Week 3

with the same name and mnemonic phone number ending in 3668

05.06.11 | | Permalink | Comments Off on with the same name and mnemonic phone number ending in 3668

…on one side and the other a huge colored outline of a human foot.

(p. 163, §22).

3668 = FOOT

I just realized this today.


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Week 2

What he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse of mirrors of fear

05.05.11 | | Permalink | Comments Off on What he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse of mirrors of fear

Skipping briefly ahead to the novella-length §22, we spend time with a first-person narrator who is suddenly struck by his ability to “double”; that is, to not only perceive the world around him, but to be aware of his own participation in that activity, of his choosing to do so. We’ll save deeper discussion of this for the upcoming weeks, but there’s a crucial observation on p. 180 that links the boredom of rote exams to the importance of “the ability to choose what one concentrates on versus ignoring” and which pillories the use of marijuana, an active choice that leads to a passive mental state. Here’s the frightening part: is there a connection, then, between being aware and being bored? That is, does the very act of exerting ourselves to be present exhaust us to the point of being miserable in that present? I hate to consider it, given Wallace’s self-awareness and eventual suicide, but can one know too much (i.e., the curse of the Tree of Knowledge)?

Let’s drop back, then, to the subject of this week’s title: the unlucky §13 protagonist, a k a, The Sweater: “As a child, he’d always been a heavy sweater. he had sweated a lot when playing sports or when it was hot, but it didn’t especially bother him.” That innocence, that “something particular about him” is soon lost, however: “In his seventeenth year, though, it started to bother him; he became self-conscious about the sweating thing.” Mirrors (and the “doubling” they suggest) begin to pop up; our hero begins to find himself influenced not by his own thoughts, but by his thoughts regarding other people’s thoughts — the reflections of his peers upon himself. (This is a common theme of many of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, particularly regarding the adjective “hideous,” a totally relational term that means nothing without comparators.) Whereas he was fine before, it is his awareness of his own place in context to others that is so self-shattering. Note, too, that this “didn’t happen in private, at home in his room, reading — in his room with the door closed it often didn’t even occur to him” and that his inability to verify the appearance he dreads — “he could never get a real attack to happen when he wanted it to, only when he totally, totally did not” — is what causes him to assume the worst.

It is here that he sucks himself into that common David Foster Wallace nightmare: the self-fulfilling cycle. (No surprise to hear that Adult World (I) and (II) were intended as parts of The Pale King: those stories focus on a woman so concerned with giving a proper blow-job that she becomes incapable of giving a proper blow-job; meanwhile, her husband becomes so obsessed with self-pleasure that he becomes incapable of receiving pleasure.) The Sweater attempts to become “unself-conscious” — mindlessness at its most literal — and instead ends up infecting his subconscious: “Without letting himself be wholly aware of it, he had started hurrying a little bit between periods to get to the next class early enough that he wouldn’t get stuck in a desk by a radiator, which was hot enough to jump-start a sweat.” He is doomed by consciousness, and again, Wallace warns us that while we are born to repress certain truths, the expenditure of psychic energy — i.e., focused awareness — allows it to break free. And once free, you cannot “re-repress” it; it cannot be shaken: “Consciousness just doesn’t work this way.” As this circular trap pinches shut around him, he has gotten to a point at which he is trying “to keep from conscious thought as much as possible without being wholly aware of why he was doing this.”

[If you’d like to go out on a limb here — and I’d argue that there’s little point in blogging a book into the collective unconscious (pun intended) unless you intend to do just that — then we could loop this closed system back to the ambiguous conclusion of §10, which defines things as closed (bad) and worlds as unclosed (good). Facts/things are dangerous in that they limit us; worlds/words are wonderful in that they are open to exploration/interpretation.]

The more we enter and participate with the world around us, the harder it becomes to no longer care what others think about us. For instance, when I was bullied in elementary school and felt alone, it was easy to shut out a world that seemed to reject me, but when I started feeling comfortable enough in college to have a reputation, a set of responsibilities, it was impossible for me to not care. And so the Sweater “absorbs” himself in other activities — similar to the distraction technique in which one pinches themselves to temporarily shut out the persisting itch of a mosquito bite — in an attempt to blot his consciousness and unconsciousness, though the “greebles” of awareness persist in him perspiring. Wallace ends with a bleakly hopeful premise: that although the Sweater’s condition has been provoked, arguably, by his doubling, it is actually “his true self trying to leak out,” and that the only cure or balance for awareness may be acceptance.

Miscellaneous, Week 2

On Desk Names, the job of identity and the identity of the job

05.05.11 | | Permalink | 3 Comments

Take everything ever written, thought or felt about the relationship between work and personal identity. Condense it into a page. That page is Section 18.

‘And Desk Names are back…. Instead of your name. There’s a plate on your desk with your Desk Name. Your Name de Gear as they say…. If you’re smart, you’ll use it as a tool. We rotate; seniority chooses the plate.’

Of course, Wallace’s IRS agents aren’t the only people who adopt different names on the job: just ask Francois-Marie Arouet, Norma Jean Baker, Curtis Jackson, your friendly global-neighborhood customer service call center employee or the Waldorf-Astoria waiter who says he was forced to wear name tags that proclaimed him to be John or Edgar instead of Mohamed because bosses didn’t “want to scare our guests.” His Name de Fear, as they say.

(Never mind this fellow’s situation — I, for one, could happily dispense with name tags for anyone over 7. None of those gummy peel-the-back buggers that left a chalk-body outline on a certain suede jacket. Nor the conventioneer’s pinned-on plastic sheath, with its cheap glint and oddly sharp edges. No more lanyards with a laminated plaque the size of a birthday card doing a do-si-do with your shirt buttons. And I realize the New Jersey Department of Transportation might disagree with me, but being vaguely invited to read a grown person’s name off her chest actually doesn’t improve the customer experience, for me.) (#it’snothingimpersonal)

But in describing a “Service” that replaces its employees’ names and even their Social Security numbers (p. 66) — for Americans, virtually the DNA of official identity — Wallace is showing us work that literally becomes its employees’ identity.

Here’s where a well-documented and learned analysis of the development of the post-industrial blur that is professional-as-personal identity clearly should go. And by all means, if you’ve got one handy. (#notasociologist) But it can’t hurt to mention The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, right, or this 2009 Wall Street Journal column about “the unmitigated identification of self with occupation, accomplishment and professional status,” and how the loss of a job can amount to a loss of a sense of self. Or this personal-meets-professional medical journal article by a British physician, who reflects on his own retirement while tracing the evolution of the western world’s fascination with work and discussing the pros and cons of linking what you do with who you are. For many people, he notes, work isn’t just about money but “may be the principal source of personal identity, mediating the sense of being a valued person necessary for self-esteem.”

But I get a feeling The Pale King might ultimately be pointing to the opposite of what it might seem on the surface to be saying about work and identity. The IRS of The Pale King might take names and treat you like a (reissued) number. It might bore and confine you to the point of paracatatonic fugues and “unexplained bleeding.” (p. 87-88) But this bureaucracy — so far — isn’t the cynical ONAN of Infinite Jest. The Service is portrayed as a place full of Leonard Stecyks and Lane Deans, an agency someone can describe as as full of “institutional heroes … trying to stitch or bandage the holes that all the more selfish, glitzy, uncaring, ‘Me-First’ people are always making in the community….” (p. 127). There’s a purposeful and honorable quality to it, a world of people who pay attention to details and see a bigger picture in them, the way taxes reveal societal and personal priorities. A wiggler? Not an identity that anyone might want, but one that might not be so bad to have.


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