Words about Words about Words ad infinitum
16 August 2017
A good friend of mine, who regularly bombards me with poetry he thinks is clever or beautiful (which means that The New Yorker refuses to publish it) sent me a small ditty he wrote one night when he managed to catch a look at the man in the mirror. He noted that he observed this man everyday, but that, for whatever reason, he seemed off or perhaps more real. My friend also observed that this man, who used to be young and handsome, was beginning to lose a bit of the spark he had ten years ago. I assured my friend that it happens to us all, but he wouldn’t be satisfied until I published his ditty here. I hope you might enjoy it, and wonder yourself at the man or women who looks back at you in the mirror.
–Joshua “Jammer” Smith, Head Writer/Editor White Tower Musings
My tummy’s growing larger
It’s really standing out.
My washboard’s now a Kansas hill,
I’ve lost my water spout.
My friends are getting older,
There’s wrinkles on my nose,
We’ve lost our bets and dreams and hope,
The Poets be sellin’ Prose.
And the man that brushes his teeth at night,
While I’m taking my little pink pill,
Showed such promise while he was young,
He had such daring will.
Let he who reads my little song,
Of noisome fretting complaint,
Remember that his time will come,
And while he laughs at my bad luck
his temple’s chipping paint.
"Reality distortion field", "Think Different", apple, Apple Inc., biography, Book Review, Dead Poet's Society, history, iMac, iPad, iPhone, ipod, John Keating, MacBook Pro, Mackintosh, mortality, Perception, Personal Computer Industry, Personal Computer Movement, Personal Computers, reflection, Science, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs was an Asshole...Let's be Real here, Steve Wozniak, technology, Walter Isaacson
Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?—John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society
This essay was written on a MacBook Pro, and that should hopefully speak to the quality of the book. Product endorsement really isn’t my strong suit, and so I suppose starting this essay off by noting my shift to Apple products might not be the best way to begin writing about Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, and in fact if it were not for my grandfather I doubt I would have made the actual switch.
My grandfather, as long as I can remember of the man, was the sort of person who could not tolerate small talk. The annual birthday meetings between him and my parents were not the casual get togethers where people would talk about television shows and try to treat desperately about the weather. I never remember small talk because my grandfather couldn’t do small talk. Rather the conversations would be about the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the politics of the day, my grandfather’s thoughts about the history of the Catholic Church, his success with certain carpentry tools, and sometimes his early fascination with computers. I tend to recall more his conversations about Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic philosophers, which is somewhat amusing given the fact that the man was married three times putting him into something charmingly referred to as a lapsed Catholic. But I do remember on the few occasions he spoke about his preference of personal computers, a term I really wouldn’t appreciate until reading Steve Jobs, and I remember him talking in great esteem of something called a Macintosh.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the computer my grandfather was gushing about positively were the exact same computers I was using in my computer classes at school to paint pictures and play educational games. Apple products were apparently always around when I was young, but I couldn’t see the fruit for the trees. That’s a play on words you see because Apple’s logo is an actual apple. On an entirely separate not I’ve also ordered a white mug with the multicolored logo that bears the inscription “Think Different,” and since buying my MacBook Pro, I’ve looked into getting an iPad
and eventually a desktop iMac. My little sister has charmingly decided to call me an “Apple Whore” after she saw the Apple logo keychain I had printed up using the library’s 3-D Printer.
I suppose I am one now, and observing this metamorphosis I realize that, even after death, Jobs has managed to continue to inspire individual people using his awe and charisma that, some would argue, tended to overshadow the man’s faults.
Before I finally sat down to read Steve Jobs (listen is the more appropriate word since I’m slowly chugging through the audiobook) I was aware of the book because my grandfather had a copy. The book came out and became a sensation, and it seemed for a while that the proliferation of the book was akin to actual Apple Products, you just couldn’t get away from it. Somehow or another I avoided having to actually sit down and read it, largely because I discovered Christopher Hitchens about the time the book came out. It was thankfully then through Hitch that I determined the quality of Walter Isaacson as a biographer. I read his Benjamin Franklin , and I intend to sit down and read his Henry Kissinger and Einstein as soon as I get the chance. It was because of these connections that I knew enough about the book to know it was worth my time, and I borrowed it from my grandfather intending to read it.
It’s been within the last year or so that his dementia started, and so I’ve lost the grandfather who was such a powerful intellect. But I still had his copy of Steve Jobs, so I started it and have now become an Apple Whore.
Isaacson deserves every bit of credit he gets for Steve Jobs, because even during the most pedantic periods of the man’s life feels vital and important to understanding the qualities of Jobs as an individual man. Passages that describe board-room meetings and phone calls become part of the great drama that became Steve Jobs’s life, and even when discussing the jargon ladened aspects of computer design Isaacson’s books never loses its sense of pace or direction. The reader is constantly observing the man of Steve Jobs. They see his highs his lows, his individual strengths, and his faults that at time have left me both shocked and repulsed. Isaacson deserves credit for this previous point as well given the fact that the temptation of biography is at times to write about the idea of someone rather than the real actual meat and bone of a human being.
And the first impression from Isaacson’s book that really hits me is how much I relate to Jobs in a sense of impending doom. In one passage he cites Jobs’s notion of his own mortality:
Jobs confided in Sculley that he believed he would die young, and therefore he needed to accomplish things quickly so that he would make his mark on Silicon Valley history. “We all have a short period of time on this earth,” he told the Sculley’s as they sat around the table that morning. “We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great and do them well. None of us has any idea how long we’re going to be here, nor do I, but my feeling is I’ve got to accomplish a lot of these things while I’m young. (155).
Recognition is one of the most powerful feelings someone can experience. It was “recognizing” Bruce Bechdel on the cover of Fun Home that helped me realize that I was queer, and it was “recognizing” Brian’s confession to Stewie in Family Guy that I really saw my suicidal thoughts for what they were. Reading Steve Jobs, I recognized someone again, because I’ve recognized a similar trait in myself. It might just be my soul-crushing morbidity that I write off as it’s own form of practicality, but I’m always aware of some kind of feeling that my life is not going to be terribly long. Part of this is rational understanding of genetics, my family doesn’t have a great track record (unless you’re a woman on my mother’s side) of a long life. The other half of this is just some kind of irrational premonition.
A person’s perception of their own life and world can be a powerful thing, and not just because it can drive you to success overall. What is consistently remarkable about the man Steve Jobs is how much I find myself remarking that the man was an unconscionable prick. There are numerous passages in the book of Jobs being either purposefully spiteful to friends, employees, competitors, or even people he simply didn’t know. It’s a common occurrence in the book to hear the man speak of a person’s work as “shit” to their face, and this became part of the man’s personality to his friends and workers. This dramatic honesty could work in both ways and the reader is quick to learn of something called “the reality distortion field.”
If the reader has never watched Star Trek (don’t feel alone I’ve never watched it either) Isaacson explains it in chapter eleven.
Tribble said that Jobs would not accept any contrary facts. “The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” Tribble explained. “Steve has a reality distortion field.” When Hertzfeld looked puzzled, Tribble Elaborated. “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules. (117-8).
Isaacson continues this character trait on the following page offering a more detailed analysis:
At the root of the reality distortion was Job’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him. He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires. Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained into his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one. “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi, and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them,” says Hertzfeld. “He hold Chrisann this. Once he even hinted to me that he was enlightened. It’s almost like Nietzsche.” Jobs never studied Nietzsche, but the Philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him. […]. If reality did not comport with his will, he would ignore it, as he had done with the birth of his daughter and would do years later, when first diagnosed with cancer. Even in small everyday rebellions, such as not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces, he acted as if he were not subject to the strictures around him. (119).
The reader can surely find their own examples of Jobs’s prickishness, and I should address that before the reader raises concerns. Isaacson’s biography never sugar-coats Jobs’s behavior, and when they arrive at the conception and rejection of his first child during the early days of Apple they’re sure to consider putting the book down wondering why they would ever want to learn more about a man who accused his lover with sleeping half the population of the world. I don’t have any defenses for this behavior, nor do I offer any.
Jobs was a man who, obviously, lived life by his own rules and that at times created unnecessary conflict and behavior that is, to quote my little sister, “slap-worthy.” What then is the relevance of reading about the man’s life?
Jobs could be, to borrow one of Isaacson’s favorite adjectives, “Cold” and this behavior isn’t always excusable. But to neglect understanding of Jobs simply because he was an asshole is to ignore the man’s contribution. As I’m want to do in these circumstances I tend to return to the examples of two of my influences: John Wayne and Christopher Hitchens. In the case of Wayne the man was an asshole who said some truly heinous things concerning the issue of race equality and anyone who wants a more specific details can simply Google Search his May 1971 Playboy interview. I will never defend those positions and arguments, and I will always be the first person to remind people about his bullshit attitudes towards race. At the same time, John Wayne helped establish the idea of the “movie star” and in his time, he produced a wide bodies of films that, in my mind, are still some of the finest movies ever made. Likewise with Christopher Hitchens the man was an unfortunate chauvinist going so far as to write an article titled Women Aren’t Funny and then a subsequent article Why Women (Still) Don’t Get It to defend his original position. Hitchens was a brilliant man, but in this instance, he was still talking out of his ass. In spite of this the man wrote some of the most important works of Nonfiction on the twentieth century and contributed more to the form of the essay than any writer of his time.
I could go on and provide a list of authors and geniuses who were contemptible assholes, but hopefully these two personal ones provide enough of my point, which is, just because somebody was an asshole doesn’t mean they couldn’t change the world.
Reality really is one’s perception of the world. What is possible and what is impossible, and the stories of science fiction are enough to prove this. As long as people could imagine changing the world, there were people who could figure out how to.
One passage clearly demonstrates this, as Jobs explained a vision he had for the future of computers. He was addressing his MacIntosh division in 1982 about an idea he had, while also expressing his contempt for market research:
At the end of the presentation someone asked whether he thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” he replied, “Because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” Then he pulled out a device that was about the size of a desk diary. “Do you want to see something neat?” When he flipped it open, it turned out to be a mock-up of a computer that could fit on your lap, with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook. “This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid- to late eighties,” he said. They were building a company that would invent the future. (143).
Now technically the very first “laptop” was not an Apple computer, but in fact something called an Osbourne 1. Just looking at a picture of it is enough to throw out the reader’s back, and the design concurs up images of the giant insect monster movies from the 50s. Even the first apple “laptop” was nowhere near the magnificent flat machines that help achieve Twitter greatness while checking out Instagram accounts and drafted infinite Pinterest pages. What’s important about this passage was, when I read I actually received a little moment of chills. This is not because of the content of the biography itself, but again because Isaacson manages constantly to write Jobs’s life into something meaningful and profoundly important for the future of human civilization.
Jobs imagined the laptop computer as something useful, but also important to people’s lives. He foresaw the opportunity to make the personal computer something that wasn’t just utilitarian for the individual consumer, but a way of enhancing and changing the market and lives of individual people. And the strength of the previous passage reveals that, even if Jobs suffered from his “reality distortion complex,” it worked. It’s impossible to picture a world without Apple or Apple products, whether it’s their software or else their actual physical products.
And Isaacson offers a key insight into one of the lasting legacies of Jobs:
Jobs was able to encourage people to define themselves as anticorporate, creative, innovative rebels simply by the computer they used. “Steve created the only lifestyle brand in the tech industry,” Larry Ellison said. “There are cars people are proud to have—Porsche, Ferrari, Prius—because what I drive says something about me. People feel the same way about an Apple product.” (332).
I typically roll my eyes at the idea that one can express individuality through corporate products, largely because so many of the products being sold are ultimately the same. Drinking Coke or Pepsi, eating a Reese’s or a Snickers, or buying McDonalds or Burger King can never in my mind craft a rhetoric about the way I choose to live my life. These
products are designed to be consumed and then shit out, and at the end of the day shit is just shit. Yet all of these companies, in fact almost every company tries to generate advertisements that sell their products as means to express yourself. And all of this can be traced back to Apple because they succeeded.
I give Apple, and other computer companies to be fair, a pass on this rhetoric because the personal computer really can say something about the way you live your life. That’s largely because the personal computer is no longer a black screen requiring long complex code entries that are encased on monstrous floppy discs. The point-click interface altered the way computer users actually worked on computers, and from there innovation has steadily helped shape the lives of entire industries. The way an individual person approaches computers, or really, the way they use computers does shape their lives.
And again, as I noted at the start of this essay, this review was written on a MacBook Pro.
I try to wait until I have finished a book before I take the time to write a review of it. I need time to digest a book, figure out it’s place and space in my world, and then try to impart the significance of it to the reader. Steve Jobs was different because though I still have around 200 pages left, I recognize how important this work is.
Reading through my grandfather’s copy I regret terribly that it took me so long to read this book and discuss with him the life of Jobs and the history of the personal computer industry. It would have been an interesting conversation with a man who influenced me tremendously intellectually, and I might have invested earlier than I did in an Apple computer. But the cards fell where they did, and even though I’ve missed the chance to have that conversation, in his own way my grandfather succeeded. I own and will continue to own Apple products now, almost certainly till the day I die.
It’s a platitude, but it’s one that remains true. The people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world tend to do so. It’s because they are people driven by their passion and conviction that life can be changed, and that reality is exactly what we make it to be. Sometimes this can manifest in manic and even wretched behavior, but there are positive stories. It’s because of Jobs that I learned as a child how to type and learn the basics of point-click interface. It’s because of Jobs that my mother is able to write up her reviews and musings on her own website. It’s because of Jobs that the smart-phone revolution started and the idea of what a computer actually is was changed forever.
Jobs’s reality was one where the computer wasn’t just a tool, it was part of your life. And that “distorted” reality eventually became the real thing.
All quotes taken from Steve Jobs were derived from the Simon & Schuster Hardback first edition copy.
If the reader is at all interested in Apple as a company, I’ve provided some links to articles about Apple and Apple Products and businesses. Some are positive, others negative, but it’s important to get a wide variety of outlooks.
I’ve also included an great article by Wired about the influence Jobs has had on tech company founders and employees aspiring to the emulate the man and his method of management. It feels not only important, but vital for any and all people who work for, or plan of founding computer companies:
I didn’t get a chance to include it in the essay, but if the reader is at all curious about the first laptop, the Osborne 1, they can follow a link to an article on Business Insider which describes it and it’s history. Enjoy:
On one final note, I probably am, most assuredly am, an Apple Whore as my little sister says, and my wife has begun to call me that as well. I asked her briefly when she knew I was one and she responded simply, “when you bought that mug.”
This is fair, though at the same time, I mean, look at the design. Simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.
*****Writer’s FINAL NOTE*****
Because I have to, please enjoy this Robot Chicken sketch featuring a PRETTY ACCURATE presentation of Steve Jobs, as well as a fair, completely fair, critique of both CDs and the Zune.
"replicants", Blade Runner, Cyber-Punk, Daryl Hannah, Deckard, degeneration, dystopia, Eye Imagery in Blade Runner, Eyes, Film, film review, glasses, Harrisson Ford, John Lennon Vs Harry Potter, mortality, Pickle Rick, reflection, Rick and Morty, Ridley Scott, Rutger Hauer, science fiction, self-repair, slavery, Tyrell Corporation
It’s been six years since I got my first pair of glasses. That would make me twenty-two at the time, and it’s a lovely realization that the loss of my virginity would coincide with my ability to see. It wasn’t long after getting my glasses that I decided to get a hair-cut (I looked something along the lines of Slash and Cousin It’s love child) and shortly thereafter my wife, who I had known because she sat behind in biology class, accepted a date that eventually became the most significant relationship in my life. The glasses that I bought not only served as my ability to see, they also managed to serve a secondary purpose: aging the individual who compliments them. I post a lot of photos of myself on this blog, and so my reader is able to see I wear thin wire frames in the shape of perfect circles. I’ve noticed that people really seem to like them and I’m used to people offering compliment in the vein of “I love your glasses.” However they don’t just say this. As I said before my glasses “date” the person offering the compliment because one half of them will usually say, “I love your Harry Potter glasses” while the other half says, “I love your John Lennon Glasses.” This second compliment has started to dwindle and so I have to remind people about this second person. It’s because of John Lennon that I picked these glasses in the first place, but I was part of the Harry Potter generation and I’m actually rather terrified of the day when people stop calling them Harry Potter glasses for that would mean I’m becoming a rather old man.
None of this would really explain why, going to the optometrist again recently I was inspired to write about Blade Runner.
Sitting in the chair that offered no lumbar support I looked around the room. There of course wad a chart filled with photos of various eyes suffering from a wide range of disorders and disease. To my left were the binocular machines which would test my vision. And to my right was the doctor who was telling jokes that could only come from a refreshingly dry humor that’s impossible to find in this territory. The thought of eyes though inspired me to think back on the film Blade Runner which I had watched again recently with a group of friends. There was something about eyes that I kept going back to.
This association isn’t unfounded because eyes play a critical role in the film because the way to determine the difference between a Replicant (the name for the humanoid slave robots) and humans was something called a voight-kampff exam which is an eye exam. You also have the fact that the film begins with an eye looking over a wide city-scape. When Batty, the central replicant who wants to extend his life, confronts his maker Tyrell he murders him by digging his thumbs into the man’s eyes before cracking his skull. There’s also the scene in which Batty confronts Hannibal Chew, a genetic engineer who makes eyes, and one of the other replicants slowly places eyes on his bare shoulders and Batty offers up this brief exchange:
Batty: Questions… Morphology? Longevity? Incept dates?
Hannibal Chew: Don’t know, I don’t know such stuff. I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.
Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!
The examples of this constant eye imagery and association could fill up an entire word document so it’s not necessary to list them all out. I simply want my reader to recognize that it was probably because of this frequent eye imagery that I began to think again about Blade Runner.
The film has, since its release in 1982, become a cult classic and an icon of both science fiction and film noir. It doesn’t hurt that the film was directed by Ridley Scott when the man was in his prime of his carear and riding high off of the success of the film Alien which had been released just three years earlier. On one side note there existed this beautiful period of great science fiction movies that, while I won’t say hasn’t been repeated, just hasn’t been matched in my estimation. Watching Blade Runner is an experience unlike any other because the film creates a new world in which the viewer is left to disappear completely into. The darkness of the city is matched only by the near constant neon lights that seem to illuminate only the figures of the people moving about the place. Advertisements tend to be more real than the human beings walking around because despite their mass-production reality, there’s a human charm to them. The near constant rain becomes not just an atmospheric aesthetic, but part of the landscape of the world. And all of this combines together to establish a place that was labeled as “cyber-punk” that has helped create a new genre in and of itself of science fiction.
Blade Runner takes in the distant future of the year 2019, which is a disappointment in and of itself because humanity has barely managed to acquire workable iPod minis let alone advanced robotics. The Tyrell corporation has created humanoid robots known as “replicants” which serve mainly as payless workers (slaves, let’s call it what it is), and the story begins when four replicants escape the off-world colonies. A former police detective named Rick Deckard is brought back onto the force in his former position of Blade Runner. His job is to hunt down the replicants and terminate them (kill them, let’s call it what it is. The rest of the story follows Deckard as he tracks down the replicants who are themselves trying to sneak into the Tyrell corporation to see if there is a way to extend their lives since Replicants are controlled by a four-year life-span.
Batty is the leader of the replicants, played brilliantly by the elusive Rutger Hauer, and as driven more than any of the group to find some way of extending his life. Throughout the film there are small shots of his hand trembling while looking like dying tissue, and I believe it’s this idea of degeneration that actually inspired me. Going to the eye doctor is repair; it’s a check to make sure the system can still run. While my hand doesn’t regularly crinkle into a trembling fist which is itself a portend for my ultimate death, I have observed the fact that my body is beginning to show some signs of wear. And thinking of such wear I’m immediately reminded of the therapist monologue in the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty:
I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth or wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong that you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us get’s to choose.
Choice is everything, and so as I contemplated the degeneration of the body while I sat in the doctor’s office, looking at those eyes on the chart, I thought about Blade Runner and how the idea of choice and time and repair becomes so wrapped up in our ideas of memory. Who I am is built upon my memories, and those in turn shape who I want to be and become. And so as I sat in the chair paying attention to how terribly my eyes had degenerated I wondered about what new glasses I would get, and what famous celebrity or fictional character people think about when they saw my new specks.
All quotes taken from Blade Runner and Rick and Morty were taken from IMBD. The definition of Robot was provided are of the Etymology Online Dictionary
I’ve included here a link to the Pickle Rick episode, specifically the therapist monologue that I’ve quoted here. Unlike the Twitter Troll Bots who seem to rail constantly against the new season and the writing thereof, I can’t help but remind them that Pickle Rick is evidence enough of how amazing this season really is. If the reader would like to hear the monologue in its entirety they can do so by following the link below:
abscence of evidence for god's existence, Atheism, atheism identity, Atheism is NOT a religion it's important to remember that, biological arguments, Book Review, Challenging Faith, Christopher Hitchens, Episcopal Church, Essay, foundation of reality, Gal Gadot, god is not Great, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, letter, Mrs. Jean Watts, nature, Objections to Religious Faith, Personal Development, Philosophy, Reality, reason, reflection, religion, religious corruption, Skepticism, The Matrix, Wonder Woman
Let me begin by apologizing. Before you protest that I’m always apologizing you’re right but this one does need some explanation. You see over the last few months I wasn’t in a good place. In fact I was in a rotten one, a fucking rotten one. Graduating college wasn’t the entrance into some new golden world as I had thought or dreamt it would be because I discovered the institution I had attended and hoped to teach at wouldn’t hire me. That resulted in a long period of joblessness which, while it saw a blossoming of writing, didn’t see anything in the realm of actual employment. Add to that my wife was bouncing between jobs and encouraging me to consider teaching high school. Now I hated high school and I hated being a teenager so imagine B spending the rest of my life in such an environment. It didn’t get better after that despite the fact I was offered a teaching job at a local college. I was lobbying to teach there but as always no positions were available until one of the professors had a family emergency and needed someone to cover her classes till the end of the semester. I hopped into the gig thinking that I would be teaching college students, when in fact, I wounded up teaching college students who were really just high school students. The students didn’t want to be there and after just a few weeks I realized I didn’t want to be there either. I realized day by day that I was miserable. And then the depression kicked in. Finding yourself huddled up in a ball and crying in a shower twice a week for eight weeks is a hell of a thing B—–, but it gives you some perspective. It was near the end of the that semester that several of my friends, unbeknownst to me, had begun to lobby for me at the Tyler Public Library. One of my friends is a full time employee there, and two others are part time, and because people tend to see something in me that I don’t they continued to lobby for me while I day-by-day began to realize that I actually wanted to work there. I was ready to leave college behind and start a new path. And when a temp job opened up I knew, for my own health that I had to take the library job.
This is a long fucking opening B—–, I know that, but I just wanted to offer explanation as to why I haven’t been writing back, and also why I decided to begin this enterprise that I’m starting with this letter.
You see you’d be surprised how many atheists and agonistics work at the library. One of them is one of the friends I spoke of, and one night while we were closing we were discussing being atheists, the end of our faith, secular humanist mommy groups (that’s a thing, they exist) and of course Christopher Hitchens. We briefly discussed the book god is not Great, because both of us had read the book and credited it as the document which helped us realize we were atheists. I say realize because I distrust people who say they “became” atheists, it reeks of false conviction. But as I was heading up the stairs towards the employee exit, I thought about our talk and I thought about our letters. The first letter I ever sent you B—–, included a quote from god is not Great, and I recommended that you read the book.
What I’m offering now B—–, is the chance to read the book and talk about it chapter by chapter. This could take a year, it could take only a few months, but I like the idea and I want to give it a shot. So this first letter will address the first chapter of Hitchens’s book.
Although before we begin I have to tell you that your current girlfriend looks remarkably similar to Gal Gadot. The Halloween party picture you sent where you were both Wonder Woman was just eerily similar and on an entirely unrelated note I cannot wait for the new Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman, World War I, AND Gal Gadot. Jammer be happy.
Picking up god is not Great has been a fascinating reminder of how much I have actually grown in my personal belief B—–, or lack of belief if you want to be specific. I noticed myself reading the opening chapter and feeling somewhat stalled. I feel lousy admitting that, especially about Old Hitch, but I think, to his credit, it’s because I’ve read so much about atheism because of him and so his initial arguments seem, to quote Aerosmith, like the Same Old Song and Dance.
Still if you’re reading this book for the first time, these ideas and declarations are bold and unsparing. The first chapter, if you’ve read it already, starts off with a declaration of his beliefs that he titles “Putting it Mildly.” What I love, from the start, is how Hitch recognizes that he’s going to be attacked the moment he hits the ground running. If you don’t believe me watch how he starts the book:
If the intended reader of this book should want to go beyond disagreement with its author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course), then he or she will not just be quarreling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who—presumably—opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Mrs. Jean Watts. (1)
There’s a lot to get into in this first chapter B—–, and I can’t possibly cover all of it, but I wanted to start off with this quote because it provides insight to the reality facing out and about public atheists. I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve avoided such treatment by supposed “believers” but that’s usually because I only inform people about my lack of faith to people I know and trust. If a random Christian asks me about my faith I’ll usually just say something like “I was raised in the Episcopal church.” I’ve found though sometimes that when I out myself as an atheist those people who are bothered by it will usually just ignore me and quietly pray for my soul. But just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean that other people have. Atheists are some of the most distrusted people on this planet, and I suspect the only reason I don’t have people writing me angry letters telling me to suck dicks in hell is because I’m just some shit-for-shit nobody with a shit-for-shit blog.
How many shits was that by the way, I lost count. Must have been thinking about Gal Gadot again. There’s this one picture of her wearing glasses and this nice hat…
What I like about this opening however is that, while it does acknowledge the tendency of many people of faith to demonize atheists it also reinforces an observation I’ve had, which is that real atheists tend to be those who’ve experienced real religious instruction. Hitchens describes his early teacher Mrs. Jean Watts, as a sweet and kind woman who taught the children about nature and spirituality. Hitchens was raised in this environment and one moment was eventually attributed to his early skepticism:
However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts overreached herself. Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” (2)
I suspect B—-, that every atheist has a moment like this. I sometimes refer to it as the “aha” moment, but really it’s probably more accurate to call it the “really, oh for fuck’s sake” moment, because honestly that what you feel when it happens. Or at least that’s what I felt when I experienced mine. Unlike some atheists that will profess having some kind of dramatic realization, real mature atheism occurs, much like religious instruction. It takes time, real study, introspection, and finally just one moment of initial skepticism. I’ll never forget mine.
A preacher from the local Baptist church in town came by to deliver the sermon, and given the fact that I attended an “Episcopal” school I failed to really observe the fascinating dynamic of a Protestant sermonizing at a Catholic-Light institution. He was a charming character and boomed rather than softly spoke, and the lingering sensation of him is the fact that I was wrapped up in his story. It was the Loaves and Fishes tale retold from the position of a boy who happened to be at the scene retelling the event to his mother. I was about twelve years old at the time, but I was transfixed by this man and his ability. I wondered where the story would go, or how it would end, and even after I realized this was the loaves and fishes story I’ll never forget the moment when the man raised a finger in the air and spoke:
“And do you know who that man was Momma? That man’s name? It was Jesus Mama. Jesus Christ.”
Something dropped into my stomach and I suspect it was the angels because that’s what it felt like. It felt like I had finally woken up and seen Christianity for what it was, or at least what it had always been: a cheap sell using a piss-poor story.
Faith and belief was shown for what it was B—-, a club ticket rather than a spiritual tool. It didn’t stop right there, and in fact it wouldn’t truly diminish until I read Hitchens’s god is not Great a year after graduating high school, but that moment of initial skepticism I believe is crucial and one of the reasons Hitchens makes it the start of his book.
Christianity is an institution, one that is wrapped up in almost every level of our culture. I won’t compare the skeptics and atheists and agnostics to Neo in The Matrix because that seems too dramatic a metaphor, but the first moment sometimes does resemble that scene when he wakes up in the gel and looks around the world. You begin to see how the power structure is embedded at every level. It’s important B—-, to have a social network so that one doesn’t feel alone in the world, and while there is Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Blogs, T.V. shows, and the internet in general, books can go a long way in helping someone reassess their beliefs or even just feel validated.
Reading this first chapter again I always remember that preacher and so there is an identification. Christopher Hitchens and I went through the same experience and that makes me recognize that my skepticism isn’t something unnatural, it’s common. That banalization is important for arguments I’ll try to get into later.
But this opening chapter is the first in what can really and should be called a kind of Manifesto. The readers who pick up god is not Great are reading the work of a new generation of atheists who feel free enough to openly declare their sentiments, opinions, and belief without (much) fear of the societal rebuttal. And Hitch, being the man that he was, decides to not spare anything and simply declare his sentiments to his reader:
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. (4).
These four points perfectly sum up my own position for why I believe religion is a dangerous institution. You’ll note B—-, that I said religion and not god. I’ve told you before B—– that the reason I don’t believe in god is not because of religion but from my own observations of reality. Because there is no empirical evidence for the existence of a divine being I cannot in good conscience profess belief or even pretend to believe in one. Likewise talking about the possibilities of such a being, or philosophy about that being’s intentions, from my perspective, is absurd.
It doesn’t matter the extent of god’s power because until there’s evidence for god’s existence there’s no point asking such questions. To put it another way, it’s useless arguing how many angle could fit on the head of a pin, or what is the molecular make-up of a unicorn’s horn. Neither have any solid proof of their existence so there’s no point having the conversation.
I take that back. Unicorns exist. They’re called Rhinos and they’re awesome.
This quote is vital however because it lays the foundation for everything that’s going to follow in Hitchens’s book. He lays out his ideas in the form of a thesis and statement of belief so that the reader can determine what is his ultimate position. Religion, and by extension god, are pollutants because they distract human beings from reality. They make man the focal point, the prime locus of the entirety of creation, and that allows human beings the opportunity to perform vile actions because they are the chosen creation. And, of course, this spawns dickish behavior ranging from murder, torture, rape, pedophilia, genocide, and wearing sandals with socks. (#Never Forget #Never Forgive).
I know the objection B—–, and I’m getting rather tired of it to be honest, but I’ll indulge it in the spirit of fairness. The charge, by the casual believer, is that atheism is a religion too. That atheists turn their godlessness into a kind of faith and that this in turn makes them just as much of self-centered assholes as religious people.
And you know, my problem B—–, is that most public atheists don’t really help me much here. Bill Maher regularly turns his atheism into a merit badge, Richard Dawkins actually has little merit badge pins that are large red “A’s,” and David Silverman has tried to establish an atheist television channel, and Sam Harris is the textbook definition of a giant douche-bag. The real problem is that most of the men I’ve just cited aren’t in fact atheists, but really more of anti-theists. And even Old-Hitch himself fell into this category.
If I can save the man though, at least a little in your eyes, let me offer the second most important quote from this chapter:
And here is the point about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Steen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in the post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. (5).
In short B—– it goes back to a point I’ve made before in these letters. Atheism, by it’s very definition, cannot be a religion. It can most certainly be called an “ism,” and therefore should be looked on with skepticism. But anyone who would argue that a lifestyle and philosophy can emerge from this position is fooling themselves. Atheism is simply, or at least the way I’ve executed it in my lifetime, an absence of belief and faith in god. That’s it.
I place whatever “faith” I have in this life, not with a god, but with facts, knowledge, data, and information. I trust these because they are not determinant purely upon faith, but by real material reality. A fact is determined by the collection of humanity observing the same phenomena and recording it, doubting it, testing it, and finally resolving it into reality. That’s the way knowledge is produced, coallated, and recorded for posterity.
I live my life now in the absence of god and there’s a lovely freedom to it that I’ll explore in later letters. I just wanted to start here B—– with an understanding of what Hitchens believes atheism is and how he’ll go about arguing it, and whether or not I agree with his points. I agree that Hitch can be abrasive, and there are certain elements of the text that I disagree with, but the quotes I’ve provided here are used because they seem to perfectly reflect my position. They did when I was a nineteen year old kid who had known nothing but the church, and spent most of his time reading with a heavy lump in his chest and crying while turning the pages. It felt like I had finally found the voice I had been waiting for. The person who had made the exact arguments I had been making in my head for years.
Which leads me to the final argument in this letter. There’s a temptation to make the lack of belief and faith into some kind of dramatic affair. It shouldn’t be. And that’s the point. Belief in the foundation of reality is difficult B—–, obviously, and unfortunately the arguments surrounding it have become wrapped up in emotion, politics, and power structures, so much so that, when a man decides to write a book criticizing religion he has to start the book by predicting a pushback. I don’t ever want our letters to be as such, because I know you are a believer. And so let’s hope in this correspondence for further dialogue rather than mutual excommunication.
Besides, even if we disagree about god we can both agree Gal Gadot’s going to be the best part of the new Wonder Woman and Justice League movie. As if there was any doubt of that.
It may be a while till my next letter, but keep writing, I enjoy your responses.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
A while ago Cracked.com got into a bit of trouble because they posted an article about the way atheists communicate in public and why their methods were flawed. This, to no one’s real surprise, created a bit of a tizzy by atheists themselves who proceeded to shit all over Cracked. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it myself, but whenever people are offended or bothered by a piece of writing I immediately pick it up and read it because people always get upset for the wrong reasons. Plus, discourse is important. Enjoy:
I’ve also attached a link to a newspaper article from my alma matter UT Tyler. A friend of mine was writing a piece about religion and college students and he wanted to get some of my insight about being an atheist. It is, as far as I know, the only time my name has appeared in newsprint. The article ends on a positive note about faith, which is rather annoying, but it’s still a well written article. If you’re at all interested B—–, simply follow the link below.
I don’t really have anything to add here B—–, I just wanted to gush about the fact that Gal Gadot is playing Wonder Woman again. I’m not obsessed, I promise, there’s just something….something….
Well shit I can’t remember. What ridiculous fool I am. At least I’m cute.
If I don’t write then I’m not comfortable. I get depressed. I start to whine, at least more than I usually do, and this lack of writing assumes, or manifests as a guilt trip I use against myself, for you see I suffer from intense self-depreciation and I deserve it because….
Because I chose this.
I could be working a job I hate, and living a life that would be unsuited for me, and I would find some way to survive, to pretend to like it, and pretend like all of these years click-click-clicking away at my fucking keyboard didn’t mean or amount to anything. I chose to live life like a goddamn madman, like a fucking loon, like a strange man who doesn’t go to bed with his wife as often as he should, as ever like he should, who doesn’t go out into the world and sacrifice his time to his friends who need him most, or his family that love him want only what’s best for him, and that’s, that’s the sad part.
Being a writer is what I wanted, and I got it, and I hate myself for it but I know now there’s nothing else in the world I want more. I just want to write. I just want to write because that makes sense. It’s the way I make sense of me, and how fucking weird I am, and all of the decisions I made amount to something, or at least make sense.
Mark of a loony is one who sits in a room thinking and talking to himself. Mark of a writer is somebody who writes the conversation down. Mark of a mature writer lets someone else see it. Mark of a real writer let’s everyone see it. Let everyone open up his wounds and see his blood and guts, but before he lets them touch his vulnerable, yellowed beating heart he snaps it shut and shouts “How dare you!” like they’re the crazy ones. But I just opened the door to my heart. I let them in.
I locked myself in my office writing essays and novels and poems about David Foster Wallace and biographies of Emily Dickinson and getting fucked up and wanting a father even though I had one already. Wanting an old man who could teach me what being a regular man is. It’s sacrifice. And haven’t I sacrificed? Haven’t I given up so much just to have a few lousy words on the page? Haven’t I opened up my chest long enough to simply let them see that I am that much of a fuck-up, and that I’m just a normal person who isn’t normal in any way and simply thinks he’s clever but who can write at least one paragraph that isn’t some stupid pointless exploration of emotion and actually contributes something to the collected heaps of cultural grata.
The words are made of bone and they ossify, sinking into the dirt that’s packed with clay and radiation over a hundred years until somebody digs it up and places value on it and sells it to big empty museums or tucks it away in safes deep in the earth. The exact same depth where the words laid in bones of my human spirit rested for a million years.
If I hadn’t interrupted my review of an essay by David Foster Wallace, I wouldn’t have written this, and I don’t think I would have written anything. I would have hated myself so much.
I do honestly love what I’ve written here, even if it’s shit. Because shit on the page is better than shit in the veins. I’m tired. I’ll lay the bones in the earth to rest and snuggle with my dogs and my wife and hope I’m not plagued by lines of dialogue that would have been the stuff of great novels and shallow conversations at coffee shops.
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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.
I try often to be a good son to my mother, and it’s not my fault she has to constantly bail my ass out of a Turkish Prison. Danny told me those VCRs were legit, and it is NOT my fault that he duped me and I wound up owing the Russian Mob Five large and…anyway, I try to be a good son. Every Saturday my puppy Huckleberry and I drive to my parents place and we spend the day talking, walking, paying video games, and watching movies. Since it’s Memorial Day, and in the Smith House it’s tradition to spend the day watching War Movies, I arranged us to watch in order Patton, The Longest Day, and Catch-22. The last film was not what I expected, and while I was embarrassed to end the day on such a disappointment my mother was in fact inspired by the film and managed to write a small blurb of her impression.
Here it is for your enjoyment. I hope you love it as much as I do and I’m not just saying that because she gave birth to me or convinced Sergei to forgive and forget the Five Large…Ahem. Enjoy.
All over the United States this weekend we celebrate Memorial Day! We stand together in humble appreciation of the bravery and sacrifice made by our soldiers, both men and women who lost their lives on the battlefield protecting our freedom. In honor and remembrance Jammer carefully selected three movies for the family to mark the occasion. Thank you Jammer, for Saturday and for thinking enough of my thoughts to share them here with your own readers. love, mom
Recently I watched a movie marathon of these three in that order. The first two I’ve seen so many times that I confess I only half watched them, occasionally whispering lines under my breath and knowing exactly where the film was going. Catch-22, however was all new for me and I intently took it in. It gripped me with both interest and disturbance. It ended and I struggled to figure why this movie left me feeling more ill at ease than the others. It was after all a truly fantastic depiction of how war is crazy inside and out. Even in its pursuit of liberation war leaves a nightmare on all it touches. That’s the irony of war. To eliminate horrible things, horrible things must be done. However, in conversation with others I realized that for a man this movie would be heavy but with doses of humor to keep it all moving. While for a woman it was a reminder that throughout history women have been viewed as something to own or use, a commodity if you will. There was no redeeming feminine in the movie. Women were either objects or unworthy. Many war movies can leave one with a sense of purpose or hope. That the very act of trying to make the world a better place for all of us gives it worth. That ultimately there is hopefulness in the brotherhood bonds of soldiers at the front of the atrocities. Or in the romantic bonds of man and woman. I once read a beautiful passage about woman being respite for man after the toil and struggle of the world. It gives us faith that there is something beyond the horror. Should a war movie do that? Give hope I mean. I don’t have an answer to that. Each movie is what it is. What we learn from it depends on where we come from and how open we are. I can only speak for myself. Catch-22 is a finely crafted story depicting the true insanity and full depravity of what war is with the added after taste for a woman of wondering – is that all I am at the end of the day.
Suzanne Smith is, apart from the host writer’s mother, an independent writer, thinker, caretaker, artist, and is beloved by a host of dogs that follow her from room to room. When not tending to the needs of her family she is an avid scholar of the Tarot, Art History, and Astrology specifically how the three inform one another. Her hobbies include reading, watching films, taking walks through the woods, and writing her memoirs. She’s married with two children, though she also owns three fur childrens, and spends most of her contemplating reality and wondering why more and more members of society don’t take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures like eating cookies and peanut butter for breakfast.