Timothy Jacobs, “The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace”

This essay is densely packed with quotes from Infinite Jest, various interviews with Wallace, writings from Hopkins, and statements from other literary scholars. I found myself having to jump frequently back and forth between Jacobs’ writing and his endnotes to keep up with who he was quoting(and in what context), amusingly mirroring my experience with IJ itself.

I’m extremely unfamiliar with Hopkins, so I have to take Jacobs’ word here, but the comparison of Wallace with Hopkins seems to be a good one in terms of their works’ interactivity with the reader. Jacobs points out that Hopkins’ sprung rhythm requires quite a bit of work on the part of his audience to decipher his poems, and I’m sure no one in this class would argue that Wallace’s work has taken quite a bit of intellectual (and physical!) work to unpack, even to our limited extent.

I’ll be perfectly honest in saying that I’m having trouble engaging with this essay. I’ve had to read it several times to get any sort of grasp over what Jacobs was trying to say, and I’m still largely at a loss. I can outright say that I disagree with his notion that Wallace’s text presents a “singular message”(Jacobs). We’ve seen through our own interpretations and our in-class discussions that this simply isn’t the case, that Wallace is engaged with a variety of different subjects.

Jacobs’ proposed “singular message” is what I’m having the most trouble with unpacking, although our most recent discussions helped push me forward on this subject significantly. I believe he’s trying to argue that Wallace, like Hopkins before him, valued the formal structure of the written word very highly. It takes a kind of discipline and focus to communicate within the predefined limits of language, and that technical proficiency within a writer’s chosen medium is more admirable than “this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination”(McCaffery, from an interview with Wallace).

That being said, Wallace is clearly not advocating a shift towards mindlessly technical writing. Rather, he’s challenging the idea of writers pushing the aesthetic of their work without also communicating meaningfully with their audiences. In my opinion, Jacobs passed up quite possibly the best example of this within IJ by neglecting to talk about Avril’s character. Here, we have a mother who adheres perfectly to textbook notions of parenting, to a fault. She repeatedly tells her children that they can come to her with anything, never presses them for information, never asks them about subjects unless they first bring them up(so as not to overstep her role), etc. And yet despite these things, she’s a pretty terrible mother. Her motherly aesthetic lacks the sincerity that Wallace is arguing for, so although she is technically proficient at the science of motherhood, she fails to support her family in the way that she tries so hard to appear like she’s doing. Her efforts are spent in appearing like a good mother, rather than in actually being one.

This is problematic in art because it undermines its entire purpose. For Wallace, art is to be a mechanism for us to communicate meaningfully, to defy the sense of loneliness that television outright denies(McCaffery, same interview). To that end, no amount of technical ability or proficiency will save us from this growing isolation, but neither will raw expression without structure. A truly great and meaningful work must have the disciplined structure wielded by the Moms combined with the complete sincerity of Mario.

I have a feeling there’s quite a lot more going on in this essay that I haven’t picked up on yet, and despite(or maybe because of) the trouble I’m having with it I felt like it was a worthwhile read.

tl;dr: Jacobs’ essay is a good place to look for a discussion on literary sincerity in IJ. If you need a source for a conversation about author-reader relationships, or author-author relationships, this is a good one to look at.

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1 Response to Timothy Jacobs, “The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace”

  1. endorphinique says:

    It seems as though your article deals more about form than content? I feel like, along with Avril’s insincerity in her role as a parent, we should also look at Avril’s occupation and values. She headed the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Avril is all about that technical proficiency in writing. The rules of communication, to her, are very concrete and should be adhered to for proper understanding.

    I also want to push on your/Jacobs’ assertion that “art is to be a mechanism for us to communicate meaningfully.” A good foil to Avril is James O. Incandenza, right? He’s an artist through and through, but the art he creates is art that he laughs at critics for finding meaning in them (at least when talking about the Found Dramas).

    So Wallace uses these two extremes to give us . . . what exactly? Mario Incandenza? That a balance needs to be achieved in art for it to be received meaningfully? This seems too simplistic an idea for Wallace to want his spend his time on, and I’m trying to find other conclusions he’s trying to make by placing these two characters in a marriage together.


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