Another slightly different contest. This passage is easy to identify with google. It comes from David Foster Wallace. But can anybody give examples from within Wallace’s work in which he’s attempting to do what he says good art should?
In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.
i tend to go for the small details that go to express our capacity for attention to the texture of ordinary life, and our capacity to inflect the relatively impersonal resources of our culture by a personal, playful attitude. ‘infinite jest’ is replete with those but there are two favorites that always come to my mind:
1. hal clipping his toenails while on the phone with orin.
a) pemulis’ enthusiasm for the mean value theorem and
b) the labels for the graphs in his explanations to hal, PEEMSTER and HALSADICK
I love the toe-clipping scene, J! In fact, for a long time there was a chunk about it in the book – though sad to say it was cut at the end. I think there is a strain in Wallace – most readily seen in the NYT magazine piece called “Federer as Religious Experience”, but available in the toe clipping scene as well – that finds in sports something like the saving possibility for the culture. Especially in the experience of “being in the zone” – which Dreydeggereans will recognize immediately – but in the other rituals that grow up around sporting events as well. This is a possibility that we explore in the book, though I think it’s a pretty complicated one that requires care.
I’ll look back at your other two also. Any other examples?
there are lots of parts of the book i’m not so familiar with, since i’ve never reread the whole thing as an adult. i’m sure i would hear the recovery house and separatist material differently.
3. everything connected with madame psychosis’ radio show resonated deeply with me. i think it must have something to do with the way it was sort of a sacred ritual that brought isolated people together via that technology. i never heard anything like her show, but there were sort of echoes of the role radio played in my life roughly up to the time i went to college. i would stay awake at night to hear countdown shows when i was a kid, hide under the covers with my headphones to catch a bit of the npr classical station with weak reception, put my head up against the speaker like mario. when i started learning that some stations didn’t just play the same mix all the time but would play shows at scheduled hours, i would always be anxious about whether i’d even be able to pick up the shows; when they came in it was like i was privy to a certain secret. apart from the music, it felt like a discovery to hear announcers who didn’t just keep up a patter to fill time, who talked to us. i was so disappointed to stay up late and not really be able to get a clear signal. at that age, i very much wanted to go to MIT, so it was attractive that madame psychosis’ show was broadcast from there. perhaps something struck me about the engineer’s ritual—was it going outside, on top of, the brain building to listen to the show through his headphones while it aired? the idea of being able to be right at the station, instead of here at home, but still hear the show in the solitude it’s normally heard in, seems painfully right.
4. another bit that’s always stuck in my head is hal’s reaction upon first finding himself’s body—’that something smelled delicious!’. i’ve always remembered it as one of the darkest, most miserable ironies, sickeningly apt. kind of like a woody allen ‘no club that would have me as a member’ or ‘we need the eggs’, or greg tate’s ‘he’ll be out soon, he didn’t get much time, only ten years’, only pitched over toward helpless despair. so on looking for the passage i’m really surprised to find that it’s part of the same conversation as the toenail clipping—i hadn’t remembered that connection at all. in context, with so many levels of remove (the climax of a conversation with O well after the event about himself’s death and hal’s reaction to it, by way of a recounting of a profoundly contrived attempt to manipulate hal’s grief counselor into leaving him alone by satisfying the grief counselor’s professional, textbook expectations for proper experience and manifestation of grief), the sting of the revelation seems muted, or confused, or something. hard to say whether i distorted it in detaching it from its context or clarified it. (for years i went around misremembering the climactic scene in ‘andrei rublev’ as one where the bell breaks instead of working.)
i realize that these two might not seem so readily to satisfy the quote in your post since they seem to select out something that though human might seem to contribute to the times’ darkness. but that seems to me to have something to do with what redeeming potential they enjoy.
Two passages came to mind first, both involving communion, anti-loneliness. The lessons of AA somewhere around 200-205, while they might seem like mere reportage in tangential form a la nonfiction Wallace, really strike a chord in me. Not because I’m an AA member myself or anything (I’m not) but because of what Wallace sees in AA, a way to learn how to wait patiently, observantly, a way to enjoy life that’s not only proven effective for many, but we’re talking about people whose psyches have withstood some of the worst abysses imaginable. And so maybe for example the 24 hour plan could be a clever way for ALL of us to focus on what matters most and learn to appreciate life as it is. Why not? BUT the beauty of the AA way is that you can cease being lonely for swaths of time, whether it be a mentor or just a jam-packed church basement. The other is when Joelle comforts Don post-brawl and invokes her signature phrase, a passage that, like Orin’s remembrance of Joelle as cheerleader, provides a glimpse..
…of what these totally-alone characters we get to know and commiserate with have been missing: The semi-miraculous leap of faith/trust over the void separating each of us from the other, that Other with whom one can join momentarily in being less all-alone, a communion of lonely souls, the gamble of opening up and the relief when the courage to let oneself be vulnerable pays off, and you find yourself playing mother to a stranger in distress, falling deeply in love (and outside of yourself) with a woman to the point of self-forgetting, or chatting with a recovering addict and having one there-but-for-the-grace moment after another all the while listening as carefully as possible to every word spoken by a person most people ignore/avoid like the hideously deformed. And the link there to the book’s plot is that most people are PROGRAMMED to behave that callously. Programmed by what? Ahem. That lightbox whose images are getting so irresistably lovely might as well be Plato’s Allegory of the 3D HDTV.