Year of David Foster Wallace

I recently finished Infinite Jest and can easily place it in my top five favorite novels (the strange dream I had didn’t foretell the story, by the way). In the world of Infinite Jest, years are no longer numbered (i.e. 2014), but instead take the name of the top corporate bidders in a system known as subsidized time (i.e. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.). So far, my 2014 has felt like the Year of David Foster Wallace.

It was February when I first picked up Oblivion, and since then I’ve read 1761 of his pages and I’m still jonesing for more. By my calculations I have 2815 pages left to finish off his whole catalog. This is fairly normal for me, as I frequently obsess over one artist for an extended period of time. Even now as I try to broaden my reading to help my writing, the genius of David Foster Wallace is just too compelling to stay away.

It’s safe to say that every year from 1994 to 2000 could have been called my Years of David Lynch (my longest, deepest obsession to date). Since then I’ve had several Years of Stanley Kubrick, two Years of Andrei Tarkovsky, one Year of Philip K. Dick, a Year of Barry Gifford, a Year of Tom Robbins, a Year of Lars von Trier, at least one Year of Thomas Pynchon, and it would only be fair to call 2011 the Year of George R. R. Martin.

What happens is that I read or watch or listen to one artist’s work for the first time, and I get such a surge of pleasure I usually acquire the rest of his/her oeuvre all at once like an addict, working through it with only a few odds and ends thrown in for contrast. Fortunately, it’s rare to find an artist that turns all my cranks the way Wallace does, so I rarely have to binge this way. But when I do find a new addiction my interest in other entertainments seems to drop off.

And this tendency is exactly what’s explored in Infinite Jest. Our culture’s addiction to different forms of entertainment is exploded into view; from oral narcotics to professional sports to lethally indulgent movies, Infinite Jest explores the cravings we have to abandon ourselves to something greater, something potentially more meaningful than our own thoughts and self-reflection, something that offers us self-transcendence.

And I did get lost in it. I was fairly heartbroken when it was over. I had come to love these characters; when they were bummed out, I was bummed out for them; when they were in trouble, I was worried; and when I turned the last page, I wanted somehow to slip inside the world of Infinite Jest to see if they’ll be okay.

The book’s title, like A Clockwork Orange, is taken from a work of fiction within the work of fiction. The Infinite Jest within Infinite Jest is an experimental film so compelling, once people have caught a glimpse, they’ll give anything to keep watching it. They’re locked in; they forget to eat or go to the bathroom, and when it’s all over, they’re willing to do unspeakable acts for another viewing.

David Foster Wallace has managed, with Infinite Jest, to create a work of fiction just this side of dangerously compelling. His prose has all the audacity and skill of Pynchon’s, and his ability to create flawed, idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters is second to none. And since Wallace is so culturally aware, and his writings so replete with artistic references, I imagine it won’t be long, once I’ve finished the rest of his work, to find a new addiction.

Sometimes the easiest way out one addiction is to ease into another, less absorbing one. Feel free to recommend any artists I should check out.

Addiction vs. Inspiration

Addiction

Addiction describes a pattern of behavior that we judge negatively. Once behaviors are learned, they can become routine and continue with relative ease. In some cases we might say the behavior is involuntary. If we don’t want to judge the behavior negatively, we call it a habit. A habit can carry a negative connotation too, but it’s not as extreme a connotation as the word “addiction”.

Naturally when people think about addiction they think about drugs, cigarettes, gambling, and apparently now sex. But the whole idea of addiction is that there is enough force compelling one to continue with the behavior that withdrawal causes some unpleasantness. In cases of extreme drug addiction (heavy heroin users, for example), withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. But outside of that example, none of the other behaviors cause any sort of trauma when we quit them.

Media companies and the Surgeon General tell us that cigarettes are addictive. This is supposed to scare us away from ever starting. But cigarette companies benefit from smokers who believe they’re addicted. If I believe that I can’t control myself, then I don’t think about smoking, I just buy another pack. So what actually happens when people quit smoking? They have cravings, maybe compensate by eating, gain a bit of weight, notice themselves more nervous…in other words nothing too bad really happens. The word addiction gives people an excuse to act like it’s not their fault that they’re smoking. If you’re going to smoke, enjoy it. The only smokers I needle are the ones who smoke and act guilty. “I know I should be doing this but…”

Damn it, don’t complain about your own conscious behavior.

The minor psychological discomfort of quitting cigarettes isn’t truly harmful. Nor is withdrawal from gambling or sex dangerous. As a society we call these vices “addictions” to let people know we don’t agree with the behaviors. Unless we’re joking, we never talk of someone being addicted to exercise or meditation, both of which cause big chemical changes within the body and can be extremely habit-forming.

Habits can range from a set wake-up time to crack addiction, or they can be ways of thinking or behaving, like crossing the right leg over the left, or always holding the phone to the same side of one’s head. Much of our behavior is carried out through unconscious habits. I could argue that my heart is addicted to circulating blood through my body, thankfully. And I rarely need to think about breathing.

When meditating gained enough momentum for me it just became a perpetual activity in my life. I never worry if I’ll do it, I only consider the best way to do it in my environment. It’s always best when there’s nothing new to think about. Being aware of some anomaly in the pattern is like being made conscious of digestion – you only notice it when something isn’t right. Under normal circumstances, sitting down to meditation is something I do thoughtlessly, like eating breakfast. A perfectly learned habit is one you can do unconsciously, with no thought. It’s Subconscious Autopilot.

Inspiration

Inspiration rarely comes when I ask it to. In fact, the most fertile activities for summoning inspiration are activities that I do mindlessly, some task like cleaning. As the word implies, inspiration is like an inward breath – we receive an idea. It helps if the mind is somewhat passive and isn’t chattering away. You can’t really work on inspiration, but you can make yourself ready to catch it. I’m sure everyone feels some kind of inspiration in their lives, but anybody pursuing any kind of creative life can become a slave to inspiration.

I used to write when I was inspired. If an idea came I could get excited and then be very productive in a short time. The thought of writing something uninspired was repulsive to me. Why fill pages if they’re not filled with beauty or wisdom? The bottom line on that score is that I wasn’t practicing the craft of writing (or music, or whatever) every day. As with everything in life, it gets easier the more I do it.

Inspiration, whether it’s a new melody or a novel connection between two ideas, is very uplifting. Spiritually and intellectually there are few things more exhilarating than being gifted something new like that. Being ready, and using the momentum that inspiration brings is crucial.

When a person’s inspiration is monumental, and their voice is unique, masterpieces are made. James Joyce only wrote three novels and Stanley Kubrick made only about a dozen films, but they are elevated so high above the average works that these men go down in history as geniuses. If they shared some technique for calling down ideas, we’ll never hear about it…because the Secret Chiefs will never let us hear about it…

But think about all the ideas that come to all the people who don’t follow through. Inspiration is way more useful in someone who knows how to do the work required to carry out the idea.

So…

It’s been six months since I began this blog. Though there’s admittedly been little inspiration in it, blogging is an addiction I’m happy to take part in. I think being able to form new habits is an important skill and I wish it was easier. Ideally blogging will become so old-hat that I will be able to do it like any other chore. Then maybe I’ll catch more inspiration.

Inspiration and habit are two things that should work hand in hand. Inspiration should bring new life to old patterns, while habit or addiction is an effortless commitment. Though you might think I’d be all over inspiration for this Battle Of Unrelated Things, I’m going to overlook the negative connotations and choose Addiction as the winner.

We live in a world where media and ideas flow at such an astronomical rate I have a hard time imagining any singular work of art stopping everybody dead in their tracks. You might say that George R. R. Martin or Stieg Larsson have done this but I would argue that their successes are mostly commercial and don’t herald any novel triumph of artistic spirit the way that Mozart or Citizen Kane did. What survives today is work, and a solid output of consistent quality is the benchmark of successful artists. Take Werner Herzog, for example.

Inspired artists will always rise to the top, unless they’re not putting in the work to make themselves competitive with uninspired artists. Fortunately, work ethic can be learned, mastered, and turned into an addiction.