Parsing the Philosophy of Infinite Jest

RIP David Foster Wallace
Image by Ryan via Flickr

Back, guys. And since before the weekend I wrote a little bit about David Foster Wallace and alluded obliquely to his influence on my own thought, I figured I should begin by clarifying a little bit.

As I’ve said before, literary criticism and philosophy are two great tastes that don’t necessarily always go great together—a philosopher can only critically analyze explicit arguments, and any work of literature that explicitly spells out some kind of unified thesis probably isn’t very good. This causes problems when trying to engage with literature from the perspective of academic philosophy.

Nonetheless, I think we can parse some philosophical ideas out of Infinite Jest, especially when it’s viewed in the context of Wallace’s other work.

Infinite Jest is about entertainment, and the ways in which we use it to try and satisfy a spiritual need which it can’t possibly fulfill. Kierkegaard talks about “idle chatter” as the thing which we use to distract ourselves from our own feelings of existential despair, and I think Wallace believes that the modern toys of distraction (which can mean anything from television to hard drugs) exist to do the same. The only problem is that these things don’t offer anything approaching a stable, permanent balm for that feeling of suffering and loneliness, but instead raise the threshold required to alleviate it next time around. That’s why you don’t see a great deal of correlation between material wealth and overall happiness.

What makes things significantly more complicated is that the cure, in many respects, can seem worse than the disease. Identification with various religions, philosophies, political ideologies and so on can be spiritually fulfilling in a way that mere entertainment isn’t, but they that effect is often only accomplished through a surrender of one’s critical faculties and individual identity. And while the 12th century Crusader hacking his way through Jerusalem may feel an enviable sense of serenity and certainty, there’s no getting around the fact that these things come attached to a values system that is brutish, cruel, myopic, and, well, Medieval.

I read Infinite Jest as Wallace’s attempt to strike some kind of balance between these forces, or at least interrogate what that would look like.

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