And watching the very end I was angry and sad and terrified after what was surely the most terrifying 20 minutes of television ever recorded. And before anyone tries it, No. American Horror Story is nowhere near as terrifying as the Black Lodge. I don’t care how many clowns or gimps in leather suits they throw at me.
Part of this horror on my end was because of the characters and Wallace notes this in his essay:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
He also offers one more assessment which I feel is perfectly valid:
This may, in fact, by Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head. (171)
If such is the case this certainly works. I know that I’ve offered a lot of extraneous material and haven’t so much dug into an episode by episode analysis but in starting this essay I did some internet research and it appears much of the fan-base has already done that for me. Besides I prefer to step back and observe the general trend and impression something leaves me with. And as I look over my opinions and assessment of Twin Peaks I find more and more that I stand by my original declaration. The first two seasons can stand alone as an art product because ultimately it seems to validate the trend of Lynches’ oeuvre.
Evil is a force that exists and it corrupts absolutely, and when looking at the small community the capacity to fall prey to darkness seems all the more terribly valid. In the case of Twin Peaks the characters are held by their own resolve and personal wills, but ultimately Lynch reminds the viewer that evil can manifest in such ways to break even the strongest people. Sometimes our heroes are not what we need them to be, and sometimes good people are destroyed.
The lingering image then of Twin Peaks for me is Bob slowly crossing the living-room toward Mattie. It’s not a dramatic shot in terms of camera angling. It’s simple and it holds for exactly the right reason. The aliens, inter-dimensional beings, the forces of evil are not what they seem. They can be cackling lunatics, dwarves in red suits dancing to jazz, they can be owls, or they might even be someone close to you, someone who you’re supposed to trust and love.
These is no experience like Twin Peaks. And while it may sound at first as if the show ends on the note of hopelessness, but I would hope that after the reader finishes my essay or finishes the show for themselves they would take care to remember a line from the novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost which offers a far more satisfying sense of closure than I could ever hope to give:
The owls may not be what they seem, but they still serve an important function – they remind us to look into the darkness.
While writing this review I found a picture of the pair of Dale cooper alongside Dale cooper. It led to an article which had confirmed that Dale Cooper named his porn name after Dale cooper the character. While I find this hilarious, it also leaves me curious if anyone has yet proposed a Twin Peaks porn parody and whether or not David Lynch would direct it.
Never-mind. Just Googled it. It doesn’t exist…but it could.
Here’s a brief snippet from the Charlie Rose interview that helped get David Foster Wallace on my radar screen. This snippet is where he discusses how Blue Velvet appealed to him originally:
And here also is the Charlie Rose interview with Lynch himself:
The famous Owl Line has echoed after the show and come to define numerous interpretations of the show and what the owls actually are. For my own part I like this interpretation one random blogger offered, though I am ALWAYS happy to hear other people’s ideas.
And here, because I like offering people more and more resources, are a few sites dedicated to Twin Peaks:
Look at this shot. Look at it. This is the shot that confirms my bias. There are no monsters, or killers, or jump-scares, there’s only a shot of a ceiling fan slowly turning, but this ultimately is David Lynch’s power, because this shot scared me more than four seasons of American Horror Story Combined. Great horror should always attempt to draw a viewer into another world, but while the viewer is being entertained the master of horror tries to get into the viewer’s world. There’s something behind me, there’s nothing and I know it objectively, but if a director can actually create the sensation that there just might be something there, then they have succeeded.
And then there’s Bob.
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Two men of little consequence who happened to be friends met at the mall. They hadn’t seen each other for some time. One friend looked at the other and said, “Hey Man(1).” The other friend, overcome with the complexity of his introduction shrugged and they walked off in different directions. After considering it, the second friend’s thought about his friend’s statement, and the next day went out and bought Infinite Jest at Barnes & Noble.
I’m positive that Infinite Jest is about something.
When I asked one of my previous professors, who’s also become a friend in the last few years, if she had read it she said yes. When I asked her what it was about her response began with “uhhhhh…well, shit.” It took a moment but the most she could give me was: “It’s about drugs and tennis and that’s about all I can give you.”
Having read and completed the book for sure it’s about drugs, but it must also be about counter-culture, but what counter-culture exists seems to be really anti-culture because the individuals in third camp seem borderline psychotic, and of course it has to be about drugs, but it could also be about entertainment because that seems to wrap everything together, the title of the book is a film made by one of the character’s great uncle who was supposedly a film auteur, and the endnotes in the back of the book seem terribly distracting from the novel that actually seems to be about something.
There are names of magazines, periodicals, newspapers, and accredited authors all over and inside the introductory pages of Infinite Jest for publicity purposes and they wouldn’t put those names there if they didn’t mean something. Names in or on books are supposed to give a book street cred to the common reader, and if someone from The New York Times slaps their name on a novel that must mean it’s good. If Playboy’s on or in the book then maybe not so much, and if I see the name of authors who are terrible, or else people who I’m told are terrible, or people I’ve never heard of, then maybe not so much. Infinite Jest is covered with names of people and papers, and so it must be important, but after 200 pages I found myself terribly frustrated because I was still struggling to figure out what the damn book was actually about.
So in order to figure out this 1000-page monster I hopped into another David Foster Wallace book which wasn’t a David Foster Wallace book actually but which is often advertised alongside David Foster Wallace books. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an odd and beautiful book that is fact just one long interview that reads more like eavesdropping. David Lipsky was sent to spend the last few days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest to write a piece about Wallace who was becoming more and more recognized for his work. Lipsky himself was a published author, and reading the book was an experience I had never felt before. I felt as if I was listening to two people I had known, or wished I had known my entire life. Throughout the book Lipksy asks Wallace about his feelings of Infinite Jest, and looking back over the scores of passages I’ve underlined or marked with circles or stars there was one admission by Wallace that seemed important:
I think probably, what I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember college, a lot of even the experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings, or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? (273).
Looking back upon an experience can be illuminating, I just want to avoid the awful platitude that “hindsight is always 20/20” because it makes me think of a Megadeth song. Reflecting on the sensation of reading Infinite Jest I agree that the book is largely, almost absolutely male in its design and presentation. This is not a weakness just a reader’s, and writer’s supported, observation. Neil Gaiman has a marvelous essay entitled [THE GENDER OF BOOKS] in which he explores this, but the simplest explanation is that certain creative works will have appeal to particular genders over others because of the way the artists constructs the text. But that identification is the most revealing because as I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more accepting, or perhaps more condemning, or my former self and what that young man was all about. He was rather isolated, believed himself to be creative, he didn’t care for too many people, the only real people in his life outside his family were in books he either read or was writing.
This is doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what Infinite Jest as a novel is about however, so I should admit some hesitation to move forward.
I’ll admit I’m terrified to write this this “review,” it’s really more of a reflection, because I’m positive there is somebody on the internet who knows everything about Wallace, or else wears thick glasses and pretends to know everything about Wallace, and who will try and contact me and inform me that he needs to either explain it to me, or else that I’m an idiot and should feel bad. Still Infinite Jest is interesting to me because I didn’t hear about it through friends, family, The Daily Show, Family Guy, or even by stumbling across it in a book fair or hidden chest in the Negative Zone: Section 3-z. I discovered the book through Charlie Rose.
Before I went to work I would eat apples and peanut butter and I would watch an interview on Charlie Rose with some famous celebrity and one day it was with David Foster Wallace. He was promiting A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never do again and at one point the discussion turned to Infinite Jest and just as quickly it turned to David Lynch. That was it. The title was there in my brain and in that little pocket it was allowed to fester until my intellectual curiosity finally compelled me.
On June 9th 2016 I found the book at Barnes & Noble, bought it, and began reading it. On October 14th at 11:19 PM I finished it. And when I finished Infinite Jest I felt a sensation I had not felt in ages: a tremendous sense of presence in the moment, and perhaps here I’m able to make a real argument for taking the time to read a book like Infinite Jest.
The way I, or any reader, finishes any experimental novel or any 1000 page novel, is through sheer insanity. You have to want it above the pleasure that would come from reading a genre’d novel.
Reading Infinite Jest, much like reading Ulysses or Don Quixote, is like swimming next to a blue whale.
I don’t mean a porpoise at sea World or a beluga whale, or even a humpback, it has to be a massive Blue whale for that animal dwarfs all beings on this earth until we discover those space whales from Dr. Who. A Blue whale is a sublime animal because it possesses such frightening power of being that humans will never obtain, yet still we’re mystified. The reader who approaches the whale will approach a moving animal as well, and so the power is magnified for they are forced to encounter a living breathing being that is oblivious or apathetic to its existence. They will pass the whale, but in fact they will only float in one space, wondering how close the boat still is that will lift them up from the ocean once this experience is done. The whale will approach and the human floating, protected only with their scuba gear and oxygen tank will then feel the whale swimming by them, and while it passes they will start at the tip of its nose and from there it will feel the water pressure change, and their sensations are beyond the rest of us for they will feel nothing and see nothing and know nothing in that observation but the whale. It will take what seems like an eternity for the whale to pass, and while the reader is watching it they will observe only a few details, and that will fuck with them more than anything because they will regret later that they did not observe anything but they couldn’t possibly compartmentalize every last detail of the gargantuan beast. They’ll remember a few details and sensations of the whale as it passed them, and of course they’ll never forget the tremendous sense of accomplishment and closure once it’s tail has passed pushing them further away into the water while it’s seemingly infinite body somehow passes into the haze of empty infinity into the deeper ocean and the blue swallows up every last bit of the creature and the reader finds themselves alone in a great empty space. That they have seen and, in a way, touched this creature that only a handful of people in the world will actually ever even see outside of a Google Image search is humbling. They’ll have a few details that stand out to them, and a few sensations, but trying to describe every last detail of the whale is impossible because it was an experience unlike anything but unto itself.
That is the idealization of the 1000 page novel, but also the reality.
That’s why I can only offer one or two quotes from the massive book because my sensation of the whale will completely different than anyone else’s.
In the research done for this article I found one quote that was regularly repeated by bloggers, writers, and reviewers of the book. The protagonist Hal Incandenza is speaking with someone about the game of tennis, and they discuss the groove of the game, the kind of dance that certain atheletes have been known to enter as they perform miracles,
“But you never know when the magic will descend on you. You never know when the grooves will open up. And once the magic descends you don’t want to change even the smallest detail. You don’t know what concordance of factors and variables yields that calibrated can’t miss feeling, and you don’t want to soil the magic by trying to figure it out, but you don’t want to change your grip, your stick, your side of the court, your angle of incidence to the sun. Your heart’s in your throat every time you change sides of the court.’ (243).
Wallace actually played tennis while he was a live, and one of the essays in the collection A Suppoedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again is an actual article about the Tennis player Michael Joyce. Tennis is part of the aesthetic of Infinite Jest and long passages are dedicated to games or practice or following the players. What I personally remember of tennis is always being the last or second to last player to play because I sucked at it. That’s partly the reason why when I read this quote I didn’t think about Tennis at all, but in fact I thought about a good swing of creativity. There are times while writing when the exact right words come onto the page and you’re able to concoct your fiction or essay in just the right way so that the inspiration which compelled you to the word processor in the first place is actually transcribed, translated, and transplanted onto the page in a kind of glory. Every writer has had one of these moments, and when they are writing on a day like this it really does feell like magic, and in those moments there is an intense desire to shut out the world completely because the world will distract with commercials, or social obligations, or house hold chores. And later when youre reflecting on the groove that you rode while writing you won’t want to understand where that feeling came from because that would ruin it. It would take the magic out of the moment, or at least the illusion of magic.
A second quote occurs much later in the novel when Hal is relating about some events in his family history and he stumbles upon an observation of humanity:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or Philately –the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games to needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was king, in a way. (900).
I’ve remarked in several essays how absurd human existence is, and while many would protest and claim that life is rich with meaning, Hal’s observation seems terribly true. It might just be because I’ve begun teaching and found almost immediately that I don’t have the stomach for it, but looking at some of my fellow Millennials, and those that came before me I see the trend of those who are willing to dedicate what little existence they have to an idea, cause, organization, or path. Their life goals while largely humble, are a dedication. And before I put myself above others I myself follow this “black miracle.” My life is about writing and encouraging others to write. Looking over my life, and the decisions I have made now and for my future there is not component in which writing does not play some crucial element, and so for my own part I recognize that in what short amount of time I have I’ve already selected my “black miracle” which, as I write it out, sounds like a perfect title for a novel.
There’’s one more quote worth mentioning because it’s too important to miss:
Human beings came and went. (972)
It’s simple, and the reader may immediately object “so what?” but looking at the page number they need to remember that the novel is 981 pages long with around 80 pages of endnotes that themselves can be anywhere from a single word to thirty pages long. By the time the reader encounters this small quote in the heavy meat of the body of the novel it’s deceptively simple. Infinite Jest follows the life of Hal Incandenza as he progresses through an elite college and its tennis program, however it also follows the actions of a Canadian terrorist group, and lengthy portions are about the Boston area Alcoholics Anonymous or other Drug related rehabilitation programs. In such moments the reader is offered a glimpse of the people who wind up in such places, or other times they are offered the viewpoint of those people who work regularly in such programs and the truth is human life filters through such halls and while some find peace, often it happens that people don’t make it.
Looking at my teaching right now I have groups of students that I recognize will not make it through college, and some will most certainly succeed, and others will simply pass and enter society. Looking at the time I spent in graduate school working in the Writing Center of my college I would see students come and go, and also fellow tutors who meant the world to me or else people I wanted to strangle with my bare hands. Looking at my life I have encountered a wide crowd of people. And so this simple sentence, while it is directed towards a Rehab clinic becomes far more potent concerning the human experience by the time one has managed to slough through the dense book up to this point.
There is unbearable pain in reading Infinite Jest, for if you try it, as I did, by reading just 10 pages a day, eventually they’ll come to the end of their tenth page and the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of their page will have a footnote, and when they flip to the back they’ll discover Wallace has written twenty pages for one footnote, and while the book is flying through the air surrounded by the shattering glass of the reader’s window they used to own until they cast the book through it, they’ll never be able to mistake the faint sound of David Foster Wallace’s unspeakable laughter cackling in each shard and tingle, and the final onomatopoeic “thlumpul” of the dense tome landing against the concrete or grass will be a temptation to just let the book alone and leave it where it is. These three moments might be a guard against such an impulse because in the heavy lectures about the history of pain prescription medication, or long passages dedicated to the jargon ladened descriptions of failed sexual escapades there are moments where the reader can see the whale. That doesn’t mean they won’t doubt themselves and wonder why they’re bothering with this long book.
But it’s worth it. Damn if it isn’t worth it. And not just for bragging rights.
Any idiot can brag, but if the action is undertaken just to brag then it’s an empty gesture. I was happy when I reached page 500 because it a reminder I haven’t given up on my goal which compelled me in the first place to pick the book up: I wanted to know David Foster Wallace better because he seemed like a person I wanted to know and understand.
In an article published in The New Yorker titled The Unfinished, D.T. Max provides a brief glimpse into Wallace’s dedication to the book:
He was still interested in the warping power of media culture. And he had a new appreciation of addiction and its lethality: it gave him something to warn against. He created a character named Hal Incandenza, who bridged two worlds Wallace knew well—Incandenza is a pothead and a talented high-school tennis player. He goes to an academy run by his family, which his older brother, Orin, also attended. Their father, James, a filmmaker, committed suicide after making a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” recorded in a format called a “cartridge,” which is so engrossing that anyone who watches it loses all desire. Wallace writes of one viewer, “He has rewound to the beginning several times and then configured for a recursive loop. He sits there, attached to a congealed supper, watching at 0020h, having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.” The action is set in the near future: a Qué-bécois separatist group tries to get hold of “Infinite Jest,” copies of which are extremely rare, to use as a terrorist weapon.
Wallace worked quickly in the house that he shared. He filled page after page of grade-school notebooks and then typed what he’d written with two fingers on an old computer. In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.”
It’s becoming more and more apparent, with every essay I write, every book I finish that while the goal of acquiring and maintain the title of intellectual was once the stated goal, the reason I keep reading is to understand people more. The “Wallace Explosion” I’ve ridden over the past few months has been more and more revealing to me because I recognize in the man a similar burning. I want to be a writer, not for bragging rights, but to simply influence someone the way Wallace has influenced me. There’s a strength of will to finishing a 1000 page novel, or a lunacy, but I do believe that like Infinite Jest there is a desire of curiosity. I wanted to see the whale and report back what I’ve found to someone else. So here it is: I have no idea what it was that I saw, but when it passed and was behind me I felt alive and present in the world in a way I haven’t felt in years.
While looking for images I found a link to an article on Buzzfeed I believe you will appreciate. Enjoy:
Here also are some essays about the book, either people’s impressions or…you know I’m not really sure there is another word for encountering Infinite Jest, it just is…
Here is also a link to the D.T. Max article The Unfinished if the reader is at all curious:
Read the book, there’s nothing like it. And if the page count daunts you just remember, 10 pages a day everyday and you’ll be done in just a few months.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, apples & peanut butter, Author Vs Voice Vs Persona, Book Review, Cetology, Charlie Rose, Consider the Lobster, Conversation, David Foster Wallace, David Lipksy, Derrida, Dostoyevsky, Guys, Imposter Complex, Infinite Jest, Interview, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Moby Dick, Personal Development, Philosophy, Postmodernism, prose, public intellectual, public perception of writers, Reading, reflection, Sentimental Novel, television, Ulysses, Writers, Writing
It started really with Charlie Rose. In the mornings my wife would usually wake up before me, and in fact she still does, in order to get to school and so given the fact that I had no classes to teach and my job wouldn’t start until around 11 or 12, I would usually have the mornings to myself to putter, drink my tea, eat my apples and peanut butter, and watch videos or read before I left. I usually couldn’t read and eat at the same time and so I pulled up YouTube on my phone. However, I really don’t like wasted time, and so these early morning moments seemed like a chance to grow intellectually so I would watch Charlie Rose interviews because Charlie Rose usually hosts substantive interviews. I watched Robin Williams, Gore Vidal, Bill Maher, Quentin Tarantino, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Mr. Rogers. I can’t honestly say if my brain got any bigger, but watching those videos while I ate my apples and peanut butter reminded me how underappreciated the Interview format is in our culture.
In the queue was a man by the name of David Foster Wallace, a writer I’d read before and largely ignored, and so like most of the choices in my life that lead to books, I picked the video largely because I had heard rumors and speculation and read something somewhere, and even after the interview I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, to be frank, the man bothered me mostly because of the way he discussed academics in a kind of pejorative tone.
I can’t explain the Wallace explosion. Like Orwell before him, and Christopher Hitchens before that, David Foster Wallace just seems to be dominating my consciousness and I honestly believe it has something to do with the fact that I’m beginning to abandon any and all hope that my life will have any real connection to academia. I also wonder why, whenever I have these intellectual storms in which I become consumed with reading the entire works of single author or subject that I can never get myself to dig into the histories of Rome or Ancient Greece. There’s a stack of books with names like Livy, Tactitus, Heroditus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Ovid that sit literally right behind my laptop while I write, yet consistently the books that wind up consuming my time and energy are those written by men, and not enough women, living in the 20th and 21st century.
Perhaps I’m just doomed to be another soulless, shameless Postmodernist. More’s-the-pity.
Still, the name David Foster Wallace buzzed in the background of my head and so when I had coffee with a friend a few weeks later I snapped up a copy of Infinite Jest, ordered two copies by accident of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, bought Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, bought Consider the Lobster, and finally bought a copy of a book that, while it wasn’t written by Wallace, was still half written by the man and largely about him.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, apart from having an incredibly long title, is a book that shook me. I was tempted to write some bullshit about the book shaking me “to the core,” and while the sentiment is accurate I distrust sentiment when trying to convey how much a book can affect you. I was used to David Foster Wallace being a writer who always somehow managed to convey thoughts about society, art, literature, and writing that always left me profoundly altered and adrift in intellectual storms that would cloud my reality until I wrote about my thoughts about his thoughts and how fucking true they were, but David Lipsky’s book gave me something far more shocking and I use that word carefully.
David Lipsky’s transcribing of the various conversations he had with Wallace shows me not only a great writer, but a deep human being who seemed to suffer from most of the same shit I did. Later in the book when Wallace and Lipsky are talking they discuss college.
[Lipsky:]…You said being a regular guy was a great strength of yours as a writer, I thought it was smart, but what did you mean by that?
[Wallace:] I think—I had serious problems in my early twenties. I mean, I’d been a really good student. I was a really good logician and semantician and philosopher. And I really had this problem of thinking I was smarter than everyone else. [Reason for faux] And I think if you’re writing out of place where you think that you’re smarter than everybody else, you’re either condescending to the reader, or talking down to ‘im, or playing games, or you think the point is to show how smart you are.
And all that happened to me was, I just has a bunch of shit happen in my twenties where I realized I wudn’t near as smart. Where I realized I wasn’t near as smart as I thought I was. And I realized that a lot of other people, including people without much education, were a fuck of a lot smarter than I thought they were. I got—what’s the world? Humbled, in a way, I think. (214).
Besides these two paragraphs in my paperback copy of the book is an arrow and above it in cursive is written the phrase “My Life.” It’s a pathetic confession but I admit that I often felt during my undergraduate career this combination of superiority and inferiority, and while part of it is simply growing up and suffering through the necessary reduction of the ego, I recognized early on that the kind of education I had received in grade school as well as home, far surpassed what most of my friends had experienced. As such I enjoyed being the smartest kid in class, that is until a new student came down the pike who understood Derrida, and another who knew what the Sentimental Novel was, and someone else who had actually read Dostoyevsky, and so on and etc. and so I quickly developed what is known as “imposter” complex, the belief that you don’t belong somewhere because the people around you seem to be significantly smarter than you.
Eventually I settled into a comfort with my intellect because I realized that I will never know everything and so it was better to keep growing and be, as Wallace noted, humble.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is written as a long interview between David Lipsky, who is a novelist but also a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, and David Foster Wallace. The book is specifically an interview for the promotion of Wallace’s book Infinite Jest which had just been published and would, in time, become part of the American cultural consciousness as a kind of American answer to Ulysses. This combination isn’t made in jest…bad joke, it’s an earnest assessment having read Ulysses. The book stands at 981 pages long, but throughout the text Wallace has numbered words and sentences that lead back to end notes some of which range from a single sentence, to multiple paragraphs, to, in one unfortunate instance, well over thirty pages. And so the book stands at actually 1079 pages, 98 being endnotes alone. It is considered an avant-garde masterpiece, and one of the great “challenge” books in the American literary canon if not the world. Entire blogs are dedicated to deciphering the book, and scores of essays exist about the book and the myth that surrounds it.
For my own part I am working slowly through it, but while I did I decided that I would read Lipsky’s recorded interviews to see if I could find the man behind the whale. That’s a personal metaphor for long difficult books by the way. The lovely aspect about Although of Course You End up becoming Yourself is that the book does reveal these two men as realistic human beings as one early passage demonstrates:
[Lipsky:]You’re the most talked about writer in the country.
[Embarrassed to hear myself talk that way.]
[Wallace:]There’s an important distinction between—I’ve actually gotten a lot saner about this. Some of this stuff is nice. But I also realize this is a big, difficult book. Whether the book is really any good, nobody’s gonna know for a couple of years. So a lot of this stuff, it’s nice, I would like to get laid out of it a couple of times, which has not in fact happened.
I didn’t get laid on this tour. The thing about fame is interesting, although I would have liked o get laid on the tour and I did not. (11).
It’s hard, as a man at least, to condemn this impulse because I’ve studied biology, and rock stars, and I recognize how fame influences conscious choices. Lipsky immediately after this notes that rock stars certainly get this kind of notice and perks of fame, but they observe that writers tend to miss out on this kind of treatment. There is a tendency on the part of men to enjoy their fame and this translates into having sex with multiple women because that’s a sign that you’re the dominant male or that you possess some kind of power, but looking at this passage what’s important is how human Wallace appears. Most men, if they became famous, might expect the “groupie effect” and so the note of the missed chance reminds the reader that Wallace was every bit a man.
That isn’t diminishing his legitimate genius, I’m just noting the man would have enjoyed getting some while on tour, and this impulse isn’t necessarily crude, it’s just what seems appropriate from a man who tried to be down to earth as he could be.
Lipsky’s book is not just conversations about missed opportunities, or lack thereof, for sex that makes Wallace become real, it’s also for the fact that he, much like myself, grew up in a house that valued education and books. Another passage shows this while he’s discussing his home life.
[Lipsky:] Environment in house? Lots of reading?
[Wallace:] Yeah. My parents—I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both lovin’ something really fiercely.
And I remember me being five and Amy being three, and Dad reading Moby-Dick to us (Laughs)—the unexpurgated Moby-Dick. Before—I think halfway through Mom pulled him aside and explained to him that, um, little kids were not apt to find, you know, “Cetology” all that interesting. (49).
I legitimately laughed out loud at this passage, because I have read Moby Dick before, and while the book isn’t always dry, the “Cetology” chapter is literally nothing but a taxonomy of the various species of whales known by whalers and biologists up to that time. If that sounds fascinating but painfully boring that’s because it is, and don’t forget it’s Melville. This brief scene by itself wouldn’t necessarily bring out Wallace’s humanity, but a few sentences down he says:
But I remember, I remember because there was some sort of deal about Amy, Amy got exempted from it, and was I gonna be exempted or not? And I remember kind of trying to win Dad’s favor, by saying “No, Dad, I want to hear it.” When in fact of course I didn’t at all.” (49).
I suspect every child has that moment of recognition. Our parents give us so much of themselves and their time and patience and energy and so as kids we recognize this and try to give something back even if it’s just our own time and attention. My little sister and I would sometimes note that whenever dad talked about economics we would smile and nod, but much like Cetology in Moby-Dick we were left rather bored. Likewise growing up my mother read numerous books about spirituality, and not being a terribly spiritual person myself listening was sometimes a bit of a chore. Still I listened to my parents because they gave me so much emotional, financial, and spiritual support it seemed fair on my part to listen to stuff that they found fascinating and important in their life. Regardless there was a moment of recognition with Wallace and this is where I’m able to address my contester.
So what about Wallace? He was a hyper-intellectual avant-gardist who wrote incomprehensible novels and esoteric essays about television, tennis, and David Lynch movies. What relevance does his personal life have to do with me? In other words why should I care?
Well dear reader that’s where I have it. During this essay I’ve repeatedly referred to David Foster Wallace as human, or noted that Lipsky’s book emphasizes this humanity. This is because I believe in some fashion, the man has become an ideal rather than a human being. And if I may take it a step further, writers in general tend to receive this treatment, their works becoming some kind of totem from which people form a kind of abstract intellectual worship. The novels of Ernest Hemingway are not just stories of moody men drinking, fishing, hunting, drinking, etc., they are in fact looked to by some as wellsprings of masculine spirit. Likewise, the poet Emily Dickinson is revered with a passion that is at times inspiring and at others horrifying, but along with her work comes the image of the recluse. Dickinson is not afforded the opportunity to be a human being, she is the cartoon character of the shut-in, a woman who was so plagued by social anxiety that she had to lock herself away in her study writing poems that no one would ever read. The conflict with this image, as well as that of Hemingway, is that it is devoid of real being. Writers are people, flawed people, but people who possess passion and desire, and Lipksy’s book shows Wallace in this way.
Wallace is often painted as my imagined contester paints him, as a hyper-intellectual who was above human beings and solely existed in thought, but reading Lipksy’s book a different image of Wallace appears: a man who wants his passion and ideas to be understood or appreciated while he shares them with others while also trying to be a normal guy as more and more hype builds around him.
In one passage the pair of them are standing outside of an airport in Chicago and David begins discussing the problem of art in this time period:
[Wallace:] We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading—when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making the job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that. (71).
On the very next page he continues this idea:
[Wallace:] The old tricks have been exploded, and I think the language needs to find new ways to pull the reader. And my personal belief is that a lot of it has to do with vice, and a feeling of intimacy between the writer and the reader. That sort of, given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life—that’s our opening, and that’s our gift. That’s a very personal deal, and here are seventeen ways to do it. (72).
Without sounding arrogant, I recognized a similar thought when I first read this passage. Part of that was simply because I spend most of my time reading, writing, thinking about reading, thinking about writing, and wondering what is possible in writing, or, more importantly, what can be accomplished in writing, and sometimes why I spend so much time thinking about writing and not actually writing.
I may sound arrogant, or desperate to sound clever, but I do believe a great many readers read lives of quiet desperation. Novels are mass produced that follow formulas and give the same material, and before my reader believes that I am now about to rail against mass produced paperbacks I promise that I am not. My aim is not to mock readers who willfully ingest such material, my aim is point a finger at the writers. Why is there no desire to play with language and try for something more?
I want to think that perhaps my great collection of essays will actually amount to something accomplished in words. Writing is my solace and my passion, but reading Wallace I was reminded again that it leaves me wanting for an opportunity to find something new. It’s not enough to tell a story about how I discovered a copy of The Stranger in my wife’s childhood bedroom and began reading it before describing its larger significance. The writing has to mean to something or do something that impacts the reader just as much as the material.
I want, and there is the card game. My writings are ever and always words thrown out to some unknown being in the world who stumbles upon this space, and when they read my words they discover that I have written sentences and thoughts not to myself but to others. It’s a cheap trick, but one in which I’ve developed a voice around.
Lipsky’s book could easily become just a long list of beautiful quotes that a casual or superficial reader will ingest to spit back out in conversations to sound smart, but in many ways the style of the book is unlike anything published that I have read because Lipsky manages to present me with the real human being that was David Foster Wallace. The interview format can lead certain writers to just kiss an individual’s ass and then get one or two good quotes from it, but the interactions between Lipsky and Wallace are not just the back and forth exploration of a career. These two men discuss music, publishing, relationships, fast food, movies, smoking, realties of the magazine market, and within every conversation there are moments Lipksy notes that change the dynamic of the text. Whether it’s being interrupted by an announcer three times at an airport, smacking Wallace’s dog when it gets too feisty, sharing a dirty joke, or just noting and reproducing Wallace’s Midwestern accent. These moments coalesce so that the interview becomes two people trying to find and understand one another not only because one needs the other to promote his book and the other needs a publication credit to help his career, it’s about finding each other’s humanity.
Near the end of the book Wallace seems to provide a final summation as they discuss why people are ugly towards one another in this contemporary period:
[Wallace:] It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think its probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits a mouthful into cup] I know that sounds a little pious. (292-3).
I’ll disagree with the man, suggesting only that pious may be incorrect, but at least virtuous, even if that word has fallen upon hard times. Wallace has secured a legacy as one of the great minds and writers of his generation with only a few essays and a few novels, and while that greatness is certainly one of the reasons I find myself warming to the man it’s this last bit where I really recognized his intellectual ability. The mark of a great mind is not necessarily making grand, sweeping generalizations, but small observations that lead to real insight.
More than any of that though, Lipsky’s book is at the heart of my recent Wallace explosion, for while it was some unknowable serendipity and influence that lead me to Infinite Jest, it was the social connection between a few of my friends that lead me to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and reading this book has helped me revaluate that tenuous connection.
Is it possible to feel another human being so truly and completely, feeling as if you might be so bold as to suggest that you know that person’s heart and soul but for a moment? The end result of Lipsky’s book is the impression of a long conversation that, at the end which seems almost like saying goodbye, you knew another person’s heart.
Few books bother leave such a stamp on a person’s soul, though many try, and we’re all left wanting for such moments.
1408, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Blue Velvet, color, Color in Art, Color in Literature, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, death, Ebony Clock, Edgar Allen Poe, film review, Firehose, Firehouse Shining, horror, Literature, Masque of the Red Death, Novel, Perception, Perception = Reality, Perception of Reality, Pet Cemetrary, Pit and Pendulum, Prospero, Robert Osbourne, Roger Corman, Short Story, Stephen King, Surreal, TCM, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Shining, The Tickler, Vanity, Vincent Price
It’s impossible to read Poe and not summon up the image of Vincent Price. Growing up with the parents I did I didn’t just watch Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th movies during the Halloween season. I did watch these films, but I had to wait until my parents went to sleep because Freddy Krueger freaks my mom the fuck out. Along with more contemporary horror movies though my mom and dad would insist that we watch some old school horror movies as well. TCM is a go-to channel in the Smith house, and damn-it when there’s a Vincent Price marathon on you watch it. Somewhere between The Pit and Pendulum, The Tingler, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Robert Osbourne announced The Masque of the Red Death and I managed to find another bit of space to scoot closer to the television because I had read this story in English and I really wanted to see it performed.
Watching the film, it’s obvious someone was on pot, I’m just not sure which one it was. Most assuredly the audience was because the film is crafted so that the dramatic color scheme can appeal to the stoners who decided to get high and watch a movie. And when you remember the film was released in 1964 this statement isn’t just lazy mass classification. Hollywood was pushing more and more towards counter-culture in its film releases and so anything they could do to appeal to baby-boomers helped. You could make the argument that the director and producers might also have been on drugs, but I’d like to think that Vincent Price made sure that Roger Corman managed to get a few good shots in before taking another hit on the blunt.
Reading The Masque of the Red Death in school however was a bit of a surreal experience, more so than the film, and even reading the short story years later while sitting in the soft orange glow of my lamp the story didn’t lose any of its surreal quality. I recognize that the word surreal has been bastardized to mean something weird, strange, and definitively “not real” and so I have to clarify what I’m actually trying to say. Surreal art doesn’t mean impossible; it means super-real. Watching, reading, or experiencing any kind of surreal art is not about observing oddity, it just means experiencing something that, while you recognize it couldn’t happen in mundane reality, it feels as if it is actually real.
A good example of this is in the essay David Lynch Keeps his Head by David Foster Wallace. It’s the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and it covers Wallace breaking down the aesthetic and craft of Lynch while reporting about being on the set for the filming of Lynch’s movie Lost Highway. At one point he describes first seeing Blue Velvet with some of his fellow Creative Writing student friends from Harvard and the profound effect it had on him:
This was the context in which Blue Velvet made such an impression on us. The Movie’s obvious “themes”—the evil flipside to the picket-fence respectability, the conjunctions of sadism and sexuality and parental authority and voyerurism and cheesy ‘50s pop and Coming of Age, etc.—were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream logic felt: they felt true, real. And the couple things just slightly but marvelously off in every shot […] it wasn’t just that these touches seemed eccentrically cool or experimental or arty, but that they communicated things that felt true. (200-1).
Wallace purposefully italicizes the words true and real, but it’s important to note how the word “felt” precedes them all. Surreal art feels real because the elements, often concrete objects like clocks, fruits, trains, or dishware, allow people to observe what they know is real while also observing these objects in odd arrangements. A bowl is something we know is real because we see or use one almost every day. Seeing a bowl filled with ten small elephants is a surreal image because, what we know of elephants, that they are massive in size, distorts reality and makes us feel as if something odd is occurring or else that we’re dreaming. Or, that Skinny Dave laced the stuff with LSD and we need to have a talk with him once the gloves hovering over the coffee table stop arguing in sign language.
It’s import then to remember how real dreams feel when we’re having them, and even, at times, after we have woken up and immediately forgotten them.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death in my mind is a surreal story because the elements in the plot create the sensation that we’re observing and feeling something real even as we observe a story that, for all its real elements, is really rather abstract. Prince Prospero, an alliterative name that would make even Stan Lee blush, is a mad monarch, now I’m doing it, who has hidden himself away in his castle while a disease known as the Red Death ravages the countryside. The reader is given no other details about the nationality, or even the continent, though it’s generally felt by the reader that the story is about Europe during the Plague. Prospero decides to lock himself, and a thousand “friends” and fellow monarchs up in his castle while outside the common people are dying of this decimating contagion. Prospero arranges his castle into a series of colored rooms and, one one night in question, holds an elaborate masquerade ball. If you don’t know what that is think of Mardi Gras when people wear masks and beads and feather and usually nothing else. The party is fine but for an obnoxious ebony clock which distracts people, until one of the guests appears dressed in a long red robe and a mask that is reminiscent of a victim of the “Red Death.” Prospero is outraged and chases the figure down the halls until he rips off the mask and it’s discovered that the figure is the embodiment of death sent to punish these arrogant nobles for trying to outrun death at the expense of their responsibility.
If this sounds like the start of a fantasy epic, or else a really great episode of the Twilight Zone, that impulse is well founded. Poe’s story is most certainly a warning about the danger of vanity and its ultimate effect upon the individual who entertains this vice. But I’m not here to work in morals, my concern is horror for surrealism can be a marvelous way to explore nightmares.
In one rather long quotes Poe sets up the party by writing of the various rooms in which the participants occupy:
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. These were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. (485-6).
The surreal quality of the rooms is proof enough that Poe is a brilliant, but more importantly an efficient writer, because far too often I’ve read writers who believe having a character see a Great Horned Owl wearing a mortarboard qualifies as surreal. Poe’s efficiency though is established because he masters color.
Color is delicate mechanism in prose because writers run the risk of either being too specific or too vague when describing an object’s particular hue. Ultramarine blended with Teal is sure to leave the reader stumbling for that color shade card their wife picked out at LOWES for the baby’s room, while “that shade of blue the color of eyes” will not only leave someone dissatisfied, it will send them to Amazon where their review of the book will be the stuff of nightmares. Color has to be approached carefully in writing, and Poe’s success is that he doesn’t try to pick obscure shades, rather he lets his reader feel the colors by simply noting blue, purple, red, and black and allowing the uniformity of matching windows and furniture create the impression of these rooms. They become surreal spaces because as one would move from the purple room to the yellow room the physiological response would be almost blinding and dream-like. Reading them alone the reader is able to feel that dramatic shift in hues and so these dense color patterns create a sensation that can only accurately be felt rather than described.
My reader may wonder what this talk of surrealism has to do with horror. The room themselves wouldn’t create the horror, it’s the grand ebony clock that finally does it.
Poe describes in Prospero’s castle a grand clock that interrupts the party and the effect of his description still resonates:
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies), there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. (486-7).
These two opening passages are, by themselves, not terribly frightening. Just about anything taken out of context will not strike the reader or viewer as frightening. As with the case of Blue Velvet, what matters in these passages is their context to the rest of the story and the general feeling that they are real, or at least true.
I read The Masque of the Red Death again, sitting alone in my office by the lamp on the table that sits just under the window. There are two lamps that create a soft amber glow when it is night, and while I have the window-shades shut, there is still always the feeling of a presence just outside the window. Perhaps that’s why, when I finished the story, and placed Poe beside my plastic skull and copy of The Book of Beetles, the super-realness of the clock still reverberated and I felt, just for a moment, that I might have actually heard its distracting echo.
I’ve written recently, about Poe’s exploration of the dark and mysterious realms of reality, often pushing into the space of the “World Without Men,” and while I agree that The Masque of the Red Death certainly continues this aesthetic, I can’t shake off the idea of feeling the super-real. The reason for this is because Halloween is approaching and so most people are preparing for the night when spirits are supposed to be more present or at least more accessible to this realm. And while reason is the defining principle by which I live my life, and while I detest any argument that supports the existence of the supernatural, there is a little joy in putting skeletons in my front yard and enjoying a little fright.
But I’m a writer and making connections is important, so while Poe’s super-realness is observed in his Masque of the Red Death, reading the story was also an excuse to get back to another point in my life, or more accurately, another author.
My regular reader will realize that Stephen King really started it all for me, in terms of realizing that I wanted to be a writer. After reading The Green Mile I began to write, mostly shit, but I started writing because King explored an interesting territory that I wanted to try. I eventually gave up writing horror because, and I need to be honest here, I suck at it. You have to have the right chops to scare people and my weakness is I’m too intellectual. I know that sounds vain as fucking fuck but it’s not meant to be. My only claim here is that I’m in too much of a rush to explore ideas rather than feelings, and when looking at horror all you’re talking about is feelings.
The book that really sealed the death of my career as a horror writer was The Shining because, after reading that, I knew I could never compete with King. Apart from Pet Cemetery, and his short story 1408, there is no King book that scared me so terribly as The Shining. The novel is about a man by the name of Jack Torrance, a former high school English teacher who has been fired for assaulting a student and is looking for a job. He gets hired as a caretaker of The Overlook, a resort hotel in Colorado. Jack has just kicked his alcoholism and is looking for a chance to write and so he takes the job to spend the winter in the Overlook with his wife Wendy and his son Dany until the spring. It becomes clear, once the family moves into the hotel, that supernatural forces are attacking the family in different ways, and Jack in particular, is eventually selected to handle the job of killing Wendy and Danny because Danny is psychokinetic. Jack eventually succumbs to the house, but not before trying to save Danny from himself and destroying the boiler so that the hotel explodes in a mess of fire.
Immediately some might question what relevance the novel has to Poe’s short story, but this question is ended before it begins when they open the book and observe that the clock passage cited before is used as an epigraph to the novel. Not only that, but throughout the text actual references to The Masque of the Red Death are cited to the point that King builds the elements of the story into his actual novel. In one particular instance King doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s using the story to build his own. In the final 100 pages of the novel, which for the record often feel like a marathon sprint because everything just falls into place and King just attacks his reader, Wendy is fleeing the ghosts which are appearing and there’s a dramatic scene:
The ballroom doors were thrown wide, only blackness spilling out. From within came a steady ticking, like a bomb. She under glass. Jack or Danny must have wound it..or maybe it had wound itself up, like everything else in the Overlook.
She turned toward the reception desk, meaning to go through the gate and the managers office and into the kitchen. Gleaning dull silver, she could see the intended lunch tray.
Then the clock began to strike, like tinkling notes.
Wendy stiffened, her tongue rising to the roof of her mouth. Then she relaxed. It was striking eight, that was all. Eight o’clock.
…five, six, seen…
She counted the strokes. It suddenly seemed wrong to move again until the clock had stilled.
(?? Nine ??)
Suddenly, belatedly, it came to her. She turned back clumsily for the stairs, knowing already she was too late. But how could she have known.
All the lights in the ballroom went on. There was a huge, shrieking flourish of brass. Wendy screamed aloud, the sound of her cry insignificant against the blare issuing from those brazen lungs.
“Unmask!” the cry echoed. “Unmask! Unmask!”
Then they faded, as if down a long corrido of time, leaving her alone again.
No, not alone.
She turned and he was coming for her. (397-8).
Because this scene is a climax the same level of super-real effect isn’t so potent out of context, but when this scene appears I can only speak for myself, I almost put the book down for fear of continuing. The shadows on the wall, which had just been shades created by the lamps and ceiling fans, began to move in ways that disturbed me and so my option was finish the book or attempt to move and leave the room. For obvious reasons I kept reading. King’s ability with structuring his writing, the use of ellipses and parenthesis especially, create this slowly growing sense of terror because they become impressions of thought that the reader, after a while, cannot tell whether it is their own thoughts or the character’s. The only problem with this passage is that, while you have the clock and the lunch tray, this scene completely abandons the surreal for the supernatural. It’s frightening and climactic, but long after reading it the reader will recognize you need the earlier passages to make it unnerving and terrifying.
To see King working this surreal quality I need to take the reader back to an earlier passage.
Before the grand climax and the “unmasking,” there is a moment earlier in the novel where Danny is walking about the hotel and he realizes that he is about to have to walk past an emergency hose if he wants to go back to his Mom and Dad. This scene remains my first real memory of reading The Shining, because the experience and sensation was so reminiscent of my own experience.
Danny looked around the corner.
The extinguisher was there, a flat hose folded back a dozen times on itself, the red tank attached to the wall. Above it was an ax in a glass case like a museum exhibit, with white words printed on a red background: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. Danny could read the word EMERGENCY, which was also the name of one of his favorite TV shows, but was unsure of the rest. But he didn’t like the way the word was used in connection with that long flat hose. EMERGENCY was fire, explosions, car crashes, hospitals, sometimes death. And he didn’t like the way the hose hung there so blandly on the wall. When he was alone, he always skittered past these extinguishers as fast as he could. No particular reason. It felt better to go fast. It felt safer.
He started towards it, moving closer to the far wall until his right arm was brushing the expensive silk paper. Twenty steps away. Fifteen. A dozen.
When he was ten steps away, the brass nozzle suddenly rolled off the flat loop it had been lying
On and fell to the hall carpet with a dull thump. It lay there, the dark bore of its muzzle pointing at Danny. He stopped immediately, his shoulders twitching forward with the suddenness of his scare. His blood thumped tickly in his ears and temples. His mouth had gone dry and sour, his hands curled into fists. Yet the nozzle of the hose only lay there, its brass casing glowing mellowly, a loop of flat canvas leading back up to the red-painted frame bolted to the wall. (171-2).
Nothing supernatural has occurred. That is much is clear. And yet…
This moment can induce a real sense of panic and unease because of the way King describes the hose so realistically. The “IN CASE OF” summons immediately the images of dozens of fire extinguishers cases either in high school, hospitals, or even at retail establishments. It’s something people see every day. I wrote before the quote that I had experienced moments such as this. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and since Episcopalism is descended from the church of England, Anglicanism, which itself almost an exact copy of Catholicism, the church we attended was designed to be a big beautiful building. There were stained glass windows, old clocks, couches that seemed to belong more in the homes old people, grand pianos, and even a library with a massive council table. It was a beautiful building and remains so to this day, but the great conflict with it was at night the place allowed a child far too much imagination. The echoes of your footsteps seemed to follow you, the old clocks’ ticking became the growling stomach of some patient monster, and the shadows seemed to twist and contort into nightmares which were rather left unexplored. Worst of all was, because there were so many halls and twists and turns, and while you knew rationally there was no one following you through the building, you couldn’t escape the super-real feeling of those halls and the sensation that someone might be there. There moments were surreal, much like the firehose in The Shining, because while there was nothing that was outside the realm of experienced, the sensation of the objects were heightened into a kind of uncomfortable truth.
I haven’t so much explored horror in this essay, or at least the standard of horror many fans of the genre would recognize. For my own part I can only attest to the fact that, while The Masque of the Red Death may not be a jump-scare horror tale that many contemporary readers may be used to, that doesn’t mean it loses any of its potency.
The real concrete images of the colored rooms, and the ebony clock, and the figure in the red robe all build an impression in the reader’s mind. These scenes feel real because Poe writes them in such a way so that, even if the details of the world presented seem outside the realm of experience, they still feel real and so it’s impossible to shrug them off as simply supernatural oddity. The firehose simply falling off of the perch as Danny walks by is so simple in its presentation, and its description is so plain it’s impossible to believe at first that anything could be behind it, and yet, reading that passage when I was thirteen brought back so many sensations I wondered for a moment whether or not I might have been right.
Poe and King both are masters of their craft because they allowed their reader’s imaginations to dream feelings and sensations into being, and ultimately that’s all that matters. Perception really is 99% of reality, for as long as we feel or perceive something it exists in our immediate world. Great horror then, should rely not so much on its ability to gross out its audience, but to leave them with the impression that something feels real.
A firehose falling from its perch can be explained away with all the physics science can muster, and a clock’s chime is just the proof of a great watch-maker. Yet all it takes is a moment’s reflection to wonder at the impression, and feel perhaps that there might be something more pushing us towards some wretched realization.
It’s also a good reminder not to read Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe before bed, because now I haven’t slept for seven days and those hallucinations of floating hands on my shoulders are starting to get a little grabby.
All quotes from The Masque of the Red Death came from Poe: Poetry and Tales as published by Library of America, however if the reader wishes to read the entire article they can follow the link below to a pdf of the short story. All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Adam Kesher, Betty Elms, Blue Velvet, Charlie Rose, coffee, Corruption, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Diane Selwyn, E Unibus Pluram, Entertainment, Evil as Force, Friday the 13th, Grotesque, Hollywood, horror, It's truly truly difficult to find good coffee and by good coffee I mean the type that leaves you feeling as if you've actually tasted something beyond human understanding close to the furnace of all , Laura Herring, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Los Angeles, Lynchian, Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts, Narrative Structure, Nightmare on Elm Street, nipple rubbing, Paranormal Activity, psychology, Rita, sex, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Surreal, television, The Cowboy, Winkies
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.,
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
When I asked my friend Michael, who’s my go-to film buff, about the film Mulholland Drive he posted a gif from a Lynch film with the sentence “Get yourself some damn good coffee.” The best coffee I’ve ever drunk in my entire life has come from my mother’s French press, but I need to get to Wallace and Lynch.
I watched Mullholland Drive for the first time with my father. I’m not entirely sure if that satisfies David Foster Wallace’s criteria of what qualifies as “Lynchian” but it feels like it should. Mom and M were out of the house, I can’t remember the specific cause, and so Dad, who had been taking a film course to satisfy a credit for his bachelor’s degree, brought home the film telling me a friend of his in the class had suggested it. There was also some mention that the film might have a lesbian scene in it, but to be honest that, like most of the actual film, is a bit blurry enigma. What I distinctly remember is the feeling that I had seen this film before in caricatures of typical “independent films” either on Family Guy, The Simpsons, or else one of the numerous television shows I watched at the time. Images would appear that were so surreal or absurd while the music tended either to put me on edge or else push me steadily towards madness, and by the time Naomi Watts and Laura Herring wound up in bed together the scene wasn’t really all that out of place, though my teenage hormones made it a bit of a distraction. The reason I bring up my father is that for a moment there was an event in which a grown man and his teenage son were sitting in the dark, watching two women fuck on the screen, sitting on separate couches unaware of what the other’s expression was.
To be fair I’m not sure you could call the sex scene in Mulholland Drive “fucking” so much as heavy open mouth tongue based kissing coupled with some light nipple rubbing.
This is a rather awkward, yet strangely fitting, introduction to serve my purpose. This essay is not so much a review of Mulholland Drive, but rather a review of an essay that I had no idea would actually leave such a distinct impression upon me. And the odd part is the essay in fact made me remember a film I had seen and so when I began this piece I wondered what would be better approach: write about the film or write about the essay which is writing about another film entirely for the most part but said first film wasn’t made when the essay was written so is there an ethical concern writing about a film and using the essay to support this argument and eventually I just said screw it and went forward.
David Lynch Keeps his Head is the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book I bought partly because I had begun Infinite Jest but also because a friend of mine had bought the book before me and raved about it (he was a creative writer but one of the smart ones who tried to push himself creatively in what he read and wrote about) and after he and I lost touch I encountered the book again at a friend’s house while I was watching her dog. The cover strikes you immediately, largely because it’s comically grotesque, with a little boy with an obscenely large head licking his chest while steam pours out from his ears. I wonder at times if I compromise whatever artistic credibility I have when I write things like this, but the book is most certainly worth your time and money if only because you’ll be able to freak out your mother and girlfriend (or boyfriend, we’re open minded here at White Tower Musings) for a month with the cover. Once you get bored with that you can read about watching television or else how David Lynch is a genius, but the movie is Dune is absolute swill.
Reading the essay, I was constantly remembering the general feeling that Mulholland Drive created particular during three specific quotes. Wallace says in section 10 of the essay:
If the word sick seems excessive to you, simply substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. […] It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you are feeling about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you are feeling about David Lynch. (166).
Even though it’s been years since I watched the film I can’t disagree with Wallace in this passage because to this day there’s still a miasma of psychic shock and recovery that was watching the film. That’s not hyperbole, just an effort to convey the lingering sensation of watching a Lynch film, a good Lynch film. It’s not so much that the film is grotesque the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hostel is, nor are his films psychologically terrifying the way The Shining or Psycho were(though I did jump when the grotesque homeless man first appeared). These films are genre based films, specifically horror, and the fundamental aspect of horror is that once the first experience is done it is possible to overcome the experience and, possibly, even laugh at it later. A great example of this is the Paranormal Activity films and just about any Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The films of David Lynch are not horror films however for even after you have processed the experienced there is a discomfort and emotional awareness that doesn’t leave the viewer. David Lynch as a director has probed into the viewer psyche and, if I may use a grotesque metaphor here, effectively licked the inside of their skull leaving a lasting membrane the viewer can still feel decades after the fact.
Grotesqueness is part of the man’s aesthetic however, for unlike the previously established gore-filled horror-genre films, Lynch’s movies are attempting something different creatively.
Wallace offers up a great assessment:
The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalence of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the character’s faces, the weird ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way screens are staged and lit and the overlfush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted—these all give Lynch’s movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineastes view as more like cold and clinical. (167).
He continues this later on by noting:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
This is most certainly the case for me as I look back again to Mulholland Drive. The main storyline is…damn near impossible to describe, and so I won’t bother to attempt to except to address the character of Betty/Diane. Played by Naomi Watts the narrative, such as it is, follows Betty as she encounters a woman known as Rita who has suffered a terrible car crash and can’t remember who she is. Betty recently moved to Los Angeles and many critics and fan of the film have noted that she comes to embody the standard naïve outsider hoping to make it big in L.A. Most of this is certainly true, for Betty freely helps Rita after her accident and by the end of the film she has seemingly been destroyed as she eventually buys into the grotesque realities of the Hollywood system. She’s an aspiring actress, and when the plot flips, and Rita is revealed to be a successful actress, betty is left a shriveled waste of malevolent intent. It’s not enough that she has failed, she has exploded because of her kind nature.
There are other numerous subplots to the film, such as the director Adam whose life is steadily destroyed by forces controlled by a mysterious and grotesque dwarf in a room with a single light, as well as the man who opens the film suffering a terrible nightmare about seeing a grotesque man behind a “Winkies.” These stories exist and possess a great relevance to the “plot” but because the narrative is disjointed, and because the film is shot in a way that is often dream-like the viewer is left to try and assort the various pieces together hoping that they can find some meaning.
Betty is a sympathetic character however, and by the end of the film it’s painful to see she has fallen from that kindness which once defined her.
Betty Elms: She’s letting me stay here while she’s working on a movie that’s being made in Canada. But I guess you already know that. Well, I couldn’t afford a place like this in a million years… unless, of course, I’m discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you’d say, sort of why I came here.
Betty Elms: I’m sorry. I’m just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place. Well, you can imagine how I feel.
By the end of Mulholland Drive Betty’s fall is tragic since it came from such an idealistic high however the narrative delivery makes it difficult at times to really be sure that her end result, the character Diane Selwyn, isn’t the actual reality and that Betty may not be so much a figure of sympathy but really just the imagination of Diane attempting to construct a narrative in which she’s actually the sympathetic character who’s just a victim of abuse and manipulation. What is important to note however is that this structure does not make it difficult to watch Lynch’s film, in fact it only informs it more. Betty is either the victim of evil, or else a perpetrator of it, and at a certain point there isn’t much of a distinction. At least, as Wallace suggests, in a Lynch movie.
Wallace addresses this in his essay:
It’s not just the fact that twisted people do hideous things to one another in Lynch’s films, these critics will argue, but rather the “moral attitude” implied by the way Lynch’s camera atrocities in Lynch movies are never staged to elicit outrage or even disapproval. The directional attitude when hideousness occurs seems to range between cynical neutrality and an almost voyeuristic ogling.
The claim, though, that because Lynch’s movies pass no overt “judgement” on hideousness/evil/sickness and in fact make the stuff riveting to watch, the movies are themselves a- or immoral, even evil—this is bullshit of the rankest vintage, and not just because it’s sloppy logic but because it’s symptomatic of the impoverished moral assumptions we seem now to bring to the movies we watch. (203).
This is an important passage, not just for David Lynch Keeps his Head, but for review writing in general. A few weeks past I wrote a review of Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram which was about television’s affects upon culture, creative writing, and Postmodern consciousness. While writing this review I noted how often Wallace had to keep reminding his reader that television was not a cancerous sore on the face of humanity, and one passage in particular says it far better than I could:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that television today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synecdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Violence is frequently, and accurately, coupled in our society, and those who contribute to media should be conscious of what they are actively placing into the universe. The only problem is that because television and film-watching are both “passive” exercises you “receive” the medium rather that “actively” generating some part of it yourself, there has arisen an “elitism” coupled with bullshit morality in our society and so film makers who explore violence will always suffer the wrath of people who are bothered or disturbed by violent or perverse content. Lynch’s movies freely employ violence, this is a fact, but not to the level that it becomes pornographic or gratuitous. As Wallace wrote, whatever violence exists within his universe the acts performed and recorded do not provided a kind of malignant catharsis, nor are they designed to be employed as black humor. Death, pain, destruction, and murder just are.
This is a problem and I recognize it immediately because human beings don’t like ambiguity, or ambiguity of this caliber. Trying to explain that something just is, doesn’t fit into the narrative structures that human beings live their lives by. In the Judeo-Christian faith that was I surrounded with as a young man, acts of evil or monstrosity were performed because there was an evil supernatural tempter swaying the will of human beings in the form of The Devil. As I got older, and received more education, I learned that human beings’ motivations could also be swayed by economics, there are financial reasons for evil deeds because people are greedy or hungry. Adding a bit more complexity to this sexuality becomes a factor in the compelling of people to violence, for sex inspires passions that blind people to reason and so a lover may be drawn into a fit of violence after he catches his boyfriend in bed with two other men, or a wife may kill her husband’s mistress because she won’t share him. These are examples of causes and effects that fit narratives most people would recognize and be comfortable with, but Wallace brings up an important point when he notes that violence in David Lynch films aren’t about narratives because in Lynch films narratives are contorted, twisted, and may not even be real.
It makes sense that that concept would disturb people, because it’s a narrative structure people are unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, because it seems at first to suggest that violence happens for no reason at all.
Human beings since their infancy have needed an individual or location that possesses an “other” quality so that they can justify their existence. This sentiment is probably best expressed in the movie Scarface when Tony Montana drunkenly leaves the restaurant:
Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy!
As for Wallace himself he manages to find some kind of conclusion, or creative recognition in the violence that occurs in Lynch movies:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, frce. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villans seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literallt possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynnch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
This was a rather long quote, but it was necessary to get to the end of this essay. Technically speaking Wallace’s essay is about him visiting the set of David Lynch’s then upcoming film Lost Highway, which I admit I haven’t seen. The only Lynch films I’ve seen are Mulholland Drive and Dune, which as I as well as Wallace note really isn’t a Lynch film at all, but the first film left a permanent impression on me. Reading Wallace’s essay then made me re-evaluate the experience so that Lynch as a director became not just a man who made weird and unwatchable films, but an important artist whose vision and philosophy towards art wasn’t that much different from my own.
Lynch as an artist seems to be always attempting to understand the forces that compel human beings, either by their own force of will or by outside influence. Looking at Mulholland Drive this last impression of evil seems more and more relevant for ultimately every character falls prey to the evil forces that seem to occupy the city of L.A. Betty and Adam both are human beings trying to fulfill a narrative of their own life until outside forces, evil forces, eventually corrupt their will and force them into paths they don’t desire or can live with in the case of Betty.
Human beings are comfortable fitting into narratives, and so when a director purposefully eschews narrative structure and directs the audience to observe stories in a position that seems outside the traditional structure, the natural response is to be disturbed. This is only proof however that a real aesthetic reaction has taken place.
Rather than simply call Lynch “sick” or “warped” the reader who watches a Lynch films and feels tremendously bothered by it, which for the record Wallace most certainly was and he even describes his experience seeing Blue Velvet with a group of friends in the essay, shouldn’t just say that Lynch is “sick” and leave it at that. There are many films which are designed to simply entertain the viewer and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, a problem with only watching such movies is that one becomes trapped into the standard narrative tropes and so when a film comes around, or a film maker, who violates that norm the reaction becomes to label him as “sick” or “evil” when all he has really done is attempt to question the rhythms of humanity.
One last point should be addressed however and that’s the idea I introduced at the beginning with my little anecdote: what is a Lynchian moment? A teenage boy watching an erotic moment in a movie with his father most likely doesn’t satisfy that idea, but on some level I believe it does. Wallace defines it as best he can for the reader:
An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively—i.e. we know it when we see it. (161).
It’s fair to state the fact that a great number of men have rented, bought, or downloaded Mullholland Drive simply to watch Naomi Watts and Laura Herring kiss and touch boobs. It’s a lamentable fact, largely because a great many of these men have entirely missed what a truly strange scene they’re actually watching. Yes, two beautiful women are engaged in an erotic act, but by the time the viewer gets to this scene it is an act rooted in the Lynchian structure of the film, which is a fancy-pants way of saying it’s fucking weird. Weirder than this is watching this scene with your father, but let me at least save the old man from any embarrassment by noting that the pair of us bonded afterwards by noting at the same time that “that movie was fucking weird man.”
You know it when you see it. It’s like great coffee, you know it when you taste it, and afterward you’ll never forget it.
In case the reader is at all interested I’ve included a link to a few videos related to Mullholland Drive
The opening “Diner” scene which taught us to never pay attention to dreams or to buy cheap coffee:
The “Coffee scene” which reminded us that napkins are important:
The “lesbian” scene, which really isn’t a “lesbian” scene at all and I highly encourage you to avoid reading the comment section because it will make your skin crawl:
And a brief interview with David Lynch where he responds to a question about Mullholland Drive and discusses the idea of “abstractions”:
And finally here’s an interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose promoting the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again talking about David Lynch and the epiphany, his words, he experienced after watching the film Blue Velvet with some friends:
I legitimately hope that I haven’t put anyone off see in Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. I acknowledge that I’ve made the film sound like either a surreal unwatchable film or else a bad porno, so allow me one last moment of your time when I say that Mulholland Drive is most certainly worth your time as a film. If I can’t convince you, please remember that a recent BBC Poll put it at the Number 1 film of the decade and Indie Wire explains this out if you follow the link below:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, advertising, audience, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Calvin and Hobbes, corporate product, Cow & Chicken, Creative Writing, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Doug, E Unibus Pluram, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Essay, Family Guy, Huckleberry Hound, Illusion of choice, Individual Will, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Literature, Luke Goebel, Politics, Postmodernism, Rick and Morty, Robot Chicken, Rocko's Modern Life, Rugrats, Swat Kats, television, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Simpsons, Watching, White Noise, Writing
Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers remain two of my unashamed pleasures, and within that pleasure lies a connection to the rest of humanity, at least according to David Foster Wallace. I like many people grew up watching cartoons and television almost to the point of obsession, and in hindsight it’s a wonder at all that I became the reader I am today. As I’ve written before in several instances I actually wasn’t much of a reader as a child, and in fact the only thing my parents could get me to read on my own was either Captain Underpants or Calvin and Hobbes. When I wasn’t watching Loony Tunes, Swat Kats, Huckleberry Hound, Arnold, Doug, Rugrats, Cow & Chicken, and Rocko’s Modern Life I was usually playing Super Nintendo. For the record I’ve never finished Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and as such I’ve had to achieve closure like every nerd who can’t finish a video game, I watched someone else beat it on YouTube.
For some reason I’ve lately found myself being attracted to David Foster Wallace. That’s not a homoerotic remark by the way, I just go through these intellectual storms or moods that tend to center around a person, idea, or word. I’d actually been exposed to the man two years ago when I was studying creative writing with Luke Goebel. There wasn’t any required reading in the course, Luke was cool in so many ways and that was just one of them, but there was suggested readings. Alongside Susan Steinberg’s short story collection Spectacle, there was also an anthology titled The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I was one of the few people in class who actually bought the book, and almost every one of the other books Luke would “suggest” we read (Luke tends to bark out his suggestions so that they’re almost call-to-arms) but I found a lot of inspiration in this collection, trying to read as many as I could.
I had no idea who David Foster Wallace was, and at the time I didn’t care. Joe Wenderoth, Padget Powell, and Aimee Bender were far more interesting to me or at least more relevant to the type of writing I was trying to accomplish. I read the passage “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” not knowing that this was a passage from a novel Wallace had written, and I remarked to myself that he was the only person, apart from Ed Park, who made the “interview” format of writing interesting to read. It’s funny in hindsight as I approach this essay because this line of the passage including in the Anchor collection begins:
As a child I watched a great deal of American television. No matter of where my father was being posted, it seemed always that American television was available, with its glorious and powerful women performers. Perhaps this was one more advantage of the importance of my father’s work to the defense of the state, for we had privileges and lived comfortably. The television program I most preferred then was to watch Betwitched, featuring American performer Elizabeth Montgomery. (349).
The reader may not understand at first why this amusing, but that’s only because I haven’t gotten around to stating the focus of this essay. As I said at the start of this work I adore watching Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers for both of these shows invite viewers into a kind of complicity. Watching Robot Chicken the viewer is aware that they’re re-watching most of the television programs they enjoyed as children, just reimagined to fit an adapted adult-childhood. Skeletor is no longer the bumbling and inept supervillain who always loses, he’s now a man who can call people douchebags and give a banker a blowjob to pay for his mortgage. Likewise with Honest Trailers, while there is definitely a nostalgia factor in place, the joy of the program is recognizing similar thoughts as the deep throated god who narrates the videos brings to life every criticism, concern, and reflection the viewer had while watching the movie.
What these programs have in common, beyond the surface comedy factor, is the fact that both rely on television and watching in order to be understood.
The generations being entertained grew up watching most of the shows and movies being parodied and critiqued, and rather than shaming the viewer by suggesting they have wasted their life watching these programs invite the viewer: do you remember show/movie “X”? If you do check this out.
This is an important distinction from most conversations about television because it’s not condemnatory and this leads me to David Foster Wallace’s Essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.
E Unibus Pluram is the second essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which I bought after a friend of mine who teaches college composition recommended it. I had started Infinite Jest on a whim already, and after steadily becoming more and more cognizant of who Wallace actually was I decided to give him a chance. The essay in question deals with the topic of contemporary fiction, specifically how television has altered the creative landscape for writers as well as readers.
One passage in particular outlines this conflict:
The plain fact is that certain things having to do with fiction production are different for young U.S. writers now. And television is at the vortex of most of the flux. Because younger writers are not only Artists probing for the nobler interstices in what Stanley Cavell calls the reader’s “willingness to be pleased”; we are also, now, self-defined parts of the great U.S. Audience, and have our own aesthetic pleasure-centers; and television has formed and trained us. It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain that, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with each other, that young writer’s ears seem “tinny.” Tinny they may be, but the truth is that, in young Americans’ experience, people in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other. What most people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other— “Did you just see what I just saw?” (44).
This long quote precedes the chapter “i do have a thesis,” where he actually lays out his thesis, but looking at this passage I’m reminded that I’m an avid fan of the show Family Guy and that lately I’ve gone back and watched the first three seasons. The reader may wonder what that has to do with anything? You see I was one of many high school losers who could never get a date, didn’t understand that not washing my hair repelled women, and often found solace listening to Slipknot’s “Wait and Bleed” on repeat, or else memorizing virtually every episode of Family Guy. To this day I can quote lengthy passages from the earlier shows at will, sometimes to the annoyance, dismay, or pity of my wife and friends, but it’s impossible to deconstruct this muscle memory and allow room for more important facts and information. Family Guy was a television program I adored, my friends adored, and some girls actually at least pretended to like because they were bored and our interactions would usually revolve around starting each other up to do moments from the episodes. These repeated actions assume great weight as I look back on my development and realize that it wasn’t the nurturing sublime language of Shakespeare or the Transcendental beauty of Emily Dickinson, it was sitting with my friends, or often alone, watching Peter Griffin try to come up with a fake name before looking at a pea, a tear, and a griffin before saying “Peter Griffin. Aw, crap.”
Television has been a formative influence upon my consciousness, and as a writer it directly affects the kind of prose I produce. Likewise for many writers of my generation, the consistent watching of television has played its own role on them.
Wallace’s essay is not designed to shame the reader, in fact consistently he makes sure his reader recognizes that he objects to the old ideas of television as a corrupting influence.
He notes early on in the essay:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that telelvsion today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synechdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Likewise he notes earlier that another consistent criticism of television is that it encourages perverse voyeurism. Rather than suggesting viewers are corrupted “Peeping-Toms” voyeuristically watching people who are unsuspecting he provides a different assessment:
But TV-watching is different from genuine Peeping-Tomism. Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies. […] Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers. We’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers. We are the Audience, megametircally many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram. (23).
The consistent argument against regular consumption of television has been that it rots the mind and inhibits the ability to connect with other people, but as Wallace just demonstrated that is an outdated fallacy upon closer inspection. Television relies on the idea that somebody is watching the characters on the screen, and so rather than present human beings in situations that would reveal the true nature of their being or self, television is often presented through what Wallace refers to as irony. The form of irony in question is not so much a clever high art variety one might encounter in Shakespeare or Beckett, but rather an irony rooted in the conditioning of advertising. This form of irony is understood by the way it presents itself, which Wallace explains:
Products are now most often pitched as helping the viewer “express himself,” assert his individuality, “stand out from the crowd.” (55).
While I write I typically have Pandora on, either my Disturbed Channel or else the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart channel, and while the music sometimes distracts me, it’s nice to be able to put music on and focus on the writing, however because I work with the free model of the site I’m regularly interrupted by commercials.
The most glaring of them has lately been a Dr. Pepper commercial: two friends enter a retail outlet and they’re in a hurry, one man pleads for his friend to hurry up but the other explains it isn’t that simple, he tells “Gary” (which for the record is a glaring demonstration of the lack of originality or else outright brilliance in the writing that went into the add) that he’s conflicted because each Dr. Pepper bottle has different labels, the manager of the shop tells them to hurry up, to which Gary responds that his friend is simply trying to “express himself” with “the rich taste of Dr. Pepper” spoken in the most hammed up delivery, the ad ends with the discovery of a “pirate” wrapper before a voice comes over suggesting that one is able to express ones entire individuality through purchasing different labels. My music sometimes starts up after that, though often I have to listen to Jack King (a local used car salesman in my area) and afterwards I’m struck by the sheer absurdity of the actual ad. Wallace, would argue that it’s actually a kind of irony. He provides his own example, a Pepsi ad in which an entire beach full of people scramble to a food truck to purchase the soft drink after the van projects the sound of a carbonated drink opening up:
There’s about as much “choice” at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel. The use of the word “choice” here is a dark joke. In fact the whole 30-second spot is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, self-mocking. As Miller argues, it’s not really choice that the commercial is selling Joe Briefcase on, “but the total negation of choices. Indeed, the product itself is finally incidental to the pitch. The ad does not extol Pepsi per se as recommend it by implying that a lot of people have been fooled into buying it. (60).
Looking back at “Gary,” and my quenchless desire to punch him as well as his friend in the face for interrupting my Slipknot and Evanescence lineup, I’m struck by the fact that these people who regularly intrude my metal fest are now figures that I pity rather than despise. Their conversation in the gas station over the labels of Dr. Pepper become a kind of sick tragedy that I have to watch over and over again, aware of the irony that is taking place as well as the invitation to participate in this farce. Advertising is not malevolent by nature, it simply serves the purpose of allowing companies to make their product known the consumer. Wallace achieves a brilliance in recognizing and thus writing out the fact that the viewer of such adds is not helpless in this matter, that in fact they fully recognize on some level that the ad is being purposefully hyperbolic to appear absurd. What’s complicated is the nature of choice that follows that recognition for absurdity is not necessarily a protection from it.
At this point though my contester interrupts. This is all terribly interesting, but how exactly does this possess much, if any, relevance to average people who derive great enjoyment from television? The essay just sounds like a long esoteric criticism of television without offering any significant statement about television as a viable media, or the way it has affected culture.
My contester is right, as usual, but also wrong, also usual. Looking over the passages cited already is enough evidence to demonstrate the relevance of the article to fans of television because it’s clear that Wallace is not condemning television as a form of media, he’s simply trying to understand it and offer up fresh arguments about what role it plays in society. Perhaps the best example of this comes from a quote following a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise where two characters have stopped to see “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.” The characters get out and watched the crowd and Wallace writes a beautiful and, as usual, insightful analysis:
I quote this at length not only because it’s too good to edit but also to draw your attention to two relevant features. One is the Dobynsesque message about the metastasis of watching. For not only are people watching a barn whose only claim to fame is being an object of watching, but the pop-culture scholar Murray is watching people watch a barn, and his friend Jack is watching Murray watch the watching, and we readers are pretty obviously watching Jack the narrator watch Murray watching, etc. If you leave out the reader, there’s similar regress of recording of barn and barn-watching. (48).
It’s in this passage that Wallace E Unibus Pluram comes full circle and I apologize but I most quote one last passage, for it is, after all, wallace’s thesis:
My two big premises are that, one the one hand, a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television; and that, on the other hand, televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. Television, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires of Audience in order to be commercially or psychologically viable at doses of several hours a day. (49-50).
At the start of every episode of Family Guy there is a shot of someone watching television. At the end of The Simpsons intro the family all sits down to watch television before something quirky happens. Every season of Rick and Morty has at least one episode dedicated to the family sitting and flipping through infinite numbers of channels from infinite numbers of realities that have television. Robot Chicken’s central narrative is of a chicken strapped to a chair being forced to watch television. These are just some examples but they demonstrate the relevance of Wallace’s essay and why the reader should care.
It would simple to suggest that watching television for extended periods of time is laziness, and while some part of me agrees with that statement reading E Unibus Pluram makes it difficult to completely condemn television as I have done in the past. Even after reading the essay I still hold to the fact that I don’t enjoy watching television much, but that has more to do with personal idiosyncrasy than contempt. I’d rather be writing, reading, or making video lectures most of the time, but I even I will drop what I’m doing to watch Ricky and Morty because there’s a simple joy in being passive and receiving data. Television as a medium has become so much a part of the cultural and psychological landscape that simply writing it off as corrupting is becoming immaterial. More to the point when a person condemns television and then themselves enjoy watching it they’re simply engaging in hypocrisy.
Television has affected literacy and writing tremendously because writers who decide to attempt to speak and discuss human beings in contemporary times have to deal with the reality of television. It influences dialogue, motivations, time people spend, and the atmosphere of the creations. Ignoring television and condemning it, rather than accepting it and trying to understand it, isn’t helping the situation. It’s only making it more difficult for readers to separate themselves from the tube in the first place.
Authors who wish to write about the human condition have to recognize the creative landscape now includes the, to quote Stewie Griffin, “flickering box.” Wallace ends E Unibus Pluram wondering about the fate of future authors, wondering if they will in their own movements, actually submit to television and dare to produce art that encourages further passivity. For myself I can offer the sentiment that I will spend my life actively avoiding such garbage, but then I remember that Robot Chicken comes at 11 and I have only a few minutes to wrap this essay up.
If the reader is at all interested I’ve actually found a pdf of Wallace’s essay. While all quotes in this essay came from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, they can also the entire work by following the link below:
In case the reader is like me and never finished the game Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past I’ve included a link to a video which shows the final boss battle against Ganon and the conclusion of the game. I don’t know how this person did it, but damn if it wasn’t nice finally watching that fat pig wizard SOB get destroyed:
I’ve included a few Calvin and Hobbes Strips in this article because often, growing up, they were some of my favorite. It’s entirely by accident that most of them are relentless criticism of television, or, I suppose, it’s ironic.
Boba-Loompia, books, David Foster Wallace, generational gap, graduation, Grocery Shopping, Infinite Jest, Ivory Tower of Academia, Johnathan Franzen, Lollipop Chicken, Philosophy, solipsism, Speech, This is Water, White Tower Musings, wisdom, Writers
To Dr. Sloan,
Thanks for the books and talks, they meant a lot.
Lollipop chicken and my strawberry-mango smoothie were the topics of the hour before we discussed the commencement speaker for our graduation. I was having a breakfast/lunch, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of brunch, with one of my professors and her TA who was a fellow grad student at a Philipino restaurant in town called Boba-Loompia. The last time the three of us ate together was at an Indian food place called Taj Mahal where I was pleasantly surprised that I suffered no bowel based problems in spite of the rhetoric of most contemporary television. We talked about the food, retirement, graduating, teaching, writing, and then eventually the actual graduation ceremony that was literally hours away. I’ll admit freely that I wasn’t looking forward to it. It wasn’t fear or nervousness about the ceremony for large crowds honestly don’t bother me much. There was a time where talking to someone one-on-one was the stuff of cold nightmares that could only be relieved by burying my face into my mother’s leg and skirt, but growing up and teaching regularly in front of hundreds of students eventually shook out that bad habit. The reason I hated graduation was because it was so painfully awkward.
Despite the fact that I attended a public university the ceremony was opened and closed with a prayer by a Catholic Priest (which is funny unto itself seeing as how most of the Christians in attendance were Baptists who believed Catholicism is a cult), and the woman who would read the names of people walking across the stage honestly couldn’t read or remember the names printed in front of her on the card. Perhaps the most awful portion of the events however was the commencement speaker. Both the most recent, and my previous graduation speaker, left little to no impression, and perhaps it was simply because I’ve grown to distrust authority figures, but being forced to listen to their “advice” about the future seemed ridiculous.
My professor said it best, as she took another bite of her lollipop chicken, “It’s ridiculous the way they put you through that mess. Why doesn’t the President just step up to the podium, read “This is Water,” and then hand out the diplomas? Why bother with the whole farce?” I laughed, feeling validated that one of my professors could be so blunt, and trust me enough to be blunt around me, but the title of the work immediately stood out. I asked her who wrote it, and when the name David Foster Wallace appeared I knew I had to read the speech.
David Foster Wallace has been a recent discovery for me, even though I had actually read his work in the past. His novel Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was excerpted in The Anchor Book Anthology of Contemporary Fiction that I’d bought for Luke Goebel’s creative writing class. I read the work, marveling that someone was still doing the “interview tapes” style of writing and actually making it interesting rather than indulgent. The man himself would appear in my radar from time to time, usually whenever I read anything about Johnathan Franzen. These authors constantly appeared in close association, and when I watched an interview with him on Charlie Rose I began to recognize more and more that I needed to read at least one of his books before I die. For the record I recently began his novel Infinite Jest, and given the size of that leviathan I should have it finished sometime before my early eighties.
I asked my professor where I could find the speech and she informed me she had a copy in her, by then, empty office. Once breakfast/lunch, never brunch, was done we drove across the street to the school and she handed me the small white tome which, at that time, was the last book she had in her office. The room where we had spent hours discussing Twain, literature, pedagogy, Faulkner, and the American literary canon was now just a few skeleton bookshelves and a desk. She handed me the book with the orange goldfish on the lower right corner and we said goodbye.
I went home after this, sat on back porch, and read the speech in one sitting. It begins in a usual, albeit unusual fashion for commencement addresses:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “what the hell is water?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.
The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre…but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be.
I am not the wise old fish.
The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. (3-8).
The initial appeal for me is the immediate understanding that Wallace conveys to those who understand, that the ritual of graduation is wrapped up in bullshit. Rites of passages are important, and in our lives it is vital to understand the moments that are transitory; we need to recognize when our lives are changing as we enter into a new phase of life. The conflict emerges however when the people who have been in our place before us take the opportunity to talk down at us rather than to us. It’s certainly become clearer as I age that my younger self was a fucking self-obsessed moron who needed a good slap upside his head, but what I will never take from that young man is that he witnessed in his time a systematic abuse of authority coupled with bullshit. Because of this, authority figures to this day are simply self-aggrandizing windbags more interested in colonizing people’s minds and virtues for their own self-interest than they are in actually helping the people entering a new phase of life.
My shit pubescent years aside Wallace’s speech won me over because he did not place himself above his listener, he merely put himself as a fellow human being trying to figure everything out himself who’s learned maybe just a little bit more than others. Along with this attitude came a familiar notion, namely that the important aspects of reality are typically the most difficult to talk about and discuss either because they are so prevalent that it’s easy to miss them, or else because they demand a level of attention we may not be willing to give.
He offers his advice with an observation:
The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties…because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of.
Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it is so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.
It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.
The world as you experience it is there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever.
Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
You get the idea. (33-42)
The English language is poor for not having a word for the sensation of knowing and hearing a thought you have had all of your life, but have never been able to express. Shmooblidong? That’s not it but it’s close. That’s a reference. The point is reading this passage was recognizing not only Wallace as a writer, but also myself as an individual. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a writer and a Humanities major that this passage seems so profound, for I’m sure there are engineers, biologists, physicists, and chemists who have experienced a similar sensation of their world and reality. What’s brilliant and beautiful to me is that Wallace is able to do more in this brief passage than simply describe the human feeling that your mind is, at times, all that really seems to be.
Perhaps a good example of this is the title of this very website. I picked the title “White Tower Musings” because I was caught by the image of the old concept of the intellectual living in the “ivory tower.” This is the idea, originally it was a pejorative expression and in many ways it still is, that intellectuals are often locked away in their minds more concerned with reading books and talking about abstract concepts and theories rather than actually living in the real world and seeing how things actually work. Given the fact that I’m constantly reading and thinking and writing this imagery seemed appropriate, but I also wanted to subvert the idea that literature and art had no relevance. At the time however I couldn’t remember the damn word “Ivory” because at that point I was caught thinking of something else and I managed to prove the critics right in the end.
Wallace isn’t talking just about selfishness though, or my particular variety of absent-mindedness, for there’s another philosophic concept he addresses in this speech known as solipsism. If the reader is unfamiliar with this expression I’ll explain, as if I wasn’t going to anyway. Solipsism is a concept in philosophy in which an individual believes themselves to be the only real existence in reality. By implication that would mean that every person, animal, plant, protist, etc. are not in fact independent beings but just a projection in the mind of the person who looks at them. When I see my cat all that I am seeing is just a projection. He isn’t real. His meows are just further illusions. If this is a disturbing concept it should be and many philosophers have rejected this concept, but of course for those of us living in this Pseudo-Modern time, solipsism has actually become ingrained into us whether we realize it or not.
Wallace offers up an example:
There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.
One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.
The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home-you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job-and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out. You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV- intensive rush-hour traffic, et cetera, et cetera.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people. (64-78).
This was a long but necessary quote. This passage describes, perhaps to some people’s discomfort, an almost crystal clear picture of human being’s day to day existence. For the record I don’t usually go grocery shopping. My wife waits till Sunday and goes early, but I do help her unload and sort everything into the right cabinets and containers. I did have to go the other day through the local Brookshires however because I needed olive owl and dish-soap. Walking through the grocery store I was reminded why I hate the act. People are all in such a rush, the cashier’s automatic responses grind on you, and when you’re there at 5 P.M. everybody just got off work and so they’re tired, not paying attention, or else annoyed and hate being there. Despite all this I tried to remain pleasant and consider them and the reasons they were there. I could have just crept inside of my head, but instead I opened myself up and talked to the cashiers and tried to make them laugh.
The reason was because of another passage Wallace gives:
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line-maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible-it just depends on what you want to consider.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important-if you want to operate on your default-setting-then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options.
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.
Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…(88-96)
When Wallace ends here with worship he does go on to address the idea of religion and atheism and how the unconscious acts we perform are a kind of worship, but I wanted to focus on this last passage because it was unlike anything I had ever heard or read in a public address. Growing up in a private Christian school there was always lectures and moral lessons about the grand acts of heroism, or the bold/brave acts that were supposed to be revealing about how the small actions matter, but ultimately they always fell flat. The selfless actions were never really selfless, they were about proving that Jesus was real and that you were part of his club, and that always seemed counter to everything that I was actually taught about god and religion and Christianity. As I grew up and parted from god, reality became something far more important, for in the absence of god it was all I really had, as such being a good person for the sake of being a good person was everything. Wallace was able in this speech to remind me of the thought I have always had and held close to me but never been able to really put into words.
Human beings are not evil, nor are they purely good. Human beings just want comfort. All efforts in life point to that desire and watching people in supermarkets it becomes easy to fall back upon the first two philosophies. This guy made his kid cry in line he’s an evil bastard. His kid is crying that means he’s innocent and guiltless, but in fact both of these opinions are just self-bullshitting. The kid wanted candy because candy tasted good and the father’s trying to teach his kid not to steal but he can’t do it properly because it’s hot because it’s fucking Texas and it’s fucking hot as hell and so not thinking clearly he grabs the kid too hard and makes him cry. Both individuals are trying to act in a way that will bring themselves comfort from the bullshit that realities throwing at them, they just go about it in the wrong way. Comfort is in this moment all that is and will ever be and so listening to my commencement speaker talk about the opportunities for growth and the great chances, everything just fell flat and I thought of my professor.
Why didn’t they just read “This is Water” and remind the students that the “great actions” are ultimately fleeting and that our real lives are not in these actions but in the small day-to-day realities that build over time. Smiling at a cashier and remembering that they have a hard job is a small action, but ultimately it will influence your reality far more than anything because it will further shape your reality.
Wallace ends his speech on this note, following the style of ending where you originally started began:
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech’s central stuff should sound.
What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away.
Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish.
But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life before death.
It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.
It is about simple awareness-awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.” (124-133)
My copy of This is Water, with the little orange goldfish in the lower right hand corner, sat behind Dr. Sloan’s desk for as long as I knew her. That’s what I realized the day she handed me the book. While we talked I would see a slim little white book behind the monitor and I assumed she had forgotten it or just couldn’t see it. It sat behind the monitor while we talked about Twain, Faulkner, Literary Theory, Hemingway, Feminism, The Sentimental Novel, Life, Death, coffee, and graduate school. It sat and listened to the pair of us and when she left it was the last gift, of many that she gave to me. Sitting on my back porch, in my cheap Big-Lots wicker rocking chair, I finished the book. Closed it. Looked up at the sunlight through the leaves of the pecan tree and just thought about those little moments.
My graduation was a sad farce in the end, but only because somebody had taught me the lessons of the next step before I’d even put on my robes.