Always and Only the Self Out There: classical music and Infinite Jest

As well as, um, finishing my degree, I spent most of my last year at McGill reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I first heard of this book when my dad was reading it a few years ago along with a virtual book club called Infinite Summer (the website for which still has preserved for posterity an excellent collection of essays and resources on the book: I read a few pages, considered the back pain involved in carrying around a copy of the thing in my bag, and forgot about it. This year, I was reading an essay-novella-thing by one of my favourite authors, Neal Stephenson, called In The Beginning Was The Command Line. (ITBWTCL is a fascinating essay, if somewhat dated, exploring the relationship between computer operating systems and wider trends in North American culture. It's way more fun then I just made it sound like.) ITBWTCL contained an intriguing reference to DFW's essay E Unibus Pluram. (Which you can read, I'm not sure if legally, here: I'm up for reading pretty much anything Neal Stephenson thinks is worthwhile, so I looked up the collection containing E Unibus Pluram, entitled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and checked it out of the library. It was the titular essay that got me. (Read, in its original appearance in Harper's, here: DFW is the kind of writer whose enormous talents include the ability to make you say "THAT'S what I actually meant! That's exactly how I would express what I think if it had occurred to me to do so!" Everything he writes, even if it appears to have nothing at all to do with your life, within a few sentences has you convinced that in fact it is exactly relevant to you, in fact essential, that his thoughts were a part of your being that you were never able to express without his help. Or, as one of the contributors to the Infinite Summer website put it somewhat less pretentiously:

"On the #infsum Twitter channel, catchingdays called Infinite Jest “the first shuffle novel“. That’s a great analogy. The book as like a compilation of Wallace’s favorites, semi-randomized to keep you on your toes.

And do you know why shuffle mode is so popular? Because every once in a while, wholly by chance and when you least expect it, you hear something that you’ve loved all your life. For me it was Eschaton, falling, as it does, squarely on the intersection of two lifelong interests: Cold War politics and games. As the addiction material did for infinitedetox, and the tennis did for Andrew, and the radio did for Michael, this was a portion of the novel that truly resonated with me."

Needless to say, the next thing I picked up after ASFTINDA was Infinite Jest. As a disclaimer, I should say that I didn't physically pick it up; I downloaded it and read it on the Overdrive iPad app, which in my mind has several advantages over the traditional format in the case of this particular book. Firstly, it's lighter. It usually strikes me as somewhat silly when people claim the supremacy of tablets and ereaders over books on he grounds of weight alone-- how much weight does carrying around one book really add? Well, in the case of Infinite Jest, a lot. Secondly, easy endnote control. Infinite Jest has a lot of endnotes-- 388 of them, many of which are both quite long and important to your understanding of the book-- and if you're reading a physical copy, you're going to need to have two bookmarks on the go to keep track of where you are in the main text and in the notes. In Overdrive, the endnotes are just hyperlinks, from which you can navigate away from and back to the main text as you please. Third, you can bookmark as many passages as you like! Overdrive remembers where you were the last time you read the book, but I also have a collection of bookmarks at my favourite passages of the book, which with a physical book would have to be accomplished with extensive dog-earing. So, all that to say: if you are going to read Infinite Jest, and have the option to do so via tablet, I recommend it!

With regards to my own reaction to the "shuffle mode" novel: for me, the entire novel seemed as if it were actually intended as a philosophical exploration of music school and the musical profession. It's an easy connection to make, of course, since much of the action centers around an elite jr. tennis academy, and as all of the musicians who have been usurping sports psychology for decades know, there's not a whole lot of difference mindset-wise between training to be a pro athlete and training to be a pro musician. And, as much as I try to slog through the tried-and-true Don Greene et al be-a-macho-winner-lifestyle-training-programs, what I really connected with, psychology-wise, is the philosophy that the James O. Incandenza, founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, recruited his coaches on the basis of. Head coach Schtitt's principles are explained as:

"Schtitt's thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario's late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net's other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is what is he word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion."

Is this not exactly the state of mind in which it is necessary to approach auditions? At NYO, Gabe Radford always said that the goal of an audition, any audition, no matter how badly you want or need the job, must always be only "to play well." The audition is the occasion for playing well. Without playing well, of course, you can't win the job; but if your only goal is to win the job-- O cruel world!-- you probably won't play well! But then, of course, if you adopt the "play well" goal with the purpose of tricking yourself into being able to win the job, well, hopefully you're really stupid, because you'd have to be to not see right through yourself.

So the only way to truly play well (and thus have a hope of ever getting a job) is to really sincerely adopt Schitt's principles, whole-heartedly, and really become the kind of person who walks into an audition with only the goal of self-improvement, regarding all the other players and in fact the job and the entire musical profession itself as nothing more than the occasion for meeting the self. And the thing is, there is no element of self-deceit in this; if you choose to attend an audition as an occasion to meet the self, then that is what you are there for; it doesn't matter what anyone else's attitude is.

Of course, really truly not caring about winning is easier said than done:

" As Schacht sees it, Schtitt's philosophical stance is that to win enough of the time to be considered successful you have to both care a great deal about it and also not care about it at all. Schacht does not care enough, probably, anymore, and has met his gradual displacement from E. T. A. 's A singles squad with an equanimity some E. T. A. 's thought was spiritual and others regarded as the surest sign of dicklessness and burnout. Only one or two people have ever used the word brave in connection with Schacht's radical reconfiguration after the things with the Crohn's Disease and knee."

Schacht-- a student at the tennis academy who has decided that after graduation he would like to become a dentist, not a tennis star-- is a character highly recognizable to anyone who's gone to music school: the one who entered with all the musical promise in the world, whose path altered so drastically over the course of their time in music school that those who leave with more of less the same goals as they entered with have no idea what to make of them. For Schacht it was Crohn's disease and a bad knee that pushed him out of tennis and into the wide world of "doing something else," as the phrase goes; for musicians it might be focal dystonia, or nerve damage, or fears for your job prospects, or just a pressing feeling that your life could be better spent. Wallace captures perfectly the mix of disdain, fear and a strange kind of envy that many musicians-- the ones with fellow tennis student Hal Incandenza's balls-to-the-wall attitude, anyway-- feel towards those who give up The Dream:

"Hal Incandenza, who's probably as asymmetrically hobbled on the care-too-much side as Schacht is on the not-enough, privately puts Schacht's laissez-faire down to some interior decline, some doom-grey surrender of his childhood's promise to adult grey mediocrity, and fears it; but since Schacht is an old friend and a dependable designated driver and has actually gotten pleasanter to be around since the knee...Hal in a weird and deeper internal way almost somehow admires and envies the fact that Schact's stoically committed himself to the oral professions and stopped dreaming of getting to the Show after graduation-- an air of something other than failure about Schacht's not caring enough, something you can't quite define...Hal can't quite feel the contempt for Teddy Schacht's competitive slide that would be a pretty much natural contempt in one who cared so dreadfully secretly much..."

If you're a student or professional musician, I think that speaks for itself.

In the end, Infinite Jest is like so many works of music: it's impossible to say what it's truly about. If it were possible to summarize accurately, there would be no need for its existence. The only way to "explain" a Mahler symphony to someone is to play it for them; and the only way to know what Infinite Jest is about is to read it.

(If you have read Infinite Jest, and like me don't really keep up wit the latest in popular music, you may have missed this Decemberists music video when it first came out. Behold: The Decemberists' Calamity Song, featuring Eschaton!)