Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, September 13, 2010


In my last post about Infinite Jest I mentioned the philosophical-theological-spiritual problem of the interesting. With that in mind, it’s . . . um . . . interesting? — no, let’s say it’s thought-provoking to note this excerpt from The Pale King, the novel Wallace left unfinished at his death. Here Lane Dean, Jr., a worker for the IRS, is thinking about boredom — and I will indicate by ellipsis the many sentences I am leaving out, which (as you will see if you read the excerpt) tell us about all the things that are (of course) distracting Lane Dean, Jr. as he tries to think about boredom:

Donne, of course, called it lethargie, and for a time it seems conjoined somewhat with melancholy, saturninia, otiositas, tristitia; that is, to be confused with sloth and torpor and lassitude and eremia and vexation and distemper and attributed to spleen — for example, see Winchilsea’s “black jaundice,” or, of course, Burton. . . . Quaker Green in, I believe, 1750 called it “spleen-fog.” . . . And then suddenly up it pops. Bore. As if from Athena’s forehead. Noun and verb, participle as adjective, whole nine yards. Origin unknown, really. We do not know. Nothing on it in Johnson. Partridge’s only entry is on “bored” as a subject complement and what preposition it takes, since “bored of,” as opposed to “with,” is a class marker, which is all that ever really concerns Partridge. Class class class. The only Partridge Lane Dean knew was the same TV Partridge everybody else knew. He had no earthly idea what this guy was talking about, but at the same time it unnerved him that he’d been thinking about “bore” as a word as well, the word, many [tax] returns ago. Philologists say it was a neologism, and just at the time of industry’s rise, too, yes? Of the mass man, the automated turbine and drill bit and bore, yes? Hollowed out? Forget Friedkin, have you seen “Metropolis”? . . . Look, for instance, at L. P. Smith’s “English Language,” ’56, I believe, yes? . . . Posits certain neologisms as “arising from their own cultural necessity” — his words, I believe. Yes, he said. When the kind of experience that you’re getting a man-sized taste of becomes possible, the word invents itself. . . . Someone else had also called it that: “soul-murdering.” Which now you will, too, yes? In the nineteenth century, then, suddenly the word’s everywhere; see, for example, Kierkegaard’s “Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and solid, should have such power to set in motion.” . . .

. . . Note, too, that “interesting” first appears just two years after “bore.” 1768. Mark this, two years after. Can this be so? . . . Invents itself, yes? Not all it invents.


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