This year I completed an imperative task in the life of a voracious reader: I started (and finished) David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. While I’ve long been familiar with Wallace’s essay “Water”, a commencement speech given to Kenyon College graduates, I began Infinite Jest with very few expectations of what I was getting into.
Expectations or not, what I got was one of the most challenging yet ultimately enjoyable reading experiences of my life. And what came afterwards, pushing the tome aside, wishing vehemently that the book wasn’t over just yet, was a prolonged and continuing infatuation with Dave Wallace and the tragedy of his early death. I read Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s novel-length account qua interview with Wallace. I read handfuls of Wallace’s essays. I read interviews. I transcribed passages that I was eager to preserve and reread at will.
In various interviews, Wallace ventured to say that Infinite Jest is about loneliness. One of the ways this topic manifests in the book is through the character Hal, who despite being exceptionally talented is continually unsure and hyperaware of his abilities and image amongst his peers. In a particular passage that has stuck closely with me, Wallace discusses anhedonia—an inability to feel pleasure—and its relationship to self-image and acceptance.
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. […] Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip.
This viewpoint meshes well with my memories of childhood and primary school. To be cool was to be somehow stoic and immune to the pathetic worries of your lesser, book-smart, do-gooder peers. You see the stereotype everywhere: the popular kids who simply can not be bothered to care. They ride above it all, and their apathy sets them on a golden pedestal amongst their peers.
In the same passage, though, Wallace narrates Hal’s personal suspicions.
Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.
The emphasis in the quoted passage above is my own, for it’s the very phrase that nearly stole the air from my lungs when I first read this. It continues to make me smile no matter the number of times I re-read it.
Since first reading the passage I have realized in myself a tendency to edit my emotion. It’s a tendency that, I believe, we all have to varying degrees. We edit our emotions for various reasons: to fit into a certain group of people; to maintain an image of professionalism or maturity; to appear sexy and sophisticated; to exude intelligence. In certain ways we, as adults, never stop trying to emulate those popular kids in high school, feigning nonchalance so as to suggest that we too are hip. We too are cool.
Here’s what I think: no amount of cynicism and avoidance of raw emotion will bring us closer to each other. When we project our organic, unrefined selves, our unfiltered affections, we are seen more fully by those around us. We invite others to share in those unfettered feelings and we come to know each other better, ultimately creating far more meaningful, deep personal connections. Perhaps most importantly, it paves the way for love.
So keep your hip ennui. I’m going to let my emotions pour forth, dragging myself around, eyes wet and absolutely, unavoidably sentimental.