Mary K. Holland, “‘The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of Infinite Jest”
At this point, I think we’re all too familiar with Wallace’s stated hope for literature from his 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery and Wallace’s own essay “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” his hope to break free from the postmodern irony and metafictional solipsism dominating the late 20th century, to return to the idea of literature “being a living transaction between humans.” Holland zooms in on this right off the bat only to shut it down entirely, boldly declaring that “Infinite Jest fails to deliver on the agenda that Wallace set for it, not only because it fails to eschew empty irony for the earnestness that Wallace imagines but also, and more importantly, because it fails to recognize and address the cultural drive toward narcissism that fuels and is fueled by that irony” (218). So not only did Wallace fail to transcend irony like he intended, but a “deadly undertow” of infantilized (I’ll get to this) narcissism (225) lurked beneath his novel and he, according to Holland, hardly recognized it, let alone combatted it.
Holland first charges Wallace with an “unconscious addiction to irony” (220), insisting that irony pervades Wallace’s work in spite of his stated awareness of it as a harmful, stagnating mode of communication. At this point I want to scream things like, “but Wallace ironizes irony to get to real sentiment!” and “what about Mario!” Holland gets to that last one, at least: Mario and Marathe are IJ’s defenders of unironic earnestness, and yet Wallace “punishes them” (231) both, physically deforming them and setting them on the fringes of society. Kind of a weak argument in my opinion, but she improves. Holland’s main objective, however, is to prove that Wallace fails to intercept the infantilizing narcissism running rampant throughout his novel. She defines infantilizing narcissism as the centralizing feature of modern American society, the unconscious desire to return to “the bliss of the infant’s narcissistic existence” (222), in which one is unable to communicate, locked inside of oneself, endlessly receiving satisfaction from some source while giving absolutely nothing in return. Holland sees this solipsistic, infantile fantasy as being the novel’s ultimate destination, and so this would of course completely obliterate Wallace’s whole literature being “a living transaction between humans” thing. She tackles all of the baby sightings throughout the book – the skull-deprived, gelatinous babies that are the figures of worship for some, the giant mythologized Infant spawned from the wastes of the great Concavity – and relates them to this theory, which is pretty convincing, because the baby sightings are just so strange and at least this frame gives them a definitive purpose (I only wish she had talked about feral hamsters as well). She also cites as her evidence the development of the film cartridge technology that killed off cable television and advertisements, you know, the one that reminds us of our own Netflix. This arose from American society’s infantile, narcissistic desire to be passively satisfied, isolated from the world, giving nothing in return. This technology is obviously a pale foreshadowing of the Entertainment, which essentially functions as the attainment of Nirvana terms of infantilized narcissism: having one’s desires endlessly fulfilled, lying in one’s own waste, never communicating, forever (229).
Holland finally depicts Hal’s interview debacle as the ultimate submission to this narcissism: “unable to communicate… Hal succumbs to the greatest of all drugs, the call of the promise of infantile fulfillment. In the ambulance that takes him toward institutions and away from the world of human discourse, he asserts: ‘I have become an infantophile’ (16)” (235). Holland finds it ironic that the novel in which Wallace intended to break down the communication barriers set up by irony and solipsism instead ends up locking its own characters in a closed loop of infantile narcissism.
So obviously, this essay’s a real downer. And while I would hate to walk away with a response that does nothing more than disagree with a critic, I just had multiple moments where I really wanted to pick a textual fight with Holland. She’s bit too reductive. She charges Avril with parental narcissism which I just don’t buy, since I’d argue Avril is one of IJ’s most complex characters and shoving her into this category with such limited evidence (Holland cites her reaction to baby Hal’s ingestion of the mold as being self-absorbed and narcissistic, basically, and accuses Avril of emotionally manipulating her sons to reflect her own desires, which I’ll grant, but I think there’s a lot more to talk about here regarding the Moms) is just too diminutive; Holland clearly simplifies (that’s putting it mildly) Mario’s importance in the text; and she fails to allow for any ambiguity in Wallace’s prose (and the idea of ironizing irony goes right over her head). And just judging from the essay’s tone, she seems… almost out to get Wallace, intensely eager to trap him in his own words.
So what really is bothering me about this is actually the frame of this essay itself, its origins. Holland, like many others, myself included when I wrote on “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” last semester, shapes an essay on Wallace’s fiction based entirely upon his statements in the McCaffery interview and “E. Unibus Pluram.” She’s hellbent on judging IJ from this standpoint of, “but does it do what he said in the McCaffery interview?” I wonder if Holland hadn’t read the interview or the essay if she would have come to the same conclusions about IJ. I guess my question is, should we be reading IJ like this, reducing such a complex and engaging text down to whether or not it “failed” or “succeeded” in the context of Wallace’s statements in wholly separate, non-fiction works? Isn’t this a slight injustice? Should we maybe take the interview and the essay out from under the microscope at this point?
But, and I’m going completely against what I just said here, I still want to address Wallace’s stated goal – a return to literature being “a living transaction between humans.” While Holland proves to herself that the characters of IJ lock themselves within infantilized narcissistic loops and therefore lock themselves out of the world of sincere human transaction, she fails to recognize that the “transaction between humans” could refer to reader and writer rather than character and character. And in the domain of reader and writer, I would definitely contend that there’s a living transaction going on here between Wallace and us, even if we were to still look at the text through the lens of Holland’s infantilized, narcissistic reading.