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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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“It’s What We Have in Common, This Aloneness”: Solitude, Communality, and the Self in the Writing of David Foster Wallace (Clare Hayes-Brady)

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Clare Hayes-Brady

“It’s What We Have in Common, This Aloneness”: Solitude, Communality, and the Self in the Writing of David Foster Wallace

Abstract: This paper positions Wallace’s persistent interest in connection and solitude at the heart of his project for contemporary literature. By looking at the solitude of Wallace’s characters, instead of their struggle for connection, it explores Wallace’s ideas about moral and mental wholeness and the ethics of disconnection.

1. “It’s What We Have in Common”

Talking about the alienation of the teenaged students at Enfield Tennis Academy, the hero of David Foster Wallace’s massive, era-defining Infinite Jest (1996), Hal notes “it’s what we have in common, this aloneness” (112). Taking that as a starting point to explore the many forms of solitude Wallace explored in his work, this essay examines his abiding interest in disconnection, alienation, and solitude, arguing that for him, solitude in the modern world is necessarily a common condition, and that the meaningful witnessing of one’s isolation offers a means to transcend it. In offering this exploration, the essay begins by outlining Wallace’s famous concern with solipsism and how it is made manifest at every stage of his career in a range of ways. Distinguishing solipsism from simple solitude, I highlight the significance of topographical symbols of solitude – deserts, hermit figures, liminal spaces, and so on – that punctuate Wallace’s writing and discuss the ways in which Wallace works to incorporate such symbols into landscapes that are largely urban or suburban, and always overcrowded. Finally, I argue that Wallace constructs a set of conditions under which isolation – either physical or emotional – is necessary for self-awareness, and that this solitude must, ironically, be witnessed. I examine the concept of unconscious communities, or arrangements of communality, as I suggest it may be useful to call them, as they operate in Wallace’s fiction, especially in Infinite Jest, looking at the embedded I/we dynamic of Alcoholics Anonymous, the drive towards isolation and solipsism in drug addicts, and the constant desire for communication and connection that drive all of Wallace’s characters, concluding that the connection that his characters seek is necessarily associated with and emergent from a sense of the crucial importance of solitude. ← 231 | 232 →

2. “No Conclusion Could Be More Horrible”: Wallace and Solipsism

Easily the most-canvassed of all the concerns of his career is Wallace’s interest in the notion of solipsism, which he regarded as the worst of all possible worlds. Solipsism, the illusion of being the only mind in the universe, the unconscious generative impulse of everything you encounter or imagine, is depicted time and again as the loneliest of conditions. The antithesis of meaningful communication for Wallace is not miscommunication or even silence, but the short circuit of solipsistic communication, the condition of being permanently and irrevocably alone in “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” (This Is Water 117). Solipsism, closely associated with but distinct from narcissism, is the ultimate horror for Wallace and his characters, bringing with it the impossibility of meaningful connection or communication in a period of what he once referred to as “Total Noise” (“Deciderization 2007” 301).

One of the main ways in which Wallace investigated solipsism and narcissism was through the recurrent imagery of infancy, which he used to literalize the complex development of subjectivity. Babies and images of infancy are everywhere in Wallace’s work, from the feral infant of Infinite Jest to the wailing child of “Incarnations of Burned Children” (2004). Stonecipheco, the huge company at the center of The Broom of the System (1987), makes its money – and creates havoc – through baby food. Infinite Jest’s Hal refers to himself on one occasion as “an infantophile” (16). At a broader cultural level, infantilizing images such as the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Inner Infant Recovery Meeting (795–808) permeate the novelistic consciousness of Infinite Jest. Infancy in Wallace’s work is perverse and unhomely, not the blissful, comfort-filled haven that narcissistic theory would suggest it to be. Specifically, it highlights the fear and horror of being unable to communicate one’s needs coherently, and have those needs met. Mary Holland points to Wallace’s early essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1996) as one of the founding texts of “the peculiarly postmodern angst of late twentieth century American culture” (63), arguing that the very purpose and stated aim of the cruise, namely “its obsessive desire to relieve the passenger of all decisions and duties,” promises to reduce us to “the bliss of the infant’s narcissistic existence” (63–64).1 This promise, made on the cruise ship as a promise of pleasure and seduction, is rendered horrifying in Wallace’s deconstruction of it, and the infantilizing nature of the contemporary need for comfort recurs again and again through his writing. While the “infantilizing removal of responsibility for the self” (Holland 64) is evocative of Infinite Jest’s “Entertainment” (90), and the fear of society choosing death by pleasure, the same motif of infantilism ties in to the suspension of both ability and desire to communicate. In this sense, the infant ← 232 | 233 → represents precisely the kind of isolation Wallace fears; not solitary, but rather trapped, howling, and incoherent, among a crowd, an almost urban gothic form of conspicuous invisibility more readily associated with writers like Edgar Allan Poe.

3. “We Are Ourselves Other”: Alterity and the Narrative Self

While the enforced isolation of the infant consciousness presents one kind of horror – the horror of the solipsistic subject – it is important to realize that Wallace’s imagined relief from this state also relied heavily on the separateness of the subject. With regard to the loneliness of the narcissistic or solipsistic self, Thomas Docherty explores a paradox that arises from Paul Ricoeur’s theory of dual identity in his Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation (1996), wherein to identify in the other a means by which to establish a coherent self – as Ricoeur’s theory would suggest is necessary – means to posit the other as existing only to satisfy that need: “it is as if they exist only for the present moment in which the subject identifies itself” (7). In other words, identifying the other as necessary to the self leads, paradoxically, to a form of solipsism: the belief that the other is in fact a projection of the self. Docherty evades the necessary conclusion of solipsism by positing the idea of alterity to supplant that of otherness. Alterity, by contrast with simple otherness, implies the inaccessible self that inheres within another, thereby protecting some element of the other from exploitation in reference to the self. Ricoeur’s theory of dual identity enriches the Wittgensteinian identity games that Wallace enacts in The Broom of the System. The definition of self by other is repeatedly addressed at a number of stages in the text, explicitly and comically by the Spaniards in their family drama, and at a more complex level during the Amherst conversation with LaVache. Lenore, the novel’s protagonist, according to her brother LaVache, has “decided that [she is] not real” (248), or that she is “really real only insofar as [she is] told” (249), charges which are borne out by any number of other passages in the text, most obviously Lenore’s “rap sessions” (135) with Dr. Jay, and indeed by Wallace’s own admission in the interview with McCaffery (142). On the basis of the two drawings, LaVache proposes that Lenore view the whole mysterious situation as part of a sinister game being played by Lenore Sr. Its outcome, he posits, is that Lenore Jr., by trying to consider her own existence, renders herself irrevocably other, and so, if we take the original premise – that “all Lenore is is her act of thought” (247) – to be the case, Lenore is nonsense, and as such cannot possibly exist. In a sense, he is treating Lenore’s search, and indeed life, as one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s antinomies; by applying logic to a set of circumstances he arrives at a patently impossible conclusion: that Lenore is both self and other, both Lenore and not-Lenore, which maps directly on to Wittgenstein’s qualification for nonsense ← 233 | 234 → (a proposition being both p and not-p). As we have said, this being the case leads directly to her non-existence, which is made ridiculous by the manifest fact of her (fictional) existence, in an absurdist reironizing of existential instability. In view of the above, the antinomies in this scene function as signposts to the unraveling of logical meaning, rather than as clues to the disappearance of the senescent philosopher Lenore Senior.

The self/other element of the paradox in LaVache’s reasoning evolves the question to include a dynamic interdependence of isolation and connection that make up a central element of Wallace’s philosophy of communication, tying it to the philosophy of Ricoeur. LaVache’s argument that “we are ourselves Other” (248) is here pointing out the futility and ultimate self-destructiveness of relying too much on interpretation, as we have said, and if we apply Ricoeur’s theory of identity to Lenore’s quandary of confused selfhood, she emerges as lacking ‘ipseity’ in her character. In other words, her reliance on the stories of others is too strong, and she has not yet created a story for herself. Her confusion, in this reading, is perfectly natural: by means of the idem-identity we can use the stories and speech-acts of others to relate to our own experiences and further solidify our ipse-identity. However, the stories of others cannot be used to create an ipse-identity, and as such, over-reliance on external narratives renders a character one-sided and dysfunctional. Lenore, then, is in danger of over-identification, which Wallace repeatedly involved in his short fiction, and her progress through the narrative charts her movement beyond that essentially linguistic entrapment in solipsistic recursion.

In Oneself as Another (Soi-même Comme un Autre, 1990), Ricoeur views the inevitable tension between idem and ipse as partially resolved by the use of narrative. The idem is the part of our identity that is given – cultural history, family, and so on – and so it appropriates and is mediated by other people’s stories. The ipse, on the other hand, is unique to the individual, spontaneous, creative, and self-creating. It writes its own story and turns to the narratives of others for reference. We use narrative to create an ordered “human time” out of the inchoate, uncontrollable cosmic time, as well as to impose some commonality on “felt time” (i.e. the personal experience of the passage of time, which is by no means linear)2 since “human lives become more intelligible when they are interpreted in the light of the stories that people tell about them” (188). Ricoeur goes on to argue that “self-knowledge is an interpretation; self-interpretation, in its turn, finds in narrative … a privileged mediation” (188). What necessitates narrative identity, in his philosophy, is the inevitable discord between the discontinuity of the changing person over time and the permanent selfhood that means the child and the man are the same person in some way. This was a theory introduced in Immanuel Kant’s ← 234 | 235 → Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), but because it was not specific to identity, the inevitable tension of the permanent and the mutable self was not really addressed. For Ricoeur, this tension, and the tension of idem and ipse, necessitate the mediating influence of narrative, public and private.

Ricoeur is less forthcoming on the temporal experience of the ipse. In The Course of Recognition (Parcours de la reconnaisance, 2004), he refers to our ongoing struggle for mutual recognition, which is “a struggle against misrecognition of others at the same time that it is a struggle for the recognition of oneself by others” (258), in language that strikingly evokes some of the central ideas of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy. While this hints at an internal consciousness of the necessity of narrative to “the dialectic of order and disorder,” demonstrating an awareness of the way our identities engender “second-order stories, which are themselves intersections between stories” (Kearney 6), it remains focused on the public, interpersonal nature of these intersecting narratives. Importantly, however, another, altogether more private form of story-telling exists and is at least as important, that of the lonely person’s imaginative self-narrative. The ‘if … then’ paradigm associated with linear temporal experience is crucial to human behavior, which is, at survival level, based on a fairly rational analysis of necessity, cause, and consequence. Because anything above this survival level thought process involves reflection, memory, and an abstract awareness of the disjunction between inner and outer time, a discord arises. Narratives allow us to cobble together the inchoate episodes of our lives and fix them into a temporal span, lending them a basic, if illusory harmony. Wallace challenges this linear temporal inclination in the short story “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion (2004), in which the deceased narrator explains: “Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level” (151). In a Ricoeurian paradigm, then, narratives are devised to impose a comprehensible order on otherwise troublingly scattershot lives. Story becomes the anchor of identity, and understanding of ourselves and those around us as characters stems from this basis. More importantly, by telling stories, we anchor ourselves in groups of others, and are witnessed by them. It is not sufficient to say that we tell each other stories in order to present ourselves. We tell ourselves stories in order to locate or delineate ourselves, without which process the idem gets into trouble because we cannot differentiate ourselves from others. In this way the two theories mentioned earlier, the conflicted self and the mediating function of narrative, work to strengthen and enrich one another by way of entry into an involuntary linguistic network.

Building on this theoretical construct, at which Wallace arrived very early in his career, he developed a working concept of connection that revolved around love ← 235 | 236 → and separateness. In the early short story “Lyndon” from the early collection Girl With Curious Hair (1989), distance is described as a measure of love: love entails distance because love is always only of the other. In this vein, Mrs. Johnson says that she and her husband “do not love each other anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a ‘love’ to span any distance” (115). Paradoxically, then, we cannot love without the isolation that it is fiction’s job to rupture, because love – or connection – can only be between and never within. This concept was comically literalized in The Broom of the System by Norman Bombardini, and Wallace referred to it in relation to his admiration of Wittgenstein: what made Wittgenstein “a real artist [was] that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism” (McCaffery 143). That is to say, in the absence of the possibility of connection, isolation offers the ultimate horror. The absence of an other – solipsism – entails the loss of the self. In other words, the coherence of the self as a teleological imperative is in fact completely self-defeating, and can only be disrupted by love of or engagement with an other. The separateness of the author and the reader, and of the characters seeking connection, is necessary and absolute. It is in witnessing the distinct selfhood of another – in acknowledging, as Docherty offers, the alterity of the other, the unreachably foreign locus of the not-I self – that we might break the cycle of isolation and alienation amid crowds that characterize Wallace’s vision of the contemporary human condition.

4. Hermits, Hauntings, and the Blasted Heath

Dealing as it does with the alienation of the contemporary self in a largely urban, always populous context, it is interesting to note the numerous classic symbols of isolation that permeate Wallace’s writing. The first novel, The Broom of the System, includes a kind of corporate non-space in which contemplation of the self is encouraged, a man-made black-sand desert called the Great Ohio Desert, or G.O.D. The novel also features a hermit figure in Lenore’s brother John (an obvious reference to John the Baptist), who wanders the desert, claims to eat locusts, and maintains an ascetic/frightening thinness throughout the text. Lenore’s great-grandmother, also named Lenore, disappears into a network of tunnels under the city, wholly isolated from the novel and all its characters. Later, in Infinite Jest, the United States and Canada have amalgamated to form the Organization of North American Nations, a name most significant for the acronym O.N.A.N., with its implications of excessive self-pleasuring, wasted potential, and isolation; the society is characterized not by overt destruction, but rather by excess. However, it is in this very excess that Wallace demonstrates the greatest destructiveness, most clearly figured in the substance abuse that permeates the novel. The wasted fecundity ← 236 | 237 → implicit in the name O.N.A.N. is also mirrored in the large portions of the north-eastern United States and southern Canada that form an immense and dangerously fertile landfill, and the isolation that comes with the solitary nature of masturbation is reflected throughout the novel, but most particularly by reference to the preference of one of the novel’s many addicts, Erdedy, for masturbation (solitude) over sex (companionship) when he is taking drugs (21). The novel’s action is centered around a number of interconnected themes, including film (which we typically watch collectively, but experience in “primordial” darkness and seeming solitude, as Laura Mulvey has argued, 833), drug use, and tennis. Specifically, the Enfield Tennis Academy is a training ground for young athletes who live and work together, but whose goal is the decisively solitary pursuit of competitive tennis. Lyle, the sweat guru of the Enfield Tennis Academy, functions as a hermit or wise man figure, but lives in suburban Boston, in a boarding school – surely the least isolated place imaginable. In this sense, Wallace invokes the kind of fashionable hermit-in-the-garden figures of earlier American and European imaginations; Lyle is a hermit, yes, but he and his wisdom are also accessible, and so not truly solitary. Once again, in Infinite Jest, we encounter a desert space outside of Phoenix, explicitly invoking Wittgenstein’s antinomies, and the space in which the majority of the novel’s serious philosophy is expounded. The flatlands of Illinois are critical to the early story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1989) and throughout The Pale King (2011), particularly in its evocative, still opening passage, and the motif of movement unites these and numerous other works in Wallace’s oeuvre.

Liminal spaces, then, are fundamental to Wallace’s creation of the tension between the alienated individual and the crowded, noisy reality of contemporary living. As well as these landscapes, images of infancy, and the comic specter of a man of infinite size, Wallace used drugs specifically and addiction in general as a way of dramatizing cataclysmic alienation and the drive to connect. Infinite Jest, in particular, has at its center the alienated self. Much of the novel’s action evolves around the use of and recovery from drugs. The incapacity to communicate is exacerbated and highlighted by a shared drive towards isolation in the novel’s drug users. Erdedy is waiting for “the woman who said she’d come” (17), but later it becomes clear that one of the common features of his drug binges is solitude (his habitual selection of masturbation over sexual intercourse during these episodes, 21). Hal is “as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high” (49), and later reveals his “strong distaste about smoking dope with/in front of all these others” (329). Pemulis’s connection with drugs is, as a dealer, altogether more sociable, yet the formality of his language – requiring his customers to ask him to “please commit a crime” (156) – imposes an immediate and conscious distance between ← 237 | 238 → Pemulis and his interlocutors. The dialogue of drug users and addicts throughout the novel uses much of the same terminology, resulting in abject failures of communication because the speakers are so self-involved that they do not recognize alterity or other subjectivity. The Alcoholics Anonymous system in Infinite Jest is conceptually reflective of Wallace’s conceptions of alienation and connection. It is also narratively and structurally center to the novel,3 functioning narratively as a synecdoche of the addictive propensities of the novel’s wider milieu, and structurally as another symbol of the poisonously recursive language of the postmodern apocalypse. The AA structure is grounded in collectivity and the inescapability of shared experience. Reaching “the fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom” (347) is the novel’s primary impetus towards the desire, or rather the need, to give, to connect in some way, even if that way has seemed and continues to seem insipid or inane. Again, it is the need to connect and not the success in connection that is represented as the first step towards redemption. This isolation-progression of an individual at the heart of a group is consistent with Wallace’s vision of contemporary society, “taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic,” but recognizing “that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections” (McCaffery 132). It is also, importantly, consistent with Wallace’s approach to late postmodern literature as a complexly cyclical enterprise that resists progress as illusory, and with his vision for the future. Read in these terms, the end of the novel – particularly Don Gately’s efforts to resist medication – is a distinctly ambiguous analogy for the plight of late postmodernism as Wallace represented it. In this, Infinite Jest again exploits the condition of the “contemporary extreme,” in the way it “enact[s] an aesthetic that does not strive for harmony or unity, but, instead, forces the confrontation between irreconcilable differences, most notably the difference between reality and art” (Durand and Mandel 1), a description strikingly resonant with Wallace’s larger resistance to closure. Taking the idea of the contemporary extreme as a guiding pattern, a clear connective path is discernible between the structure of the novel, the process and pattern of addiction and recovery, and the Entertainment at its core, still, always, resisting the sense of an ending and cleaving to ideas of beginning and process.

5. See and Be Seen: The Importance of Witnessing

The annularity of the AA system – a circle with no center, anti-hierarchical, and focused on process over achievement – echoes the annularity of much of the architecture of Infinite Jest, from the idea of annular fusion to the circular geography of much of the action. This connection of the literary topography with the structures of the central locus of action is mirrored in The Pale King, with the use of § to ← 238 | 239 → designate chapters. In Infinite Jest, the AA structure could also be read as evoking the annularity of late postmodernist fiction, in its constant self-referentiality and complex internal order: as Ilkka Arminen points out, AA has succeeded without “professionalization of leadership or the emergence of a bureaucracy” (491). While it is true that the structures of AA itself contribute a narrative shape to Infinite Jest, there are also parallels between the addiction spiral and the spiral system of postmodern literature. The point of Arminen’s article is that part of the therapeutic work of AA stems not just from speaking about the addiction experience, but from the reciprocal work of relating the individual’s story to those of other addicts. “[M]embers, again and again, invoke and mutually display their newly found identities” and while the focus is largely personal, “they also repeatedly refer to co-contributors’ turns of talk in order to make their own experiences recognizable to, understandable to, and ‘shareable with’ the recipients” (492). The necessity not just of speech, but of active participation that is implicit in the idea of ‘co-contributor references’ mirrors once again the conception of communication and responsive witnessing expressed throughout Wallace’s work (491).

Importantly, too, the reciprocal nature of the “sharing” in AA encodes the sharer’s identity within a specific set of symbols. The obligatory phrase uttered by each contributor at the opening of their narrative – ‘My name is X and I am an alcoholic’ – fixes the speaker’s identity as part of a group, in the kind of community structure Andrew Warren identifies when discussing jargon. Particularly in the context of a narrative of addiction, the AA system works in concert with Wallace’s broader project of identity. That is to say, the identifying phrase both separates one (I) as an individual and integrates one as part of a network, functioning as a narrative analogue of Ricoeur’s idem/ipse balance. This performance of ritual speech, especially the articulation of the name, guards against the danger implicit in addiction throughout Infinite Jest, which is the loss of the self, a threat that is embodied in the nameless addicts – yrstruly, C., even Don, who was known as Bimmy – who are known only by nicknames within the immediate group of addicts, like the anonymized characters whose identities are subsumed into their primary characteristics. Indeed, the vanishing of the addicted self is a common theme of narratives of addiction and alcoholism. Alienation, anonymity, and community are explored through the AA sections of Infinite Jest, which positions its adherents in a metacommunicative system without the need for identification. Alcoholics Anonymous offers an iteration of direct narrative interaction on a micro level, but the participants are members of a larger system, too, the commun(al)ity that is the unconscious community of communal experience. One subchapter of the novel contains unattributed snatches of dialogue from Ennet House residents in which ← 239 | 240 → they discuss various aspects of their illness and recovery. The anonymity of these passages – a key attraction of the AA system for the founder of the Ennet House program – means that the dialogue is abstracted from its speakers, so that the passage becomes almost a snapshot of the non-specific concerns of the inmates of the halfway house, reducing the identity of the addict to a series of isolated clichés. This, of course, is mirrored in the traditional AA procedure, which encourages anonymity both in its insistence on first names only and in its removal of individual autonomy, wherein the addict surrenders to a higher power to give them sufficient strength to overcome the addiction that has already suppressed their autonomy. The Ricoeurian balance of idem and ipse is central to the healing process offered by Alcoholics Anonymous, where it appears in the guise of shared experience therapy; again, the necessity of a responsive witness, encoded in the AA structure, reflects Wallace’s conception of the asynchronously reciprocal dynamic between author and reader. Structurally speaking, AA permeates the narrative beyond its narrative relevance, falling in with the theme of annularity so central to the novel as a whole.

The central AA motto ‘one day at a time’ “a long time ago anticipated the ‘postmodern wisdom’ that the identity is never fixed” (Arminen 492), which is central to Wallace’s work and late postmodernism generally. The working of AA is interrogated by Gately, who, as part of his job as a resident staffer, observes and encourages new inmates, who are convinced that “this slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons” (Wallace, Infinite 350). Gately’s perspective is from the step after this one, where he has come through the cynicism of the disappointed addict and has spent his time praying to “a God you believe only morons believe in” (350) and has reached the point at which the clichés become meaningful and true.4 The adherence to this greater system – even cynical adherence – marks those in AA as connected, even if they are unacquainted, members of the commun(al)ity I mentioned earlier.

AA, of course, is not the only instance of this kind of unconscious community; we might think also of sufferers of depression, as depicted in “The Depressed Person” (1999), of the many alumni of McDonald’s advertisements, seen in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” or of parents, tennis players, IRS agents, misogynists, wanderers in a corporate desert, all of whom appear in one guise or another throughout Wallace’s writing. The importance to the self of being witnessed is also explored in a less edifying way by the recognition of the self as object of observation, which I have discussed at greater length elsewhere. For example, in The Pale King, awareness of the physical self is often presented as a response ← 240 | 241 → to the gaze of some powerfully subjective other, whose mere observation of the self traumatically decenters it. Cusk’s sweating arrives with puberty, when, as observed in a footnote, “psychodynamically, he was, as a subject, coming to a late and therefore traumatic understanding of himself as also an object” (92, n. 1). Cusk’s sweating problem is related to his awareness of his self, not just as a self but as an other, echoing LaVache’s estimation of Lenore’s self-image. It becomes particularly pronounced when he is aware or afraid of the gaze of other subjects: relinquishing his subjectivity and becoming an object has made him lose control of his body. Here, then, the masculine subject is problematized by the awareness of the possibility that it may not only be a subject. This violent decentering is contrasted by both the dreamy self-othering of the boy in “Forever Overhead” (1999) and by the story of Toni Ware in The Pale King. The decentered self, of course, is not a specifically masculine experience, though it is here literalized in the masculine body; rather, it is one of the central characteristics of the postmodern, and one of Wallace’s central concerns with respect to solipsism and living an authentic life. Warren’s articulation of narrative modeling as fundamental to Wallace’s ethical project is pertinent to a reading of both Infinite Jest’s use of AA and The Broom of the System’s reliance on narrative self-definition, offering membership of a narrative commun(al)ity as an anodyne against alienation; by extension, we as readers – “putting in our fair share of the linguistic work” (McCaffery 138) – become part of a similar commun(al)ity. In the end, solitude and solipsism function, for Wallace, as two sides of the same problem of isolation. Solitude is reparable, redeemable – frightening, perhaps, but not fatal – while solipsism rings the death-knell of self-hood. In either case, it is perhaps mildly ironic that separateness is the key. Throughout his work, teeming, deafening, lonely, Wallace offered the condition of the witnessed self in isolation as the solution to solitude.


1. The story was originally published as “On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” in Harpers Magazine (January 1996) and republished as the title essay of the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

2. An important point here is that Ricoeur was writing in French, in which the words for ‘story’ and ‘history’ are the same, ‘histoire.’

3. A number of critics have traced the structural significance of AA in Infinite Jest, including Burn and Carlisle in their companion volumes. While AA is narratively significant to swathes of the plot of Infinite Jest, its more pervasive influence is largely architectural. ← 241 | 242 →

4. The AA system as it is presented here contains an echo of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the protagonist’s injunction to his mother to “assume a virtue if you have it not … refrain tonight/and that shall lend a kind of easiness/to the next abstinence” (349), advice mirrored in AA’s fake-it-till-you-make-it doctrine.

Works Cited

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Carlisle, Greg. Elegant Complexity. California: SSMG Press, 2007. Print.

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Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: OUP, 1999. 837–48. Print.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. 1990. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.

–. The Course of Recognition. 2004. Trans. David Pellaur. Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003. Print. ← 242 | 243 →

Wallace, David Foster. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. 1997. London: Abacus, 2004. 256–353. Print.

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