Late night musings on DFW
I have said before that Infinite Jest was a book that helped me appreciate my American-ness. I mean this both in the sense that it made me understand those qualities of myself which were distinctly 'American,' and become grateful for them, even if only to the extent that they made me into something able to appreciate that book in an otherwise impossible way, and, indeed, into myself.
Thus I find myself defending it. This defense is purely hypothetical, having yet ever to occur in a conversation with an actual person I am recommending it to. I find it necessary to defend, which is a very uncomfortable position, on the grounds of the blatant racism, sexism, and speciesism contained within its pages. The best I can offer is that this book represents the need for those in the role of oppressor to step aside and deal with their own shit, as individuals and as groups, before stepping back into the larger society. It naturally gets pretty ugly.
This post comes on an evening which has found me reflecting on the weight of this world's legacy of racism in a much more personal way than I have before. This was merely a result of thought and accidental discovery, not a grand victimization. What is noteworthy is that this experience came to me not in terms of 'blackness,' 'brownness,' or any form of otherness, but in terms of whiteness. In some ways, I had not yet allowed myself to admit how rightfully painful it was to travel through the violent and immediate discrimination of the book. Essentially, I have conviction that such a stepping-aside is both necessary and productive.
It has, of course, been observed that those most in need of reading the book are those to whom it is almost by its very nature inaccessible. In this sense, it is probably more descriptive of a wider phenomenon; we essentially know what would be the necessary undertaking for each of us as individuals to transgress in order to arrive in the world we seek (a world which can only be defined as one in which everyone has undergone that process), but it is equally axiomatic that no one is interested in participating. In a shallow sense, this means that while there is certainly something for every person who approached the book with humility to gain, the audience it demands is that of the ultimate oppressors: white, male, human, cisgendered and heterosexual. This seems like the easy way out, however. One could easily possess none of these traits yet find themselves empathising profoundly with that unique type of pain which arises from sitting in the role of oppressor.
Through all of his craft and subtly, of course, Wallace could never put this pain in such stark relief as could the simple moments with which we are bombarded constantly. Such a moment occurred this evening: wandering through the University of Colorado's endless library, finding myself in the very large section of federal government records. Among the rows and rows of hyperbolically uninteresting water statistics and geophysical survey data, I drew a seemingly random book of the shelf, opened to a seemingly random paragraph, and was faced directly with an almost unbelievably concrete gem. I had to search several pages before and after it in order to convince myself that I was reading the book itself, and not some distant source which had itself become the subject of a large governmental study into dizzyingly overt racism in the large, governmental studies of previous generations. Once I was convinced, I felt betrayed. It felt a betrayal that my joyful curiosity should be so rudely spat back at me. That among the utter randomness of the moment should crystallize such a malicious symbol.
I felt an understandable desire to search for some explanation, first in the surrounding pages. When there was none, the next thought was to demand one from whatever governmental authority had vomited it forth, but, alas, I was foiled again: the artifact I held was ancient (1921). The next level I could turn to, society at large, was not so forthcoming. It strikes me that this is what I was missing before: I was looking for a moment elsewhere in the novel which would help me deal with the desperation I felt by being put face to face with the hate and bigotry of the moment, trying desperately to jump to another level of authority which could coddle me and explain away the malice, whereas it was the very fact of this desperation that was so necessary to experience.
The feeling that I had to defend the book was therefor the surest sign that it had indeed had the desired impact. In some ways, I sought to preempt the pain I had felt in others, especially when I saw the book through the eyes of people I knew who were much more versed in oppression than I. It now seems selfish that I should want to deprive them of that pain, but then, those people have surely tasted plenty of that pain in their own lives. This pain of existing within a crushing legacy of oppression of all forms. That is what the book can be: an introduction, for those who have otherwise been spared, to the pain of oppression.