Sierpinski Schmierpinski – On What the Writer Intends

The below is from the radio program “Bookworm” (4/11/96) with Michael Silverblatt. It is an interview with David Foster Wallace about Infinite Jest and this snippet focuses on the structure of the novel (and the novelist’s intentions).

MS: Yes it does, but I wanted to suggest, at least for me, that the organization of the material, whether or not someone leaps up and says “fractal,” or even has heard of fractals, seemed to me to be necessary and beautiful because we’re entering a world that needs to be made strange before it becomes familiar. And so it seemed to me that in this book, which contains both the banality and extraordinariness of various kinds of experience and banality of extraordinary experience as well, that —

DFW: And the extraordinariness of banal experience.

MS: Yeah. — that a way needed to be found, and it thrilled me that it seemed to be structural, that the book found a way to arrange itself so that one knew… You know, for the longest time you would be faced with these analogies. You know, when Ulysses came out, people talked about its musical structures. When Dos Passos’s books came out, people talked about film editing.

DFW. Mm hm.

MS: It seems very hard in the last period of years to find a new way to structure a book. The only thing that I know is Barth working with logarithmic spirals —

DFW: Uh huh.

MS: — to deal with the unfoldings of memory and of seeing things from new perspective at later dates.

DFW: You’ve got to realize, though, when like, you know, when you’re talking to somebody who’s actually written the thing, there’s this weird Monday morning quarterbacking thing about it. Because I know that, at least for me, — I mean I don’t sit down to try to, “Oh, let’s see: what — how can I find a suitable structural synecdoche for experience right now?” It’s more a matter of kind of whether it tastes true or not. And I know that this is the first thing I ever did that I took money for before it was done, because I just didn’t have any money and I wanted to finish it. And Michael Pietsche, the editor, said — I think that he got like the first four hundred pages — and he said it seemed to him like a piece of glass that had been dropped from a great height. And that was the first time that anybody had ever conceptualized what was to me just a certain structural representation of the way the world kind of operated on my nerve endings, which was as a bunch of discrete random bits, but which contained within them, not always all that blatantly, very interesting connections. And it wasn’t clear whether the connections were my own imagination, or were crazy, or whether they were real, and what were important and what weren’t. And so I mean a lot of the structure in there is kind of seat-of-the-pants, what kind of felt true to me and what didn’t. A lot of the– I did not sit down with, you know, “I’m going to do a fractal structure,” or something —

MS: Mm hm.

DFW: — I don’t think I’m that kind of writer.

MS: So there aren’t diagrams? or the diagrams emerged as you went along?

DFW: Ahh … well, I had — I mean, I’ve got a poster of a Sierpinski Gasket that I’ve had since I was a little boy that I like just because it’s pretty. But it’s real weird: I’m not — there’s — I think writing is a big blend of — there’s a lot of sophistication and there’s a lot of kind of idiocy about it. And so much of it is gut and “this feels true / this doesn’t feel true; this tastes right / this doesn’t,” and it’s only when you get about halfway through that I think you start to see any sort of structure emerging at all. Then of course the great nightmare is that you alone see the structure and it’s going to be a mess for everyone else.

So this pokes into the lit crit glossary via an assertion of intention. Famously (hard to imagine that word used for this kind of stuff) Wimsatt and Beardsley noted: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”

In the radio interview DFW takes up the cue by the host that his book is structured in fractals…perhahps, perhaps, something like a “Sierpinski gasket.” But he goes on to note what I think must be the truth of all narrative that isn’t cast in a template/genre form…it adheres and organizes via a kind of internal (unconscious) logic. One writes and a structure takes shape because it seems clear that all things “take shape” of themselves. Fractals actually, I think, make this very point. There is an organization within that might reveal itself.

However, “intention” is not the right notion. The thing takes shape but “shaping” (intentional–by the hands) is a next order act.

I made this point somewhat in this post, “The Poet Attempts to Explains His Poem.” We explain ourselves to ourselves

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. We explain ourselves to others. Others explain ourselves to ourselves and vice versa. This is what the creatures of the Word do–it’s what we ARE. Often genius in an artist is just the genius of our explanations of that art. Yes, this is a kind of defense of “inspiration”–a Duino Elegies Theory* in which the artist is a conduit for a divine gust.

Perhaps it is this internal logic–this inherent structuring–that is deterministic. There are perhaps a finite number of shapes but the material that is organized seems endless even when often bound to the nutshell of a momentary meaning.


*from the Wikipedia entry: While at Duino, Rilke and Princess Marie discussed the possibility of collaborating on a translation of Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (1295).[11]:p.320 After the Princess left to join her husband at their Lautschin estate, Rilke spent the next few weeks at the castle preparing to focus on work. During these weeks, he was writing Marien-Leben (The Life of Mary).[6]:p.103 While walking along the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea near the castle, Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him speaking the words of the first line, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?”) which he quickly wrote in his notebook. Within days, he produced drafts of the first two elegies in the series and drafted passages and fragments that would later be incorporated into later elegies—including the opening passage of the tenth elegy.[6]:p.225[12]:p.10

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