infinite gist: the things in life we’ve already learned and won’t go back to
November 19, 2012 § 7 Comments
I made a new friend at work. He is much smarter than I am and insists to discuss topics that I had not dared to discuss with others. Perhaps it is not fair to say that I “dare not” because I did, in fact, dare, but rarely did I have to cite examples or quote authors in most of the day-to-day conversations I have. Deep discussions I have lean more towards the philosophical and rarely the factual. As much as I would like to say that I am a smart guy, I have no empirical evidence to prove this point.
I’ve fought too hard to be known as anything other than what I am: A lazy, drunken, immature, silly, goofy, fuck-up.
However, that doesn’t mean that I have entirely given up on bettering my education. I consider going back to school quite often, usually fantasizing about a degree in Astronomy thanks to my recent fascination with the Universe and what makes us so totally us. If I could actually learn facts about the stars and the blackness and combine that knowledge with my passion and experience in writing, then perhaps I could actually make a difference. Perhaps then my life would have a meaning greater than the meaning I have spent most of my life work towards: Making people shoot milk out of their noses with dick jokes.
One of the ways that my new work friend has encouraged me to expand my proficiency of what it is to be an intellectual is through the work of David Foster Wallace. My first initial thought when my friend, we’ll call him Matthew (because that’s his name), said the name of this author was that Wallace was definitely a name I had heard before. That he must have written poetry or perhaps a great novel of the 20th century. Just the fact that I had no idea that he grew to popularity in the 90s, that he was not yet 50 when he committed suicide a few years ago, or that he killed himself at all, is undeniable proof that I am so far removed from the world of higher learning that it might as well be as far away as the planet that is not a planet, Pluto.
I ask Matthew, “Should I read Infinite Jest, then?”
“Oh no. Definitely not. Try his essays first and work your way up.”
“What could be so hard about reading a novel?”
I didn’t have to get through (or attempt to get through) many of his essays before realizing exactly what he meant and why so many have perhaps tried and failed ‘David Foster Wallace’. Not because he was not genius, but because he was operating on a level above most of the rest of us. The part of him that so apparently made him one of the best authors of his generation and perhaps decades from now will be held in a regard higher than what he already is, his prognostications and feelings towards the world seem almost too perfect to not hold true. Now, I say that like now I am some sort of David Foster Wallace expert and that’s about as true as me being an expert on the climate changes of Jupiter; I’m neither of those. But I do have an early fascination with both, a preoccupation with fostering this need for more knowledge on each subject. Not because I have to. Not necessarily because I even want to. But only because I feel like there’s going to be a certain way that we all spend the rest of our hours here, and that seems like the best way I can fill mine. Even if we’ll never get an understanding of why we are here, we can at least attempt to get a better understanding of why we are here.
So I trudge through Wallace essays one by one, trying my best to attain knowledge and not only knowledge on the work of Wallace, but knowledge of everything. That’s the best part about it, his essays are a double-edged sword that bring you enlightenment on both the author and the subject. A rare quality indeed.
As such, I was reading this essay on television, entitled: “E unibus pluram: Television and U.S. fiction”
Could a title be a more fitting representation of it’s content? E unibus pluram; Out of many, one. The Latin phrase might be on the Great Seal of the United States, but if you polled 100 people on the streets of the Great United States, how many could tell you the meaning? For Wallace, it was likely as simple as an average American of 1999 saying, “He had sex with my MAMA!” It was at the tip of the pen for him, at the end of a Google search for many others. And so too would be half the words in the essay, to the point where each “difficult” word would be highlighted so that you could scroll over for definition. Except for me, not nearly enough words were highlighted. I was still befuddled.
Megametrically. Deus ex machina. Phosphenes. Turgid. Elision. Fecund.
I grabbed a few example (it only took a few dozen seconds) words that I would need the definition for. Words that half of which still have squiggly red lines holding them up above this sentence, so that they would not fall down below and crash into other words. Yet I can’t deny the beauty of them. How I long to work ‘Megametrically’ into a sentence of my own one day, besides this very one. How I yearn to create descriptions such as this one, one of the most perfect sentences I have ever read:
“Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.”
Oh fuck you, DFW. Damn you for having the ability to write something so incredibly apt, complicated and simple. It’s the perfect description. The words stand side by side like the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. And best of all, I have seen, read, and defined all of the words in that sentence. It’s like getting Final Jeopardy right after having a terrible night at answering answers from the first two rounds. I know these words. That doesn’t make it a better sentence, just because it appeals to the non-intellectual like myself, or a wordsmith that’s not even amateur. It just makes it a beautiful sentence that I can read over and over again, without referencing dictionary.com. That’s all.
To be one, that would seem to imply that I’ve made an attempt at being a wordsmith at all and I absolutely have never done that. When I was a kid, I once tried to read the dictionary, as many kids are wont to do. Perhaps I made it a couple of pages. How many kids in the country have ever read the dictionary definition of Aardvark? It must be the most-read definition in history. But that’s as far as it goes. I didn’t read a lot of high-brow novels, I never pushed myself to seek answers beyond the page. If I read a word I didn’t understand, I did what most kids do and used the context to get the gist of it. How many of us have gotten the gist of many big words without ever getting a full understanding of it’s meaning?
Megametrically… I get the gist. I know ‘Mega’ and I know ‘Metric’ and I understand what ‘ally’ does to a sentence, plus I read the words around it. This has something to do with ‘MegaMan vs Metroid’!
And that’s when I told Matthew how much I have enjoyed reading Wallace, and also just how damn difficult it is. Now I understand why reading Infinite Jest would be instead like reading through the ‘Infinite Gist.’ I wondered to myself, “Can this be done?” Not now, this much I know for certain. But could I be ready some day? Will I ever have the acumen to get through a thousand-page science fiction novel filled with words that I don’t understand and also because pages on a book don’t grant you the opportunity to hover over for definitions? That’s when I had to come to this conclusion:
I’ve already learned words. I don’t know how much more I’ve got left in me.
It’s funny how as children we learn so much and yet have no memory of doing so. I can tell you where I was when I learned the story behind Olympic cheater Ben Johnson, because I watched a documentary on ESPN a few weeks ago. I can tell you where I was when I first watched Vertigo and learned more about the catalog and style of Alfred Hitchock. I can tell you where I was when I first told a girl that I loved her.
What I can’t do is tell you where or when I first learned that green is green. Or what the state capital of Virginia is. Or that a cow says ‘Moo’. Or that I’m 100% sure what the state capital of Virginia is even today. (I want to say Norfolk. Oh shit, I am wrong! Sorry, Richmond!) And I certainly can’t tell you anything about how I learned the definition of any of the words that I am typing now or when I learned how to use these words. It just happened. It’s like how your computer downloads an update in the background without you ever being acutely aware that it ever happened. All you know is that your computer is up-to-date or that you’ve got a virus and ‘Lots of sexy ladies in your area want to meet up now!’ We can’t go back and expound on the moments, typically, of when we learned a word just like we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how we learned to eat or breathe. We just do. I don’t know how I know the word ‘the’, I just do. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn what a ‘deus ex machina’ is or that I don’t want to know what it is since it sounds so sexy, it just means that retaining new information like that is so much harder now than it was when I was six.
When it comes to learning something so mundane and simple as words, am I eternally doomed to ignorance?
Of course not. There is just as much opportunity to learn new words as there is to read the Harry Potter novels, to see a play, to finish a crossword puzzle, or to find out the mysteries of another galaxy. If I can pretend like it’s possible to go back to school and become an astronomer, then it is absolutely possible that I can expand my vocabulary from a few hundred words (which I assume it is) to a few thousand (which I assume is the maximum possible.) It’s only a matter of taking the time and exhausting the effort to do so.
I just have chosen not to exhaust the effort. Not now, but not not ever. By reading through David Foster Wallace, I am committing myself to a life that won’t be ignorant of the existence of the words, even if I sometimes choose the gist over the total understanding. Eventually the gist will have to make way for the truth, if I were to ever dream, or dare to at least, to make it through a 1000-page opus like Infinite Jest or another several years of schooling. Such is the course we must decide to take on the remaining hours of our journey here.
For whatever that may mean to each of us, megametrically and otherwise.