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August 25, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Nothing Left Inside Hal

When I was 16, I would put on a Sony Walkman® and take an anhedonic night-time walk through my empty suburban neighborhood. Very un-Randy Lenz-like walks, I might add. Among my favorites of the time was Black Flag’s Damaged:

Nothing / Nothing / Nothing left inside
Love / Love / Nothing left inside
Pain in my heart / Pain hurts my heart / Nothing left inside
Lies / Your lies / Nothing left inside
I built it up / I broke it down / Nothing left inside
Leach / Drained me dry / Nothing left inside
Lonely, lonely, lonely / Lonely, lonely boy / Nothing left inside
I want to see you / I want to see you / I want you to see my eyes / Nothing left inside
Nothing left inside

As Mark Grief points out in his excellent article, Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop, much music looks rather banal when printed on the page, but nevertheless has a very different power when you can tie it to music. (Perhaps he might have also added that clichés, Gately-style, have a depth to them that needs excavation.)

Listening to the screams and sludgy distortion of Nothing Left Inside could, paradoxically, make me feel, when everything in my life at the time seemed hellbent on preventing me from feeling anything. This was before “the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. [began to] treat anhedonia and general emptiness as hip and cool” (p. 694). I developed a deep and soul-mutiliating horror of what passed for pleasure and happiness in a vacuum-sealed and -packaged world. It was, at that age of “spiritual puberty” (ibid.), difficult to identify the difference between my anger at false sentiment and the “fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded engagement in the self” (ibid.). Bob Hope (we never called it that, btw) was a way to make the interior world match up with my experience of the outside world: empty of meaning and values and humanity and anything that might remotely resemble a future. It was a means to face and become the transcendent loneliness without the horror – a way to deaden the inside without creating a sense of loss and nostalgia.

So many of us have thought for a while now that Hal is in some way the narrator of IJ – as he imagines being greeted at the hospital in the Year of Glad, ‘So yo then man what’s your story?’ (p. 17). As the narrator, we are endeared to him. We enjoy his wry humor, envy his word play, follow dreamily every detail of a tennis match or a sweeping broom or a brotherly conversation. We sympathize with his tragic circumstances, and admire his resilience. After nearly 700 pages, though, it turns out we didn’t know Hal as well as we thought we did.

Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarefied equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being – but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. (p. 694; underlines are italicized in the original)

Hal is anhedonic and empty. He is, for those who have been following my earlier posts, the anti-Orin. For O. is a mass/mess of internal emotions, night shakes, despair, dread, passion, contempt, desire – though he still experiences these in the mode of bad faith. Hal, on the other hand, is void, lack. Or anyway, so “he” tells us.

That is, I don’t take the narrational authority here too seriously. For instance, just a few pages earlier we see Hal hiding from Mario[29] his affection for J.O.I.’s Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat, telling him that it is “goo” but “Hal secretly likes it, too, the cartridge, and likes to project himself imaginatively into the ex-bureaucrat’s character on the leisurely drive home toward ontological erasure” (p. 689). That is, the search for the internal void is taken consciously and conspicusly, rather than being a fundamental condition. And DeLint has properly identified Hal’s emotional vulnerability that lies under his mask:

‘Hal looks just as perfectly dead [as John N.R. Wayne] out there, but he’s more vulnerable in terms of, like, emotionally. […] Hal’s susceptible to fluctuations. Discouragement. […] This emotional susceptibility in terms of forgetting being more commonly a female thing. Schtitt and I think it’s a will issue. Susceptible wills are more common to the top girls here. […] But the one we see this most in is Hal.’ (p. 682)

But perhaps most important of all is that Hal, in the quote above, finds himself unable to be convinced that “he’s in there.” Whereas we know, again from the Year of Glad opening of the novel, that Hal as clear as day (if also aphonically, if that makes sense) tells us “I am in here” (p. 3).

The section on p. 694, then, serves as an effective vehicle for a DFW-type insight that seems right on to me: that anhedonia is a cover for the reality that geuine humanity has a sentimental core. We are shown masks of cynicism, ennui, and jaded irony, and we wear them at that age when we are most susceptible to the fear of loneliness, being apart. But,

[W]hat passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic […]. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what he is really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia. (p. 695)

Hal’s longing for a rich, internal self, even if one that is a bit gooey and incontinent, comprises a search of its very own, and thus takes Hal from being a true anti-Orin to a more simple inverse. Whereas Orin seeks to overcome his despair at finitude by losing himself in the roar of the crowd or the orgasm of the Subject, Hal seeks not to lose but to find. His self is thus a potentially creative one, one that may discover finitude on the other side of sobriety, and in discovering finitude will also discover that self-worth and value are not transcendent norms to be sniffed at, but ones to perform as he creates possibilities for meaningful self-engagement.

Of course, it might be that we all – or at least some of us – are too Damaged.



Leave a Comment
  1. naptimewriting / Aug 25 2009 11:48 pm

    I find it so compelling that the narrator (whom I’ve never felt was Hal but whom I feel is sympathetic to Hal) describes Hal’s idea “that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as [Hal] conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around on the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool” (694-5). That Hal’s idea of genuine humanity is Mario. And many of the infinite summer forum posts have seen this, as well.

    And what is terrifying, after really empathizing with Hal, with Kate’s narrated description of anhedonia, is that Wallace wallops us with the Great White Shark, the billowing black waving form, the psychosis of intense pain.

    It’s like we can I.D. and we see ourselves in several characters and we navigate this millenial sin of sentiment while striving to be real and to feel; and then we’re blindsided with a whole new level of dissociation. We I.D. melancholy and then we see across the yard into existential darkness and see the difference between lack of happiness and existential pain.

    I’m still in awe of these passages. Because without Orin and Hal and Mario and Gately and Gompert for 700 pages, this anhedonia discussion wouldn’t work.

    • infinitetasks / Aug 27 2009 1:00 pm

      I hope everybody darts quickly over to Naptime’s site and reads her further elaboration of these remarks!

  2. infinitedetox / Aug 27 2009 7:32 am

    You really hit the nail on the head with this one, I think. Thanks for pointing out those instances that seem to undercut the narrator’s claim (on p. 694) of Hal’s complete anhedonia.

    I think some of DFW’s own “existential dread,” as he calls it, went into crafting this. In the RCF interview he talks of where his mind was at when he wrote “Broom of the System”:

    “a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this mid-life crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6 calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.”

    A 98.6 calculating machine sounds like a good description of how Hal sees himself.

    • infinitetasks / Aug 27 2009 1:26 pm

      Another reminder of my future course of study! I’ve left aside all non-IJ DFW readings until after September 22, but have that interview all set up and ready to go. I’m glad you’ve been using it so effectively to draw out stuff I would otherwise miss!

  3. Paul / Aug 27 2009 8:19 am

    I was always partial to “TV Party” rather than “Damaged” although my real favorite at the time was “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies.

    It’s interesting that you should mention Black Flag, especially when DFW points out how Entertainment has made anhedonia cool at the turn of the century.

    The “Damaged” lyrics (from 1981) point to anhedonia but he (Ginn or Rollins, not sure who wrote the words) is fighting against it. He knows he’s empty, but he still feels.

    In 1983 “Institutionalized” rails against the establishment “When I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities?! So how can you say I’m crazy?” And yet the final muttered line is “Doesn’t matter I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway.”

    Fast forward to Nirvana (easy scapegoats, obviously) to the most popular song in America circa 1991, and you get the lyrics “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Somehow this attitude too over the zeitgeist (myself included), and a whole attitude of not caring seemed to take over popular culture. Even if “slacker” kids really didn’t feel that way.

    I don’t know what the mood of popular culture is thee days as I’m too old to care and my kids are too young to care (bliss!). But it makes me feel that IJ really was a book of its time.

    Thanks for getting Black Flag back in my head. Emilio Esteves singing “Tv Party” in Repo Man is great, by the way. And, did you know that Ray Pettibon is Greg Ginn’s brother?

    • infinitetasks / Aug 27 2009 1:20 pm

      Thanks, Paul! I notice that almost nobody visiting this page is clicking over to the YouTube videos of Black Flag, but I think many of them would be surprised if they do. (Perhaps I didn’t highlight them sufficiently? Perhaps nobody cares?) I should probably have mentioned that Nothing Left Inside is off of My War, a few years later (though first from the 1982 demo). And my understanding is that Damaged I is Rollins’ first credit for “song-writing,” though I think it is pretty much ad-libbed around a few consistent themes. Damaged II has actual lyrics, and is credited to Ginn.

      I like the “shift” you posit from American hard-core to grunge, though because of my own involvement in H/C (circa ’85-’87) I worry that I tend to overestimate its Zeitgeistish significance.

      [Update: Over at IS, Doubtful Geste has redone the lyrics of TV Party so that they read as “TP Party” substituing Himself’s Filmography titles for the TV shows. Check it out!]

  4. Paul / Aug 29 2009 9:16 am

    Awesome Update. Thank you. Maybe everyone is of a similar mindset here at I.S.

    I wanted to say that I didn’t mean to overstate the importance of punk in the late 80s cultural zeitgeist. But since Nirvana was more or less a punk band before David Geffen found them, it’s not an unfair parallel.

    You’ve piqued my interest regarding your H/C involvement, but I don’t want you to discuss if it’s off-limits!

    • infinitetasks / Aug 29 2009 10:40 am

      I was into crossover and N/Y/H/C for a few years – DRI, Cro-Mags, Murphy’s Law, Crumbsuckers, etc. Lots of Sunday afternoons at CBGBs, nights at the Ritz. Got a little turned off when skinheads turned spontaneously violent (I came into the scene via love for Motorhead, no straight-edge for me). Moved to CA in 1988, got beat on by cops when they raided a D.I. show in Long Beach, figured my luck had run out and started going to Dead shows instead.

      My 6 seconds of fame (and yes, this should actually be off-limits, but what the hell) comes in a clip from a movie called The Beat, in which a few scenes are set up at a Cro-Mags show, and which has made it on to YouTube. I’m the guy in the bathroom stall between It’s the Limit and Hard Times at 1:50. Cracked me up when I found it a few years ago, as I’d never seen it, hadn’t even known the movie was released.

      When my wife saw this, she was disturbed that I was proud of this, not realizing that I was – as I told her afterwards – acting. I think that’s called Method Acting. I was very good at it! One guy was so good at it that he dove off the stacks and word on the street was that he died. Even though the whole thing was staged (though the video is not lip-synched, but live music), it was a pretty rough-and-tumble afternoon, a pretty decent representation of a Cro-Mags show at the time.

      • Paul / Sep 1 2009 12:34 pm

        My first H/C show was either D.R.I. or Suicidal. I came in via metal and wore my (home-painted) Metallica jacket and proceeded to get whipped around and generally abused in the pit. I thin I was rather singled out. So I didn’t go to too many H/C shows after that (the metal crowd was safer).

        And that film’s a claim to fame I’d be proud of! I actually don’t know the Cro Mags at all (heard of them of course, but never heard them) which seems like a mistake I need to correct (not sure if the audio from YouTube is representative).

        I’m sure you’ve seen this, then? (As I librarian I have to investigate things ad nauseum.)

      • infinitetasks / Sep 1 2009 3:33 pm

        Great link! I had no idea. My cameo is apparently a web gem, seen and commented upon by dozens!

  5. Aaron / Aug 31 2009 7:23 pm

    In my latest post about this, I added a post-script about my take on Hal, which to sum up is this: we know Infinite Jest is playing perceptual jokes on us. So perhaps the real joke, i.e., the truth, is that Hal–at the beginning of the novel–is *not* messed up. It’s just that We, the casual *actually* messed up Americans can’t perceive that. That is, “I am in here,” is greeted by mutual horror: how dare someone actually be PRESENT and not a willing zombie of American culture.

    • infinitetasks / Aug 31 2009 10:45 pm

      Thanks for this, and all your other little bomblets droped along these pages, Aaron. I do heartily recommend the philosophically rich post Aaron links here, and I find the possible re-interpretation of Hal’s Year of Glad aphonia to be stunning. Look for more discussion on this, as soon as Hal and Pemulis get around to Demilitarizing (DMZing) their maps!

  6. Srini / Jan 16 2010 9:28 pm

    We are born with a chance ! (Rise above, we’re gonna rise above !)

    I am gonna have my chance ! (Rise above, we’re gonna rise above !)

    We are tired of your abuse !
    Try to stop us; it’s no use !

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