Infinite Jest and American Politics


A newly unearthed interview David Foster Wallace did with Chris Lydon on WBUR’s The Connection in 1996 has been making the rounds on the internet for a few days now. There’s a good amount to sift through for Infinite Jest fans. But I found his commentary on poverty and contemporary politics the most interesting. At 22:25:

WALLACE: …I got real lucky early on in my twenties and had some career success and got a lot of the stuff that I thought, you know, ‘If only I could get that, then I would be alright’ and discovering that…I wasn’t. I guess…this sounds kind of embarrassing – I mean I was raised in an academic environment and in a pretty middle class one. I’d never really seen how a lot of other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston, and a lot of it was in these halfway houses for this book. I didn’t really understand emotionally that there were people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. And again, when you say it, it sounds very cliche and blah, blah, blah, blah, and we read about it in newspapers – to get to look into the eyes of people like that is…

LYDON: Is the sadness in seeing it, David, or in confronting a life that hasn’t experienced any of that?

WALLACE: Yeah, I’m not explaining it well. The sadness isn’t in seeing it. The sadness is in realizing – for me, at about age 27 or  28 – how phenomenally lucky I’ve been. You know, not only never to have been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books…I mean – never before in history – again, and this is a truism – but never before in history has a country been so blessed materially and intellectually and whatever. And yet we’re miserable.

LYDON: For me, oddly enough, experience of reading this book will forever be entwined with the last five days of the New Hampshire Republican primary – the sense that, ‘Wait a minute, nobody gets out of here unwounded or with much of a clue as to where in the world this society wants to go.’

WALLACE: Almost a non sequitur here would be that the thing that strikes me about the election is watching everybody contort about not raising taxes and balancing the budget and – I don’t know what this has to do the with the book – it seems bizarre to me that we are one of the least taxed industrial nations on earth, that we demand all these services, punish politicians who raise our taxes, and then dislike politicians for lying when we encourage them to lie by telling us they’re not gonna – I guess what makes me sad is that I would like my generation to realize that it would be way better for us inside in our stomachs to pay higher taxes to be able to shelter and feed poor people, not for their sake but for ours. So that we would be the sort of culture that doesn’t let people die. And that instead we’re all so worried about an extra four percent off our monthly paycheck that we get all exercised about it. And, you know what – I see you looking at me – I know this sounds really pious and weird and its got nothing to do with the book, but it’s got to do with…doing this book was hard for me because it’s about why exactly are we so sad and how have we become so unbelievably selfish. Like lethally selfish and self-indulgent.

I’m not so sure that Wallace is right in saying that the problems with the demands of our political culture don’t fit in thematically with Jest. The book, if it’s about any one thing, is about how we do not know what we want. And when we do know what we want, the narrative suggests, we often pursue it while completely oblivious to how our desires and actions delimit and shape the desires and actions of other people. The web of characters and interactions in Infinite Jest isn’t much more complex than those within the real world. American democracy and democracy in general requires us to view these tangles of people and preferences as parts of a cohesive whole. But the whole doesn’t really exist. It has to be created – through empathy, and honesty, and meaningful communication. Without those, democracy has to sub in the qualities we all share for a sense of genuine collective preference. Too often, maybe inevitably, the qualities most often represented are incoherent selfishness and passive expectation – these are at the core, I think, of what it means to be human. They do not make governing easy. And so our leaders either focus on total bullshit – the Johnny Gentle administration’s obsession with cleanliness for example – or try to meet the needs of those who are easier to understand – like corporations, whose preferences are always going to be grounded in the need to make more money, as easily as possible, right now. Corporations know what they want. The average person does not. So corporations win and get to sponsor time itself. Eventually.

(Aside: For more on Wallace’s politics, you should read this piece by James Santel in The Hudson Review and the reply from Rod Dreher of The American Conservative with its accompanying comments section. I’ve read the second and not the first yet for some reason; both have been sitting in My Bookmarks for too long. Oh, and his McCain campaign essay from Rolling Stone, obviously.)

Anyhow, the interview as a whole is really something and features some talk about how Boston figures into Infinite Jest, a topic that doesn’t really get covered much in most discussions of the book, I think. Some of the callers’ Boston Brahmin accents are wonderful. So too is the show from earlier this year featuring Infinite Boston tour guide Bill Lattanzi, Wallace biographer D.T. Max, and Deb Larson-Venable, executive director of the Granada House treatment center and the inspiration for Pat Monstesian, the manager of Ennet House.


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