Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.

Video Games as a Solution to the One-Sided Problem of Art

In October I wrote a post in defense of gaming in which the central argument is a claim that any person who takes experiencing art as an important human experience should consider certain types of games as a worthwhile use of time as well. Some games are basically interactive films, but some are much more interesting and original forms of interactive art. If you close yourself off from this world, then you close yourself off from deep artistic experiences that you can’t get elsewhere.

A few months ago I did two posts on David Foster Wallace, his philosophy of art, and how to get the most out of Infinite Jest.

One of DFW’s central concerns in art was the one-sided nature of art. The artist puts in hundreds of hours of work, and the viewer/reader/whatever passively experiences the work. He thought of the artist/viewer relationship as an honest relationship. If it is completely one-sided, then it is a defunct relationship and you won’t get much out of it for very long. To have a successful relationship, both sides have to be putting in reasonable amounts of work.

This is one way people justify postmodernist writing. You have a bunch of endnotes or footnotes or you pull the reader out of the reading experience in other ways by drawing attention to the fact that they are reading something. You write in stream of consciousness from points of view that change every couple of pages, so that the reader can’t immediately tell what is happening. Whatever the literary device, the idea is that the reader has to put in work.

The point is that the more work the reader puts in, the more they will get out of the experience. Just like in a relationship, the reader has to invest something if they want a meaningful experience. Of course, the relationship becomes one-sided on the other side if the author just uses a random word generator and plops nonsense on the page for the reader to spend months trying to decipher. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship where neither side carries too much of the burden.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this problem is a real problem, and what writers, filmmakers, artists, etc have come up with so far merely mitigates the problem. There hasn’t been a really good way to get the viewer to truly participate in and invest in the work of art … until the fairly recent paradigm shift in thinking about games as art.

I’m definitely not the first to propose this, so I won’t spend a lot of time making this into a long post. Now that I’ve blogged around this topic a few times without actually addressing it I thought I would just point out that games are one obvious solution to the problem. They provide an interactive experience where the “player” has to fully invest in the work.

In fact, if artists are scared of the idea that their art will be “played” and hence will not qualify as “serious” (two notions that are extraordinarily hard to define or separate), then they should check out some recent games like To the Moon. The game play is extremely minimal. The player experiences a moving story by progressing through the game. The game play consists of moving around to collect some items and at the end of certain segments of collecting you “solve a puzzle” (sometimes only 2 or 3 clicks of the mouse). Still, this level of interaction is vital to fully immersing you in the story as if you were really the main character. This interaction is impossible with film or literature.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

This is mostly meant to be a direct continuation of the last post, but there is so much to say about the importance of this short story for understanding Infinite Jest that I needed a full post to do it. I will try to stick to this thesis, but I get so excited about unraveling all the complexities and parallels in this story that I may wander off at times. This story may, in fact, be more complicated and difficult to read than Infinite Jest, so be warned.

Let’s start with the basics. The main character is a writer that wants to write a new type of fiction. He claims that it will use the old metafictional devices, but also move past it and stab the reader in the heart. We already saw this idea in the last post, but this story is a way for DFW to tell us how he intends to do it, i.e. it serves as a reader’s guide to Infinite Jest. That’s why this story is so important for prep material (if you choose to do such a thing).

What is going on takes a moment to digest. Here goes. The work is a criticism of the shortcomings of metafiction. But it is a metafictional story using those very devices to do the criticism. The main critique is of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” To do this, Barth is literally a character in the story as Professor Ambrose who wrote the aforementioned story (LitF from now on, because that is getting annoying to type), but this time it is an autobiographical nonfiction work instead of Barth’s fiction (recall that the main character of LitF is Ambrose). Summary: Prof Ambrose wrote LitF in DFW’s story and is leading a writing workshop.

Ambrose (despite being a “real” character already) from LitF is fictionalized as Mark, the main character in “Westward …” through a retelling of LitF. LitF is a story about Ambrose travelling to Ocean City and getting lost in a funhouse at the amusement park. DFW uses wordplay in the retelling and has Mark travelling to a McDonald’s commercial actors reunion where there will (of course!) be a Ronald McDonald “funhouse.”

I said I wouldn’t do this, so I’m going to cut myself off there. I trust that if you’ve read LitF, and you take some time to meditate on the above two paragraphs until it stops being so confusing, then you can continue to unravel this ridiculously convoluted metaphor and story within a story that is a retelling of that story (which is already in the story …). Stop. I must stop. But it is just so much fun to unravel (for example, the funhouse in LitF is being franchised which is an insult that post-modernism has become commercial).

So what is DFW trying to tell us? Well, Barth uses his story to tell us how he sees metafiction. His metaphor is the funhouse of mirrors. In LitF he writes, “In a funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand your head gets in the way.” This is the exact type of critical theory conundrum that DFW faces. He wants to affect the reader. But words and texts and people’s thoughts (i.e. “heads”) are always in the way. You can’t ever truly get to the person.

DFW’s metaphor is a bow and arrow, because Mark, the main character, is a pro archer. He has a beautiful description in “Westward …” of how an archer must take into account that the arrow doesn’t fly true. So to hit the bullseye, the archer actually makes adjustments ahead of time, aims off-center, and ends up hitting the center.

He’s saying that Barth can’t hit the reader, because he’s aiming at the wrong place: the head. Writers that strike at the reader’s heart also fall short, because they aim at it too directly. This new type of fiction will take this into account and aim in between. The result will be a piercing of the reader’s heart in a new and more serious way.

Mark’s girlfriend is post-modernist writer in Ambrose’s workshop. Without going too far into it, the thing to pay attention to with her is that she is the epitome of the type of metafiction that DFW wants to do away with. Remember, DFW wants to keep some metafiction and throw out other parts to invent a new type of fiction. This character is a guide to the parts he wants thrown out.

This is a long story, and so I can’t help you through every detail. Another general principle to keep in mind while interpreting this is that the arrow is meant to be a stand-in for the pen. So when the arrow “kills” things/people, you should figure out what those things/people are representing. For example, Mark writes a story about a person named Dave (oh no, Mark who is Ambrose is a stand-in for DFW writes a work of “new fiction” with Dave as its main character …).

Dave has a lover named L– (presumably meant to be “literature”). But L– commits suicide (as the post-modernists brought the death of literature) with the arrow. Dave is innocent, but feels guilty and hence admits that (after translation out of the metaphor) his writing helped bring about the death of literature. Of course, Mark makes an appearance in this story that he wrote causing yet another story within the story with a character as the person that wrote the story, but also a stand-in for someone else (which sets up a weird endless loop that DFW is Mark, Mark is Dave, and Dave is DFW …). I seem to be losing my way again, so I’ll end this line of thought.

Hopefully you have a bit of a feel for what “Westward …” is doing. I’ll end this post by going through my thoroughly well-worn copy of the story and pulling the quotes that I think are the most important to focus on for understanding how and why DFW wrote Infinite Jest.

“…they want to build a Funhouse for lovers out of a story that does not love. J.D. himself had said the story doesn’t love, no? Yes. However, Mark postulates that Steelritter is only half-right. The story does not love, but this is precisely because it is not cruel…. The way to make a story a Funhouse is to put the story itself in one. For a lover. Make the reader a lover, who wants to be inside.”

“Please don’t tell anybody, but Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you’re going to die…. The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise, a harmless floppy-shoed costume, because metafiction is safe to read, familiar as syndication; and no victim is as delicious as the one who smiles in relief at your familiar approach.”

Barth’s LitF famously opens with, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”

DFW turns it around and beautifully sums up what he is doing with his closing lines:

“For whom?
You are loved.”

Minor Preparation to Get the Most out of Infinite Jest

I’ve been reading the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max, and it reminded me that for years I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on some of the preparation you can do to have a much better experience reading Infinite Jest.

First, I’m not doing this out of some condescending “let the self-declared expert tell you how you must read this” type of thing. I actually get asked this question semi-frequently, and I want something I can direct people to. My first answer is usually, “Just do it.” You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the novel without delving into the philosophy of the meta-fictional devices.

On the other hand, if you are going to spend a few months of your life reading a 1000 page beast of a novel, then you should be willing to do some minor preparation. I estimate a dedicated person could easily do these reading assignments in less than a week. I picked these for both brevity and clarity after years of reading everything he’s ever written and watching/reading tons of interviews with him, and reading as many things as I can that he points out as influences.

This will take two posts. One on everything and why I chose it. The other on understanding his story Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. If you are really pressed for time, then my advice is to finish reading this post. Read that story. Then read my soon to come explanation of why that story is the most important thing he ever wrote in trying to decipher why he writes in the way he writes. That story is a Rosetta stone to understanding his later works.

Here’s my reading list:
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth (a short story)
“The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme (a short story)
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (a very short novella)
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” by David Foster Wallace (a short story/novella)

That may look like a lot, but each story can probably be read in one sitting, although I recommend going slowly through that last one. Let’s take them one at a time.

“The Balloon” is probably the least important of the list. This is a short story that DFW talked about in several interviews. It was a story that basically changed his life. He wasn’t a literature or creative writing major in college, but this story made him see writing in a different light. It made him want to be a writer.

Here’s how I understand this. All the fiction that DFW wrote was deeply philosophical. He majored in philosophy and as a grad student took lots of critical theory. He was obsessed with the theory behind the relationship between author, text, and reader. This wasn’t abstract for him. Because he wanted to develop a relationship with his readers through what he wrote, he needed to understand what the nature of that relationship was.

What Barthelme’s story does, which was so novel at the time, is put the theoretical considerations right in the story plainly for all to see. This is essentially a defining characteristic of the post-modernists of the time. The story as a whole has some macro-structure (“plot” if you want to use that term), but the individual sentences have a micro-structure which is informing you as you go how to interpret the macro-structure.

The story is very enigmatic. Just as you are thinking, “What in the world is going on?” you encounter characters who say things like, “We have learned not to insist on meanings.” This isn’t the type of place where DFW ended in his writing, but it makes a lot of sense why he started here. The story is difficult, but the reader who is willing to put in the effort to think about the individual sentences is rewarded by being helped by the author, i.e. a back-and-forth rewarding relationship is built. Both sides have to put in effort, which is a key idea that will keep coming up.

As linked above, I’ve written about “Lost in the Funhouse” before. You can read that for details. Some might go so far as to call it “the canonical” example of post-modernism. The main importance on this list is that “Westward …” is simultaneously a parody of it, a rewriting of it, and a tool to get some messages across. I dare say it is impossible to to read “Westward …” and have any idea what is going on without having read “Lost in the Funhouse” first. We’ll discuss it a bit more next time.

Last is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. This book takes place over something like 10 seconds. The plot (and full main text!) of the novella is that a man walks into a mezzanine and takes an escalator up to the next floor. That’s it. What makes this so compelling is that there are about 130 pages of footnotes telling you what the guy is thinking through this whole process.

The book is a page turner. I’m not joking. It gives you a glimpse into the mind of another human in such a raw and unfiltered way. It, of course, is really funny at times, but the fact that it is funny is because you know your thoughts do the same exact types of things. You chain together all sorts of seemingly unrelated stupid things.

The reason for putting this on here is two-fold. First, DFW constantly talked about the importance of literature being that it makes you for a moment feel less alone. Here’s the quote, “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can alow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” This book comes as close as any that I can think of to achieving the idea of truly identifying with a character.

The second reason I chose this book is actually the key one. The way the book does it is not by any of the conventional means. It achieves this truly magnificent feat purely through the use of footnotes. DFW loved this book. Now ask yourself what is the most daunting part of Infinite Jest? Most people say it is the extensive use of endnotes.

We’ll get more to the endnotes next time, but I think The Mezzanine holds the key to one of the reasons DFW used them. They aren’t purely distraction. They aren’t meta-fictional wankery. They aren’t highfalutin philosophical nonsense. DFW read a book that achieved what he considered the goal of literature, and it was done using this device. If you can understand the use in The Mezzanine, then you will be well on your way to understanding the use of the endnotes in Infinite Jest.

We’re only halfway there, but if you’ve made it this far and you want some extra credit, then I also recommend finding a copy of Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace. It is a good resource if you want to delve deeper into the philosophy and critical theory of what he was trying to do. Also, DFW is trying to surpass his post-modern idols, so it helps to be familiar with post-modernism in general. If you aren’t, then The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a pretty short but classic book in that style as well.

What Day is It?

Wow. Has it really been seven days since I last posted? I studied and did finals for the first half of the week. Then I went into recovery mode for the rest of the week, and now my parents are visiting me. Anyway. My most recent project is that I’m giving a lecture on David Foster Wallace on Tuesday. I don’t feel like posting the details, since I’ve basically talked about most of it in previous posts.

Here is my tentative outline for the lecture.

Title: DFW: A New Era of Fiction
I. The Literary Landscape
–Talk about Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion”

II. Technical Virtuosity
a) Use of endnotes/footnotes:
–Disrupts linearity and how consciousness works
–Novel is an external construct
–Relationship with author = work
b) Philosophical illumination
–Open vs closed systems and use of abbreviations
–Language, Wittgenstein, and Derrida
–Lacan: “In the unconscious is the whole structure of language.”
c) Metaphos, etc.
–“Forever Overhead”
–Fiction within fiction and “Westward”
–Referencing and mocking Barth
–“Interrogating readers” –see “Octet”

III. Eradicating Loneliness
—haven’t figured this part out yet.

I really like how cryptic and hard to follow this post is. There is just no way most people could have a clue what this talk is actually going to be like. Oh well.

Lost in the Funhouse

I’m in the position where I’m too tired to start thinking about a new algebra problem, but it is too early to legitimately call it a night, so I’ll just shift gears and do a new post. It has been one of those days where about everything that can go wrong does. So how about thinking about a little humor.

A very important work of literature in the “post-modern canon” is John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. I was first led to it by the last story in DFW’s collection Girl With Curious Hair. He does a sort of parody/hommage to it. Anyone that has taken a 20th century American lit course has probably had to read something by Barth, and it was most likely the title story in this collection.

Barth is known for his excessive meta-fictional devices and influence on writers mentioned previously like Pynchon, Wallace, and probably any serious post-modernist. Despite the term “excessive meta-fictional devices,” I find him quite easy and fun to read. The devices serve a purpose and are usually humorous. Unlike some post-modernists that came after him, Barth is very much concerned with art expressing a human experience (mostly love). Although DFW ultimately rejected Barth, he very much agrees on this point…but we’ll get to that later.

I think I’ll mostly do this as an analysis of the title story. Lost in the Funhouse is a short story “about” a boy’s (Ambrose) trip to Ocean City where he enters a funhouse, and yes gets lost. He enters with a girl Magda, but she continues on with his brother while he is left alone. But really it is not about this at all. The funhouse serves as a metaphor for Ambrose’s first sexual experience. In my reading, I actually don’t believe the trip happens at all, and the whole entire trip is a metaphor.

In the typical Barth fashion, the funhouse is a multi-layered metaphor. A funhouse has mirrors all around. This means that Ambrose must see himself reflected in all shapes and sizes. This represents his fractured subconscious about the experience. His own head is also in the way of ever directly seeing the image in the mirror behind him. This aspect of the metaphor is actually extensively rejected by Wallace. Wallace interprets that aspect as Barth’s way of saying that literature can never directly make it to the reader. It always will hit the reader’s head first and be obscured and never directly viewed. “…that the necessity for an observer makes perfect observation impossible, …” Wallace changes the metaphor and says it is like a bow and arrow. Your arm will always be in the way of shooting directly, but the writer can take this into account and directly hit the reader.

This is all boring, though. Let’s get to the truly interesting aspects of the story. Barth as a narrator sometimes narrates, sometimes talks directly to the reader, and sometimes comments on the narration. It is these comments that are the humorous meta-fictional devices. The story becomes self-aware. It understands and points out the devices it is using. Here is one of my favorite devices:

En route to Ocean City he sat in the back seat of the family car with his brother Peter, age fifteen, and Magda G____, age fourteen, a pretty girl and exquisite young lady, who lived not far from them on B_____ Street in the town of D____, Maryland. Initials, blanks, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth-century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means.

The story is continually interrupted to go off on tangents like this. He wants to point out, explain, and make fun of the traditional devices he is using. In doing this he is actually creating new and original devices. He doesn’t want the reader to become absorbed in the story and think that it is real for the duration. He wants the reader to be painfully aware that they are reading a story.

Another aspect of the verbal trickery of the story is to somehow assert the primacy of language to experience. All experience must be filtered through language. Thus, instead of ever explicitly describing Ambrose’s experience, we only live on the verbal thoughts flowing through his head throughout the experience. In fact, in searching for a certain quote just now, I came across another that reinforces my reading that the entire story is a metaphor.

With incredible nerve and to everyone’s surprise he invited Magda, quietly and politely, to go through the funhouse with him. ‘I warn you, I’ve never been through it before,’ he added, laughing easily, ‘but I reckon we can manage somehow. The important thing to remember, after all, is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement. If people really got lost or injured or too badly frightened in it, the owner’d go out of business.

Or even the famous opening lines, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.” Don’t read that as “funhouse.” Ambrose is really talking about the fact that it is his first sexual experience. He is trying to convince Magda that it can’t be too scary painful, since people continue to have sex. The funhouse is for lovers? It is scary and confusing for Ambrose? Come on, of course this is what it is talking about.

Alright. Let’s get back from that tangent to Ambrose’s head. He starts telling all of these scenarios of how his being lost gets played out. In one he actually dies. “This can’t go on much longer; it can go on forever. He died telling stories to himself in the dark; years later, when that vast unsuspected area of the funhouse came to light, the first expedition found his skeleton in one of its labyrinthine corridors and mistook it for part of the entertainment. He died of starvation telling himself stories in the dark;…” This all emphasizes the main effect Barth is striving for. All human experience is mediated by language. Language is so primary and important that a mind preoccupied by other stories could completely miss the experience itself.

It seems I’ve gone on longer than I should have, but I feel like I haven’t done the story the slightest bit of justice. It is so great and packed full of interesting things. And this is just one of many stories in the book. I highly recommend this to anyone who aspires to understand modern literature.

Synecdoche, NY

I never thought the day would come where The Fountain would have a rival for greatest work of art produced in my lifetime. Charlie Kaufman has done it with Synecdoche, New York. I don’t want to say too much except, “Go see it now!”

In an attempt to not give anything away, but to talk about why it rivals Darren Aronsofsky’s brilliant work, it is basically about the same thing. The only thing. Fear of death. But of course, it wouldn’t be great if that was it. It also pulls in all that I love about modern art. It really isn’t as confusing as most would make it out to be either. The Fountain is probably the harder of the two to follow. But Kaufman’s film is more complex. More subtle.

So there is the post-modern paradigm. The greats of Pynchon or DeLillo. They try create these sprawling novels that keep splitting off in different directions: following different characters. They try to incorporate the ideas from math and science that say formal systems are incomplete or that uncertainty always exists. They try to self-reference themselves without contradiction.

Then people like DFW (David Foster Wallace for the non-initiated) come along and use the post-modern paradigm to reject it. You can’t self-reference without paradox. A self-reference creates an infinite recursion, but the novel itself is finite, so it doesn’t work. The very attempt at showing the incompleteness of the system creates a meta-system more powerful than the one in which it is trying to live. It is a rejection of post-modernism.

Kaufman says, “No! DFW, you should know better. You have some mathematical training. I’ll show you a return to classic post-modernism without contradiction. You can have an infinite recursion take up finite space. It just has to converge somewhere.” This is the brilliance of it. Let’s combine the only theme in art worth exploring (fear of death (note that I have a fairly good argument based on The Fountain that all things stem from this)), with a return to the classic post-modern paradigm. Where does the infinite self-reference converge to? Death of course! It was so obvious all along.

Don’t worry. I’ve given nothing away. A few more words are necessary, though. This movie is without a doubt the most demanding I’ve ever seen. Hopefully you have a degree in literature to catch all the references (Hedda Gabler, Death of a Salesman, White Noise, post-modern philosophy, etc). The details are so intensely packed in as well. I’m pretty sure you could just randomly flip to any 5 second period of the movie and I could point out some important detail.

Lastly, what does synecdoche mean? [From wikipedia] Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which:

  • a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
  • a term denoting a thing (a “whole”) is used to refer to part of it, or
  • a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
  • a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
  • a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.

The movie takes place in Schenectady, NY. What an amazing play on words. DFW would be proud.

How great! Go now!

Artistic Influences

I personally subscribe to the idea that art is meaningless without its context. The question I’ve recently been asking is: How important are specific influences to the context? I’ve been on a kick of reading books and listening to music that my favorite artists have said have been major influences. This is an attempt to better understand where they are coming from.

A weird thing has happened, though. I’ve started to change my mind about how important this is. It seems as if the non-major influences are more important. The stuff that has randomly seeped in from all over the place is sort of what makes it original.

Some examples. In The Broom of the System, not only does one of the main characters carry a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations around, but the title also refers to an important aphorism in that work. Clearly you will have a hard time reading this without at least some peripheral knowledge of that work. This is a case where reading the influence is very important.

Panic at the Disco’s new album is supposedly a reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To me this reference is almost not worth noting. The band itself does note this influence, but truly the similarities are that the songs are upbeat and there is a brass section. If every band that used a brass section with their upbeat songs had to note the Beatles as an influence, then we would be missing the point of influences. The interesting parts are where they differ from this traditional pop sound. There are definitely folk and other non-pop influences like skipping beats on the lead in to the chorus. This is a case where major influences can safely be ignored.

Then there are in between cases where it is probably good to know what the tradition that the work is coming from is about, but the specifics aren’t necessary (like the Beat generation writers).

What do you guys think? How important are specific influences to interpreting a work of art?