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Abstracts 2/2 - colloque international - Infinite Wallace / Wallace infini

Tore Andersen (Arhus University, Denmark) torerye@hum.au.dk

Covered in “P” – David Foster Wallace’s Paratextual Curse

Throughout his career, David Foster Wallace was plagued by frequent comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. The Broom of the System was compared by many reviewers to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Infinite Jest was hailed as a second coming of Gravity’s Rainbow. At the beginning of his career, Wallace bore these frequent comparisons with equanimity, but after the publication of Infinite Jest he seemed to grow increasingly annoyed with them, and in 1997 he said: “I bristle sometimes at getting compared to […] these classic postmodern guys. The – the – the “P” guy comes into mind. I won’t even say his name.”

Wallace’s frustration is understandable. Among other things his work can be construed as an extended critique of postmodernism, yet this aesthetic agenda did nothing to curb the countless comparisons to Pynchon, whom he once described as “a patriarch for my patricide.”

I will argue that the dreaded comparison was in a sense inevitable: Not so much because of any inherent traits of Wallace’s writings, but more as a result of the way in which Wallace’s different publishers chose to present his work to the public. As Gérard Genette has argued, the paratexts of any given work (blurbs, book descriptions etc.) cannot be easily separated from the text they surround. Often they steer the reception into certain predetermined grooves and help decide how the text is perceived by readers and critics. The borders between the text of the jacket and the text of the book are permeable, and through a close reading of the paratexts of different works by Wallace I will show how Wallace’s various publishers all invoke Pynchon in their materialization and marketing of Wallace’s texts, and how his readers and critics have had no choice but to judge these “P”-covered books by their cover.

Daniel Mattingly (Swansea University, UK) mattinglydf@googlemail.com

The Wallace Legacy: Humanism and Literary Renewal in American Literature after David Foster Wallace

Five years after David Foster Wallace’s passing, Wallace’s literary legacy remains widely discussed and debated. If the opportunity to reassess Wallace’s career in its totality since his death has resulted in a something resembling a consensus, we may tentatively conclude that Wallace’s oeuvre is best understood and defined by its attempts to revive and renew a commitment to humanism, both in a literary and extra-literary context, in spite of cultural, theoretical, and literary obstacles.

On a narrative and technical level, Wallace’s fiction contends that amidst a culture of distraction, irony, and solipsism, to ‘be’ human, one must consciously, continually ‘choose’ to try and be human, and perceive unknowable others as human also. To commit and re-commit to erring, and questioning one’s own commitment to humanistic empathy and community, is paramount.

The true legacy of Wallace, however, may be measured in the American literature that has consciously been crafted as a continuation or revisions of this tendency. Although barely half a decade has elapsed since his passing, in that time various American writers have contributed to the debates that Wallace was at the forefront of, both pro and contra to the values his works aspired toward.

In this paper, I shall explore key works by writers who have elected to continue aspects of Wallace’s renewed humanism project, while also highlighting where they have deviated from his literary approach. By examining the testator narratives of Junot Diaz, the genre empowered maximalism of Michael Chabon, and the therapeutic domestic turn in the later works of A.M. Homes, this paper intends to address various aspects of the ‘Wallace Legacy’. That legacy, I conclude, is the gift of the potential for belief in humanism flexible enough to be adapted and shaped by writers of diverse styles, backgrounds, and social persuasions, for a greater moral good.

Pater Waldstein (University of Vienna, Austria) edmundocist@stiftheiligenkreuz.at

Necessity and Freedom and Necessity in Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is concerned not with a lack but rather with a surfeit of freedom. He portrays characters dissatisfied with the empty freedom of hypermodern, bourgeois society, seeking some sort of necessity, which would give meaning and direction to what they do. Franzen finds this necessity in two things: a certain kind of empathetic love of particular persons, and a passion for endangered bird species. I argue that Franzen’s solution to the problem that he raises is not satisfactory, by comparing Franzen’s solution to that suggested by the works of his friend/rival David Foster Wallace.

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College Franzen defined love as the recognition of the reality of the other. Franzen argues that such a love must always be concrete, of a particular person, rather than of an abstraction such as “humanity,” which “keeps the focus on the self.” This insight into the reality of the other is what makes the other’s good my necessity.

But the problem with Franzen’s view is this: how do I know what the good of the other is? Once basic survival needs have been met, how does one know where the next level of good is to be found?

Franzen criticizes his friend David Foster Wallace for having an overly abstract view of love; overly spiritual and ultimately “dehumanizing.” But I argue that Wallace saw that love has to be based on the recognition of a higher good if it is not to remain a blind passion. In bourgeois hypermodern society the basic necessities of life are met, but there is no guidance on where the next stage of human perfection is to be found; one is supposed to decide ‘freely’ for oneself. This leads to dissatisfaction and misery. Wallace shows that the urge to escape one’s own misery through overwhelming passion is really selfish. The sort of necessity that is needed, Wallace suggests, ought to be sought in “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing.” Franzen dismisses this as “dehumanizing,” but I argue that an analysis of Franzen’s misanthropic view of over-population show that this is an accusation that can be levelled more convincingly against him.

Christopher Kocela (University of Georgia State, Atlanta, USA) ckocela@gsu.edu


Engaging Buddhism in the Work of David Foster Wallace: Continuous Practice, Infinite Jest

D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, identifies Buddhism as a significant influence on Wallace’s late fiction. According to Max, Wallace first became interested in Buddhist thought while writing Infinite Jest in Syracuse in 1992 (181); but it was not until he began work on his subsequent novel, The Pale King, that he began to regard Zen meditation as a primary avenue for exploring a central theme of his novel-in-progress, which was the transformation of boredom into a source of peace and bliss. In Max’s view, Wallace’s difficulty composing The Pale King derived, in part, from his inability to practice meditation, evidence of which Max locates in Wallace’s early departure from a two-week meditation retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn in Plum Village, France, in summer 2001 (262). In my proposed essay I want to take up the premise that Wallace’s fiction was shaped by his interest in Zen; but in doing so I want to challenge both Max’s overly simplistic reading of the relationship between meditation and writing practice, as well as extant scholarly readings of the evolution of Wallace’s fiction, which identify a progression from the early critique of irony in his 1993 essay, “E Unibas Pluram” to a later focus on commitment and belief in his 2005 Kenyon address, This is Water (see Konstantinou, Kelly). Not only does Wallace’s earliest journalism already display substantial familiarity with Zen practice and philosophy (as in “Derivate Sport,” for example), Infinite Jest itself cannot be properly understood without attention to Wallace’s repeated invocation of the Buddhist themes of interdependence, emptiness, and mindfulness, all of which are aesthetically linked to the practice of writing itself.

In my essay I will argue that Infinite Jest develops an aesthetic of mindfulness predicated on the idea that continuous awareness of the present moment provides the basis for ethical insight and even social change. If Wallace was sufficiently attracted to the teaching of Thich Nhat Hahn to want to study with him in person, it was not, I submit, because he saw in his work a solution to the problem of contemporary boredom, but because he was attracted to Nhat Hahn’s repeated portrayal of mindfulness as a form of socially engaged practice capable of revealing the interdependence of seemingly disparate social and ecological systems. In Infinite Jest, the chief exemplar of this kind of practice is Don Gately, whose discipline as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous gradually evolves into a form of socially engaged mindfulness during his recovery from injuries sustained while protecting the fellow members of Ennet House. In turn, Wallace’s depiction of Gately’s progression provides an influential literary model of Nhat Hahn’s view that writing serves as a form of meditative “deep practice” (Heart 90).

Jason Ford (Rice University, Texas, USA) Jason.Ford@rice.edu

 Infinite Jest: An Apocalyptic Reading

John Timothy Jacobs, in his 2003 doctoral dissertation on Infinite Jest, argues that Infinite Jest is eschatological and not apocalyptic. While Jacobs’s eschatological analysis of this text is a helpful lens through which to see Infinite Jest, I remain unconvinced that it is not apocalyptic. And by “apocalyptic” I mean not its definition in popular expression (i.e. end of the world cataclysm), but rather in its etymological sense, stemming from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις—a revelation or unveiling—popularized in the ancient world through the early Christian document Revelation. In antiquity, particularly in early Jewish literature, there are many apocalyptic texts (1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, Apocalypse of Abraham, etc.) meant to pass along specialized insight to a select group of followers through veiled and difficult narratives, and practices described in those texts. I argue that for those that read Wallace there are numerous parallels to students of early apocalyptic Jewish texts.

Specifically, what characterizes students of apocalyptic literature most clearly is their emphasis that texts are multivalent, with deeper knowledge and insight that is veiled, or only hinted at, on the superficial level. Infinite Jest, a discursive narrative that deals with entertainment, addiction, and meaningful work, can be read by those with “eyes to see” as providing commentary and analysis on human existence, suicide, and human relationships—that is, fundamental concerns when one pauses to think about life. This paper provides close textual analysis of two passages from Infinite Jest: one concerning Don Gately in AA and the other a conversation between Thierry Poutrincourt and Helen Steeply. This analysis will demonstrate the apocalyptic (or “revealing”) way in which Wallace provides commentary for his audience on human existence, as well as highlight other characteristic apocalyptic features (insider/outsider language, perspectives on time).


Jeffrey Fisher (Caroll University, Wisconsin, USA) jeff.jfisher@gmail.com

Self-Worship and Revelations of Limit: Narcissism, Religion, and Freedom in Brief Interviews and This Is Water

At one point in Conversations with David Foster Wallace (2012), the interviewer recounts Wallace observing that “America is an experiment in what happens with a wealthy culture that has lost religion.” Wallace immediately forecloses further discussion along these lines, however, claiming that the loss of religion doesn’t have “all that much to do with the stuff I write.” And yet, in another interview, Wallace remarks that he is “interested in religion, only because certain churches seem to be a place where things can be talked about.” The simultaneous fascination and discomfort with religion reflected in these comments pervades Wallace’s writings, but remains almost entirely unexamined in Wallace scholarship.

Despite Wallace’s deep and abiding ambivalence about the supernatural and its social institutions, religion seems to be the best framework he could find for representing or articulating the idea that only something beyond myself can force me to recognize such a thing as “beyond myself.” In particular, Wallace develops a secularized version of St. Augustine’s understanding of sin as unthinking self-centeredness. The awareness of limits bounding the self, and of the corresponding possibility of transgression, is the essential precondition for both moral behavior — the acknowledgment of others and their needs — and happiness or self-realization — freeing ourselves from our “default settings” (as he calls our narcissistic predispositions in This Is Water), so that we are free to choose healthy, life-affirming objects of worship. The proposed paper examines Wallace’s use of religious concepts and structures — worship, revelation, sin, epiphany, ritual, confession — to demonstrate an individual and social need for the benefits that “spiritual-type thing[s]” uniquely provide. Characters in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men seek absolution relentlessly, but fail time and again at confession because they cannot acknowledge their sin (as with the father in “On His Deathbed”) or are incapable of surrendering to anyone else the power to absolve them (as the interviewee in “Brief Interview #48”). For Augustine, grace grants us precisely the freedom denied us by sin, the power to make decisions according to principles, submitting thoughtless self-gratification to the rule of reason. Wallace frames this freedom as offered to us in revelations of limit. But grace offered must also be accepted, and when Wallace’s characters encounter a revelation (as with Day in “Church Not Made With Hands”), they typically see spiritual progress as enlarging themselves rather than transcending themselves. But while Brief Interviews is largely pessimistic about the likelihood of spiritual success (an obvious exception is “Think”), Water expresses a broadly optimistic vision of education as a potentially revelatory experience, grace that, if accepted, lifts the student out of the misery of “default settings” and gives her the freedom “to decide what to worship.”

Jurrit Daalder (University of Oxford, UK) jurrit.daalder@mansfield.ox.ac.uk


“Limits and Rituals”: The Neomonastic Communities of David Foster Wallace’s Postsecular Narratives

In two recent surveys of religion and postmodern American literature, John A. McClure and Amy Hungerford have argued for the late-twentieth-century emergence of “postsecular” narratives. These narratives assert that there is a pressing need for a religious turn, but, at the same time, they reject a complete return to a traditional orthodox faith. The result is a postsecular fiction that balances religious belief and secular reason. Such postsecular fiction, according to McClure and Hungerford, includes works by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, writers who are all part of a generation that precedes and has greatly influenced David Foster Wallace’s.

In the proposed paper, I aim to extend this critical postsecular framework to include Wallace’s fiction too, in particular, his last two novels, Infinite Jest (1996) and The Pale King (2011). In doing so, I will not suggest a religious appropriation of Wallace’s oeuvre. Nor do I intend to outline a religious turn in Wallace’s writing akin to, for instance, Dostoevsky’s. Instead, I wish to illustrate that Wallace’s socio-political criticism and his insistence on community values are representative of American postsecular fiction. In his last two novels, I argue, Wallace depicts various institutions—AA, E.T.A. and the IRS—as unconventional faith-based organizations or “neomonastic communities.” In these communities, pseudo-religious conventions complement secular principles to form sites of resistance against a hyper-consumerist or neo-liberal society, be it the dystopian O.N.A.N. or the U.S. during the “Age of Reagan.” By comparing these three communities, I will trace a postsecular development from Infinite Jest, in which AA and E.T.A. fight consumerist temptation with “Blind Faith” and mechanical self-transcendence, to The Pale King, in which the “small-h heroes” of the 1980s IRS consciously choose to take the tax code as holy writ and call the commercial sector to account.

David Hering (University of Liverpool, UK) D.Hering@liverpool.ac.uk

Ghostwriters in the Machine: Voice and Possession in Wallace’s Fiction

 This paper explores the development of the motifs of possession and the “narrating ghost” across Wallace’s fiction. Using material from the collection of Wallace’s papers at the Harry Ransom Centre, I begin by revealing how Wallace’s initial ideas for the narrative structure of The Pale King make substantial use of the motifs of ghosts and phantoms. Illustrating this argument with reference to several original documents and drafts of the novel, I suggest that in various stages of development The Pale King was to have been narrated by both a ghost and a ghostwriter, before these elements evolved into the more familiar metafictional structure that is present in the published text.

I argue that this strong late career focus on the motifs of possession and the “narrating ghost” constitutes a concretising of a narrative preoccupation across Wallace’s fiction. I suggest that the presence of ghosts and possession in Wallace’s work is strongly associated with a concern over the authenticity of the speaking voice, and that this motif develops from a fictionalised anxiety over “ownership” in The Broom of The System, through an dramatising of linguistic possession in Infinite Jest (where the motif of the ghost first appears in earnest) and “The Soul is Not A Smithy”, before the full-blown “narrating ghost” appears in “Good Old Neon” and the original versions of The Pale King. Suggesting that this latter development is also informed by Wallace’s development of a separate “journalist register” in his non-fiction, I finally argue that the ghost and possession motifs act as both a precursor and counter-strategy to the author’s own entry into and control of the narrative, exemplified by Wallace’s use of metafiction.

Bill Lattanzi (PBS, Nat Geo, TLC) blattanzi@verizon.net

 The Map and the Territory: A Walking Tour of David Foster Wallace’s Boston

 “It’s snowing on the goddam map, not the territory…”

                                                                        Infinite Jest, p. 333

 February of 2013, for Adam Kelly’s Harvard class, “David Foster Wallace and His Circle,” I led the first-ever group walking tour of the real-life sites transformed into the fictional locations of Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Created with input from Kelly, and prominent Wallace scholar David Hering, the tour reveals the bedrock reality behind the fictional world of Infinite Jest

While scholars often note the post-modern, European influence on Wallace (DeBord’s spectacle and Baudrillard’s simulacra seem to hover over every page), there is another Wallace, too:  the traditional young American writer, transforming his experience into art. To Infinite Jest’s program of pushing through post-modern simulacra back toward a connection to reality, it is necessary to connect Wallace’s life to the work, and to examine the real-places that gave rise to it.

This presentation will re-create the tour with photographs, maps, readings, and local history, combining biographical information about Wallace with relevant passages from the novel.

We travel from Harvard Square, where Wallace broke down while studying philosophy. We proceed to Inman Square, home to Wallace’s apartment and the novel’s Antitoi Entertainment. We cross the river and locate the site of the Enfield Tennis Academy and the real-life halfway house where Wallace lived after his breakdown. It is here that he met “Don Gately,” and where Infinite Jest took shape.

Ironically, the tour itself, searching for the traditional, falls into the post-modern. Our ambling against the official map comes to embody Guy DeBord’s theory of the derive. By tracing Infinite Jest’s Boston, we discover what DeBord called one of the  “psychogeological contours” of the city…. a contour that was created – or revealed – by Wallace’s imagination.

Mitch Cunningham (Deakin University, Australia) mdcu@deakin.edu.au

As if the fragment were not done with you yet”: A Rhetoric of Allegory in Wallace’s ‘The Soul is Not a Smithy’

David Foster Wallace’s short story ‘The Soul is Not a Smithy’ (2004) exemplifies the author’s self-reflexive use of allegory as both rhetorical trope and representational mode. ‘Smithy’ interrogates the relationships between memory, narration and temporality, primarily through the conflicted discourse of its narrator, who is caught between reconstructing a bizarre childhood trauma and coming to terms with his experiences of adult life. The fundamental sense of disjunction in ‘Smithy’ between a ‘rhetoric of symbol’, exemplified by intense and atemporal imagery, and a ‘rhetoric of allegory’, typified by digressive vignettes and melancholic ruminations, functions to generate a series of conflicting discourses, fragmentary narratives and speculative aporia within the text. These effects are arguably central to ‘Smithy’s cultivation of textual ambiguity, and ultimately to the reader’s identifications with the text.

In ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ (1981), Paul de Man redefines the relationship between symbol and allegory in anti-romantic terms, and privileges allegory as a discursive mode which “establishes its language in the void of temporal difference”, emphasising and exploiting the gap between figural language and its referent in order to communicate a sense of loss, impossibility and radical negativity with regards to time (p207-208). By contrast, the atemporality of symbol, “the possibility of an identity or identification” inherent to the symbolic mode, is deemed a “defensive strategy” of “tenacious self-mystification” (p207-208). This dialectical correspondence between pained self-knowledge and regressive self-mystification remains a crucial theme within Wallace Studies, particularly insofar as this dialectic is seen to play out in modern and postmodern forms of rhetoric (Boswell, 2003; Kelly, 2011). In investigating this correspondence from a decidedly formal-philosophical perspective, this paper aims at a further understanding of structure, rhetoric and temporality in Wallace’s work.

Jacopo Cozzi (Université Paris VII-Diderot, France) jimcozzi@hotmail.it

 David Foster Wallace, “Homme révolté”

 The forthcoming release of Infinite Jest’s translation demands to consider the possible connections between David Foster Wallace’s fiction and French literary culture. Such reflection seems to be not only proper but also important, and to some extent even essential. 

Throughout Wallace’s opera we can detect a peculiar definition of Postmodernism conceived as a literary style and a moral attitude supported by a set of problems that dramatize the issues of subjectivity and modern self-consciousness. According to Wallace, this self-consciousness is an illness, a literary, social and physical dysfunction. Wallace’s research arises as an effective existential inquiry critically tied with the outcomes of European philosophy, particularly Hermeneutics and French Existentialism. It is my opinion that the terms used by Wallace to set his discourse on the value of contemporary literature in opposition to a Postmodern tradition – or what Wallace takes as Postmodern – are the same terms used/shaped by one of the most influential French thinker of the past century on the existential idea of “absurd”: Albert Camus.

Both Wallace and Camus approached the “absurd”. They just call it with different names. They struggled with it and they attempted to live with and in spite of it. Both used the tools of their own intellect, and the full strength of their being to live with the knowledge of the paradox of existing in a world that would not yield its meaning.

Wallace’s Postmodern thinking, as atheism for Camus, is not the endpoint. It may be a tool, but it is not a conclusion. The purpose of my intervention would be to show how Camus’ “discovery of the absurd” is closely linked with the dialogue developed by Wallace with literary tradition and contemporary culture.

Lee Konstantinou (University of Maryland, USA) lee.konstantinou@gmail.com

 What is a Turdnagel?

 Most critics discuss David Foster Wallace’s interest in philosophy as an early preoccupation. Wallace was influenced by the thought of Jacques Derrida and Ludwig Wittgenstein as an undergraduate at Amherst College, and incorporated their ideas into his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987). It is widely assumed that Wallace subsequently moved away from vigorously engaging with philosophy, as part of his new commitment to humanistic concerns.

My paper challenges this assumption. Wallace continued to wrestle with academic philosophy during his middle and late career, even after he left Harvard’s philosophy Ph.D. program. Drawing on Wallace’s Pale King notebooks at the Harry Ransom Center, which span a ten year period from the completion of Infinite Jest to his 2008 suicide, I will discuss Wallace’s investigation of Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (1989). Nagel’s thought takes on great importance in these notebooks and shaped Wallace’s final, unfinished novel, The Pale King (2011).

The View from Nowhere is concerned with the human capacity to view the world in a detached way, and argues that analytic philosophy has become too prone to objectification. Wallace dramatized these ideas in Infinite Jest and in early versions The Pale King. I will trace Wallace’s ultimate exploration of Nagel’s ideas to the figure of the “turdnagel,” a category of subterranean worker at the IRS, which appears only in passing references in the published version of The Pale King, but which receives much more attention in the notebooks. 

By comparing the published version of The Pale King to Wallace’s notebooks, I argue for the centrality of Nagel’s thought to Wallace’s post-Broom of the System intellectual trajectory, and for a new critical conception of his lifelong engagement with philosophy.

Allard Den Dulk (Amsterdam University, Netherlands) and Anthony Leaker (University of Brighton, UK) a.p.dendulk@auc.nl / anthonyleaker@gmail.com

 The ‘Very Life Blood’ of the Game: Language, Rules and Meaning in Wittgenstein, Wallace and DeLillo

 In our paper we will explore the connections between David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, in particular their respective novels Infinite Jest and End Zone, by analyzing the similar ways in which both are engaged with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Specifically, we will use Wittgenstein’s thought on how language use connects meaning and reality to compare the ‘Eschaton’ episode from Infinite Jest with the theme of games and nuclear war in End Zone.

Wallace’s admiration for DeLillo and his indebtedness to DeLillo’s work is well documented, as is his in-depth appreciation of Wittgenstein’s thought. Likewise, DeLillo, who recognized Wallace as a fellow traveller, implicitly and explicitly engages with Wittgenstein’s thought throughout his work.

However, the aim of our paper is not to claim (or deny) a direct influence of Wittgenstein on Wallace and DeLillo. Instead, we want to achieve a better understanding of Wallace’s and DeLillo’s writing, of the connections between them, and thereby of important currents in contemporary American fiction, by viewing Wallace’s and DeLillo’s work – specifically Infinite Jest and End Zone – as occupying a middle ground between postmodern scepticism and romantic metaphysics. Thinking about their work in relation to the philosophy of Wittgenstein will enable us to resist and critique the postmodernist perspectives frequently invoked in DeLillo and Wallace scholarship, but also to avoid recourse to traditionalist conceptions of language and meaning. What Wittgenstein, Wallace and DeLillo can be seen to share is the desire to replace our self-reflective misperceptions and regain our capability to give meaningful expression to the real world. We will analyze these connections between Wittgenstein, Wallace and DeLillo by showing that all three emphasize the importance of changing the way we tend to see things, by demystifying excessive theorizing, emphasizing instead the value of the ‘ordinary’, as the only route towards spiritual fulfilment.

Franz Kaltenbeck (psychanalyste et enseignant, Savoirs et clinique, Paris et Lille, France)

 “The seed of emptiness.” Melancholy of The Pale King

 DFW is as well a theorician of melancholy as one of those great writers who succumbed to this torment. No one else explored sadness with such humor as the author of Infinite Jest. I propose to study the melancholic structure of his last novel on four axes.

1) His efforts to find theoretical explanations and clinical anodynes against his suffering. Nobody before him has explained the idea that dullness could work as an analgesic bandage against the pain of existence (douleur d’exister) which in certain forms of melancholy is felt physically. (In Infinite Jest Don Gately’s unanesthetisized pain during his hospitalization could be the literary transposition of the author’s depressions.) He also linked boredom with courage: « Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is », writes the author, p. 231. To assume this kind of tedium opens the way to the real world.

2) DFW’s relation to his mother is central to his symptom. It is already present in Infinite Jest but we find this relation also scrutinized in The Pale King, for example in chapter 8’s description of Toni Ware and her mother (« The child as mother of the woman ») a relation which evokes Antonin Artaud’s reversed kinship. The mother-son relationship, excluding the father, is at the heart of his late story « Suicide as a sort of presunt&njs0;», probably written at the same time as The Pale King. We find in this piece mutual identifications between a mother and her child. The mother has been abused in her childhood by her own father and feels for this reason diminished but she denies her pain. She has great expectations in her son who cannot satisfy her pretentions of perfection. So « the child appeared in a sense to be the mother’s own reflection in a diminished and deeply flawed mirror ». This mirror-relation is a radicalized narcissictic identification which Freud thought to be a main mechanism leading to the incorporation of the lost object in melancholy.

3) Capitalism and melancholy. When we speak of the lost object we should not forget the political dimension of the last novel : DFW was worried about what he felt as being the decline of American power and associated this crisis to the growing debt (chapter 14 -  22). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of the United Treasury Department is  « likened to the nations beating heart » with « the lifeblood of this heart: the men and women of today’s IRS »  (p. 103). This venerable institution is confronted with the problem of a growing « tax gap ». During the years of the Reagan-Administration the paper of an ultra-liberal ideologue named Spackmann gave a purely capitalistic turn to the IRS. It should now make a maximum of profit as if it were an ordinary firm. Oriented by this new ideology, it neglected the tax gap. So the nation began to suffer from a haemorrhage of public money, a pathology very close to what the young Freud speaks of a « hole » in the psyche through which sexual excitement is emptied. This hole leads to an  « inner bleeding », a loss of psychic energy, in melancholy (Manuscript G in Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess (Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, p. 102)).

4) DFW complained to his friend, the writer Jonathan Franzen (D. T. Max, 2012, p. 289, 295) about the « missing thing » of The Pale King, as if he could not find the structure for his last novel. We would like to try to answer the following question: what did he mean by this « missing thing » ?

Robert L. McLaughlin (Illinois State University, USA) rmclaugh@ilstu.edu

David Foster Wallace, the Literature of Sincerity and the Narratology of Infinite Jest

 The essay “E Unibus Pluram” and the long interview with Larry McCaffery serve as companion pieces in representing David Foster Wallace’s aesthetic, especially his sense of the exhaustion of postmodernism. Wallace argues that the contemporary fiction writer needs to move beyond postmodernism’s dependence on irony, the effects of which include dislocation, disconnection, and stasis. He suggests instead a fiction that, while recognizing postmodernism’s problematization of language, discourse, and representation, nevertheless seeks to assert rather than deconstruct, to connect rather than fragment, to love rather than judge. In short, he makes a case for a literature of sincerity. 

In this paper I plan to analyze the narratology of Infinite Jest, paying special attention to its techniques of narration and its narrative structure, in light of Wallace’s aesthetic. More specifically, I will argue that the novel endorses this aesthetic in its presentation of the AA narratives. In this sequence the narrator, focalized to a certain extent through Don Gately, critiques those sobriety stories that seek to entertain, make excuses, or, inexcusably, use irony—any story that puts the focus on the storyteller at the expense of the listener. The narrator praises those stories that use the storyteller’s experience to form a bond of identification with the listener. I will argue that this key sequence is put into tension with much of the rest of the novel’s narration and structure, which, in its highly stylized narrative voice, its self-reflexive and patience-trying endnotes, and its closure-resistant concluding section, seem at odds with the methods of the best AA stories. This tension allows the novel to dramatize and engage both the exhaustion of postmodernism and the aesthetic of sincerity.

Toon Staes (University of Antwerp, Belgium) toon.staes@uantwerpen.be

Feeling the Plot: a Sentimental Reading of Infinite Jest and The Pale King

 A rule of thumb in literature studies holds that the critical distance required for an objective analysis of a text is at odds with complete immersion in the textual world. Even though the New Critics’ conception of literature as autonomous and self-contained was supplanted decades ago by the advent of reader-response theory, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s notion of the affective fallacy—the idea that a reader’s report of intense feelings “is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account” (32)—still resonates in the academy. Even today, professional readers generally shy away from studying the preferences of feeling readers (Keen 2007; Keller et al. 2011, 84). Emotional analyses of texts may still be frowned upon, yet a surprisingly large number of academics that set off the work of David Foster Wallace against that of writers from the previous generation do so mainly in affective terms. The consensus among these critics is that the mazelike novels of the postmodernists are overly intellectual and hold the reader in complete disregard. Wallace’s fiction, by contrast, is supposedly marked by a deeper concern for the fiction writer’s obligation towards his or her audience, and by a return to strong feelings. Symptomatic of this position is the claim by Patrick O’Donnell (in Boswell and Burn 2013), himself a Pynchon specialist, that whereas a massive novel like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) “experiments with language in the hermeneutic mode,” it never achieves the “quality and depth of affect” that draws in readers of Infinite Jest or The Pale King (2-3). One reason why it may seem self-evident that Wallace’s writings herald a return to lifelike emotions is that this is precisely the idea put forward both in his essays and interviews and in his fiction. Drawing on cognitive narratology and studies in narrative comprehension, however, the question I will address is whether these “sentimental” readings are merely intuitive readings, or whether there really is something in the two Wallace novels mentioned above that gives rise to strong(er) feelings.

Ralph Clare (Boise State University, Idaho, USA) ralphclare@boisestate.edu

Toward a Posthuman Empathy in the Work of David Foster Wallace


 Paul Giles has argued that David Foster Wallace is a “sentimental posthumanist” whose work admits to the fact that media, technology, and global networks have irreversibly fractured and complicated one-time notions of human identity, while nonetheless still exploring human affectivity, emotion, and longing as they persist within such techno-environments. As Wallace himself once put it in an interview, “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” This paper proposes to explore a new dimension of Wallace’s posthuman paradigm as it can be seen to emerge in the curious and fascinating figure of Drinion in The Pale King. Drinion, who is portrayed as machine-like and, at times, hardly human, nevertheless epitomizes a “good listener” as he pays close attention to Meredith’s fateful story of how she met and married her husband.  There are perhaps forerunners of Drinion to be found in the autistic Lunt of “Little Expressionless Animals” and in the seemingly cold doctor Kate Gompert meets upon entering a hospital in Infinite Jest. In the case of all three characters a supposedly “inhuman” side, one much different than the kind depicted in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, does not entail inhumanity so much as it does Wallace’s complex reassessment of the human. As the most fully developed of these characters, Drinion might be said to constitute a novel conception of the posthuman for Wallace, one that suggests a potentially different and more radical mode of empathic understanding than he entertained in much of his earlier “sentimental posthumanist” work.       


Mary Holland (SUNY New Paltz, New York, USA) hollandm@newpaltz.edu

“By Hirsute Author”: Gender &/vs. Communication in the Work of David Foster Wallace

 In one of his first published essays, and one of his few published pieces of literary criticism, David Foster Wallace criticizes a novel whose many praises he has otherwise sung—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress—for constructing its female narrator through an oppressive and reductive male gaze: “To be an object of desire (by hirsute characters), speculation (by hirsute author), oneself the ‘product’ of male heads & shafts is to be almost Classically feminized, less Eve than Helen, ‘responsible’ without freedom to choose, act, or forebear.” (“The Empty Plenum,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.2 (1990): 216-239). His analysis of Kate expresses a set of what were, for him, overlapping anxieties about male assertions of power in heterosexual relationships, the workings of language between readers and writers, and possibilities for empathy in both. Elsewhere I have argued (in A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies) that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men most pointedly explores this anxiety about the intersection of language, power, and desire. This paper will expand that argument by examining Wallace’s examinations of gender—specifically as constructed in heterosexual dynamics—in conjunction with possibilities for communication and empathy across his fiction, essays, and interviews.

It will argue—using The Broom of the System, “Little Expressionless Animals,” “Here and There,” Infinite JestBrief Interviews, and The Pale King, along with excerpts from interviews and essays—that his two decades of writing maintain consistent focus on the feminist concerns expressed in his 1990 criticism of Markson’s novel. His emphasis there on Kate’s construction by “hirsute characters” and “hirsute author” defines these defining men in terms of their animality (Though photos of Markson in youth and after reveal him to have been quite a clean-shaven guy), even their “horridness” (Wallace knew his Latin roots), in a precursor to his Hideous Men. But his criticism in “Plenum” goes beyond the dangers of male sexual desire to illuminate a more specific overlapping of male narcissism in writing and in romance (see also his long interview with David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, in which he compares his narcissistic manipulation of the reader with his selfish manipulation of lovers) that becomes characteristic of Wallace’s writing and of the drive for empathy that is, for Wallace, almost without exception more struggle than success: his final fiction features a woman who suffers, with awareness but without escape, the same “hirsute” male gaze as Markson’s Kate (Meredith Rand in The Pale King). In writing, as in life, for Wallace and his characters, the need to use the other to define the self is never more apparent or forceful than in heterosexual relationships marked by desire, making them a most fruitful site for examining the workings and failings of communication and understanding among characters, readers, writer, and text.

Adam Kelly (University of York, UK) adam.kelly@york.ac.uk

Art, Science and the “Group Mind”: David Foster Wallace’s Communal Progress

In 1993, David Foster Wallace told Larry McCaffery that artistic advances in twentieth-century fiction could be understood by analogy with the invention of calculus: the innovators in both arenas were breaking rules in order to achieve something important. But “the analogy breaks down,” Wallace continued, because “math and hard science are pyramidical. They’re like building a cathedral: each generation works off the last one, both its advances and its errors.” Hard science is like a cathedral: at the very moment that Wallace attempts to distinguish between science and art, in other words, he actually finds himself employing a metaphor that unites them, a cathedral being a paradigmatic example of both an artistic and scientific achievement.

In this paper, I will follow a trail in Wallace’s texts that persistently sees him thinking art and science together in this manner. Moreover, I will demonstrate the importance of this twinning of art and science for Wallace’s conception of two major themes: community and progress. Wallace’s concern with loneliness is well documented, and one way he addressed it was to think both science and art as communal endeavours, productive of a “group mind,” a term he takes from Lewis Hyde. But this group mind was also central to his conception of progress in these fields, so that the image of the lonely individual genius – whether in art or science – is replaced by figures such as the generation, the readerly community, and the researchers who make up a field of knowledge.

Drawing on original research in the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Centre, this paper will make its argument by considering texts as diverse as Wallace’s interview with McCaffery, his review of two novels about math, the marginalia in his personal copy of Hyde’s The Gift, and his short story “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” from Oblivion. My reading of the latter story will show how Wallace increasingly understood fiction as contributing to the progress we normally associate with science, by providing a more accurate description of the processes of cognitive perception. The paper will conclude by offering a sense of how Wallace’s insights into innovation and progress might offer a way to rethink the contemporary humanities as a collective endeavour, one worthy of society’s time, attention, and its public funding.

mise à jour le 26 janvier 2015