Infantile Fantasy in Infinite Jest

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.

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2 Responses to Infantile Fantasy in Infinite Jest

  1. mattdice says:

    First off, I think it is a little refreshing to see a critique of Wallace’s work. Not that I think he isn’t a great writer (he is really great) but it’s things like this that shake up our perceptions and make us step back and think again, “okay, but why and how is he so great?” and we gain whole new insights. I think Wallace would agree that we shouldn’t get too complacent with our opinions.

    It is kind of hard to see how using irony ironically isn’t the sign of an irony addict. I think that if someone with the intelligence and mindset of Wallace was addicted to irony, he/she would logically distill irony into an even purer form or ironic irony. That being said, from the McCaffery interview we know that Wallace was a proponent of rebels and revolution, and that his goals for literature were not only a return to sentimentality, but also for “serious” art to mean something deeper. Wallace praises pioneers in the past for paving the way for us, and said that what those visionaries did was brave and hard. By “ironizing irony” Wallace probably was trying to be a pioneer himself, by writing the masterpiece of ironic fiction so that there would be no further way to improve upon it, and future authors would have no choice but to write non-ironic works.

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  2. festsjester says:

    I think it’s hilarious that nearly the entire class has taken up the opinion that Holland has completely misread what Wallace was trying to do and how he was doing it. Though I haven’t read the article myself, based on what you’re saying and what’s been discussed in class, it does seem like Holland made some misinterpretations, particularly involving his supposedly unconscious placement of several different scenes involving infants and infantile characters. Though it would be interesting to entertain (pun intended) the idea of Wallace inserting all this baby scenery without even realizing it. What would this say about Wallace? What would this say about the novel itself?
    However, it seems unlikely. It seems somewhat of a shame to me that one of the few criticisms of Wallace’s work is so misdirected. I would enjoy reading a criticism that had well founded problems with the work itself, which I’m sure exist, but don’t know the location of.
    As far as the things being said themselves, I mostly agree with you and disagree with Holland. At least insomuch as how you’re describing it. Though Avril is a point of interest. I certainly don’t think she’s a simple character by any means, though I do definitely think she’s guilty of parental narcissism. Though if Holland claims this is true because she’s not as complex as a rubik’s cube with six shades of black on the sides, then she’s far off. That being said, she is most definitely guilty of narcissism, particularly when you observe her layers deep style of interacting with and controlling her kids. The infant theme’s are also strong in this book to the point that I wonder if Holland may be trying to say something other than what she’s saying overtly. Perhaps ironically? I would have to read Holland in order to see if there’s any way to interpret it that way, but based on everyone’s reaction, it’s face deep.

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