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On Teaching Infinite Jest

The following was originally published as a guest post on Infinite Summer.

As you may have seen mentioned in a countdown post here, this past spring I taught a single-author course focused entirely around the work of David Foster Wallace. And as one of you noted, we read pretty much all of it — the short fiction, the long fiction, the non-fiction — with the exception of a few uncollected pieces. (Although, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that almost no one in the class actually finished reading Everything & More, except for the four students who’d signed on to give a presentation on it.) It was alternately a terrifying and exhilarating experience, spending a semester that deeply enmeshed in a body of work as rich, allusive, and smart as this one. And it was also a risky experience, emotionally speaking; Dave was a close colleague of mine, and the course was meant to give me and a group of students the time we needed to engage with both the loss we felt and the astonishing legacy that Dave left us.

And I don’t think I’m exaggerating, or at least not by much, when I say that it was the best teaching experience of my career thus far. Not that it was easy, either for the students or for me; they had an overwhelming amount of reading to do (though for many of them, at least some portion of it was re-reading) and a lot of writing as well, and I had a lot of preparation and a lot of grading to do. And then there were moments when I just felt unequal to the task of keeping the course from turning into a sort of Cobain-esque spectacle of mourning, in which we could all stew in the horror of his death by ferreting out — okay, they’re not all that hard to ferret — every reference to suicide or depression or more generalized anomie.

My students, however, were way more than equal to the task. Having given them, the first week of the semester, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay on the intentional fallacy, along with Wallace’s essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky and an interview Larry McCaffrey did with Wallace pre-Infinite Jest, we had a long conversation about the complexities of the relationship between any text and its author, and more importantly about the distinction between the author as we think we understand him from the text and the actually existing human being who set pen to paper, all as a way of getting at why the class was going to be focused on this figure named “Wallace,” and not on “Dave.” A solid subset of the class strongly resisted Wimsatt and Beardsley, and held tight to the idea of the meaning of a text deriving from some idea held by the author, but they all got the distinction between the imagined author of a text and the biographical person, and were more than generous in going along with my insistence that because we couldn’t conceivably know what Dave might have meant by something, an appeal to his biography in interpreting his writing wouldn’t help. What we had before us were the texts, and rather than use what we knew of his life to help make sense of them — or worse, to use the texts in an attempt to make sense of his life, in a way that would treat the work as mere autobiography, utterly discounting and dismissing the role of imagination in his writing — we needed to use the texts themselves, and the references and allusions to other texts that they contain, as the sources for our interpretation. And that’s what the vast majority of the class had signed on for. We all somehow understood without saying that reading these novels and short stories and essays as nothing more than evidence of the tragedy to come not only sold the texts themselves short but also missed the crucial point that the act of imaginative identification with someone outside himself was precisely what had kept Dave alive, and that we owed it to the texts to focus on their search for human connection rather than its failures.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II. In each go-round of that class, Infinite Jest was both a highlight and the odd-novel-out, the one that seemed to be most about us and who we are right now, but the one at the very same time not about how we got here, but where we’re going if we don’t watch out. Reading Infinite Jest this past spring, not in the context of Pynchon and DeLillo, but in the context of Wallace’s own previous and following work, took some of the emphasis off of the particular forms of cultural change the novel posits and focused it more on the philosophical questions that recur throughout his writing, and in particular the relationship between self and other as mediated by language, or perhaps that relationship as complicated by the impossibility of ever really saying what you mean, coupled with the absolute necessity of trying to do so anyhow.

But I was left with the puzzle of how to structure the class. If we read the texts in chronological sequence, Infinite Jest would fall much too early in the semester, and would threaten to take the wind out of the sails of everything that fell behind it. But leaving it for the end of the semester, as the culminating text, wouldn’t allow us to see how Wallace’s thinking developed after its publication. I finally settled on a kind of half measure: we started Infinite Jest at the proper moment in the chronological sequence of the texts, but stretched it out across the rest of the semester, spending one day each week on another of the books and one day working through another section of IJ. On the whole, I think it worked out really well, though I suppose you’d have to ask my students for confirmation. The hardest part of that schedule — for me, at least; for them it was no doubt the quantity of reading — was trying to figure out how to talk in sufficient detail about the 100 pages on the table for that week, drawing attention to the things I knew were going to turn out to be important, without giving away too much about why they were important. But as you can tell from my students’ blog, they had lots to say, lots they wanted to consider, and discussion only very rarely flagged.

The first semester I taught my “Big Novel” course, on the last day of class, I did my usual “any lingering questions that you’d like us to talk about” schtick, and one student raised her hand and asked me why I hadn’t had David Foster Wallace come talk to them while we were reading Infinite Jest. And I was so surprised that I wound up blurting out the truth: because I had never talked with him about the class I was teaching. Because he would have hated it, hated the idea that his work was being discussed in the very building in which he was trying to be someone other than the Famous Author of Infinite Jest. Because both of us suffered from a kind of self-consciousness that made it absolutely necessary for him to pretend like he didn’t know I was teaching the novel (and it was pretending, I’m certain; it’s a very small college), and for me to pretend like I didn’t know he knew, if we were going to be able to function. So no. No visits from Dave.

I thought about that moment all last semester, and the fact that I could only teach perhaps the best class I’ve ever taught precisely because he wasn’t there anymore. And I still don’t know what to do with that, but I hope that if he’s out there, wherever, he’ll understand.

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  1. “A solid subset of the class strongly resisted Wimsatt and Beardsley, and held tight to the idea of the meaning of a text deriving from some idea held by the author, but they all got the distinction between the imagined author of a text and the biographical person, and were more than generous in going along with my insistence that because we couldn’t conceivably know what Dave might have meant by something, an appeal to his biography in interpreting his writing wouldn’t help.”

    “Couldn’t conceivably know” is a very strong claim and one independent of appeal to biography. I would assign Hirsch’s “Objective Interpretation” or even one of Benn Michaels and Knapp’s pieces in counterpoint with Wimsatt and Beardsley, personally, although I think I recognize the particular type of ingenuous appeal to intentionality you were trying to head off here.

  2. “Couldn’t conceivably know” is a very strong claim…

    True. But isn’t that “couldn’t conceivably know” part of Wallace’s own philosophical grounding, in the sense that the gulf between self and other prevents us from ever really “knowing” what someone else means? Or even, perhaps, what we ourselves mean. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to forge a connection with those with whom we’re in communication, or that we shouldn’t try to understand what’s actually going on in a text, but that attempting to answer the question of what the author meant is (a) futile, precisely because not only can we not ever know, but he likely didn’t actually know himself, or not in any way that could be communicated other than the way it appears in the text, and (b) beside the point, as what’s actually in front of us and under study is the text and not the author, whatever the class might be called.

    But beyond that, in this case, there’s a much more literal “couldn’t conceivably know,” which is simply that he wasn’t there, and wouldn’t in any case have been there, to ask…

  3. There are different senses of “meaning” here. There is the subjective sense of “what it meant to him” and also the “what it means” (“what he means by this”) in terms of communication to the reader. There are difficulties in ascribing agency to the text independent of the author’s communicative efforts or of the reader’s reconstructive ones. It seems to me from your response that the second definition above is one that you would ascribe to textual agency. The first is easy to dismiss as naive, but there are always affective similarities between the creative acts of writing and reading, or such is one suggestive bit I took away from reader response theory.

    Again, though, I think it’s clear from your post exactly what you had in mind re the intentional fallacy, and I understand why you would choose to raise it in the class at that time. But IJ, to me, asks (textual agency!) to be read in a philological manner and its considerable artifice asks for reconstruction of intent in manner that goes beyond the text’s internal logic.

    I also see an equal horror in his work of the possibility that the self is transparent to others, however dark the mirror.