Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English & Rhetoric

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061

alex.blazer@gcsu.edu

alexeblazer.com

 

Media and Melancholia: Notes on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

'Killed outright, usually. The pleasure's too intense. No mortal can stand it. Kills them. M-o-r-t-s.' Marathe sniffed.

(David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 528)

 

It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool.

(David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 692)

Readers are stupefied by the encyclopedic and maximalist digressions and footnotes of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. On the one hand, they are overwhelmed with amazement by such 20-plus page elaborations of Eschaton in which teen tennis academy players spend Independence Day engaged in a Risk-like nuclear war game with the tennis court as a board and tennis balls as nuclear warheads; on the other, they are dumbfounded and bewildered by the convoluted and circuitous actions of rival Quebec separatist spy groups. The book is both a dextrous pleasure that enthralls the readerly desire for comprehension and completeness of world and also an exhausting drudgery that repels in its very painstaking extraneous thoroughness. Although one wonders if the maximalist consciousness was too much stuporous stimulation to bear for the real, sensitive and suicided author, that is a topic for psychobiographers. Instead, this paper focuses on the relationship between the not only comprehensive but also exhaustive media of the information, computer, advertisement, and entertainment age, on the one hand, and melancholia, or depression and anhedonia as one character describes it, on the other. In one plotline of the novel, the overabundant, debilitating pleasure of media is represented in the novel's prime symbol, the Entertainment, a video that drugs viewers into a catatonic state, which was tellingly directed by an optics expert who committed suicide by placing his head in a microwave over; elsewhere, the filmmaker's son experiments with narcotics as a kind of self-medication for the alienation he feels from his photographic memory (he memorized the Oxford English Dictionary), and a recovering drug addict in a rehabilitation center ruminates upon his pain and depression. The novel embraces all, as these divergent worlds are elliptically tied together by a battle of spy organizations vying to retrieve the Entertainment, one of whom visits the recovery house. The vast novel suggests a link between catatonia and anhedonia, between stimulation and blockage, between a desire for life and a drive toward death. The pleasure of Wallace's encyclopedic text (or the textual/authorial consciousness) is paradoxically a depressive torpor derived from a deadly repetition-compulsion with prodigiously captivating (and numbing) details.

 

This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Media and Melancholia: Notes on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Northeast MLA Convention. Hyatt Regency, Rochester. 17 Mar. 2012.