Divided Attention and Being in the Body

I took this note on page 146 (the part about video phones):

DFW is concerned here and elsewhere (Mister Squishy) with divided attention — yet look what the full attention of The Entertainment yields.

What I was reacting to was this:

A traditional aural-only conversation… let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles… all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided…. The bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it.

He goes on to write about childish self-absorption and the “infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention.” Tangential as this little section seems (almost like a little bit of filler that helps provide some context for the just-barely-future world of the novel), it actually seems to tie in with the infantilizing effect of The Entertainment.

How about JOI’s father’s monologue? What an amazing, sad, funny, unlikely thing. Nobody really talks the way this speaker does, and yet it’s hard not to visualize it happening and to believe it. I always think of John Turturro playing this role.

My first post about the book proper was about being trapped. In this section, we see things like this:

  • “Living in your body” (158)
  • “Head is body” (159)
  • “a machine in the ghost” (160)
  • “That’s my kid, in his body.” (164)
  • “I was in my body. My body and I were one.” (165)
  • “The court becomes a … an extremely unique place to be. It will do everything for you. It will let nothing escape your body.” (166)
  • “It was a foreign body, or a substance, not my body” (167)
  • “We’re just bodies to you.” (167 – 168)
  • “That I was in there” (168)

Flash back to early in the book, where Hal says “I am in here.” I don’t have a thesis about what all this means. I do have yet another quote, though, this time from the Kenyon commencement address Wallace gave a few years ago:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Almost immediately after saving a draft of this post, I went and read the latest post over at Infinite Summer and discovered that Eden had excerpted from the same part of Wallace’s speech. I swear I’m not just a copy cat. Whether I have a fleshed-out thesis or not, it’s hard for me not to see some thematic similarities between this part of Wallace’s speech and the two sections of the past week’s milestone that I wanted to comment on: divided attention, being (trapped?) in your body/head, a sort of narcissism/solipsism and its infantilizing outcome, the perils of giving yourself too fully to something (The Entertainment, pot, whatever) versus dividing your attention to some degree, and how all that relates to how to think and how to be.


Let’s begin.

When I first read Infinite Jest, I didn’t care too much about the Erdedy section. I suppose I found it tiresome and repetitive and too re-hashy of the whole addiction denial/relapse cycle. But every time I reread it, I see a little more truth in it. Even for as light-weight a something-shy-of-an-addict to various mostly-harmless things (as innocuous as, say, rigid routine and no more harmful than alcohol) as I am, there’s a certain truth even for me to the compulsive repetitiveness and desperation of it. Erdedy’s life is an intensification of the whole hugging-the-porcelain-god-and-promising-never-to-drink-again (and doing it every weekend) thing that so many go through during especially their younger days. It rings really true for me during recent reads, and it has morphed from a minor, kind of irritating episode to a key and true description of an authentic sort of human behavior that’s probably more pervasive than any one person, on his own island of addiction to and shame of substance/behavior/thing X, is inclined generally to suspect.

For the wallace-l mailing list, I provided an introduction of pages 17 – 39 of the book at the beginning of a group read that wrapped up in the last few weeks (which I didn’t finish, getting only to page 80-something). Because there tend not to be any spoiler rules for that list (most of the vocal members having read the book and most of Wallace’s work many times), my intro contained plenty of information that could be construed as spoilage and thus can’t really be used here. One pretty safe passage from my intro follows.

There’s a lot of bug talk in the Erdedy section, as in fact there is throughout the book (Orin’s phobia in the next section [and other things redacted]). I’ve always thought there was something sort of Kafka-Metamorphic in the first section, what with Hal thrown to the floor unable to communicate with the heads around him, his arms waggling as he makes sub-mammalian sounds. CT stabs his phone antenna like an insect, I think, in the first section. And here Erdedy contemplates a bug in his home and sees in the bug something of himself. He’s trapped in the geometry of his home (lots of angles cast by shadows, at least one triangle and one parallelogram mentioned specifically) and in the defensive shell of his rationalizations and promises as the bug (and it’s hard really to think of a chitinous bug as anything but its shell) is trapped in its shell in the girder. Erdedy makes basically a bunker of his home to “vacate” to/in, and this is just the beginning of a whole bunch of being trapped in the book [with certain details redacted here]. And then of course there is Hal’s entrapment within himself.

In one of a series of Bookworm interviews hosted by Michael Silverblatt, that interviewer brings up the notion of the double-bind in Infinite Jest. Wallace I think first explores these in the antinomies that appear in Broom of the System. Erdedy provides a prime example (a wallace-l member pointed this out during my portion of the group read). For instance, Erdedy desperately wants to use the phone to call his source but is afraid to because if the line is busy when his source for the pot calls, he’ll miss the call he’s waiting for. And he has an impulse to watch TV but winds up flipping around a lot because he worries that if he settles on one thing, he’ll miss something that’s even better on another channel. And at the end, he’s essentially crucified in mid-air, reaching for the door on one side and the phone on the other and utterly unable to move or even think. The recurrent double-bind theme seems to me to be very much tied into the addiction theme, the notion that you can cling with such need to something that you know will do you harm and that you’ll regret.

Isn’t the professional conversationalist section just a riot? This episode will pop up again in a slightly different form in an unrelated (beyond the fact of its occurrence in both places) long end note before too long. This kind of humor abounds in Infinite Jest, and if you like it, you might want to go and read The Broom of the System too. In this section, Hal’s dad contends that he (Hal) doesn’t speak, and it corresponds to the first section in which he actually can’t communicate to the deans. Yet it’s clear that Hal can talk in this section and that time has passed between the two sections (with the first occurring a number of years later).

I love this:

In the eighth American-educational grade, Bruce Green fell dreadfully in love with a classmate who had the unlikely name of Mildred Bonk. The name was unlikely because if ever an eighth-grader looked like a Daphne Christianson or a Kimberly St.-Simone or something like that, it was Mildred Bonk. She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape. Hair that Green had heard described by an over-wrought teacher as ‘flaxen’; a body which the fickle angel of puberty — the same angel who didn’t even seem to know Bruce Green’s zip code — had visited, kissed, and already left, back in sixth; legs which not even orange Keds with purple-glitter-encrusted laces could make unserious. Shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous, amply busted, given to diffident movements of hand brushing flaxen hair from front of dear creamy forehead, movements which drove Bruce Green up a private tree. A vision in a sundress and silly shoes. Mildred L. Bonk.

Hal and Erdedy like to get high in private. For Hal, the secrecy is part of the addiction. I don’t think there’s really any shame for him. This little bit of privacy is the one thing he can control within his regimented life at the tennis academy. For Erdedy, it has always seemed to me to be about shame. We’ll see lots of flavors and degrees of addiction from here on out.

So far, we have a weather-protection bubble called the Lung and a campus in the shape of a heart (cardoid). Later we’ll see a Brain building. I don’t remember whether there are more things like this later in the book, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled.

Have you been keeping tabs on point of view? On page 61, we revisit the first person singular for the first time (I think, after a quick re-scan) since page 17. And what a doozie of a section. It tumbles and spirals, and I think one does well to read it aloud. How important it is to the middle and later parts of the book I can’t recall. It’s a section I always forget about but love when I rediscover it.

Wow, I didn’t even touch on Orin or Gately or Mario, but I’m tapped out from writing and maybe you’re tapped out from reading what I’ve put down so far. I reckon I need a nice pat summary, though. So I’ll circle back to my title. Trapped. Hal is “in here.” In where? In the chitonous shell that his insectile movements suggests he seems to inhabit Gregor-Samsa-like (uh, no, not literally)? In his head? Has he retreated into that ultimate privacy of solipsism? Well, he’s clearly trapped somewhere. And what about Erdedy, with all the angles and boxes of his house, the bug sequestered in its girder much as Erdedy sequesters himself inert in his home? Or the attache, slave to his client and to his nightly routine, or his wife, thrall to the attache’s demands? What about Wardine, stuck in what is clearly a horrific situation? Or The Moms, agoraphobic since the death of Hal’s father? Or Orin, “entombed in that kind of psychic darkness where you’re dreading whatever you think of” (p. 42) or the roaches he traps and his nightmare about being trapped underwater with his own mom’s disembodied head attached to his own? And DuPlessis, whom Gately literally binds and gags, eventually accidentally killing him, and Gately’s own slavery to his addiction? And addiction — well, it is its own sort of trap or cage, after all, isn’t it?