I was reading through Infinite Jest earlier today- God knows why since I have plenty of much better material I could spend my time on- but it did irritate at a latent part of my brain long enough afterward for me to want to write this essay here. This little thorn in my side has been nagging at me for a long tie, and now I want to pull it out, as much as it’s gonna hurt. Anti-consumerist novels are the bane of 20th-century fiction, and there is no shortage of their ilk. The longest and most egregious of these is Infinite Jest, which started out as 3000 pages and was cut down to 1000 over the course of the editing process just to make it commercially publishable, because with the amount of paper wasted to print it, it would literally- as well as figuratively- not be worth the paper it was printed on. IJ has been upheld by every institution of literary criticism, and there are many academic types who do nothing but analyze it for a living. There are books and papers on this book and its author. Now, on a personal note, I never had anything against David Foster Wallace. I thought he was pretentious, but all in all, just another introvert who meant well. My quarrel is not with him. It is with his work, and to a greater extent the culture that upholds it and the work of Wallace’s comrades.

IJ is classified as a maximalist novel, and regarding such- long novels- they are rarely good. There are a few, but almost no published writer has written a great novel over the four-figure mark. In that sense, IJ is not unique, but in other ways, it is alone in structure and style. What links it to other fiction is its theme. Structurally, Wallace has commented that it is supposed to be the literary version of a Sierpinski gasket, which is a geometric object that looks like this-

gasket

This was said in the context of trying to defend his work from people commenting that it was a random assortment of poorly related scenes, as opposed to an actual plot. I actually think Wallace did put a lot of care into the structure of this book, in the same way, that Franzen puts a lot of care into the plots of his soap operas. The trouble is they both suffer from this. Freedom is wooden, and IJ is overwrought [1].

The style of IJ is the most dividing part of it in terms of people’s tastes, and it is why it is considered to be a marmite kind of book. The prose is surely bad, but for some reason, this is one aspect of the thing that gets a lot of praise. how should I explain this? Here is an excerpt of the writing:

–and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool- and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and centerless eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

it is so on the nose, first of all, that it renders much of the plot of the book obsolete because the whole point thereof was to say exactly this, but to show and not tell it. Now, while I have had my quibble with the show don’t tell cliché, one mustn’t just come right out and state one’s opinions on society in the novel. It is hamfisted and silly, especially when you consider the manner in which Wallace goes about this. Wallace has a habit of realizing the world entirely through sight and sound, with nothing behind the sensory stimuli to add any depth. The characters are all one-dimensional caricatures, which don’t even try to move away from the stereotypes that Wallace used to populate his world. The dialogue is often terrible, with many long and rambling conversations that don’t add anything to the plot and are comically absurd in the postmodernist tradition of Pynchon. And this is another thing, despite Wallace intending to write a dark satire his world is such a bizarre and oversimplified version of the reality that one cannot possibly take it seriously. This is why most of the positive reviews about the book bring up how funny it is, to the author’s confusion and disappointment. It resembles Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in this respect: something that was meant to be a drama but turned out to be little more than a so bad it’s good comedy at best.

The point of the book is to comment on the chthonian realm of middle-class America (the only nation that exists apparently). The torments of this hell are the usual suspects: drug addiction, suicide, depression; the sins are entertainment and living in a capitalist society. Wallace has said in various speeches that even without God, there can be no escaping religion. You have to worship something, so many people turn to celebrities and products and drugs and entertainment to give their lives meaning. I don’t know whether DFW was religious by anyone else’s standards, but everyone was religious by his standards. Aside from the populace of this underworld (not to be confused with the other long anti-consumerist manifesto), the scenery is the primary focus: Wallace will describe the layouts of a building down to the exact blueprints, and the modifications made to said blueprints over the course of construction. He will go out of his way to describe anything and everything, whether or not you asked for it, and whether or not it has any bearing on the overall plot, or more importantly, the development of the characters. It is a wonder, that in the modifications made to the work itself, what must have been in the deleted 2000 pages, considering the amount of utter shit that made it into the final draft?

Concerning the culture that has risen up to promote this book, much of it is the result of academics and their desire to dissect what they deem to be the most complex fiction, to find all the hidden details of it. Iis not so much complex as it is complicated. There is a difference. Solving a Sherlock Holmes crime is a complicated affair, understanding how to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a complex affair. In one, you must arrange all the elements into one cogent whole, in order to reverse engineer what happened; in the other, there are many layers of elements that must come together in a mutually complementary way. The society of today, and the culture of today’s universities, only ever seem concerned with the former. This is because it is far easier to analyze something of breadth than of depth. It’s not really about exploring the problems [DFW has] with the 1st world, or how to mend them, but about how many convoluted ways he can find to complain about them. This gives Wallace scholars (those actually exist) enough fodder for their dissertations. If anyone can see the irony (another thing DFW has problems with) in all this let me know.

None of the people I have seen recommend Infinite Jest have come up with a single reason it’s any good, apart from that they like it. Many of them enjoy the political message of the thing (not naming people, but there is a guy on YouTube who only rates books based on how much they pander to his political values), and others think the idea of a world in which years are named after products, and there is a titular film that is so entertaining that people will literally watch themselves to death if they even so much as glance at the screen, to be a great premise.

1. Of course, there are also the endnotes of Infinite Jest which some believe (wrongly) to be an analogy to tennis- as the Tennis Academy takes up vast portions of the book for reasons too boring to get into- because the act of bouncing from one cover to another is like that of playing tennis with the author, or whatever. The real reason for these is that said author was just trying to find a way to cram more narrative/backstory in without having to add anything of substance to the plot/characters.

Rating 3/10

 

Evgeny Kissin may soon become my absolute favorite pianist. I think there’s only one thing to be said of his fame, and that is, that it is well earned. There are so many forgotten legends of course, and we must always remember them, but sometimes the most mainstream of artists, in a given discipline, is perhaps actually the best. The reason why I say this is to address those of the opinion that the first thing they hear is almost certainly not going to be the best thing they hear, that the reputation of an artist really says nothing of whom it follows, merely the tastes of the lowest common denominator. Well, while this is true 99% of the time, there is always that 1% who earns their status, who lives up to the hype. In this rare case, no matter how far and wide you search for better, what you find is not their replacement, but a new appreciation for why the ‘one with all the fame’ is so famous.

Now, of course, as another world-class pianist, Artur Rubinstein, has said, there is no such thing as the ‘greatest pianist’, it’s all a matter of taste- to this, I agree, in a way. Music does not exist in a vacuum, people must listen to it. Nevertheless, it is certainly helpful to know your own tastes well enough to be persuasive. Not only this but you must also be willing to be persuaded by artists who may move you in ways you do not expect. To criticise is easy, but to really appreciate the musician, you must truly listen, in the deepest sense, to his music. Sometimes it is not a problem with the artist, but a problem with our own ears, which causes us to criticise.

One must grow with the artist, as we do not come pre-packaged with musical taste. It is not entirely innate, and we are not without fault for being tasteless. This is why persuasion is not only possible but also imperative. Before we get to Kissin, let’s name drop a few other pianists who many believe to be in the pantheon of virtuosity. I want to start with Sviatoslav Richter. What made him so magnetic was the sheer energy of his performances- he played the grand piano like Hendrix played the electric guitar. Not only had he soul, he had the most amount of soul I have ever witnessed. Everything he played was entirely unique, and entirely his own. It just felt good to listen to him. What we are often told by music critics is that the modern pianists do not have that same vigor, that same rawness, instead, they are all concerned with technique and how many wrong notes they play. Well, this is interesting because these same types are also of the opinion that modern pianists are too emotional and sentimental, that they have lost their spine. Well, to that all I have to say is, can we perhaps imagine how these critics would treat the legends of the past, were they to be reincarnated today? What would they say of Michelangeli, Backhaus, Gilels, Lhevinne or Gieseking? Those technical perfectionists? Or Cortot, Gould or indeed Richter? Those hopeless romantics whose imposition of their own expressionism was the priority and to whom only second came the composition? I have a feeling that they would be seen as too unorthodox. You know there are composers, and then there are ‘imposers’. Do you not remember the Miser’s touch of Glenn Gould? I mean everything he touched turned to Gould! Okay, I apologize for that, and it is not that I dislike such imposers either. In fact, these pianists, of either flavor, are all among the absolute greats of all time. Each of these artists is a universe unto themselves. But there are modern equivalents, and this is what is ignored by some critics.

The issue which most critics of modern classical music have, however, is really that today there are not only technicians and expressionists, there are also technicians with a soul, and expressionists who know how to play. The modern virtuoso must fuse art and craft, and this is a problem for certain dusty old men who can only see things in black and white. I once read an article where someone was reminiscing about Artur Schnabel and saying how much he thought Evgeny Kissin in comparison is just dull and uninteresting. My goodness, how I disagree! Actually, I find Schnabel to be far less pleasurable to listen to, and this is mainly because there was truly no flare in his interpretations, no vigor. In fact, I think the criticism should really be the opposite way around. Now, I only defend certain of the modern generation of course. Have you ever listened to Seong-Jin Cho? There’s a young talent with a perfect touch and real understanding of musical beauty, and he gives even the grumpiest critic hope for the future. On the other hand, however, there are those such as Lang Lang, whose reputation stems from that section of the piano-loving population with no taste at all. It’s okay to be an imposer, as long as you’re good at it. Lang Lang can express himself, and he can play, but he often ends up just butchering the composition. He is too erratic and impulsive. His energy is there but it does not manifest itself in grandiose ways that elevate the music, it merely makes a mess.

Kissin is actually the master of merging his stellar virtuosity with a truly deep and profound understanding of composition and composer. He lets the piece speak for itself like Claudio Arrau used to do, and in doing so he will charge the music with tremendous density. His secret lies in his ability to listen, to pay attention, and this is what causes us to pay attention to him. This is why he is not only a master of the fast stuff but also of the slow stuff. He is not erratic and impulsive, nor is he rigid. He is measured but not without flare. Lastly, he is prolific. Unlike Zimmerman, whose renderings are truly mythical, but also rarer than a mythical beast, Kissin, being his equal in my mind when it comes to most compositions, is also more than willing to actually sit down in front of an audience, to play- with ease and grace- from his most daunting of repertoires.

When I first discovered the world of magic, the David Blaine era was in full swing. Magic had finally broken out of the dusty old drawing room and was back with the people on the street as it had been long ago. Magicians were becoming ‘jongleurs‘ yet again. What is a jongleur? Well before the days of Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and Dr Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser (I really hope you aren’t reading this aloud)- during which time conjurers enjoyed relative elitism, as specialists and artists/inventors of illusion- the jongleur (or French ‘juggler’) was a certain breed of vagabonds barely distinguishable from those to be found at the circus. They would dazzle audiences much like modern day street performers, but until recently one variety of these jongleurs– those who performed sleight of hand- became somewhat less common with the revolution of Isaac Fawkes. Fawkes had decided, instead of actually going to meet his public on their own terms, he would erect a tent and ask his public to come to him, and what’s more, he was a specialist: he was a conjurer through and through. Soon, he became the most wealthy of his peers, and many of them began following in his footsteps. This left a hole, and jugglers became gradually separated from conjurers over the years.

By the 19th century, there was an aristocratic air in much of European magic. Some conjurers even became celebrities. They now had a name and with it a reputation, in the public eye. These were the days when tailcoats were worn unironically on stage. Unfortunately, until even the mid 20th century, magic in America was still not seen as such an elevated art form as it was on the Continent. There were a handful of exceptional performers, such as Houdini (stage-name in honor of Robert Houdin, aforementioned), but no one really cared for magical culture in and of itself. [And yes, Houdini was a magician, specifically an illusionist, as much as he was also an escape artist. I know many people deny that he had anything to do with magic, for various reasons, but this is just plain nonsense.] That all changed when a man called Dai Vernon came on the scene. By the way, don’t worry about pronunciation, if indeed you are reading this aloud: whenever asked how to pronounce his name, ‘is it day or die?’ Vernon would often reply with ‘e-ther or i-ther.’ Vernon set out on the task of turning American magic into something grand, and intriguing, something that you could aspire to actually make a career out of, and not just if you were the best of the best or had several syllables in your name preceded by ‘Dr’. I shall subsequently without a hint of irony call Vernon by the title his contemporaries gave him in honor of his contributions and vast knowledge of the craft: ‘the Professor’.

Dai_Vernon_1894-1992
Dai Vernon – The Professor

The Professor’s project has continued to this day, but while the goal is the same, the approach has become very varied, to say the least. Specifically, in card magic, which I shall talk about briefly in this post, whole cultural movements have sprung up over the years. When a book, The Expert at the Card Table, leaked inside information from the world of the card shark, sleight of hand was elevated to a new standard. On the one hand, was the revolution in Europe (and Fawkes’s Britain) of conjuring as an art. On the other hand came, in America, the revolution of sleight of hand as a craft. The Professor’s main contribution, on the global scale, was really to merge the two. Those (of which I am one) who are part of the direct pedagogical lineage of the Professor, try to embody this marriage in their performances. But so do many who are outside of this lineage, and unfortunately, I feel there is an element of misguidedness about much of it. While David Blaine is certainly a brilliant sleight of hand artist, as well as simply a brilliant artist, what with his character and performances, his wish to bring magic back to the streets where it originated (like some rappers these days), has lead to many of his peers missing the point entirely of this effort (cough-Dynamo-cough). They are only after bigger and more expensive illusions. They’ve taken the old adage ‘the world is a stage’ a bit too literally I think. Bigger is not always better, and camera tricks (movie magic) are not magic. In my opinion, if we want magic to be given respect, such as is given painting or music, we need magicians who respect it. We have far too many who want to use it to prove that they are special or have superpowers or whatever. We need real passion, a drive to, as Michael Vincent has said, leave magic better off than we found it. I’ve seen what magic can be, and this gives me hope.

I brought up card magic a little earlier. What is it about the pasteboard deck, this little prop, that is so emblematic of magic and magicians? Well, there’s the esoteric side, of course, the 4 suits representing the 4 seasons, and other such numerology, but the real reason is much more practical: cards are small and easy to carry in one’s pocket, but they are also versatile and filled with infinite potential for creativity. There are also many properties of cards, like their individual physical dimensions, flexibility, and even destructibility that allow for the kinds of subtle sleight of hand which is possible at the highest level. But then- and perhaps numerology does serve a purpose after all- cards have deep mathematical properties which allow even the most inexperienced newbie to dazzle and amaze, along with the cunning mentalist. And to top all this off, cards are cheap. No other prop has this kind of value for money, other than possibly money itself, for magic.

I believe you can actually write an entire history of modern magic just by examining the myriad ways in which cards have been used- from Dr. Hofzinser to Daniel Madison- and how they, to a large extent, embody the philosophy of deception adopted by the different schools of witchcraft and wizardry. In fact, I may one day do this very thing. Here though, I want to simply allude to the general ideas people subscribe to and explain why I am decidedly opposed to some of them. Today, any schmuck can go out into the street, call up someone’s attention, take out some cards and amaze them with a couple of torn and restored card tricks and a not-so-ambitious-card routine – all while the deck receives half a dozen signatures and a dozen irreversible crimps, making it virtually unusable thereafter. This attitude to cards, that they are just disposable objects, is actually what I think is the problem with most magic today. It does not call for respect, because the magician him/herself does not respect magic. It calls instead for hits on YouTube, and it is, not entirely by coincidence, that these are the types who readily reveal secrets on the internet for free. They did not have to work for any of this, their attitude is ‘practice schmactice, as long as I get hits’ [reference]. The problem is that such a street performance is worth a dime a dozen, about as disposable as cards to be honest. Because of the lack of respect for the performance, the audience, and the atmosphere of magic (these types usually just want to freak people out or pick up chicks), their audience does not respect them. Does anyone really respect Chriss Angel, apart from 13-year-olds who think he’s edgy? Or those other idiots on YouTube (and I’m thinking of one in particular as I write this) who try to emulate him, teaching 13-year-olds how to produce rolled up cards from cigarette packs? Nope. Interesting to note, we now additionally have the cardistry phenomenon, which is quite literally card juggling. We’ve gone full circle it seems.

On the other hand, there is what has now become known as “classical magic”. Michael Vincent is the most accomplished proponent of this style. The feel of the style is that of cleanness and precision. The few magicians in the world who are skilled in this form practice for years, hours and hours a day (I should know). The main point is minimal movement; a reduction in excess; the beauty of simplicity. The deck of cards is no longer treated as disposable pieces of paper, but a highly tuned instrument, like a grand piano with 52 keys. Not present is the gimmicky/cheap feel of the prop an in the hands of a street or YouTube magician, instead, they are granted a certain integrity. Also, whereas street/YouTube magicians tend to handle the cards way too much, fiddling, fumbling, shuffling and twirling them (and I am not exaggerating) the classical magician abstains from all but the most refined and purposeful movement. The state of the deck must be clear to the spectator at all times. This is important. It must seem as if the magician does nothing at all but the most natural and unsuspecting cuts, shuffles, spreads or adjustments. Otherwise, the cards should be placed flat on the table, in full view of everyone. Sleight of hand should be a refined skill. There should be no chance for suspicion.

There is, however, one more school which I think deserves a mention. This is that of Daniel Madison. He believes that the techniques of deception have artistic merit in and of themselves. There are others, such as Derren Brown, who sometimes like to give away the secrets of their tricks, but Madison is the card man. He has decided that sleight of hand is itself an art, not just a tool from which the art of magic emerges. Because of the fact that magicians are seemingly more fascinated in magic than a lot of spectators, having an understanding both of what is behind the scenes and on the stage (similar to how the biggest film buffs are often themselves filmmakers) it is fitting that Madison should allow his spectators in on the secrets of the craft. A huge upsurge in people’s interest in film has occurred recently with the rise of the internet. The deconstruction and analysis of the film, yes, does surely break the illusion- but only for the purposes of allowing one to appreciate more how that illusion was created, and to understand it at a deeper level. This is the beauty of what Madison is doing with card magic, and it is certainly a lot of fun to watch. How does this conflict with my views? Well, not as much as the YouTuber who shares secrets for free (most of which are not theirs to share) and passes on their shoddy advice to the next generation. Why? Well because for one Madison is actually highly skilled, and two, Madison is not teaching you anything. He is just showing you the trick from the wrong angle. If you want to learn what he does, you’ll have to pay handsomely and buy his book. [The paywall is important because you should learn properly and from a professional. People who don’t ask for money do not do so for one very simple reason: they are not qualified or experienced enough to teach you properly, were they to ask for money, they would simply be laughed at by real professionals. There are other ethical reasons why the intellectual property of a magician should not just be flaunted on the internet by some random person, but since what Madison is doing technically does violate these ethics, in a way, discussing this here would only confuse things.] Yes, Madison is technically a ‘YouTube magician’, but he uses the platform for performance purposes only. He is a performance artist and a very good one at that. His videos are works of art and deception is his theme.

It is tempting to go back to the days of the jongleur, but in the modern world, this easily becomes a corrupted effort. My hope is that we can instead do something original, elevate the craft and the art of magic, give it the respect it deserves- and maybe one day, we can do the Professor proud.