Infinite Summer and Empathy Through Reading

In her article Infinite Summer: Reading, Empathy, and the Social Network, Kathleen Fitzpatrick looks extensively at the interactivity of Infinite Jest through the use of reading groups, especially Infinite Summer, which helped to enable a more “authentic human connection” with Infinite Jest than with other novels read in book clubs (Fitzpatrick 183). Fitzpatrick compares the connection induced by Infinite Jest via Infinite Summer to, specifically, Oprah’s Book Club and the connections Oprah’s readers felt toward the characters in novels they read together. Fitzpatrick claims that the most striking difference is that, while there are connections made in both Oprah’s Book Club and Infinite Summer, O.B.C. participants tend to feel sympathy toward characters whereas I.S. readers experience empathy. She describes sympathy as a selfish emotion where the sympathizer does not need to change his worldview in order to experience emotion related to the character with whom he is sympathizing. Empathizing, Fitzpatrick states, goes a step further: the empathizer becomes aware of his position due to the text and, sometimes painfully, is forced to change this position (Fitzpatrick 187). Therefore, instead of projecting his emotions onto something else in a one-sided exchange, a reader that empathizes instead of sympathizes actually receives some sort of realization; the exchange is no longer one-sided.
Fitzpatrick claims the structure of Infinite Summer itself is one of the ways in which Infinite Jest is able to bring about empathy in readers. She compares its blog form to that of the Pynchon and even Wallace email-based discussions of that past that also attempted to form a community while reading novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow. However, the emailing, according to Fitzpatrick, allowed for much of the material to get depersonalized. It was less inviting to access for readers that had fallen behind, and individual voices were more easily lost in “email chatter” than in the blog posts of I.S (Fitzpatrick 194). As an example of the empathy and exchange evoked from Infinite Summer, Fitzpatrick also brings up and then quotes a blogger, InfiniteDetox, who participated in Infinite Summer and used it as a sort of motivator to giving up substance dependence. The blogger compares surrendering to Infinite Jest to surrendering to the twelve step AA program. Perhaps as important, though, is that InfiniteDetox kept a blog covering both his participation in Infinite Summer and his road to recovery from opiates; many participants of Infinite Summer also kept up with InfiniteDetox’s progress which allowed for a sort of human-to-human-through-book interaction—the reading of the book in this community actually connected people to each other instead of just to the book (Fitzpatrick 195).
The success of Infinite Summer, though, is not accredited to the book blog structure alone. Fitzpatrick talks in the beginning of her article about the dangers of relating Wallace’s work to what we know about how he took his life. By comparing DFW’s death to that of Kurt Cobain, Fitzpatrick talks about the mistake fans make in identifying with the work and projecting that identification to the artist. She in part describes the reaction of the fans to Wallace’s death as “an unhealthy transformation of artist into celebrity fetish object, and of a private tragedy into some kind of public performance” (Fitzpatrick 185). Although it’s clear from fans’ reactions that the works of Wallace allowed them to create connections through characters and maybe even learn something about themselves, Fitzpatrick once again uses this example as a way to see the danger and ease with which readers can sympathize instead of empathize, or project between the author and the reader the idea of a connection when in reality there is none.
Fitzpatrick, I think, starts to look at what makes Infinite Summer such a successful way of connecting readers from all over. The accessibility and inclusivity of blog posts, the outstanding circumstances of Wallace’s death, and the gamely appeal to readers of accepting the challenge of a novel as daunting in size and reputation as Infinite Jest all contribute to the incredibly interactive reading. It is true that the community of Infinite Summer functions as a sort of support group for readers the way Alcoholics Anonymous functions as a support group for addicts in Infinite Jest itself. However, what Fitzpatrick looks at surprisingly little is the way the content of this specific book helps to create the environment which drove Infinite Summer to its success. She does mention that Wallace’s magnum opus includes “rich investments in form, in ideas, and in emotion” and pays especial notice to the honesty of his text but neglects to offer insight as to how he did this (Fitzpatrick 186).
I wish I had the knowledge, creativity, and time to put into words what exactly it is that makes Infinite Jest such an empathetic and sincere text. The most striking aspect of it, I would say, is the material itself that is covered. From Avril’s discussion with Mario about how to know if someone is sad (Wallace 764) to Kate Gompart’s introduction in the text at a psych ward after trying to kill herself (Wallace 68), the content boldly explores dark and horrible parts of individuals’ lives from their perspectives and also from the perspectives of those around them. Avril isn’t just an obsessive compulsive adult; she’s a mother that cares so dearly about her children that when Mario even hints that something is wrong with Hal, she can’t help but to semi-interrogate Mario, even though restraint from this kind of questioning is something she strives for in her parenting. Likewise, Kate is more than just a young adult suffering from depression. We see her in the psych ward but also in the halfway house, walking down the street, the innocent victim of a purse thief, and perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, rejoicing in the gift of feeling “decent” while in a bar with Marathe (“I’m not talking like good, I’m not talking like pleasure, I wouldn’t want to go overboard with this thing, but at least at like zero, even, what do they call it Feeling No Pain.”) (Wallace 775).
The thoroughness with which Wallace defends his characters’ character, or maybe their humanness, makes it impossible to pick out some “bad guy” to dehumanize and hate. What about the man that steals Kate Gompart’s purse and sends her to the bar in the first place? Well, we know that that man happens to be Poor Tony Krause, and he just had a hell of a time going through heroin withdrawal, codeine withdrawal, and a seizure. PTK’s action seems a little more justified when we realize he only stole the purse in hopes of acquiring money to feed the addiction he’s suffering unimaginably for (Wallace 700). This lack of an antagonist is, I think, part of what forces us away from the sympathy and toward the empathy Fitzpatrick talks about in her essay. While I’m not saying that there is no sympathy involved in the reading of Infinite Jest, the novel still pushes you to change your way of thinking. It makes you take identifying with the character one step further than just feeling their pain or indignation or struggle. You’re forced, next, to evaluate where they are standing in a world that even they don’t understand fully. This extra effort, I think, supplies the reevaluation of life that Fitzpatrick names as a necessity to an empathetic work.

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About Rachel

Hi! I'm 22 years old, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience. I joined the Peace Corps after graduating and have spent the past months preparing. Shortly, I'll be leaving for Lesotho to be a secondary education math teacher for two years. Hopefully, this blog will serve as both a way to keep in contact with my friends and family back home and a reference to others considering joining the Peace Corps. Thanks for reading!
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9 Responses to Infinite Summer and Empathy Through Reading

  1. Your discussion of the lack of Fitzpatrick’s actual discussion of the text, of the content of the novel, and how that is probably ultimately detrimental to her larger critical point, is right on the money. I had a similar reaction to this essay when I initially read it.

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  2. strikefacehwc says:

    That’s a fantastic observation about the lack of an antagonist. I hadn’t directly confronted that fact until now and it’s undoubtedly going to change my reading of the rest of the book. That’s definitely one way that Wallace makes the reader appreciate all of his characters in a realistic way, rather than having “good guys” and “bad guys”. They’re just people. They might have made some bad decisions, but there’s no comic book villain cackling in the background as he plots the demise of the hero. I’d wager that has a lot to do with Wallace’s outspoken belief that we naturally view ourselves as the center of the universe, and that choosing to overcome that is the most important virtue we can attain.

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  3. drseuss1 says:

    strikefacehwc: I’m on the same page with you there. I was just thinking about Wallace’s belief of the capital ‘T’ truth that we all get to choose how we are going to look at the mundane, every-day things of life. I’m assuming you were referring to Wallace’s ‘this is water’ speech. I think one reason Wallace may not have the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is because Wallace believes there isn’t any such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys”; only people who have chosen to act on our default state or to be Self-Aware. What lies in each person is the choice for Self-Awareness that Wallace says can adjust us from our default state of thinking we are “the absolute center of the universe.”

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  4. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me about this book so much until I read this blog post. Much like strikefacehwc above me, it didn’t even enter my mind that this was the piece I felt I was missing. We’re so used to reading books that have marked sides, i.e. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, etc., that it feels almost unnatural when we are faced with a narrative that lacks a bad guy. I appreciated the way Wallace depicts the more “negative in the eyes of society” people, like Poor Tony, without any sort of judgment, but I didn’t think to compare them to addicts in other books and stories. Wallace doesn’t tell us how to feel about these characters, but, instead, gives us the descriptions needed to draw our own conclusions.

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  5. tangledheadphones1057 says:

    I never considered the fact that there was no antagonist in this book. There is no single protagonist either. The way that Wallace writes his characters mimics reality. No one of us is wholly good or bad. The characters are so intertwined that we are forced to examine their actions from every angle. Infinite Summer seemed to expand on that method of learning by functioning like our class does. By exchanging ideas and opening up for discussion, we get other perspectives to help build our understanding of situations that are foreign to us. I know I’ve gone to class having interpreted a passage in one way and then leaving with a whole new point of view.

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    • kalihira says:

      Infinite jest as a whole is lacking a lot of the formal aspects we tend to recognize in popular novels (protagonist, an antagonist, linear storytelling, all details on a given character or scene, a “point”, and it has been heavily implied that there won’t really be a traditional “ending” either) but despite their absence, the novel isn’t really missing anything. The way DFW wrote Infinite Jest and its characters is closer to how we actually perceive and understand our lives, ourselves and the world around us (which is to say, very little), and thus, it leaves us almost incapable of judging the characters within, because we know about as much as they seem to, and it feels like we’re experiencing it together. Looking at this, I would say that, among all of the media I have consumed in my lifetime, very few have actually given me an empathetic experience like infinite jest, where I feel like my perspective on life and people has widened, and I feel enriched for the experience.

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  6. mer95 says:

    I would definitely agree that it is very important to have a community to discuss this book with when reading it, may it be in person or online. I find it very interested that Fitzpatrick quoted InfiniteDetox in saying that reading Infinite Jest was a lot like surrendering to the AA program. In my opinion, having a community and a program to read this book in is the most important motivation for me to keep reading, because I have tried a few times to start the book and never made it very far in at all. However, with a strict schedule, a community to discuss the book in, and instructions basically equaling to “Sit down, shut up, don’t think too much about it, and just read”, I find I am doing marvelously well.

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  7. das196 says:

    Bravo! Awesome post. You’ve brought up some really well articulated points that I hadn’t thought of before reading this. We agreed in class that Wallace does a poor job of representing adolescence, and I’d go even further and say that his characters don’t typify the average American. They’re addictive, super intelligent, queer-like individuals that merely simulate ordinary characteristics to an exaggerated extent. You’d think from this description alone that the readers wouldn’t be able to relate to such theatrical and melodramatic character portrayals, but it has quite the opposite affect. Amplifying such addictive character traits heightens the reader’s cognizance and grants the reader with an enhanced ability to empathize with these characters more. You have mentioned in your post “the thoroughness” to which “Wallace defends his characters’ character, or maybe their humanness, makes it impossible to pick out some “bad guy” and dehumanize any of these characters”. Each character stands as your reflection. And in each character you recognize even the smallest resemblance. Even in writing this, the discussion we had today about Himself’s film with Odalisque trying to force Medusa to look into her reflection makes more sense now. Each character in this novel, forces the reader to reflect, dissect, and assimilate oneself. In this film seeing your reflection leads to your demise, which is similar to how AA chooses to treat addiction. They simplify sobriety by encouraging individuals to stray away from looking into and dissecting, metaphorically, your own reflection (habits/flaws/attributes).

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  8. Steph Roman says:

    Your work here is really thorough and I’m at a bit of a loss on where to start. A lot of the previous commenters addressed Infinite Jest’s lack of an antagonist. We’re definitely presented with multifaceted characters from the outset, to the point where nobody is definitely good or evil (which is compelling and relieving in and of itself). I’d just pose, as a quandary (though maybe not a good one), that addiction could be the antagonist of the novel, in all of its complex symbolic, allegorical, empathetic/sympathetic, thematic glory.

    Secondly, I’m kind of intrigued by this essay and how it deals with the first part of your summary, about its respective book clubs. It seems like Infinite Jest begs to be read as a group so that people of various disciplines and situations can congregate to find some meaning in it. So far it’s been delightful to read, but I know that I would have put it down in lieu of something simpler if not for the frequent discussions. Having additional perspectives makes this mammoth novel more digestible, even if it’s something as silly as eliciting a “What’s happening in your bible today?”-type comment from my roommate.

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