Mario Incandenza, the Embarrassment of the Real, and the (Non-) Reality of Evil

I have just finished David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, disturbing, terrifying, sad, funny, and very, very, long novel Infinite Jest. It follows what seems like hundreds of characters in an elite tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation center, various Quebecois terrorist cells, etc. in the near future. The amazing thing is the way Wallace takes you into the various characters and gives you, so to speak, the flavor of their lives. He has an amazing ear for spoken language, for the way people actually talk, with all its hesitation and grammatical inconsistency, and through that he is able to show what it is like to live in our world. Above all he shows with terrifying clarity what it is to live “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), what it is to be enslaved to the idols of the visible world, and what concrete form the simulacra gentium take in late capitalist America. And that is why a lot of it is really disturbing. In fact sometimes I found myself thinking it was to much; there are some things which it is simply better not to know. Felix Genn, the great bishop of Münster, once interpreted Rev 2:24 (“as many as have not this teaching, which know not the deep things of Satan, as they say; I cast upon you none other burden”) to mean that there are certain things which it is better not to look into. It is better to look at evil from a distance, to see it from a perspective from which its nothingness is most apparent— Tolkien is the master of the literary portrayal of evil in this mode. No one who reads Tolkien can doubt the clarity of his view of evil comes from remarkable personal innocence. Reading DFW on the other hand one has the sense that one is dealing with someone who has eaten way to much poisoned fruit… So, I abandoned Infinite Jest several times, but I kept on coming back to it.

Wallace was writing for an audience totally insulated against a Tolkienesque approach to literature: the post-modern avant-garde. In the above video he explains that he uses the techniques of post-modern literature to address ‘traditional human verities’ about spirituality and community and other ideas which the avant-garde would find very passé. I mentioned below that this presents him with certain problems. The basic paradox (and he was very much aware of this) is that the formal techniques that he employs were developed partly to mock the very idea of ‘traditional verities;’ post-modern literature is largely about seeing through the pretenses of supposed ‘truth,’ its ironic tone is aimed at exposing the hidden power-structures and manipulation that underlie supposed ‘verities.’

The most innocent character (in a Tolkienesque way) in Infinite Jest is Mario Incandenza, the severely handicapped second son of the Tennis Academy’s founder. Wallace is describes how Mario is puzzled by the way post-modern irony makes it embarrassing to talk about “real stuff:”

Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madam Psychosis [radio] programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you love dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. [the tennis academy] over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. (p. 592).

In contrast at the drug rehab center, Ennet house, Mario finds that people have no problem talking about ‘real stuff:’

Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet house Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell that they were worried inside. (591)

The drug addicts have come to the end of their tether and they are desperate enough to shed their disguises. And that is why Wallace goes into the gruesome details of their predicament; he shows how their addictions are simply more evident versions of the same enslavement to idols that the cool tennis academy people are stuck in. I hope to discuss the central topic of idolatry more in future posts, but I want to end with Wallace’s amazing ability to enter into Mario’s innocent view of evil. Here is a wonderful passage which shows Mario’s experiential grasp of evil-as-privation-of-due-good. Mario is thinking about his brilliant but no-longer innocent brother Hal:

He can’t tell if Hal is sad. He is having a harder and harder time reading Hal’s mind or whether he’s in good spirits. This worries him. He used to be able to sort of pre-verbally know in his stomach generally where Hal was and what he was doing, even if Hal was far away and playing or if Mario was away, and now he can’t anymore. Feel it. This worries him and feels like when you’ve lost something important in a dream and you can’t even remember what it was but it’s important. Mario loves Hal so much it makes his heart beat hard. He doesn’t have to wonder if the difference now is him or his brother because Mario never changes. (590)

Tolkien and the Common Good

Author_Century_paperback Tom Shippey’s book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author Century is largely an apologetic work; it is a defense of Tolkien against literary critics who despise him as a romantic escapist whose mock archaic epics are unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the psychological explorations of “modernist” fiction. Shippey argues that is is in fact the “modern” which out of touch with reality and the “archaic” which is real. One argument that he brings for this has to do with the contrast between the private and the public:

Nevertheless, although [Tolkien’s concern] is not with the private and the personal (the themes of the ‘modernist’ novel), but with the public and the political, it should be obvious that to all but the sheltered classes of this century, the most important events in private lives (and even more, in deaths) have often been public and political. It is those who turn away from that thought, prefer to remain in what Graves called the ‘drawing room’ areas of literary tradition, who are in ‘flight from reality’. (p.xxxi)

Shippey should go farther though. That the “public” does touch what is most important in human lives is not just a consequence of its habit of ending them, but more importantly it follows from the primacy of the common good: the most important human goods are not private goods. Tolkien himself saw this quite clearly. In a lecture some years ago my father made this point:

We meet Frodo immersed in the ordinary life of a Hobbit. Step by step he discovers the significance of the ring he inherited from Bilbo. The ring is not a local matter. It touches the lives of all in Middle-earth. The quest on which this discovery sends him brings him into contact with concerns that are much larger than those that had moved him in the Shire. His quest is not a merely personal quest. It cannot be understood in terms of pop-psychology as a quest of finding himself. What he finds is much larger than himself and he understands himself more and more as a part of that larger whole. […] Frodo’s quest is therefore defined by a great and noble common good, a political good. This transition of Frodo from a private individual with a small radius of life to one who loves the common good of the kingdom established in Middle-earth is one of the most beautiful events in The Lord of the Rings. It corresponds to the rhythm of increase found at the beginning of the Silmarillion, at the very root of Middle-earth. A small story is suddenly enlarged into a story that has greatness, splendor and glory.

And there is another piece of evidence that the primacy of the common good is pretty much the hermeneutic key to the universe, as anyone who has read Charles De Koninck’s sapiential book on that principle will agree.

(Of course, not every author who is interested in the ‘public’ in Shippey’s sense uses an ‘archaic’ style. David Foster Wallace’s work, for example, turned a lot on the contrast between private and common good, but uses the most ‘advanced’ technique, and that presents him with certain difficulties…)