Watching to Death by Tom Winchester

Watching to Death by Tom Winchester

The Entertainment is arguably what drives forward, or at least ties together, most of the narrative in in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. Everyone seems to be looking for it or has something to do with its creation, and the reader is only offered hints regarding what it contains. The author’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center contains manuscripts showing the development of the Entertainment during the creative process and books that may have inspired its characteristics. These books include Pursuits of Happiness, What is Art? and The Cinema Book. When the annotations therein are combined with statements by Wallace, including those in his essay, “E Unibus Pluram,” and his interview with David Lipsky titled, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, they provide some clues as to where Wallace found inspiration for the film that no one can stop watching.

To begin with, it may be helpful to define Wallace’s understanding of entertainment. In his interview with David Lipsky, Wallace mentions film theorist Stanley Cavell’s 1981 book, Pursuit of Happiness, which, in its introduction, implores those who think film is mere entertainment to reconsider. Cavell makes this point by first saying, “I am aware that there are those…who are satisfied that they know what film is, that it is, for example, a commodity like any other, or a visual medium of popular entertainment (as compared with what?).” [1] He then proceeds to imply that film theory is antithetical to entertainment by saying that his book isn’t an exercise of “overintellectuality,” as if the concept of entertainment were a priori low-brow. [2] Philip Sayers points out Wallace’s acknowledgment of entertainment’s reputation as a saccharine medium in his essay, “Representing Entertainment(s) in Infinite Jest” by writing that Wallace “frequently compares it to candy.” [3] Wallace told Lipsky, “Entertainment’s chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise.” [4] He points out that he doesn’t own a TV because, to rework his words, he suffers from an addiction to entertainment, loves movies, and would get too absorbed in it if he owned a TV. And even though Victoria Harris, who was very close to Wallace during his time at Illinois State University and writing Infinite Jest, anecdotally claims that not having a TV simply motivated him to spend more time at their house, the fact that he actually got rid of his TV and still couldn’t help but watch seems to reinforce his oft-cited essay “E Unibus Pluram,” in which he claims, “watching TV can become malignantly addictive.” [5] So, what’s clear is that Wallace believed in a difference between healthy amounts of entertainment and indulgence, and this idea comes across in the novel primarily by the fact that the Entertainment is lethal. 

Wallace provides an example of what’s not entertainment in the text of Infinite Jest. The scene where a blindfolded Idris Arslanian tells Hal that Anton Doucette is crying includes the statement, “He’s in there clinically depressed…Some of the crueler guys are in there watching like it’s entertainment. I got disgusted. Somebody in pain isn’t entertainment.” [6] This idea correlates with a passage from the introduction to Pursuits of Happiness where Cavell makes the case for fantasy instead of realism during times of economic depression. The passage claims that realistic films during a depression are “worse, morally speaking, than making up fairy tales…Wouldn’t it be aestheticizing human suffering or transcendentalizing it—like saying ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ to a man in a breadline?” [7] Both passages suggest a negative value judgement on aestheticizing human suffering, and the fact that Wallace cited Pursuits of Happiness specifically in his interview with Lipsky helps to illuminate where Wallace may have pulled inspiration during the creative process. 

One helpful definition may also come from a fully-illustrated textbook on film history and theory called The Cinema Book, which is available in Wallace’s library. Interestingly, Wallace has annotated this text with the words, “ENTERTAINMENT,” “IJ,” and also “D Wallace ’92.” These annotations suggest that the relationship between film and entertainment described in The Cinema Book were especially influential not only in developing the theme of entertainment as a whole in Infinite Jest, but as also that of the deadly film. One particular underlined passage reads,

“Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfillment,’ point to its central thrust, namely utopianism. Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes, these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realised.” [8] Wallace made a similar claim in “E Unibus Pluram” by writing, “In lots of ways, television purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of daily life…that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more…well, lively than contemporary life….” [9]

Such utopianism is exemplified in Infinite Jest by themes such as the way the young tennis players of ETA refer to the ATP tour as “The Show,” — and Wallace’s skepticism of entertainment addiction comes through here as well with the young players being warned of “the Syndrome of the Endless Party” if they get there. [10] But it is the Entertainment in Infinite Jest that epitomizes Wallace’s skepticism of indulgent media, and he communicated his approach to such skepticism to Lipsky by explaining how the film motivates the novel’s narrative: “[W]hat entertainment ultimately leads to, I think, is the movie ‘Infinite Jest.’ I mean, that’s the star it’s steering by … it’s a kind of metaphorical device … it’s kind of showing you what the end of this continuum might be.” [11] Wallace’s idea of the continuum can perhaps be illustrated by his attempted abstinence from indulgent TV, at one end, and his theme of the Entertainment in Infinite Jest, which supplies an endless amount of pleasure, at the other. Knowing this not only illuminates entertainment as a major theme in the one-thousand-seventy-nine page novel, but also suggests that creatively it developed as the result of a process of negotiating those extremes. 

The inspiration for this aspect of the Entertainment, that it represents an extreme on a continuum of pleasure, may have originated with passages from Leo Tolstoy’s 1898 book, What Is Art?. Wallace’s copy of the book is heavily annotated; one important annotation surrounds an analogy of food and the continuum of indulgence, similar to the analogy that Marathe poses to Steeply about the American identity. Marathe’s question reads, “The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for his children: but if he cries ‘Freedom!’ and allows his child to choose only what is sweet, eating only candy, not pea soup and bread and eggs, so his child becomes weak and sick: is the rich man who cries ‘Freedom!’ the good father?” [12] Tolstoy’s text reads, “Everyone understands that the satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for our definition of the merits of food, and that we have therefore no right to presuppose that the dinners with cayenne pepper, Limburg cheese, alcohol, etc., to which we are accustomed and which please us, form the very best of human food.” [13] In this passage, Tolstoy’s denouncement of pleasure as a healthy criterion for what to eat has a direct correlation to Marathe’s denouncement of a child succumbing to his or her seemingly insatiable appetite for candy. Wallace effectively rewrote Tolstoy’s denouncement as a debate between by Marathe and Steeply, which, at most, implies Tolstoy’s text may have been the initial creative inspiration that ultimately became the theme of one extreme on a continuum of pleasure. This possibility is supported by Wallace underlining the aforementioned passage, as well as two appearances of an annotation reading “Art + Food” labelling the analogy’s appearances both in the text’s introduction and body.

The novel also thematically suggests that the origin of the Entertainment could be rationalized as a means to an end. This aspect of the theme though, unlike the development of the theme as extremes on a continuum, which seems to have been a more-or-less linearly cumulative process, appears to have been a bit more erratic in its development. What’s clear from the earliest manuscript is that the Entertainment’s role in the narrative was initially to be a means for communication between Himself and Hal. In essence, an endless supply of pleasure provided a practical solution to the conflict of an alcoholic father who’s certain he can’t communicate with his anhedonic son. 

This theme of the Entertainment was most evident during the beginning of the creative process with the professional conversationalist scene appearing as the earliest manuscript’s first chapter. In this scene, Himself appears in disguise as a therapist in order to communicate with Hal. The scene’s prominence in these early drafts implies that Wallace intended to establish this theme right from the start, and is supported by Wallace’s hinting to Lipsky, “I remember writin’ an early, like a very early draft of that first chapter. About somebody who couldn’t make themselves understood.” [14] The erratic progression of this theme of the Entertainment is clear when considering that the importance of the professional conversationalist scene is lessened somewhat in the published edition. The chapter loses its prominence by appearing much later in the novel, and its title, “It Was A Great Marvel That He Was In The Father Without Knowing Him,” gets buried as a lesser-known entertainment in the J.O.I. filmography endnote. [15][16] But the film’s description maintains its initial impulse. The description of the film reads, “A father … suffering from the delusion that his etymologically precious son … pretending to be mute, poses as a ‘professional conversationalist’ in order to draw the boy out.” [17] 

Yet, this theme makes a resurgence toward the end of the novel when Himself appears to Don Gately as the wraith. In this scene, the wraith of Himself explains, “[H]e spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium through which he and the muted son could simply converse …. The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.” [18] This scene offers an opportunity for Wallace to reestablish the communicative aspect of the theme of the Entertainment, and such a reestablishment is clearly explicated by annotations in the manuscript margins. The annotations read “IJ for Hal,” “IJ Designed to make Hal speak,” and “A hugely entertaining toy to dangle at the child, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open to laugh.” [19] Not only do these annotations give a glimpse into Wallace’s reasoning for why Himself made a film the viewer can’t stop watching and how it fits in to the novel’s narrative, but they also show that Wallace was attempting to reestablish this diminished theme as the novel progressed toward publication. Ultimately, Himself’s need to communicate with Hal was a theme of the Entertainment that developed over the course of the entire creative process. 

These annotations and passages from the manuscripts and books in Wallace’s archive show the author crafting the theme of the Entertainment, and they provide some clues as to where he got his inspiration for Himself’s lethal film. They tell us that the aspect of the theme of the Entertainment as an extreme on a continuum of pleasure seems to have developed out of a paradigm of theories from influential texts, and that the author worked to reestablish its role as a means of communication after being diminished. Such a background helps explain the Entertainment’s role in the novel’s narrative, and delving into this library provides a fuller picture of how Wallace created one of the central mysteries of his most famous novel.

[1] Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), 15. 

[2] Cavell, 15. 

[3] Philip Sayers, “Representing Entertainment(s) in Infinite Jest,Studies in the Novel 44, no. 3 (Fall 2012), 347. 

[4] David Lipsky, Although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with David Foster Wallace (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 79

[5] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, (New York, Back Bay Books, 1998) , 38. 

[6] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), 567.

[7] Cavell, 6. 

[8] The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 107.

[9] Wallace, 39. 

[10] Wallace, 681. 

[11] Lipsky, 79, 157. 

[12] Wallace, 320. 

[13] Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art? (Los Angeles: Brass Rabbit Classics, 2014), 43.

[14] Lipsky, 237-238.

[15] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest First Two Sections Typescript Photocopy, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, MS box 16, folder 1.

[16] Wallace, 992.

[17] Wallace, 993.

[18] Wallace, 838-839.

[19] Wallace, Infinite Jest Typescript Draft Fragments, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, MS box 17, folder 2, page 512.

Image used with permission of Chris Ayers (@chrisAcreative)



Tom Winchester is an artist and critic from St. Petersburg, Florida. His criticism has appeared in publications including Hyperallergic, The Miami Rail, and M/E/A/N/I/N/G. He has also been an adjunct professor of photography at Ringling College of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

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