Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In your philosophy

What is the purpose of writing and reading? You might well wonder that as you contemplate whether to continue writing a blog. It's an unavoidable question, too, when you have decided at last to tackle Infinite Jest, full of impossible length, fronted by Dave Eggers's introductory assertion that reading it will make you a better person. And you'll ask it some more when you get about 60 pages in and lose heart--the characters seem soulless, the words an exercise in form; you feel you are secretly not intellectual enough to even read this stuff, let alone craft some words of your own.

Luckily, fortuitously, there's Zadie Smith, whose Changing My Mind's been providing you with a little light reading (har, har) in counterpoint to IJ. And damned if her last essay isn't an exploration of the very author whose book you have been struggling with, and damned if that essay doesn't make you see his work in a more comprehensible light. Which is lucky for you, because you have grown to suspect that reading is fundamentally an act of comprehension. Reading, you feel like you have to get at the very marrow of every sentence, to not only parse the words so they scan but also find the deep philosophical reasonance of it all. Not so with music--your feet tread deliberately on the ice, in rhythm to "Karen"--you realize you love these songs despite? because? you cannot understand a damn word their singer croons. But books, yes, you want to understand.

And Smith helps you do that, explains some ways of looking at the work (even though she is not talking about IJ in particular but Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). Wallace, she suggests, was not doing what came naturally to him when he wrote fiction, his mind more philosophical, mathematical. His sentences are propositions to unpack, thought experiments to put yourself through. Seeing with new words means seeing a new world. This way of reading's not primarily intended to be fun (though there's humor there); it's work. But through that work you grow to understand others a little better, and maybe yourself. Smith says--and I'd pull the quote for you if I had the book here--that Wallace's stories don't so much interview the hideous men as they interrogate us. What does it mean if we let our own minds course the circuit of the depressive woman's thoughts, understand the disorientation of the skeptic, realize that our ability to analyze ourselves to death doesn't absolve us? Who exactly are we anyway?

And so I realize that Wallace's words aren't characterless and heartless. To read them as I usually read a novel is to do them a disservice. I keep on tackling each set piece, unpack the propositions. I'm trying to learn what it is to be an addict, to envision a tennis that is pure mind, to recognize the benefits of the past in the onslaught of technology. It's overwhelming--if I cruise along at my usual slapdash pace I miss the nuance and fail to really put myself into the situations; if I read too slow I lose the overarching sense of structure, how tightly everything packs together despite its sprawling frame. But I'm trying.

This may not fully explain what I want to say. I started to entertain these ideas last week walking home from the laundromat. I felt I needed to instantly patterpattertype up all these infinitely precious thoughts--for the adoring public--before doing anything else. And then I drew up short at the solipsism of that. The arrogance. Is self-expression so important that you should blow off folding the laundry or calling your grandmother or taking a shower and heed your creative voice? Is your need for attention so great that you must immediately broadcast your half-baked Deep Thoughts for all the world (all your three and a half blog readers) to see? An idea of Wallace's that Smith alludes to, and that I will probably not do justice to here, is that a meaningful act of writing involves showing love not receiving it. Instead of writing to get something--pick me! like me!--your words should confer a gift to the reader. With this in mind, I suspect I will write more thoughtfully less frequently here, trying to only bring you gifts.


  1. Brilliant.
    (In the opinion of your one half of a blog reader.)

    Owe you an email response! Will do.

  2. responsible internet communication is extremely hard

    it's not that people's thoughts aren't extremely valuable (they are)
    but abstract web land makes paying attention to what is being said, by who, where, how (i believe these all really matter) easier to not think about...

    i would say you do pretty well
    so THANKS!