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May 7, 2013 10:58 PM   Subscribe

"This Is Water" -- a short film based on David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech.
posted by empath (80 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
My feelings toward a DFW mashup posted two weeks ago apply here as well. Well done, worth posting, but I think the visuals ultimately detract.
posted by phrontist at 11:04 PM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Like, do I really need to be reminded what traffic or supermarkets look like?
posted by phrontist at 11:07 PM on May 7, 2013


This helped.

If you do not want to experience these kinds of videos, you can edit your hosts file to exclude youtube, hulu and vimeo.

There are those for whom reading a graduation speech by the author of a famously unreadable book seems daunting. A well crafted video of this nature helps the little bits penetrate when reading is too much.
posted by poe at 11:16 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


does it get to anything much beyond day-in-day-out sucks?
posted by philip-random at 12:13 AM on May 8, 2013


does it get to anything much beyond day-in-day-out sucks?

It didn't for DFW.

All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:53 AM on May 8, 2013


All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.

Hah?
posted by EmGeeJay at 1:25 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


For me, Foster Wallace's words describe a beautiful outlook on human existence, and I often come back to them when I am struggling with things. Any way to get this speech out there, and heard by more people, is OK by me.
posted by creeky at 1:26 AM on May 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you not getting it, you're likely the one asking "What the hell is water?" Thanks for posting, damn it's getting dusty in here.
posted by empty vessel at 2:36 AM on May 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is very good. Thank you.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:13 AM on May 8, 2013


Very nice. I like the motion graphics on a technical level, but they are a bit too flashy for this speech. And what a great speech it is.
posted by zardoz at 3:25 AM on May 8, 2013


It didn't for DFW.

All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.


Dude. This was a guy with heart, and it shows in everything he did. The problem was he had massive hardware AND a chemical imbalance.
posted by legospaceman at 4:20 AM on May 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


does it get to anything much beyond day-in-day-out sucks?

Of course it does. Why make a video or post it if that's the message? What a shitty commencement speech that would be. Take 9 minutes of time to finish watching it and THEN you can decide if it's beneath you.
posted by sonika at 4:26 AM on May 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


That said, I really loved this. I can't say as I'm especially brilliant for having had the same realization less eloquently, but remembering that everyone in a tedious, frustrating situation has their own shit going on helped me take my own personal GRAR levels down at least four notches. Now when I stop to remember that I am not, in fact, the culmination of history, I have a name for it - "This is water."

Thanks for posting.
posted by sonika at 4:29 AM on May 8, 2013


Related: "Construal level theory is a theory in social psychology that describes the relation between psychological distance and the extent to which people's thinking (e.g., about objects and events) is abstract or concrete.The general idea is that the more distant an object is from the individual the more abstract it will be thought of, while the opposite relation between closeness and concreteness is true as well. In CLT, psychological distance is defined on several dimensions - temporal, spatial, social and hypothetical distance being considered most important, though there is some debate among social psychologists about further dimensions like informational, experiential or affective distance."

Which I think is useful when you are trying to gain perspective, which is ?kinda the opposite of construal level theory because instead of changing the parameters of your own experience you are trying to keep the experience the same but see it from multiple different viewpoints, to be able to step back and group them and see their commonality and see if maybe there isn't something missing from everyone's thought process.

The other things that I've found I do a lot is to imagine an anonymous protagonist in my own situation which is being played out in a film or novel, just to be able to use that part of my brain which is so familiar with narrative and drama to see what kind of reaction I have to it and maybe that will give me some idea of whether what I'm doing makes sense or is reactionary or what.

My friend says he likes to sit there and try to view a scene from the point of view of an inanimate object there, and I took that to mean it becomes a less species-centric perspective. Like observing a whole situation in a park from the perspective of an old tree, on that tree's time scale, and seeing how trivial our affairs are.
posted by legospaceman at 4:46 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


That said, I really loved this. I can't say as I'm especially brilliant for having had the same realization less eloquently, but remembering that everyone in a tedious, frustrating situation has their own shit going on helped me take my own personal GRAR levels down at least four notches.
"This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self."
--John Watson, 1903
posted by empath at 4:54 AM on May 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


Earnest, punchy piano strikes played just behind the beat plus tinkly arpeggios resting gently on a bed of winsome strings is pretty much the junk food of You Should Feel Something Now music. It's like easter chocolate from Palmer or Arnold; cheap, cheesy, horrible stuff that holds the place of something worthwhile.

Too bad you can't just mute the music; you lose the speech too.

Great speech, and I liked the visuals, though, pretty good work there.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:57 AM on May 8, 2013


I love the way the very structure of the speech is designed to illustrate his point about the true power of education. The listener whose attention bounces along at the surface level will think this is some kind of rant about grocery stores - only those who are able to follow all his words - and then contemplate on how they relate to the central theme - get to benefit from the devastating impact of the message.
posted by rongorongo at 5:02 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Or, "I am a human. I consider nothing human alien to me."
posted by legospaceman at 5:03 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


a famously unreadable book

Because it's long?
posted by shakespeherian at 5:04 AM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I like DFW, and I like this speech, but for me the visuals are too literal, they don't add anything. Well, the fish were cute.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:12 AM on May 8, 2013


Earnest, punchy piano strikes played just behind the beat plus tinkly arpeggios resting gently on a bed of winsome strings is pretty much the junk food of You Should Feel Something Now music.

I think the final part is based on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major - the recipe has worked fine since well before the era of junk food.
posted by rongorongo at 5:14 AM on May 8, 2013


Because it's long?

Because Wallace has a reputation for tossing out absurdly long words when, seemingly, smaller words would do; because he not only writes long sentences but he also seemingly challenges himself to see how long he can go without taking a breath; because the book includes a hundred pages of endnotes, half of which seemingly deal with purely unrelated trivia but some of which are in fact crucial to the plot; because it tells a nonlinear story and refuses to explain how the pieces fit together years-wise for a couple hundred pages; because one some of its earliest passages include passages about a dude buying weed at grotesque length and another passage written in a pseudo-"ebonic" dialect that simultaneously feels unnecessary, unreadable, condescending, and possibly a little bit racist; because the novel's ending famously eschews the climax so that the payoff the book seems to be reaching for never ends up happening.

I mean, you're not dense. Infinite Jest is a difficult book in a dozen ways. Doesn't mean it's bad, but there's a reason The Onion wrote an article about DFW's girlfriend being too bored by his break-up letter to read it all, and Pictures For Sad Children did that comic about DFW's castaway letter being too long for airplane pilots to read. Why pretend like the accusations against DFW's style are unfounded, when millions of readers find his approach entirely unworkable?

DFW was a bright guy, a good guy, and a guy who seemed to care about things, but his literary technique fails to reach about as many people as it successfully connects with. I know a disappointing number of people for whom Infinite Jest was not only a failure, it was a book that convinced them all of contemporary literature was wankery. Wallace's legacy touched many people a great way, but it is not spotless and gleaming either.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:33 AM on May 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


but his literary technique fails to reach about as many people as it successfully connects with

One hastens to point out that Wallace wrote a considerable number of brilliant and accessible essays.
posted by Peevish at 5:46 AM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also: Tom Bissell on this speech and Wallace.
posted by Peevish at 5:49 AM on May 8, 2013


Yes he did. I love the hell out of his essays
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:49 AM on May 8, 2013


Evidently Wallace had just read an "Introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" book and decided to pretty much paraphrase it and use it as a speech.

I will give him credit for making it less dry than most text books, and the video did a pretty good job of illustrating the words. This may actually be useful when talking to clients about "distorted thinking".
posted by HuronBob at 5:53 AM on May 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've always liked this speech, but the movie made me realize something: The iPhone makes this story moot now.

Who gets bored in a grocery store line any more? Fuck pondering the nature of the universe and humanity in life's simple banalities, I want to check Metafilter.
posted by fungible at 5:56 AM on May 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I suppose most of the anger and frustration of life is now directed at slow bandwidth and poor reception.
posted by Peevish at 6:04 AM on May 8, 2013


I know a disappointing number of people for whom Infinite Jest was not only a failure, it was a book that convinced them all of contemporary literature was wankery.

Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
posted by zardoz at 6:09 AM on May 8, 2013


I wanted to share this with my graduating students, but I think I'll just send them the original graduation speech. The depiction of the black actress at 4:07 coinciding with "cowlike, dead-eyed, and non-human" ruins it. It's a great speech, but if you're going to include a token black person, make her the one who gets humanized and redeemed by her husband's bone cancer, you know?

It's weird to predicate your inspirational video about awareness and respect for others on further dehumanizing the black body.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:10 AM on May 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Infinite Jest is a difficult book in a dozen ways.

Difficult is pretty different from 'unreadable.'
posted by shakespeherian at 6:10 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]



Difficult is pretty different from 'unreadable.'

Not when you can just go read MetaFilter on your phone, instead.

Our attention spans are being reduced to the point where... LOOK, A PUPPY!
posted by mikelieman at 6:14 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have been going to commencement speeches every year for about 17 years and they mostly suck. Sometimes it is some banal politician with nothing to say. Sometimes it is a person who has done something really great to help those in need, which is awesome, but unfortunately telling the audience to "get out there and help people" just isn't compelling. Sometimes it is some local or regional CEO explaining that with your degree and a little grit you can do anything!!! Yay for success!!! And often it is some former graduate who was asked to be the speaker because he or she has made a lot of money or is famous in some rather unimportant way. These speeches are always of the "you can get there from here" variety. Snooze.

But to be charitable to all of those folks who tried and failed, I imagine that being asked to give a commencement speech probably gives most people a raging case of the fantods. After all, it is a gig that has been tried a million times and they mostly fail. So, I give a lot of credit to DFW for this speech. I thought it was great. It prompted an emotional response in me. It gave me a new way to think about the meaning of education. And it really highlighted, without directly saying it, how much of a privilege it is to have that education.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:30 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


but his literary technique fails to reach about as many people as it successfully connects with

Do people seriously think that the value or usefulness of a glob of art has anything to do with how many people (or what proportion of its audience) it "connects with"? Have you ever felt the relief of being connected with by a chunk of art before? An artist pretty much wins at making art if that proportion of people is nonzero. Besides, "ails to reach about as many people as it successfully connects with" is pretty much true of most creators of stuff, but I don't really see what it has to do with anything. Does it damage the world to have a piece of art that a few people find brilliant/redemptive/useful but to which some people cannot relate? What is "some people don't like it" supposed to accomplish, as criticism?

I know a disappointing number of people for whom Infinite Jest was not only a failure, it was a book that convinced them all of contemporary literature was wankery.

Someone wrote a book that people (who are, evidently, not to be trusted to navigate pretty simple distinctions) used to bolster a claim so broad and amorphous as to be prima facie evidence of those people's stupidity, for even believing such a claim is meaningful, and this is somehow an indictment of the book? I call bullshit.
posted by kengraham at 6:35 AM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


We got Sen. Sam Nunn, talking about his National Service Corps plan. I'd prefer Wallace.
wear sunscreen!
posted by thelonius at 6:35 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know a disappointing number of people for whom Infinite Jest was not only a failure, it was a book that convinced them all of contemporary literature was wankery.

Well, first and most obviously, anyone who dismisses all contemporary literature because they found a single book wankerish should probably study up on elementary logic before tackling any more 1000+ page novels.

Second, I think it's really kind of a shame that Infinite Jest and DFW got saddled with the "voice of a generation/savior of literature" label. Every time I read how Infinite Jest convinced some ennui-stricken twenty-something that "serious literature is still possible in our time" or whatever, I cringe. First of all because if you ever doubted that serious literature could be possible in this or any time, you're weird. Second of all because it invites the kind of superficial interest that leads to people hurling books across rooms and swearing off contemporary literature. Infinite Jest is not my favorite book by a long shot, but it's an at-least-respectable work of literary art and I think it's best approached as such, not as a source of spiritual comfort or a report on the Troubled State of Our Contemporary World, Alas. People who pick up Infinite Jest looking for that kind of thing are likely to be disappointed in the same way as people who pick up Gravity's Rainbow because they're interested in the history of World War II, or people who pick up Ulysses because the Modern Library called it the best book of the 20th century and they want a quick dose of High Culture. Some of those readers might love all of those books, of course, but I bet at least as many will be disappointed. "You mean in order to get Insight About the World I have to slog through all this style and irony and games with time and voices and...literariness? Fuck that."

I don't mean to imply that only long difficult books are worth reading, or that if you read for anything but style you're a Bad Reader, or whatever. I mean, I'm not a COMPLETE asshole. But I think it does Infinite Jest (and literature in general, I guess) a disservice to read the book in a way to which it's ill-suited and then blame your frustration on DFW being a wanker. (And maybe it's worth pointing out that DFW himself was very wary of being over-lionized; there's an interview, with Charlie Rose I think, where he says he's pretty sure that most of the people who hailed his book as a voice-of-a-generation masterpiece hadn't actually finished it.)

Ye Olde Timey Parallel (from Boswell's Life of Johnson): ERSKINE. "Surely, Sir, [Samuel] Richardson is very tedious." JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:51 AM on May 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


But I think it does Infinite Jest (and literature in general, I guess) a disservice to read the book in a way to which it's ill-suited and then blame your frustration on DFW being a wanker.

Yes, this. I know a frustrating number of people who are predisposed to hate things because they've been hailed as The Greatest X Since Y.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:54 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Difficult is pretty different from 'unreadable.'

The lengthy five-page diversions into side characters who basically serve no function in the plot at the VERY START OF THE BOOK, and oh, the fact that the opening howevermany pages are in fact the book's ending and that plot isn't revisited ever, means that much of the opening of Infinite Jest is, in fact, unreadable for any reader who expects a book to involve cohesive narrative. What is 'difficult' for you or me because each of us has prior experience with challenging art can indeed be 'unreadable' for somebody with far less tolerance for that sort of thing.

Well, first and most obviously, anyone who dismisses all contemporary literature because they found a single book wankerish should probably study up on elementary logic before tackling any more 1000+ page novels.

Second, I think it's really kind of a shame that Infinite Jest and DFW got saddled with the "voice of a generation/savior of literature" label. Every time I read how Infinite Jest convinced some ennui-stricken twenty-something that "serious literature is still possible in our time" or whatever, I cringe. First of all because if you ever doubted that serious literature could be possible in this or any time, you're weird.


You answer your first objection with your second objection. Infinite Jest is held up by many many critics and readers as some shining proof of literature's continued relevance. Some of those critics will even note with rapturous delight how READABLE it is as a novel, compared to even denser and less entertaining novels. So to somebody whose experience with literature ends with, I dunno, Deak Koontz or Dan Brown, Infinite Jest as Most Recommended Novel immediately reinforces their impression that literature is just a wankfest without any appeal to mass audiences.

This isn't just a DFW thing, incidentally; Cormac McCarthy turns off a bunch of would-be readers too. I hear The Road is a more accessible read than some of his older work, but I don't find it surprising that Blood Meridian scares people away too. But Infinite Jest comes off as particularly pretentious to an 'outside' reader because of its author going around constantly questioning whether entertainment is a good thing, and then writing a book that seems to do a lot of seriously nonentertaining things (at least at first glance).

And as to why DFW is held up like that in the first place, look at the world those twenty-somethings you so readily dismiss (of which I am one) presently occupy. Television and movies, which once were criticized for drawing attention away from books, pale in comparison to 500-hour RPGs and the neverending Internet. In fact, both movies and TV have evolved to take advantage of the vast social web that the Internet creates and that games simulate: cult movies and shows attract enormous critical followings, and get away with being far more challenging than they were allowed to be before, at least in the mainstream. It may be baffling to those raised from an early age to believe that books are indeed special that the value of literature is not universally acclaimed, but plenty of bright and wonderful people are entirely convinced that the book is valueless, to them at least.

Infinite Jest is not the only novel people point to as proof that the form of literature can evolve to take advantage of modern society and its quirks, but it's up there. People respond to it as readily as they do because of how steeped it is in contemporary culture, and how DFW's style is in large part a response to that. Not to mention that, yes, as far as 'great novels' go it is among the most accessible to a modern reader, (my girlfriend, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on Moby-Dick, recently picked up Infinite Jest at my recommendation and said she was surprised at how light a read it felt by comparison), and that yes, great literature has a tremendous power in a way that's mostly unique to the medium of the printed word.

So when you're in your twenties and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the world around you, or maybe more than vaguely, and you feel that the life you've been told to lead is missing something very important, and that the things you consume to get you back into enjoying things never last as long or have a profound effect on you as it seems they advertise, then Infinite Jest – a daunting work in a medium often considered dated that seems to address all these worries and concerns head-on – feels like a Major Revelation. Life-changing indeed. Wallace had his finger on something important and that's a big part of the reason why anybody gives a shit about him. It comes off in his essays, it comes off in his novels, and it comes off in everything he talks about – including this speech, by the way, which is why it's so successful.

As somebody who has next to no need for Infinite Jest – it's less fun and more wank-y than the things I like to consume – I much prefer Wallace's work in all other forms better. But I would hesitate to sneer and belittle those who found Infinite Jest profoundly world-altering, much as I would hesitate to criticize those who found it entirely full of shit. Both perspectives are an accurate, and even useful, take on Infinite Jest, and both highlight the diverse types of people who come to literature which make discussions about authors and books so heated, and so utterly vital.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:29 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


The depiction of the black actress at 4:07 coinciding with "cowlike, dead-eyed, and non-human" ruins it. - anotherpanacea

I agree. That was an incredibly jarring and completely unnecessary juxtaposition. A professor of mine argued once that one should always "assume intent unless given credible evidence otherwise," so that made me feel really gross about this video.

It made me feel like the message (of the video, mind you, not DFW's text) was "pretty, thin, white people have the capacity and should be intentionally more present and mindful. Others can suck it." It was, up until the "cow-like, dead-eyed" line a combination of "hey, that's kind of pretty" and "I can tell this video is trying to give me the feels and it's kinda working!"

And that's a drag, because I've always really loved that section of that speech. I'm not a cognitive behavioral therapist, and the fish joke wasn't new to me when I read this speech, but what always attached to me is that it reminds me and continues to challenge me to look into that "cowlike, dead-eyed" person and recognize they have an interior life - that they have worth and dignity and a story and that they sometimes think that they're the center of the universe and, hey, you know what? That's at least one thing we have in common.

To be honest, I struggle to remember that sometimes, and think about this text when I'm bored or frustrated or even feel completely lonely in a crowded space.

Also, this is the first time I've heard DFW's voice. I'd actually actively avoided it since now.
posted by elmer benson at 7:31 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rory are you just fuming because you never finished reading Infinite Jest?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2013


HAY GUYS BOOKS ARE FOR OLD PEOPLE
posted by legospaceman at 7:52 AM on May 8, 2013


A professor of mine argued once that one should always "assume intent unless given credible evidence otherwise"

That's an assertion. Did she also have an argument for this?
posted by thelonius at 8:02 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wallace has a reputation for tossing out absurdly long words when, seemingly, smaller words would do

Especially for a writer as hopelessly in love with words as Wallace, it's wise to assume that he chose his words precisely for their effect. As a reader, that effect may not appeal to you. Fine. But it's probably a mistake to assume that "smaller words would do."
posted by octobersurprise at 8:15 AM on May 8, 2013


But Infinite Jest comes off as particularly pretentious to an 'outside' reader because of its author going around constantly questioning whether entertainment is a good thing, and then writing a book that seems to do a lot of seriously nonentertaining things (at least at first glance).

How are you defining "outside" reader? Outside of what? What cliques have you set up in these comments? Which one are you in?
posted by Greg Nog at 8:28 AM on May 8, 2013


'Outside' as in 'out of doors.' The sun glares off the pages and makes the book unreadable.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:29 AM on May 8, 2013


From a while ago but:


does it get to anything much beyond day-in-day-out sucks?

It didn't for DFW.

All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.


Seriously what? Do you think all people who die from an illness are assaulting their spouses?
posted by sweetkid at 8:35 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


plenty of bright and wonderful people are entirely convinced that the book is valueless, to them at least.

Ye Olde Timey Parallel: "Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?"
— Attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781, upon receiving the second (or third, or possibly both) volume(s) of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the author.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:36 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


But Infinite Jest comes off as particularly pretentious to an 'outside' reader because of its author going around constantly questioning whether entertainment is a good thing, and then writing a book that seems to do a lot of seriously nonentertaining things (at least at first glance).


I don't understand what's problematic about this. If he's saying that there's something wrong with America's obsession with entertainment, wouldn't it be suspect if he did try to write an "entertaining" book?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 8:36 AM on May 8, 2013


So to somebody whose experience with literature ends with, I dunno, Deak Koontz or Dan Brown, Infinite Jest as Most Recommended Novel immediately reinforces their impression that literature is just a wankfest without any appeal to mass audiences.

Well, speaking as someone who read plenty of Dean Koontz novels in my wayward pre-adolescence (back when he was Dean R. Koontz and had a Tobias Funke mustache), I put the blame for this phenomenon not on DFW or Dean Koontz but on goofy critics who think of literature as a Precious Heritage that must be saved from Barbarians (or, just as goofily, from a Dumbed-Down Culture). A competent critic would be able to describe the merits and problems of Infinite Jest in such a way that a Koontz reader, or any reader, would be able to tell whether he or she would get anything out of it. But because critics and pundits have this anxiety about the Fate of Literature or whatever, they write about literature in a way that makes readers feel guilty or lesser if they're not reading books that have the Great Literature stamp on them. This is dumb and leads to needless frustration.

My view is, if people stop writing long complex novels, I'll be sad because I like long complex novels, but so be it. People stopped writing Greek tragedies and chivalric romances and mock-epics, too. Something else will come along. The Internet is a thousand literary genres just waiting to crystallize.

And as to why DFW is held up like that in the first place, look at the world those twenty-somethings you so readily dismiss (of which I am one) presently occupy.

Hey man, I've been dismissing world-weary twenty-somethings since I was one--which, considering I turned 33 in March, wasn't THAT long ago (and anyway, many of the twenty-somethings who hail DFW as their generational messiah are in fact thirty-somethings). I just find cries of What Will Become of Literature In This Benighted Modern Age unconvincing, largely because people have been saying the same thing for centuries. (One of my favorite examples is The Dunciad, in which Alexander Pope anticipates DFW's (and Vladimir Nabokov's) footnotes-as-part-of-the-text gag by two centuries while also making some truly nasty shit jokes.)

I mean, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron during the Black Death. If he could write a masterpiece of comic storytelling while 1/3 of the population of Europe was dying around him, I'm pretty sure we poor 21st-century Americans can handle video games.

I would hesitate to sneer and belittle those who found Infinite Jest profoundly world-altering, much as I would hesitate to criticize those who found it entirely full of shit. Both perspectives are an accurate, and even useful, take on Infinite Jest, and both highlight the diverse types of people who come to literature which make discussions about authors and books so heated, and so utterly vital.

People can like or dislike any book for any reason. "I wanted this book to speak to me and it didn't" is a great reason to hate a book, and "this book made me see my life in a new way" is a great reason to like it (though I will fight to my last breath against the view of literature as a secret code that you have to crack in order to find the Message--if you don't enjoy the experience of reading a book, no Important Theme will be worth the pain). But saying "I hate Infinite Jest, therefore I hate literature" is like saying "I hate gin, therefore I hate liquids."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:43 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I will say, laying all my cards on the table here, that the start-to-finish experience of reading IJ was much different from what I was expecting; I'd imagined, given the hype I'd heard, that it was going to be this really ponderous impenetrable thing, emo as Proust and hard-to-grasp as Ulysses.

I was shocked to find that despite the confusion of the first chapter, it's a pretty non-experimental, fun, sassy kinda novel. I think the IDEA of the book often intimidates people, but aside from the length, it's not very hard to read at all.

So, speaking to both ultraviolet catastrophe's comment and Rory's comment that sparked it: I found the book very entertaining! It's fairly interesting to me that the Eschaton chapter is maybe the most complexly-constructed (with the math and the game-rules and such), but nothing about that complexity need be taken in if the reader doesn't want to; it's equally easy to simply read it as a spectator watching a game go to shit as its players flip out. I think it speaks well of the book, that it allows the reader space to go real deep if they want, but also offers the simple pleasure of human interactions without any need to understand every single nuance.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:47 AM on May 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was shocked to find that despite the confusion of the first chapter, it's a pretty non-experimental, fun, sassy kinda novel.

This was also my feeling.
posted by sweetkid at 8:53 AM on May 8, 2013


But Infinite Jest comes off as particularly pretentious to an 'outside' reader because of its author going around constantly questioning whether entertainment is a good thing, and then writing a book that seems to do a lot of seriously nonentertaining things (at least at first glance).

I'd also point out that this seems a deep misread of anything Wallace or Infinite Jest postulates. People who fret about Wallace's being anti-entertainment or anti-irony or whatever should probably just sit down and read some Wallace because he's nothing of the sort. It's the same for people who call Wendell Berry a Luddite. Wanting to look closer at something (i.e. 'being critical') and pick apart which aspects of it are good and which aspects are problematic doesn't mean that someone is wholesale opposed to something.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:55 AM on May 8, 2013


Yes, this. I know a frustrating number of people who are predisposed to hate things because they've been hailed as The Greatest X Since Y.

Cf.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:19 AM on May 8, 2013


I've always liked this speech, but the movie made me realize something: The iPhone makes this story moot now.

Could an iPhone have saved DFW's life?
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:36 AM on May 8, 2013


In a strange way, this thread is the Metafilter equivalent of Youtube comment arguments on Justin Bieber.
posted by seppyk at 9:42 AM on May 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you not getting it, you're likely the one asking "What the hell is water?" Thanks for posting, damn it's getting dusty in here.

I "get it." But it's more like, I realize there's water, but there is also air and dry land up there somewhere and some of us want to adapt to new and...less crowded/polluted environments instead of wallowing in backwardsness.

I hated this video and its attempted justification of the worst aspects of modern life from a guy who couldn't cope with modern life.
posted by Iknowno_one at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hear the bipolar disorder speaking. Horrible, bottomless lows where every ordinary daily task is tedious, frustrating and impossible. Then suddenly a switch in the brain flips and every second is a magical wonderment, filled with enlightenment and amazement at the world. As he returns to those highs he makes grandiose projections onto reality where each person is transformed into saints or martyrs. It is really so hard to understand why after a lifetime of flipping back and forth between these realities he would be unable to go on living?
posted by humanfont at 9:55 AM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


but his literary technique fails to reach about as many people as it successfully connects with

One hastens to point out that Wallace wrote a considerable number of brilliant and accessible essays.


My favorite of which is E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (PDF). It kinda blew my mind @ 21, (tho I was prone to have my mind blown.)

that seems to do a lot of seriously nonentertaining things (at least at first glance).

that sounds like "on first glance" not "on first reading" ... the book is loaded with entertainment. there's an entire filmography for James O. Incandenza (including "Very Low Impact," in which a narcoleptic aerobics instructor struggles to hide her condition from her students) in the footnotes, and it's pretty funny. the Eschaton? the relationship between Steeply and Marathe? Mario's film history? I dunno, I suppose you either think it's funny or you don't, but I don't think it can honestly be called intentionally nonentertaining in any sense. There is lots of high and low humor.

I'm with creeky. It's a good speech, and an even greater challenge for living (one that DFW ultimately failed, or thought he did). Any way to spread the message is good with me. I didn't love the video, especially the cheesy music, but.

Interesting to me: I've always found the speech inspirational, but at 1:30-2:00 of the video, I felt incredibly depressed. Probably that shitty piano combined with traffic visuals.

Infinite Jest is a difficult book in a dozen ways.

Not nearly as difficult as the usual suspects. I always say keep reading until page 257, or whenever Hal and Orin have that phone call. If you get that far and want to stop, it's probably because you just don't like it, not that it's difficult. I'll take DFW's diversions over Melville's whale diversions or Victor Hugo's sewer diversions (OK, I actually loved that one) any day. I found Moby Dick and Les Mis to be more "difficult" than IJ, which I devoured pretty quickly.

I don't think it's as "difficult" as many of his stories. Mr. Squishy and The Depressed Person spring to mind (but then I've also heard people say Mr. Squishy is the story most like IJ ...)
posted by mrgrimm at 9:56 AM on May 8, 2013


but then I've also heard people say Mr. Squishy is the story most like IJ ...

That sounds interesting. In what way?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:59 AM on May 8, 2013


30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web

and if you've already read all the DFW you can handle, the list of readings in his English 67-Literary Interpretation Syllabus is bountiful. ("Extra work may be added," indeed. ;)

That sounds interesting. In what way?

hmm ... found it. by "some people" read "Dave Eggers" and "heard" = "read" ...

tl;dr, it's "the dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style"

“Mr. Squishy” originally ran in McSweeney’s No. 5, under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm. When Dave sent it to me, he asked that this pen name be used, and for the life of me now I can’t remember why. I didn’t even question it, really, because we had already published a bunch of stuff in the journal under other authors’ pseudonyms, and I knew there are plenty of good reasons to occasionally write under a different name. We wanted of course to publish it under his given name, because the story was brilliant and was the longest DFW story we ever got hold of. We were so proud to publish it, but we respected his wishes.

This was the first and only piece we ever published that I attempted to edit. And it was a pretty basic thing I tried to do. His work, as everyone knows, was very difficult to edit, because he made no mistakes, really, and could outthink and outlast anyone when it came to debating changes to his work. It wasn’t that he was combative, but more that he had thought pretty much everything through, and had good reasons for every comma.

Which made it all the more surprising that I got him to break up a few paragraphs. I didn’t think I had a right to ask, but, at the same time, I wanted people to read “Mr. Squishy,” and I felt that some of the paragraphs were both very long and possessing some pretty comfortable places to start anew. So I wrote a note explaining all this, with a copy of the story indicating about 10–15 places we could start new paragraphs.

I didn’t expect him to even entertain the notion, but he did. What became relatively clear in our exchange was that he hadn’t really ever considered breaking up these or any long paragraphs. It was as if he were visiting the notion—sometimes exceedingly long paragraphs can impede one’s enjoyment of a story—for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience.

But he went with the changes. There’s room for debate whether or not they were best for the story.

We published “Mr. Squishy” with the fake name, but I don’t think we fooled anyone for very long. Dave had at least four distinct styles, maybe more, but “Mr. Squishy” was written in his most recognizable. (OK, acknowledging that this is ill-thought-out and incomplete, a stab at his four most clear-cut styles would be: (1) the plainspoken and fluid journalistic style demonstrated in his McCain piece (this is the style that goes down the easiest, and where his passion and opinions are most unguarded); (2) the ramped-up journalistic style of the cruise-ship piece and similar pieces of epic observation (these pieces have the more elaborate footnotes and digressions); (3) the humor-isolating and accessible style of Brief Interviews and the “Porousness of Certain Borders” stories; and (4) the dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style of his novels and certain stories.)

“Mr. Squishy” was probably closer to Infinite Jest in style than any other short story he wrote, so I wondered aloud to him whether anyone would really buy that it was written by someone named Elizabeth Klemm. And even if they did buy it, wouldn’t they accuse Ms. Klemm of aping DFW’s style? We both sort of laughed it off and agreed to let the whole thing play out.

About a day after shipping the issue, we started getting letters and e-mails, even phone calls to the office, demanding to know whether Wallace was the author of this incredibly Wallace-like story. And the jig was up shortly thereafter, because he went on a book tour, and everyone was asking him about it, and I think he felt bad about fibbing about the authorship issue. At the same time, a few of us McSweeney’s people were doing events, too, and people kept asking. It was killing us, fibbing about it to very nice (though very intense) DFW fans. We’d perfected a non-answer answer, which was something like “Well, it came through the mail, and the byline on it was Elizabeth Klemm.” Usually, the fans would walk away, feeling that, with this non-answer answer, their suspicions had been confirmed.

Not too long after, Dave owned up to the story, and we did, too. He was too honest to fib, too recognizable to hide, too singular to fool anyone.

Thank you all for continuing to share your thoughts and memories. Please keep them coming. This site will continue to celebrate his life for the foreseeable future.

— Dave Eggers


fwiw, i do not agree.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Self-link to a short blog post I wrote about how I use parts of This is Water to remember the humanity in everyone, even people who annoy me.
posted by sweetkid at 10:34 AM on May 8, 2013


It's been a while since I read 'Mr. Squishy' but I believe it's the first story in Oblivion, right? And sort of the set the tone for the whole book, which I thought of at the time as maybe not a new direction but certainly a new dedication from Wallace toward a certain density of prose which he'd only previously flirted with. I don't really see the similarity myself.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:35 AM on May 8, 2013


I think the final part is based on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major - the recipe has worked fine since well before the era of junk food.

The way that Pachelbel's Canon is now invariably deployed as a shorthand for emotional depth is, in fact, the equivalent of musical junk food.
posted by speicus at 10:35 AM on May 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man's face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge's real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry 'Murderer!' for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film's audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself's death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself's work illuminated the central conundra of millenial apres-gard film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

posted by one_bean at 10:45 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.

One of the most memorable pieces from IJ was DFWs description of depression and how it can become so extreme that suicide seems like a viable option. I never had that perspective before and it was all the more tragic because he ultimately succumbed to the instinct.
posted by Michael_H at 11:58 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Depression can also trick your mind into "everyone being better off without you." Sylvia Plath's character Esther Greenwood, in the Bell Jar, describes how she felt like she was getting stupid and couldn't read, like the words were all melting together on the page, and thought this condition would degenerate until she had to drop out of college altogether and end up dependent on family or in a ward (or similar anxiety-induced potential end-state). This matched closely with Sylvia's own thoughts before her first suicide attempt, according to some of her letters.

Also, depression can cause some severe physical pain. Like, actual ache and pain and stomach upset. And then the medication can make this worse. On top of all this, people who are suffering from the illness are thought of as crazy, weak, cruel to others, etc.

It's no wonder we lose people to this illness. They are lost. They are not villains.
posted by sweetkid at 12:19 PM on May 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


It really does ache. Often, when I can't even get out of bed, my chest hurts and my heart feels as though someone were gripping it tight. I can't bring myself to eat anything then. Depression is the brain's war on the rest of the body. I wouldn't wish it on anybody, and I would no more blame DFW for killing himself than I would have blamed him for dying of cancer.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:32 PM on May 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


"It didn't for DFW.

All I can think about is his poor wife. What an affront, an assault. On her.
"

Well, since you mentioned it, his wife's name is Karen Green, and this week she published a book about the aftermath of his suicide.
posted by spanishbombs at 12:53 PM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was trying to figure out why I hated this so much, and I realized that, in addition to the treacly music and annoying actors, several of my favorite parts of the speech have been cut:

1. Because I always recognize myself here and cringe: Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

2. Especially the line about worshipping intellect: You get to decide what to worship. Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

3. And this is just a beautiful sentence: The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
posted by naoko at 10:30 PM on May 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


[responding here to loud applause]
Hearing the audio all I could think was the laughter was just so massively, massively inappropriate. I've always had a tinge of suspicion that DFW was partly a self-hating joke played on his audience, or maybe I'm projecting.
If you not getting it, you're likely the one asking "What the hell is water?".
Either you just won metafilter or really?
posted by fullerine at 6:53 AM on May 9, 2013


– it's less fun and more wank-y than the things I like to consume –

Weird. I always thought that "Infinite Jest" riffs on a lot of Stock Entertainment Devices, in a way that's unabashedly, straight-up fun, and, I guess, designed to be fun. The slapstick bits (Poor Tony Krause getting chased, the Eschaton thing, the cyanotic Ovaltine) are little crack rocks of pure lulz. There's some satire that is so over-the-top that one suspects that it's real purpose is to satirize satire (the idea of the MIT language riots; the whole dystopic Johnny Gentle backstory, with mutant babies; Dolores Rusk's character, etc.). My feeling was that the AA bits had quite a bit less of this meta-satire, and that this is intentional. The fun poked at the sort of platitudinous, seemingly facile AA thing (e.g. the oration about having taken a solid shit) is much less savage than the send-ups of more "highbrow" stuff (e.g. Geoffrey Day's article in footnote 304). (Footnote 304 [IIRC; I mean the one about the Cult of the Next Train] is, by the way, a joyous afternoon cruise on the lulz boat, through manatee-infested -- manatees are hilarious -- waters.)

(My main complaint is that there's a lot of the type of bullshitting that widely-read, articulate folks sometimes do when they have trouble delineating the boundary of their random general knowledge, e.g. Pemulis would have been more believable if he hadn't fucked up his math in the footnote on the subject, and I thus suspect that someone with, say, opioid-addiction experience might be skeptical for similar reasons, since maybe DFW bullshat a bit in describing the ins and outs of opioid addiction to the detriment of relatability or whatever. I don't know how important that is.)

But yeah, I could talk about IJ all day because it was extremely fun to read, among other things. There are other paving-stone-shaped books which are not fun by virtue of their volume, but I am always surprised by the assertion that IJ is other than ridiculously, ostentatiously entertaining.

"Wank-y" is actually a weird way of describing a lack of fun, by the way. Both the literal and figurative uses of "wank" describe entertaining activities.
posted by kengraham at 7:26 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lateral Alice.

Lateral Alice. For the love of god.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:35 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I recently posted on a thread regarding comments made by Steven Soderbergh regarding the current state of Hollywood movie making. My comments were off-the-cuff, not irrelevant exactly, but mostly cranky and stupid. Another person later noted, "Is it just me or does this thread prove his point?" I don't know if this was directed at me, but I was rightly chastened. I had just added to the inanity and stupidity in the universe with my ridiculous, unimportant musings on the world. It's just this kind of thing that normally, under more aware circumstances, stops me from posting. Most of the time I just really don't have anything relevant to add. Not necessarily because I'm an idiot (I may be, who knows) but because there's no reason to add to the ridiculousness. First, do no harm, eh?

I will say, though, to quote the above, "Is it just me or does this thread prove his point?"
posted by kidkilowatt at 5:29 AM on May 10, 2013


The video made me want to track down the full transcript so I could get the whole thing into my brain and engage in some contemplative marginalia. But there are also a number of people in my life who will never read any Wallace and for them this video is perfect at distilling some very useful information.

I'm ok with not letting the original become the enemy of the facile adaptation. The content is still worth getting at even in the lesser package.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:47 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


there are also a number of people in my life who will never read any Wallace and for them this video is perfect at distilling some very useful information.

I agree. My Facebook contacts who are posting this video are not the usual DFW audience, so good thing, I think.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:52 PM on May 10, 2013


That said, it cuts a LOT of the original speech.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:53 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


And they cut the best dropquote, which is what I often use to frame the speech:
... 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.
I just quickly glanced back thru and did not see a link to the original speech. Here is it.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:59 PM on May 10, 2013


The Wallace estate has forced YouTube and Vimeo to take the video down. So now fewer people will be introduced to him, and their profits won't change one cent. Great work guys.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:03 AM on May 23, 2013


Maybe the Wallace estate (almost certainly controlled or advised by his wife, no?) thought the video, especially with all of its problems, was not an appropriate homage/legacy to DFW's words and intent, and just used the DMCA as a tool to deal with it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:28 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe the Wallace estate (almost certainly controlled or advised by his wife, no?) thought the video, especially with all of its problems, was not an appropriate homage/legacy to DFW's words and intent, and just used the DMCA as a tool to deal with it.

This is my feeling. I think this video hacked up the speech, is too glossy and slick and dilutes the real message, especially with the out of context laughing in the audio. It kind of irritates me that this is some people's introduction to this speech. It deserves better.
posted by sweetkid at 7:14 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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