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Divided Attention and Being in the Body

I took this note on page 146 (the part about video phones):

DFW is concerned here and elsewhere (Mister Squishy) with divided attention — yet look what the full attention of The Entertainment yields.

What I was reacting to was this:

A traditional aural-only conversation… let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles… all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided…. The bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it.

He goes on to write about childish self-absorption and the “infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention.” Tangential as this little section seems (almost like a little bit of filler that helps provide some context for the just-barely-future world of the novel), it actually seems to tie in with the infantilizing effect of The Entertainment.

How about JOI’s father’s monologue? What an amazing, sad, funny, unlikely thing. Nobody really talks the way this speaker does, and yet it’s hard not to visualize it happening and to believe it. I always think of John Turturro playing this role.

My first post about the book proper was about being trapped. In this section, we see things like this:

  • “Living in your body” (158)
  • “Head is body” (159)
  • “a machine in the ghost” (160)
  • “That’s my kid, in his body.” (164)
  • “I was in my body. My body and I were one.” (165)
  • “The court becomes a … an extremely unique place to be. It will do everything for you. It will let nothing escape your body.” (166)
  • “It was a foreign body, or a substance, not my body” (167)
  • “We’re just bodies to you.” (167 – 168)
  • “That I was in there” (168)

Flash back to early in the book, where Hal says “I am in here.” I don’t have a thesis about what all this means. I do have yet another quote, though, this time from the Kenyon commencement address Wallace gave a few years ago:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Almost immediately after saving a draft of this post, I went and read the latest post over at Infinite Summer and discovered that Eden had excerpted from the same part of Wallace’s speech. I swear I’m not just a copy cat. Whether I have a fleshed-out thesis or not, it’s hard for me not to see some thematic similarities between this part of Wallace’s speech and the two sections of the past week’s milestone that I wanted to comment on: divided attention, being (trapped?) in your body/head, a sort of narcissism/solipsism and its infantilizing outcome, the perils of giving yourself too fully to something (The Entertainment, pot, whatever) versus dividing your attention to some degree, and how all that relates to how to think and how to be.

  1. Michael Namikas
    July 7, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    JOI’s father’s speech to his son was one of the most stunning parts of the book thus far, and I think your post, particularly your quotations of DFW’s speech, really sheds some light on the book’s themes. Great post.

  2. July 8, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I definitely agree that JOI’s father’s speech is one of the most stunning parts so far. Thanks for your kind comment. 🙂

  3. July 8, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    I’m totally with you that there seem to be clear thematic parallels between the Kenyon speech and IJ. I’m also with you that John Turturro would be excellent in that role.

    I had to keep reminding myself that this is JOI’s father (and not JOI, as we’ve been following the Hal-JOI connection for a while now and JOI’s own father has only been mentioned once or twice in passing). There seem to be some similarities in that those two relationships, too, though that’s not surprising.

    This is shaping up to be a novel about how to live a good life: how to commit to something without fanaticism, how to have interests that are varied but not scattered, how to learn from failure, how to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of human experience without descending into solipsism and/or narcissism.

    Even at this early point (I’m on 176), it seems to me a novel deeply concerned with ethics, and specifically with the ethics of living, in the phrase of the ancient philosophers, “the good life” as opposed, merely, to the pursuit of happiness. (I mean that the life well lived contains happiness and that chasing happiness itself is a sure way never to attain it.)

    • Colette
      July 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm

      Beautiful post. thanks for your thinking!

  4. July 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Well said, wheat! I have the same tendency to confuse JOI and his father, and I suspect that’s intentional. There’s the bit in the professional conversationalist wherein Hal mentions his crazy dad drinking booze and pitching over sideways while doing dawn drills, and thinking back to that makes this section feel very familiar indeed (or vice versa, in a premonitive way).

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