One of the sad things about reading is that it always ends. Usually that's to be expected, but it's still sad.
I just finished reading Infinite Jest, DFW's 1,100 page novel. The thing took me 2.5 months to read. That's a full quarter of a year, if the year only had ten months. Point is, I spent a long time reading this book, and I spent many hours with these characters. The characters became my friends, but not in the creepy way. (I promise, not in the creepy way.) But one of the really nice things about literature is that I get an inside look into the thoughts of a whole range of characters. In real life, I am privy only to my own thoughts, and I only understand my own motivations and goals. But, for example, at the end of Moby Dick, I felt disappointed that they failed in their quest because I'd been along for the ride, and I invested a whole lot of myself into the reading process. And, similarly, I have always thought of Ishmael as the most relatable character in literature because he interprets his world very much through his own eyes, very much like how I interpret my own world. We may have lost track of the point here, which was: it's sad when literature ends.
The really important French thinker named Jean-François Lyotard set out to define postmodernism, and he went about doing that through a pretty cool understanding of language. He wrote this book, upon the request of the Canadian government, called The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He argues that each community—no matter how small—develops a language to suit its needs. A language community may consist of all speakers of a given language, or all those familiar with a certain dialect. On a smaller scale, academics follow certain rules in the language they utilize, as do doctors, lawyers, movie producers and football coaches. It is this recognition of language as a highly developed game subject to certain unnamed rules, Lyotard argues, that allows for the reexamination of art and literature, for, if the rules are constructed and not natural, they may be safely ignored. What happens to the game when people stop playing by the rules?
This critical inspection of art and literature was propelled forward by important technological advances:
The greatest challenge lay in the fact that photographic and cinematic processes could accomplish better and faster—and with a diffusion a hundred thousand times greater than was possible for pictorial and narrative realism—the task that academism had assigned to realism: protecting consciousness from doubt. Industrial photography and cinema always have the edge over painting and the novel when it is a matter of stabilizing the referent, of ordering it from a point of view that would give it recognizable meaning…since the structures in these images and sequences form a code of communication among them all. So effects of reality—or the phantasms of realism, if you prefer—are multiplied.It is this stark realization of the limits of their chosen medium which led painters and novelists to “question the rules of the art of painting and narration as learned and received from their predecessors. They soon find that such rules are so many methods of deception, seduction and reassurance that make it impossible to be ‘truthful.’” Those “artists and writers who agree to question the rules of the plastic and narrative arts” are faced with a blank canvass of possibility. Their art may consist of anything and everything, even a urinal. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain may be the most obvious outcome of a lawless art community, and Lyotard, makes use of this example: “The Duchampian readymade does no more than signify, actively and parodically, this continual process of the dispossession of the painter’s craft, and even the artist’s.” What, then, is the purpose of art, if mechanical processes can produce more striking and realistic reproductions and if the rules governing art are recognized for their artifice? Quite simply, “the question of modern aesthetics is not ‘What is beautiful?’ but ‘What is art to be (and what is literature to be)?’”
In the realm of literature, postmodern writers have, in large measure, adopted this question as their own, as they have devoted countless novels to stretching and defining the boundaries of what a novel may be. The meaning of literature can never be divorced from the form it takes, and it is therefore no surprise that writers have examined the limits of the novel through the very medium which they are investigating.
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is formatted in an interesting yet ultimately conventional way. The story is framed as a historical document from the personal collection of Dr. Yu Tsun, a protagonist in the events which caused a delay of nearly two weeks of the Allied offensive against the Serb-Montauban Line during the First World War. Borges breaks free from the constraints of literature entirely through the content of his narrative. Borges, in this story, describes the Labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen. Ts’ui Pen, it is related, constructed both a labyrinth and a book, and it took more than one hundred years after his death for Dr. Stephen Albert to discover that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same. Albert believed, also, that Ts’ui Pen “had intended to construct a labyrinth which was truly infinite.” Until the research of Albert, the book had been regarded as a “contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts,” for, “in the third chapter the hero dies, yet in the fourth he is alive again.”
Albert, before landing on the correct understanding of Ts’ui Pen’s truly infinite book, proposed several theories:
The only way I could surmise was that it be a cyclical, or circular, volume, a volume whose last page would be identical to the first, so that one might go on indefinitely. I also recalled that at the centre of the 1000 Nights, when the queen Scheherazade (through some magical distractedness on the part of the copyist) begins to retell, verbatim, the story of the 1001 Nights, with the risk of returning once again to the night on which she is telling it—and so on, ad infinitum. I also pictured to myself a platonic, hereditary sort of work, passed down from father to son, in which each new individual would add a chapter or with reverent care correct his elders’ pages.Albert, however, was not satisfied with these theories, for they failed to align, he believed, with a discovered letter fragment written by Ts’ui Pen, which states: “I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.” This letter propelled Albert to the authentic understanding of a novel which is truly infinite:
Almost instantly, I saw it—the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘several futures (not all)’ suggested to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space…In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts’ui Pen, the character chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures,’ several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel’s contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at his door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes—Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts’ui Pen’s novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for future bifurcations.Novels which conform to the rules of their genre—and to the rules of literature, in general—are finite. Borges, in the course of one short story, introduces four variations of an infinite novel. Although he does not compose an infinite novel utilizing any of the options outlined in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” innovative novels—which expand the horizons of what literature may be—form the heart of this work of fiction.
One of the really cool things about Infinite Jest is that you can't really understand the first chapter until you've read the rest of the book. It's a nice little cyclical move that keeps the book alive and almost got me to start rereading the book. Maybe—like Borges’s story—literature doesn't have to end.