David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture

I recently listened through several hours of old radio interviews with the late novelist David Foster Wallace, specifically of him talking about his epic novel, Infinite Jest, his layered response to American entertainment culture.

If a movie was so good it ruins you, would you watch it?

This is the central question DFW raises in his novel, not only what to do with lewd media, but what to do when media becomes so good and captivating that we lose all interest in our own lives?

Of those interviews, I was most impressed with one 11-minute chat he had in 1996 with Judith Strasser on her show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (Wisconsin Public Radio). Unable to find a transcript, I made one as part of my research. It should be online, and now is.

Full audio (download):

Lightly edited transcript:

DFW: The calendar’s been subsidized, so that dates appear with corporate names on them. The contemporary year that the action takes place in is called The Year of The Depend Adult Undergarment. Entertainment technology has progressed to the point where pretty much anything you want is available on a sort of, they’re called cartridges, like digital VCR things, and the U.S. is in a state of tension with, well let’s see, NATO has collapsed, and there’s a North American Alliance, but the U.S. and Canada are having heavy duty friction, partly due to the fact that the U.S. has toxified and then given away some of its terrain to Canada. People are essentially connected, I guess, in all the sorts of ways that the great champions of the Internet and information highway are so excited about now. The action is only about 10 or 15 years in the future, really.

Strasser: The people are really addicted to entertainment, aren’t they?

DFW: They are in the book. I think, perhaps, in a starker way in the book. I mean, the book is centered around a kind of movie that’s actually fatally good, but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s … I mean, it’s probably a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now, but I don’t think it’s all that different.

Strasser: Into this world that you’ve created comes Infinite Jest, the movie, and you’ve talked about Infinite Jest being fatal. What do you mean? What is Infinite Jest?

DFW: I think the standard agenda of any piece of entertainment is to be as entertaining as possible. The problem with the movie Infinite Jest is that it’s lethally entertaining, meaning watching it is so much more fun than doing anything else. Once somebody’s watched it once, they’re pretty much have the spiritual energies of a moth and want to do nothing more than watch it again and again and again until they die of, probably dehydration. Part of the plot of the book is that certain Canadian elements have gotten a hold of parts of this movie and want to broadcast it to the US. The question is whether U.S. citizens have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death or not.

Strasser: It sounds outlandish when you talk about it, but then I think about people who really enjoy something, particularly something that’s very, very funny and they say, “Oh, that just kills me. That slays me.”

DFW: Something that’s interesting to me is a lot of really ecstatic pleasure are linked interestingly sort of with death … The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then, in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible. It would seem to me, I mean, at some point in the next 10 or 15 years we’re going to have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about, given the level of people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peepshow stores now, I mean, what it’s going to be like and what sort of resources we’re going to have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry to keep from sort of dying on couches. I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the stuff’s going to get better and better and better and better and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say “yes” and “no” to.

Strasser: Do people understand the movie as something dangerous?

DFW: Well, part of the book concerns the U.S. government’s attempt to mount a sort of sufficiently scary PR campaign to keep people from watching it, but not a campaign so scary that it will make people rush out and want to see it for the same reasons that high school students now rush out to procure the latest, newest, horrible drug that’s supposed to be so ecstatic it blows your brains out.

Strasser: Or why the V-chip may backfire.

DFW: Yeah, I think the V-chip career is going to be very interesting. My prediction is the egg timer’s running on it right now. I think it’s got maybe a year.

Strasser: The government itself is walking this tightrope trying to say don’t watch it, but it’s not so bad that you have to watch it.

DFW: I think a lot of this sort of huggermugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot. That our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports and pretty much anything, are very personal, private that they’re sort of between us and our heart. There’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. In fact, I think what’s going to happen, I don’t think it’s all that hard to see. What’s going to happen is that these are decisions that are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.

Strasser: Although, the pressures on us are absolutely incredible. I was thinking in the world that we have today, you can’t have just TV news, you have to have entertaining TV news. You can’t have a documentary of plain old information. You have to have infotainment.

DFW: Well, I think the pressures aren’t just on us, but I think they’re on the TV networks, which are businesses in which have found out that entertaining news is vastly more profitable. The reason for that is that we, as an audience of individuals, seem to be voting with our wallets for the entertaining news and that the changes that are going to need to come, I think, are going to need to come in terms of our own individual taste rather than any sort of laws passed on the networks about violence or news content or anything like that. It just, I guess my point is, right now and I think the next 15 or 20 years are going to be a very scary and sort of very exciting time when we have to sort of reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.

Strasser: How did we get to this point? I mean, if you roll back the clock 50 years, certainly entertainment wasn’t one of our gods back then.

DFW: I think you can roll the clock back really thousands of years when you have arguments in Plato about what kinds of pleasures are more worthwhile than others. I mean, I know that in certain moods, when I’m tired or when I’m in some sort of pain, I want kind of infantile pleasures. I want to sit and receive pleasure without having to give anything or do anything.

Strasser: Oh, you just had me flashing on the amount of time I spend on Tetris on the computer.

DFW: Yeah, which the thing about it is that this stuff seems to me to be a little bit like candy. I mean, candy’s all right, a couple pieces of candy a day. When it becomes your diet, you get sick really fast. Part of our problem seems to be I think that, first of all, that the candy’s getting better and better and better and second of all, that I think somehow, we as a culture have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure it dangerous and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others and that part of being a human being means deciding how much of active participation we want to have in our own lives. I’m not trying to make it sound like I’m anti-TV or anti-entertainment. I just think that’s a really sort of exciting opportunity to decide whether our relationship to the world is going to fundamentally passive and infantile or one that’s sort of active and hard and takes more work.

Strasser: What I’m wondering is whether there’s anything in our culture, which encourages us to make the kinds of distinctions between pleasures, for example, that you’re saying we have to make?

DFW: Well, sure there is. The first leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide. Drug addiction, sexual addiction, gambling addiction in this country is epidemic. The divorce rate is sky high. People in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it. I mean, I think there’s plenty of incentive to reevaluate our relationship to the world and what we view as pleasure. The question I think is sort of an individual one is that what level of pain do we need to reach before we begin to be willing to undertake the work of that reevaluation.

Strasser: The 12-step programs aside, which your language in actually a lot of the book sort of reflects, it seems to be the Christian Right that is dealing with this question more than any other part of society.

DFW: Well, the Christian Right, I think, is a very scary and logical part of this. The Christian Right basically wants to take away the power of people’s choices to make their own decisions and want to make those choices for them. It seems to me that … I mean, I’m not a member of any 12-step program, but the reason why these programs interest me is because they seem to involve people who’ve sort of bottomed out on the great American way of life who are having now to sort of redefine and remake some kind of force that they’re going to give themselves away to. The Christian Right seems to me, I mean, the scariest thing about our relationship to pleasure and entertainment is that as we get more and more “decadent” and more and more unhappy, I think at a certain point, we are going to be desperate enough to have other people just tell us what to do that the form of fascism that I think goes under the name, the Christian Right, is going to look viable to a lot of people. I think it’s pretty scary.

Strasser: What does all of this reflection on entertainment and emphasis in the book … not in the book, but, I mean, in the world, our world, on entertainment and the connection of entertainment and commercialism, mean for you as a writer?

DFW: Boy, I don’t know. I mean, I can remember having arguments with my teachers all the way back in college because they regarded references to pop culture or references to our relationship to pop culture as kind of mannered in part of some sort of school. I don’t know how old your listeners are. I was born in 1962 and I grew up with television the same way I grew up with trees and parks and books. I mean, I sort of consider myself to be a realist and a lot of what I think seems very strange or kind of avant-gardish in the book is mostly just an attempt to be mimetic about how kind of the world feels against our nerve endings right now.

Strasser: Are you out to entertain with the book?

DFW: Well, this is one of the razor edges I felt like I was walking when doing it. This is a very long and fairly difficult book that I also wanted not to be a standard kind of avant-garde book, most of which right now I admire as a writer, but just aren’t very much fun to read. I wanted it to be both long and difficult, but also to be fun enough so the reader wouldn’t throw it at the wall on page a hundred. I realize that sets up certain ironies since the book itself is about entertainment.

Note to any reader who wants to read the sprawling novel Infinite Jest. It does contain several brilliant insights into human nature, but the work is long and tedious and intricate, a plot structure fabricated by a math-competent novelist and inspired by Wacław Sierpiński’s gasket, a fractal triangle! If you do make the attempt, be forewarned, you’re more likely to be frustrated than rewarded on first read.

The Cross and Entertainment

tsslogo.jpg“… In our entertainment-saturated culture we find another kind of gospel, however — the gospel of avoidance. And this gospel is about putting our faith in distractions. We use entertainment to save ourselves from the pain of our lives. Unlike the real gospel, though, the ‘good news’ of entertainment doesn’t truly save us from our problems. It only masks them, helps us repress them. Keeps us from becoming the men God created us to be.

Rather than going to the cross, many of us take our wounds to our computers, TVs or game consoles and say, ‘Here, you take them.’ And all these technologies oblige … for a time. At some point, though, we have to press the off button, go to class and face the challenges of the world outside our entertainment bubble. What do we do then? Distract ourselves to such a degree that we haven’t got the time to ponder what’s really going on in our lives?

That’s the gospel of avoidance. And for too many of us, it’s our only saving grace. …”

– Matthew John, Entertainment: The Gospel of Avoidance

God’s wrath and horror films

best-horror-films.jpgIn light of our recent discussion over Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) it occurred to me that John Calvin may help us answer the following questions:

– Where does a fear of God’s judgment arise in the natural man?

– Are sinners fearful of His wrath because the preacher builds up to a rhetorical climax of graphic content or is something greater at work?

– In our contemporary society — saturated with horror films, horror books and graphic entertainment — will a sermon on God’s wrath be marginalized to fictional fairytale?

These are serious concerns for the preacher and evangelist.

Early in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) Calvin addresses God’s judgment as a way to prove that knowledge of God is etched on the hearts of all men. He writes,

“One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula [Roman emperor between A.D. 37-41]; yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus – albeit unwillingly – he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf [cf. Lev. 26:36]. Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams” (1.3.2; 1:45).

God’s presence remains close enough to even the hardest of sinners, close enough that God occasionally fills the sinners thoughts with a foretaste of His coming wrath. It may be silent for a time, but then this knowledge “rushes in with new force” like God’s immediate presence overcoming the Old Testament sinner (see Lev. 26:36). To put this more biblically, Paul in Romans 1:28-32 writes,

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

After explaining that “death” here cannot be limited to physical death, John Murray writes, “The most degraded of men, degraded because judicially abandoned of God, are not destitute of the knowledge of God and of his righteous judgments” [The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans: 1959) 1:52]. There are ever-present reminders that God is holy, that all sin must be punished, and that sinners are rightfully consumed by the second death. Somewhere in the recesses of the conscience, all sinners are reminded that a propensity to gossip is quickening God’s wrath. And this wrath is fully justified.

What all this suggests is that – while we appropriately stand in amazement at the work of God in blessing the sermons of Jonathan Edwards to spark revival – the true power of a sermon on God’s judgment is the divine whisper in our conscience that all of us rightfully deserve God’s wrath. Because of this profound universal truth, we cannot think that preaching graphic sermons on God’s judgment compete with the entertainment industry, or that these sermons will be marginalized by our hearers to the status of fiction.

As creatures of God, we are etched with His image. When the movie concludes, we resume our busy lives. When the sermon concludes, sinners remain under His authority and bound to the inescapable reality that all sinners deserve to face God’s wrath.

I cannot help but pause for a moment to note what incredibly dead hearts we have as sinners! We even encourage and approve of other sinners in their self-condemnation (v. 32). It must be a great Savior to save great sinners, self-condemned and patting others in approval of their self-condemnation. Indeed, Christ has saved us from ourselves, saved us from God’s judgment, saved us from our guilt and due penalty! He was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10). What grace and mercy that sinners self-condemned now live in hope!

My simple conclusion is this: Sermons on God’s judgment will remain distinct from horror film entertainment because terrifying fiction and terrifying wrath are not easily confused. If anything, the horrors of graphic imagery seen on the big screen will stretch the sinner’s minds to the unfathomable terrors of God’s wrath to come. Preachers should unashamedly expound all of Scripture — which includes the graphic nature of hell — with the confidence that our sovereign God is already at work speaking to every soul.